Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 9]

February 12th, 2013 by

My favorite writer-director is Billy Wilder. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

In the spring issue of the 1996 Paris Review, there is a terrific interview with Wilder. I thought it would be a great way to kick off 2013 by digging into it to see what storytelling lessons we could glean from one of Hollywood’s master filmmakers.

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Faulkner seemed to have his difficulties too.

WILDER: I heard he was hired by MGM, was at the studio for three months, quit and went back home; MGM never figured it out and they kept sending the checks down to Mississippi. A friend of mine was hired by MGM to do a script and he inherited the office where Faulkner had been working. In the desk he found a yellow legal pad with three words on it: Boy. Girl. Policeman. But Faulkner did some work.

At some point he worked with Howard Hawks on To Have and Have Not, and he cowrote The Land of the Pharaohs. On that movie they went way over schedule with production and far past their estimated costs. On screen, there were thousands of slaves dragging enormous stones to build the pyramids. It was like an ant heap. When they finally finished the film and screened it for Jack Warner, Warner said to Hawks, Well, Howard, if all the people who are in the picture come to see it, we may break even.

But there were other writers out here who were clever and good and made a little fortune. The playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, for example. Hecht truly endeared himself to the people he worked with. A producer or director would be in a jam . . . the set built, the leads hired, the shooting begun, only to admit to themselves finally that the script they had was unusable. They would bring out Hecht, and he would lie in bed at Charles Lederer’s house and on a yellow tablet produce a pile of sheets, a screenplay ready to go. They’d take that night’s pages from Hecht’s hands, forward them to Mr. Selznick, who’d fiddle with them, have the pages mimeographed and put in the actor’s hands by morning. It was a crazy way to work, but Hecht took the work very seriously, though not as seriously as he would a play of his. They call that sort of thing script doctoring. If Hecht had wanted, he could have had credit on a hundred more pictures.

Takeaway: When it comes to screenwriting, even as an aspiring one, strive to emulate Ben Hecht ["script doctor"], not William Faulkner ["Boy. Girl. Policeman.]

Here are links to the first seven parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.

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