“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 17

December 7th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Most Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P.129-130 in which Wilder talks about the importance getting it down in the script before directing it:

BW: From the beginning I was a very quick shooter. I was making pictures in forty-five, fifty days. Sunset Boulevard, maybe sixty days. But I did not pull much [many scenes] out of the movies. Nor did I cut scenes out as I shots. I took the beginning of Sunset Boulevard out, and the end of Double Indemnity. Very rarely. So those were the two major operations I did.

CC: So the scripts were tight.

BW: Very tight. Always. Never setups, the positions of the characters, only when necessary. I am aware where they are, but I just don’t sit on it in the script. I just touched it as lightly as possible.

CC: Did you know all your shots at the beginning of the day? Did you come prepared, or did you decide on the day?

BW: More or less. But always I sit down and I say, “All right, this scene.” We read it once, and I say, “Okay, let’s play this scene.” The actors play the scene until they feel comfortable. And I just say, “Well, how would it be if you did not walk there, if you stayed here, and then the other character comes in…?”–this and that. And then we say where the camera is going to be, and then that’s it.

CC: Is a lot of the directing done in your head as you write it?

BW: Yeah, if I write it. I’m never stuck because I have an empty exit of a character who comes to talk to somebody sitting at the desk, and he leaves. I always have enough dialogue to cover an exit. Not a lot of dead air. There are no long explanations [in my scripts]. I just have a scene–scene 73, the scene plays in somebody’s house. That’s it. The last thing I do is divide it then into shots, into camera moves. The last I do is to figure out, where do I put the camera? First you have to have it on paper.

CC: How did you feel about adding moments of visual poetry, or putting more lyrical elements in?

BW: I was very serious about it. That’s the way it had to be, that’s the way it was. The words must come to life.

It’s a curious phrase: “I just don’t sit on it in the script.” Since Cameron Crowe didn’t follow up about that line, we can’t know for sure what Wilder meant. However based on everything I know about Wilder and his affinity for economy of everything — words, shots, budgets — my guess is he’s talking about how much the writer conveys / gives away in the script. He would rather it be less than more.

And yet, there’s this: “The words must come to life.” So when pressed about using “visual poetry” or “lyrical elements,” Wilder acknowledged the importance of that, too.

Look at some of the scene description from the beginning pages of The Apartment:

THE INSURANCE BUILDING - A WET, FALL DAY

It's a big mother, covering a square block in lower Manhattan, 
all glass and aluminum, jutting into the leaden sky.

----

INT. NINETEENTH FLOOR

Acres of gray steel desk, gray steel filing cabinets, and 
steel-gray faces under indirect light. 

----

Within ten seconds, the place is empty - - except for Bud Baxter, 
still bent over his work, marooned in a sea of abandoned desks.

The Apartment Baxter Alone

Or consider how Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond introduce Frank Kubelik (Shirley MacClaine) in the script:

Maybe it's the way she's put together, maybe it's her face, 
or maybe it's just the uniform -- in any case, there is something 
very appealing about her. She is also an individualist -- she 
wears a carnation in her lapel, which is strictly against 
regulations.

The Apartment Kueblik Baxter

If you read Wilder scripts, you see this dynamic tension — less is more / words must come to life — throughout the pages. These dual instincts aren’t at odds in the description, rather they work together to engender images and evoke emotion while doing so in an economic way. And we see this translated from script to screen over and over again in Wilder movies.

How did Wilder and his co-writers manage that? Part of it derives from his instinct as a filmmaker. But a big part of it, as he acknowledges, comes from his deep immersion in the world of cinema. Watching and analyzing movies. Reading and breaking down stories. And writing tens of thousands of pages. That is a lesson for all of us.

Next: More “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 16

November 30th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Most Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 113-115 in which Wilder discusses romantic comedies, leading men and small stories:

CC: What do you think of modern romantic comedies?

BW: I laugh consistently–when I’m able to add up two plus two. They don’t make as many comedies anymore because it’s too much dialogue. They like to have action. Certain comedies, they still make them quite good. For instance, your stuff is very good. But this is an exception, that one can make a picture like this. I enjoy Robin Williams…Sleepless in Seattle [1993] was first-rate. My favorite picture of the last few years is still Forrest Gump [1994].

CC: Here’s a popular theory about why modern romantic comedy has suffered. In today’s culture, with the reduction of class and racial distinctions, there are fewer dramatic barriers to keep couples apart. How do you create tension when there are less obstacles to romance?

BW: People are people. There are always going to be ways to keep people apart. That’s…that’s the beauty of living, which is not easy, as I am now reminded of daily. There will always be ways–it just takes a good sharp writer with a good sharp mind. You make pictures based on truth. You make pictures based on the way you feel. Of course romantic comedy is still alive, if you need to use that term.

Forty or fifty years ago, there was no such thing as a lusty comedy, a subtle comedy, a “black” film. We just did it. [Charles] Brackett and I, or [I.A.L.] Diamond and I–we just said, “How would this be for a picture?” We just did the pictures the way they came. The bigger problem is that there are so few leading men now. There’s no more Gable, no more Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper…there use to be a list of leading men. Now there are only three or four. Who are you going to write for, unless it’s Tom Cruise? Who are you going to write for?

CC: In my experience, it has often been difficult to talk a leading man into playing pure romantic comedies. It’s hard today to find actors who want to say “I love you” on film. They’re afraid of looking foolish. They’d rather have a gun. Was it similar in your day?

BW: It was not that way. (A) We had leading men and leading ladies; we had them by the dozens. (B) We didn’t think in terms of “That’s a comedy, that’s a light picture.” It was just a picture, and you made a lot of them. It’s very different now, to have something with three thousand car crashes, or actors always looking up at the dinosaur. They’re looking up all the time, these actors! [Laughs] Explain to me how can you have dialogue with a dinosaur as big as the fifth floor? You can’t even get them in the same shot!

CC: But getting back to the global economy, the global culture. Does this all bode poorly for comedy? I mean, there’s just not a lot of specific culture to poke fun at.

BW: Yeah yeah yeah. That’s a good question. The popular pictures are a little heavier, a little more masculine. Why do we make a lot of futuristic pictures? Nobody’s afraid of Batman anymore! [Laughs] Everybody watches television now. They crave a bigger kind of entertainment. It’s almost a sport, to have seen the big picture on the opening weekend: “I have seen it! I have seen it!” But it will all change, of course. The smaller story will come back.

A lot to ponder here. Let me focus on three things:

* “People are people. There are always going to be ways to keep people apart… You make pictures based on truth. You make pictures based on the way you feel.” Once again we see Wilder’s instinct for characters. Need conflict or a dramatic situation? Look to your characters. Look for the truth of who they are. Look for the emotional connection you can find with each of them. Use those character-based discoveries as the foundation for your writing.

* Wilder’s point about the dearth of “leading men” nowadays is becoming less significant, at least in terms of mainstream, big budget Hollywood movies. There increasingly the ‘star’ is the computer generated imagery, the five story tall dinosaur Wilder referred to. However it still is important for lower budget and indie films, even critical. While there may be few true movie stars akin to Spencer Tracy or Katherine Hepburn, there are lots of talented actors with significant name recogniztion who bounce back and forth between big salaried roles and small indie films. And it’s almost impossible to get financing and distribution for an indie film without a name cast. Scripts featuring a compelling narrative and multidimensional characters are still the way to go on that front as those are the type of projects that attract talent.

* “But it will all change, of course. The smaller story will come back.” Here I think Wilder was prescient as to the so-called Second Golden Age of Television. Look at the successful cable series in the last decade: The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, True Detective. Many of them feature ‘big’ characters – in terms of personalities, backstory, stakes – in a ‘small’ setting, often involving characters balancing crime and family, law enforcement and personal lives. In theory, no different than in previous generations, however the depth to which the writers are exploring the characters’ lives is expanding, reflecting a cinematic sensibility at work in these series.

A coda: When Wilder says, “But it will all change,” he has the wisdom of decades of working in the movie business upon which to base that assertion. It’s a fact. The combination of technology and culture mixed with talent and economics necessitate the landscape of the entertainment business will change. TV is hot right now. Therefore everyone rushes to write an original TV pilot. Five or ten years from now, we may be talking about the collapse of TV. The idea of a movie lasting anywhere from 90-120 minutes may fade away as in the future, we may have one form of audio-visual entertainment that spans across all digital platforms in wide variety of time lengths – from a 6-second Vine to a 10-hour limited series.

No matter the change, the need for story will always be there. That is one constant that never changes.

As to Wilder’s point about actors always having to “look up” in contemporary movies, check out the trailer for Jurassic World and count how many times that happens. It’s a lot!

Next: More “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

Interview (Audio): Billy Wilder

November 30th, 2014 by

A 46-minute audio interview with writer-director Billy Wilder from sometime in the 70s:

Found this at a great site: Eyes On Cinema. Check it out.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 15

November 9th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Most Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 106-108 in which Wilder gives his thoughts on voice-over narration:

CC: Another aspect of your movies are the great voice-overs, from Holden in Sunset Boulevard to Lemmon in The Apartment. How much did you direct the voice-overs?

BW: I directed it all. The thing about voice-overs–you have to be very careful there that you don’t show what they’re already seeing. Add to what they’re seeing. I think that you can, within seconds, really seconds, you can tell things that are much better to hear than to see, because it’s an unimportant scene. I made my first voice-over in Double Indemnity. I did a voice-over in Stalag 17. I did a voice-over in Sunset Boulevard, where a dead man was speaking–why not? [Laughs] Why not? We just did it. Nobody got up and said, “Now wait a minute, a dead man speaking, rum-rum-rum-rah, I don’t want to see that…” They listened.

CC: The voice-over opening of The Apartment breaks the rules of screenwriting, but it works. The opening narration is told from Lemmon’s point of view, yet the movie is told from an omniscient point of view.

BW: Who wrote the rules? There are no rules. But I kind of think that in every picture, there is something which would take six to twelve pages to explain, and I can do it in six or twelve seconds by having a voice-over. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

CC: No, particularly if you’ve shot specifically for a voice-over. Like the beginning of Love in the Afternoon, where you’re giving us a leisurely tour of Paris.

BW: Paris. The people kissing.

CC: Is that Maurice Chevalier doing the opening narration?

BW: No, that was Louis Jordan. He did it, he had a little French accent, and it was very good. That’s fine, but later on I just let it go. There’s no more narration at the end of The Apartment, either.

CC: And the same in One Two Three.

BW: Voice-over is good as long as you are not describing what the audience is already seeing. you don’t have to tell them what they’re already looking at. Show, don’t tell.

Takeaways:

* “Voice-over is good as long as you are not describing what the audience is already seeing.” I did a whole series of posts analyzing how voice-over narration was used effectively in several movies — The Shawshank Redemption, Double Indemnity, Fight Club, American Beautyand A Christmas Story — and one of the points we discussed is precisely what Wilder said: If you choose to use voice-over narration, make sure it adds something to the story experience.

* “There are no rules.” Sounds like someone else I know. If your story compels you to defy convention, like having a dead man doing voice-over or doing voice-over from a character’s perspective when the story is told from the omniscient point of view or saying it instead of showing it, then you have the freedom to do that, even if you’re not Billy Wilder.

Next week: More “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 14

November 2nd, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Most Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 100-101 which is ostensibly the end of Crowe’s interviews with Wilder:

CC: Thank you for your time. And may I finally note that you’ve accomplished all this, your entire body of work, without one overly complicated shot.

BW: If it does not follow the story, why? It’s phoniness. The phoniness of the director. [Does a hushed voice:] The director, the director…wearing a buttonhole here…the director is just another guy that helps with the making of the picture. I have a little louder voice, I’ve got a little more freedom, the choice is mine, and it’s fun. But many people make the movie. It’s fun to make pictures because you live, actually you live five, ten, or fifteen, or twenty different lives. Because you’re moving in different backgrounds. You’re not going every day to the shop and selling hats your whole life. No. I have a hat shop, but also I am a brain surgeon, and…I’ve lived many lives. It all depends how interesting the background is. And, of course, the character.

Takeaways:

* If a shot does not follow the story, Wilder claims it’s phony. The same goes with a screenplay. If we write a line of dialogue… or a piece of action… or even a whole scene that looks or feels great, but is not directly tied to the playing out of the story, that’s phony. That’s being a [W]riter, drawing attention to ourselves, instead of being a [w]riter in service of the story.

* One of the joys of writing is it gives us the chance to live “five, ten, or fifteen, or twenty different lives.” We get to experience reality through the perspective of each character we create and in a sense live vicariously through them.

* “And, of course, the character.” Yes. Yes. And yes. Begin with character. End with character. And everything in between with character. After all, it’s their story, they are the active agents within that particular story universe. Whenever we are in doubt or stuck with a story, we need to remember that. Go to the characters. Dig more deeply into them. Engage them directly. They have the answers. We just need to get them talking.

Re-reading “Conversations With Wilder,” I have come to this realization: I love Wilder as a director because he’s all about the story. And I love Wilder as a storyteller because he’s all about the characters.

Fortunately Crowe finagled a few more interview sessions with Wilder. To be continued next time.

Wilder-by-ratocine.blogspotdotcom

Next week: More “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 13

October 12th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Most Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 69-70 in which Wilder shares what he thought of working with Raymond Chandler:

BW: I had made two grim pictures, Double Indemnity and Lost Weekend. Double Indemnity was so grim, by the way, that [Charles] Brackett kind of ducked out. He says, “No, it’s too grim for me.” So that’s how I got [Raymond] Chandler. Mr. Raymond Chandler, from whom I learned in the very beginning, you know, what real dialogue is. Because that’s all he could write. That, and descriptions. “Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth”…or the other I loved: “Nothing is as empty as an empty swimming pool.” But he could not construct.

He was about sixty when we worked together. He was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay, wasn’t used to it. he was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence. “There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool.” That is a great line, a great one. After a while I was able to write like Chandler…I would take what he wrote, and structure it, and we would work on it. He hated James Cain [the Double Indemnity novelist]. I loved the story, but he did not care for Cain. I tried to get Cain, but he was busy making a movie…

CC: Over the years, it appears you’ve upgraded your estimations of… Chandler.

BW: Sure, the anger gets washed, gets watery. You know, you forget about it. That’s a very good thing. That’s the only thing. Sure. I cannot forgive Mr. Hitler, but I certainly can forgive… Mr. Chandler. That’s a different story. [Pause] But the… there was a lot of Hitler in Chandler.

CC: [Laughs] In what way?

BW: In the way he talked behind my back. And the way he quit writing with me and then came back the same day. Because I had told him to close that window, a Venetian blind in the office, and I didn’t say “please.”

CC: You had the stick too, right? The riding crop. And you said, “Shut the window.”

BW: Yeah, I had the stick. I had the stick, and I had three martinis before lunch, and I called girls–six girls. One of them took fifteen minutes for me to get off the phone…and he was just outraged. He just could not take it, because he was impotent, I guess. And he had a wife who was much older than he was, and he was in AA, Alcoholics Anonymous–an unnecessary thing, because he got to be a drunkard again when we finished. [Wilder is poker-faced.]

CC: So it must have driven him crazy to see you having a martini.

BW: Yes, and I had one more martini than I should have had…because of him!

I have covered the infamous relationship between Wilder and Chandler before, such as here and here. It’s easy to watch an interview with Wilder and come away thinking he’s a sort of good-natured grandfatherly type, but in this excerpt from “Conversations,” we get a nice dose of his edge — comparing Chandler to Hitler, his annoying behavior with Chandler while working on Double Indemnity. But Wilder movies wouldn’t have been nearly as successful had he not had that bite in his personality.

Beyond that as far as writing takeaway is concerned, two things:

* Even if he loathed Chandler, Wilder appreciated the novelist’s ability to write dialogue and scene description. When this interview was conducted, it was literally 50 years since he and Chandler had worked together, yet Wilder still remembers that line about an “empty swimming pool”. Wilder was attuned to great lines, memorable lines. It’s a standard we would do well to hold ourselves to in our own writing.

* No matter how well Chandler could churn out great lines, Wilder knew that this was secondary to structure when writing a screenplay. William Goldman has said, “Screenplays are structure,” and Wilder would seem to subscribe to that opinion as well. Screenplays are not novels, an adjustment Chandler seems to have had a difficult time making, even going so far as to disparage the narrative form. But there is no way around it: A screenplay is the foundation for the production of a movie. Therefore its structure has to be spot on in order to have any chance of making a good movie.

How to handle screenplay structure? You may well have seen this before, but the list of 10 screenwriting tips from Wilder is worth considering one more time:

1. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let go.
2. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
3.The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
4. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
5. Tip from Ernst Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
6. The audience is fickle. Know where you’re going.
7. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.
8. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
9. The 3rd act must build, build, build in tempo until the last event, and then…
10. …that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Honestly, you don’t need one of those screenplay formulas floating around. That can lead to formulaic writing. Rather follow these 10 tips, immerse yourself in the lives of your story’s characters, and the screenplay’s structure will naturally emerge.

By the way, Wilder evidently got along well enough with Raymond Chandler to include him in one shot in Double Indemnity. This one:

Double Indemnity Chandler

That’s Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) on the left, Chandler seated in the chair as Neff passes by him. In other words, Chandler appears in the movie about 5 seconds… which is probably about 4 seconds too long for Wilder!

Next week: More “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

Video: 1961 Billy Wilder interview clip

October 3rd, 2014 by

It’s short, but it’s Wilder and worth it. All the way back in 1961 (the year after The Apartment was released):

Via @LaFamiliaFilm.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 12

September 28th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Every Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 66-67 in which Wilder follows up on what I covered in the previous post about writing comedy:

BW: Like, for instance, one of the big laughs in Some Like It Hot. There was a scene that played about three or four minutes. That’s very long. That was the scene where Mr. Tony Curtis climbs up the back of the hotel, goes in the room, and there is Jack Lemmon with the maracas. He’s still singing the tune [from his evening with Joe E. Brown], and the maracas were very important. They were very important because I could time the jokes there. In other words, I say something, you say something, now I needed some kind of an action that helped time the joke. For instance, Tony Curtis comes up. He says, “Well, what’s new here?” [Does Lemmon:] “Well, you’ll be surprised, a little new here, I’m engaged.” Ya-dup-pap-pap-pap [shaking imaginary maracas]. Now I knew, when I cut back, I knew how long the laugh was gonna be…then I put in the other straight line, then comes another joke. But I timed it so that not one straight is lost. Because sometimes you have a straight line and the straight gets the laugh. So now you’re really dead, because they will not hear the payoff. They laughed over the straight line. And then they hear the top of the next joke already, without hearing the preparation. The rhythm is off. You have to be very, very careful.

For two years, I made a living doing what could charitably be called a ‘stand-up comedy act’. At least some people thought I was funny or else the clubs wouldn’t have kept hiring me. I learned many valuable lessons during that stint and one was about the critical importance of timing when it comes to humor. The rhythm of straight line – punch line, pauses between bits, the length of bits and not letting them play too long, callbacks and when to use them, and on and on. So much of comedy is about timing.

One problem with a movie, as Wilder notes, is because it’s not live, you can’t adjust pauses from audience to audience, you have to lock the picture and hope for the best your timing is such that it allows for the laughter of the crowd to play out just long enough before having a character say the next straight line. What Wilder discusses here in Some Like It Hot, using the maracas (“very important”) as “some kind of action that helped time the joke,” is something writers need to consider.

Here are the scenes in question. First, Jack Lemmon’s character (Daphne) dances the night away doing the tango with Joe E. Brown (Osgood Fielding III):

Next the scene Wilder discusses:

Let’s break down the dialogue between Lemmon and Tony Curtis (Josephine), noting the use of the maracas as a device to provide the audience time to laugh at each punch line:

Josephine: What happened?
Daphne: I'm engaged.
Josephine: Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
Daphne: I am.

Maracas!

Josephine: What?
Daphne: Osgood proposed to me. We're planning a June wedding.

Maracas!

Josephine: What are you talking about? You can't marry Osgood.
Daphne: Do you think he's too old for me?
Josephine: Jerry, you can't be serious.
Daphne: Why not? He keeps marryin' girls all the time.

Maracas!

Josephine: But... you're not a girl. You're a guy. And why would 
a guy wanna marry a guy?
Daphne: Security.

Maracas!

Josephine: Jerry, lie down. You're not well.
Daphe: Would you stop treatin' me like a child. I'm not stupid. 
I know there's a problem.
Josphine: I'll say there is.
Daphne: His mother. We need her approval. But I'm not worried
because I don't smoke.

Maracas!

Josephine: Jerry, there's another problem.
Daphne: Like what?
Josephine: Like your honeymoon.
Daphne: We've been discussing that. He wants to go to the Riviera, 
but I kinda lean towards Niagara Falls.

Maracas!

Jospehine with the straight lines. Daphne with the punch lines. And a break after each joke for Daphne to shake the maracas, creating the timing the scene needs to work with a movie audience.

If we reverse engineer the creative process whereby Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond came up with these bits, remember the whole dancing with Osgood thing came about because Joe (Josephine) prevailed upon Jerry (Daphne) to go out with the millionaire so Joe could have access to Osgood’s yacht in order to try to woo Sugar (Marilyn Monroe).

So a date. What would be funny in a visual way? Dancing. What type of dancing would offer the most opportunities for humor? The tango, a la the bit about the rose clamped between Daphne, then Osgood’s teeth. But they needed an object for Jerry to use in the follow-up scene with Joe to help “time the joke”. Maracas are from Latin America like the tango. How about that?

Done!

I should note, the maracas not only help with comedic timing, they’re also visual, playing to the cinematic nature of movies.

So much of writing comedy is about surfacing bits with potential for humor we can mine with the characters for an extended period of time. The tango bit in Some Like It Hot is a great example, plus reminding us of the importance of timing and visual storytelling.

Next week: More Some Like It Hot and “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

Interview [Video]: Billy Wilder

September 14th, 2014 by

This gem courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation: Over an hour-long conversation with writer-director Billy Wilder.

For the Writers Guild Foundation YouTube site, go here.

For my series Conversations With Wilder, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 11

September 7th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

Every Sunday for the next several months, I’m going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 66-67:

CC: I once read an interview with Truffaut that I found very helpful. He felt that in the filming and the acting of a script, the movie always gets more serious. So if you put more comedy than you want in the script, you’ll end up with the right mix of comedy and drama.

BW: [Agreeing] Because they’re not gonna laugh at some things.

CC: Is that something you’ve found to be true?

BW: Yeah, well…I do the joke if the joke is germane to the whole story, to the picture. But not if I have to squeeze it in artificially, with a shoehorn. I don’t do that. I never overestimate the audience, nor do I underestimate them. I just have a very rational idea as to who we’re dealing with, and that we’re not making a picture for Harvard Law School, we’re making a picture for middle-class people, the people that you see on the subway, or the people that you see in a restaurant. Just normal people. And I hope they’re gonna like it. If I have a good scene, a good situation with the characters, then we fool around with it and explore it. That is the fun. because there are many versions that you can do. You find the theme of the situation, find the joke, find the high point, and end the scene on the high point. I don’t let it dribble on.

There’s more to Wilder’s response which we’ll get into next week because there’s enough here to chew on.

* First off, notice how jokes service story, not story service jokes. A joke for joke’s sake comes off “artificially.” And in my view, the best test of this is to consider the joke in relation to the characters: Does it feel natural for them? Would they actually do or say this bit of business in the context of the scene. If it feels forced, just to play for laughs, then — artificial.

* Wilder had a specific audience in mind when making his movies which is in line with one of the first pieces of advice given to me by my original agents: When assessing a story concept or writing a script, ask the question, “Who’s the audience?” For a comedy, this is essential because you have to have a sense of who they are in order to shape the tone of your story accordingly.

* When you have a scene or bit of business that feels like it has strong comedic potential, “fool around with it and explore it.” Don’t just go with your first instinct, consider a variety of options. In next week’s post we’ll see an example of this from Wilder drawn from the movie Some Like It Hot.

* Find the joke. A scene or scenario may seem generally funny, but zero in on the core of why it’s funny, then work from that.

* Finally when you discover the high point of the scene, build to that, provide the moment with a big finish, then get out.

Comedy is such a hard genre to write. It doesn’t get the respect it deserves in part, I think, because the filmmakers who do it so well make it seem so easy. It’s not. To make people laugh, you have to not only find the funny, but know your audience, tailor the humor for them, exploit the best version of each bit, and construct the scene in such a way it builds to a proper climax all the while servicing character and plot.

Wilder was a master at comedy. Here is a classic example of how he and Izzy Diamond took a situation — Jerry (Jack Lemmon) as Daphne trying to get close to Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) by sharing some hootch — and added layer on layer on layer to build to that “high point” Wilder discussed. Note: The video quality is not the best, but the scene works nonetheless:

And check this out! I found this online: The Making of Some Like It Hot featuring interviews with Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis:

Next week: More Some Like It Hot and “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.