“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 21

May 31st, 2015 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 Sundays 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. 165-166 in which Wilder talks about the movie One, Two, Three:

CC: One, Two, Three is unique among your comedies in that the flow of jokes is absolutely nonstop.

BW: Yeah. We knew that we were going to have a comedy, we [were] not going to be waiting for the laughs. But we had to go with [James] Cagney, because Cagney was the picture. He really had the rhythm, and that was very good. It was not funny. But just the speed was funny. The speed was very good, how Cagney figured it out. The general idea was, let’s make the fastest picture in the world, and give the actors, in order to make it seem fast, some slower scenes too. But that went very, very well. I think it’s a kind of sporadically good picture. But overall, it’s a plus. In Germany especially, after the Wall came down, it was a sensation, you know. Years and years later. They released it again.

CC: There’s visionary stuff there. Coca-Cola helps bring down the Wall. It’s all come to pass, exactly as you predicted in the film. I also wanted to ask you about the sheer volume of jokes about Europe, or Europeans, and life behind the Curtain. I have an idea of you and Cagney on the stage, working at breakneck speed, careening through all those jokes: “Let’s go, let’s go!”

BW: Yeah, we were very, very fast with that script. And yeah, we did not wait, for once, for the big laughs. We went through the big laughs. A lot of lines that needed a springboard, and we just went right through the springboard. We just did it-brrrrrp. We just did it, nine pages at a time, and he [Cagney] never fumbled, he never made a mistake.

CC: So Cagney determined the rhythm of the picture.

BW: He is an actor that was born to play that part… That was a good picture. Good. That was a 7 plus, out of 10. Or 8 minus.

If you have never seen One, Two, Three, here are some excerpts to give you a sense of its frenetic pace:

What intrigues me about Wilder’s comments was the intentionality behind the speed of the plot and humor. Which reminded me of an interview with Aaron Sorkin I featured here on the blog back in 2010. In it, Sorkin recounts this interesting anecdote about The Social Network:

And that initial draft was 161 pages?

One hundred and sixty-two pages. So it was the shooting script. No pages were cut. The first thing [director] David Fincher did when he came to the studio was say, “This script isn’t long.” The first time I worked with David, he came to my house with a stopwatch and said, “I want you to read out loud every scene at the pace you heard it when you were writing it.” And he would time each scene. He’d say, “Okay, the first scene with Mark and Erica, five minutes, seven seconds.” And when we got into rehearsal, when Jesse and Rooney [Mara, who plays the object of Zuckerberg’s affections] were running through that scene, if it wasn’t 5:07, if it was 5:43, he’d say, “No, this scene plays at 5:07.” That’s how a 162-page screenplay is an hour and 57 minute movie.

For the record, that opening scene Sorkin references here is 8 1/4 pages long in the script. And for the record, here is the scene which does, in fact, play out at 5:09 long.

So clearly both Sorkin and Fincher were intentional about the pace of the story including the dialogue. Wilder did the same thing with the comedy One, Two, Three which also features a lot of dialogue.

What’s the takeaway? Well, one thing you should not come away from this is you can write a 162 page script and say, “Hey, it plays fast… just like Sorkin,” and expect anyone to buy that. Sorkin can get away with it because he’s… well… Aaron Sorkin.

What you can take away from this discussion is the idea of rhythm. When you’re writing your script, what pace do you feel it playing at in your imagination? This question pertains to each scene, to character’s and their personalities, movements, speaking styles, and so on.

Reading Wilder’s comments got me thinking because the next script I’m working on is a comedy that takes place in one night. That would seem to infer a fast pace and I have always assumed that, but now this has me thinking about really being conscious of that in every choice. Is there value in looking at the story as a kind of breathless narrative?

Pace. Rhythm. Something to think about.

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

For the entire series, go here.

“Everything is a Remix” – Billy Wilder style

May 25th, 2015 by

On Sundays, I’ve been taking a leisurely tour through the wonderful book “Conversations with Wilder”  which captures a series of talks between filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Singles, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and writer-director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Witness for the Prosecution).

The last two posts just so happen to put a spotlight on one aspect of Wilder’s creative process: He took story ideas from preexisting movies.

If you go here, you can read about how Wilder’s inspiration for The Apartment derived from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter.

If you go here, you can see how Wilder took a good story concept from what he called an “absolutely terrible” movie Fanfare of Love (1932) and used that as the basis for Some Like It Hot.

In both cases, Wilder put his own creative stamp on the source material.

In terms of Brief Encounter, this is what Wilder had to say:

The origin of The Apartment was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, Brief Encounter [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, “What about the guy who has to crawl into the warm bed…?” That’s an interesting character. Then I put that down, and put down some other things in my notebook. The hero of that thing was the guy who endured this, who was introduced to it all by a lie. One guy in his company needed to change his clothes, he said, and used the apartment…and that was it.

Wilder switched points of narrative perspective. He wasn’t interested in either party having the affair, rather what caught his creative imagination was the poor guy whose apartment the couple was using to conduct their tryst.

Likewise with Fanfare of Love, a German movie, Wilder said this:

The genesis of the idea was a very low-budget, very third-class German picture [Fanfares of Love, 1932] where two guys who need a job go into blackface to get into a band…they also dress up to go into a female band. But there was not one other thing that came from this terrible picture. We had to find, I thought, the key to why they go into that band and what keeps them there. If the gangsters who are chasing them see them as women, only as women, then…once they are seen as men, they are dead. It’s life and death. They cannot come out into the open. It’s a question of life and death. That triggered everything. So we began to have a picture.

Again Wilder put his stamp on an existing story conceit — guys dressed as women musicians — by elevating the stakes into a life or death situation.

Pondering the fact that Wilder, my favorite filmmaker of all time, openly admitted to in effect cribbing story ideas from other movies led me to a series of posts I did between 2010-2012, tracking the evolution of what became a 4-part video series called “Everything is a Remix” from Kirby Ferguson. Here are those four videos:

Part 1: The Song Remains the Same

Part 2: Remix Inc.

Part 3: Elements of Creativity

Part 4: System Failure

Takeaways? Well, the first thing is to remind ourselves everything has basically been done before. Any time we come up with a story concept, we are, whether we know it or not, standing on the shoulders of ideas similar to the ones which emerge into our consciousness.

The second thing is this: That reality just so happens to fit into Hollywood’s longstanding business ethos — similar but different. They prefer projects which are similar to films or TV series which have already proved to be successful, yet different enough to stand on their own two creative feet.

Clearly Wilder found the sweet ‘similar but different’ spot with both Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. There’s a lesson there for all of us which I’d like to apply when we reach the end of our current classic 1950’s movies, maybe try a bit of Wilder brainstorming. Look for that in a few days.

Personally I love the idea of looking at movies with great concepts poorly executed, then ‘rescuing’ them with a new treatment. The Bitter Script Reader just tweeted something on this yesterday:

What other inferior movies with great story concepts can you think of to rescue from the trash heap? Let’s see if we can come up with a list of them, movies that should be remade, only better, rather than great movies which should not be remade if only to make a buck.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 20

May 24th, 2015 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 Sundays 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. 160-161 in which Wilder discusses the origin of Some Like It Hot:

BW: The genesis of the idea was a very low-budget, very third-class German picture [Fanfares of Love, 1932] where two guys who need a job go into blackface to get into a band…they also dress up to go into a female band. But there was not one other thing that came from this terrible picture. We had to find, I thought, the key to why they go into that band and what keeps them there. If the gangsters who are chasing them see them as women, only as women, then…once they are seen as men, they are dead. It’s life and death. They cannot come out into the open. It’s a question of life and death. That triggered everything. So we began to have a picture. But that German film was absolutely terrible, absolutely terrible. Deliriously bad.

Upon reading this, I dug into YouTube and sure enough, a clip from the 1932 movie Fanfare der Liebe:

So the central conceit — two male musicians dress up as women to get a job — derived from this German film. As we’ve seen before in “Conversations,” Wilder didn’t hesitate to find ‘inspiration’ in prior movies. But what’s really intriguing is how he would find that kernel of an idea in a bad movie. What can infer from that?

First, he actually watched bad movies. Second, he didn’t let their poor quality get in the way of his search for a good idea. Clearly, two male musicians dressed up as women is a strong concept.

But the really important thing to remember was how Wilder took an idea, then elevated it. If you watch the clip from Fanfare der Liebe, it’s amusing enough, however from the very start of the scene where they’re going to audition for the gig, the duo just strolls along. No jeopardy, other than their unpaid bills, resulting in a rather flat scene.

Wilder’s instincts drove him to a central question: Why go to the lengths of impersonating women? Need money, yes, but how to raise the stakes. To get away from gangsters. Now acting like women musicians is no longer a stroll in the park, but a matter of life and death. With that creative choice, as Wilder said, now “we began to have a picture.”

This instinct is something we see in virtually all of Wilder’s movies: Put characters under pressure. Then increase the pressure. And keep doing that throughout the narrative. Pressure makes comedies funnier, dramas more dramatic, and movies more interesting.

So two takeaways:

* Look for inspiration in older movies, in particular great story concepts which were handled poorly in translation into a movie.

* Use pressure as a narrative device to put characters under duress and create more interesting stories.

A third thing as well: Now you know the name of the movie that inspired Some Like It Hot.

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 19

May 17th, 2015 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. 136-137 in which Wilder answer Crowe’s question about the genesis of The Apartment:

BW: The origin of The Apartment was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, Brief Encounter [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, “What about the guy who has to crawl into the warm bed…?” That’s an interesting character. Then I put that down, and put down some other things in my notebook. The hero of that thing was the guy who endured this, who was introduced to it all by a lie. One guy in his company needed to change his clothes, he said, and used the apartment…and that was it.

I picked it up again because we were just through with Some Like It Hot, and I liked Lemmon so much. The first time we worked together was on Some Like It Hot, and I said, “This is the guy. This is the guy to play the leading man.” A little nebbish, as we said, you take pity on him. But The Apartment, I had it in mind for years and years before it was really activated. “How will it feel for the guy who crawls into that bed after the lovers have left?” That was really how it started… I had the point of view of the insurance guy, C.C. Baxter. And I wanted to say that Lemmon is a naive guy. His superior–that guy that runs the company–wants to go to the opera, and he would like to use the apartment to change his clothes. And Lemmon says, “You can have it!” And that triggers how he becomes a servant to the head guy, the president of the insurance group, which then gets him a better job.”

This says a lot about Wilder’s creative process:

* He had no problem using other movies as inspiration, here a movie called Brief Encounter.

* He would find a unique entry point into the story. As opposed to looking at an affair from the perspective of either lover, what caught Wilder’s imagination was the experience of the “guy who crawls into that bed after the lovers have left.”

* And we can see his mind immediately go the question, “Why would the guy let someone use his apartment for an affair?” First, he is duped due to a lie. But to sustain the conceit, the person using the apartment would have to hold something over the guy, which led Wilder to the idea the guy having the affair and using the apartment is the guy’s boss. Right there, you have the central idea of The Apartment.

This is a good example of the power of two words: What if? What if a guy allowed his boss to use his apartment for his trysts in order for the guy to get promoted at work? What if. Perhaps the two most powerful words in generating story ideas and fleshing out narratives.

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 18

May 10th, 2015 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 discusses directing it on the page:

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 thing 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.

CC: Because there are moments, even though the scripts were all tight, there are still the moments where you let the movie breathe a little bit. Where you see the long shot of Lemmon standing outside the theater waiting for Shirley MacLaine to show up for the movie date in The Apartment.

BW: Yes, of course. Even that moment told part of the story–that she was not there, she didn’t show up, she was with her boss. A little poetry. There must have been a reaction from Lemmon, that she didn’t show up, so he was alone. Naturally that was a little bit of a heartbreak, like a normal human being would feel.

As usual, several takeaways:

* Notice how the first thing Wilder discusses when talking about the script is transitions between scenes. Spoken like a director who has an intimate knowledge of editing which Wilder did, often involved in editing movies while shooting them [they did a final edit of The Apartment in one week]. So we, as writers, would do well to think about ways to handle scene transitions through visuals, dialogue, or a combination of both.

* The words must come to life. Even as someone who directed what he wrote, Wilder was aware that the script pages had to have a vitality to them, they needed to evoke the playing out of the scene on the page.

* Notice how when Crowe broaches the subject of “visual poetry,” Wilder grounds his response about the example from The Apartment in character, how Baxter (Lemmon) was feeling outside the theater, stood up by the young woman he had a crush on. “A little bit of heartbreak, like a normal human being would feel.” Wilder never strayed far from writing scenes that created an emotional connection with the audience and he consistently did that through his characters.

Finally this: “First you have to have it on paper.” A quote worth remembering for our own writing.

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 (Rare 1975 recording)

January 1st, 2015 by

What a great way to start off the New Year! This rare 1975 minute audio interview with the brilliant writer-director Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., The Apartment, Some Like It Hot) just surfaced 3 days ago!

As many of you know, Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker, so any time something like this surfaces, I go into another gear of excitement.

The video is hosted by a terrific YouTube channel: Eyes On Cinema. I definitely recommend you subscribe. And you Wilder fans, spread the word about this wonderful discovery: 75 minutes with Billy Wilder!

“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.