Video: 3 Hour Documentary on Billy Wilder – “Billy, How Did You Do It?”

August 7th, 2016 by

One of the truly great websites dedicated to the history of movies is Cinephilia & Beyond. The webmaster and I have known each other through our interactions almost as long as GITS has been active. One reason I love the site is it constantly searches for rare videos online. The most recent one is a gold mine: A three hour 1992 documentary featuring a series of in-depth conversation between Volker Schlöndorff, himself a noted German filmmaker, and Billy Wilder, famed writer-director of such notable movies as The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, and The Lost Weekend.



For much more background at Cinephilia & Beyond about Billy Wilder and some great photographs of the master writer-director, go here. And while you’re there, why not make a contribution to help keep the site thriving, such a valuable online asset to film lovers everywhere.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 26

August 6th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 252 in which Wilder talks about the alternate ending of his classic film noir movie Double Indemnity:

CC: Let’s talk about a couple of your famous “lost sequences.” In Double Indemnity, why didn’t you use the gas-chamber ending you’d scripted and shot with Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson?

BW: I did not need it. I knew it as I was filming the next-to-last scene. The story was between the two guys. I knew it, even though I had already filmed the gas-chamber scene. Here was the scene I didn’t use. It was a close-up of Robinson and a close-up of MacMurray. The looks. There was a connection with his heart. The doctor was standing there listening to the heartbeat when the heartbeat stopped. I had it all, a wonderful look between the two, and then MacMurray was filled with gas. Robinson comes out, and the other witnesses are there. And he took a cigar, opened the cigar case, and struck the match. It was moving–but the other scene, the previous scene, was moving in itself. You didn’t know if it was the police siren in the background or the hospital sending the doctor. What the hell do we need to see him die for? Right? So we just took out that scene in the gas chamber–cost us about five thousand dollars, because we had to build that thing. It was an exact duplicate, and there are always two chairs there–two chairs, in case of a double murder and they executed them together. So one chair was empty. It was a very good scene. But we’d said it. Again, we were guilty of duplicating a thing.

CC: It was a bold move, robbing yourself of the shocking ending in favor of a quieter scene.

BW: There was no greater significance than this–we’d said it.

I’ve written about the alternate ending before, but it’s great to read Wilder’s in-depth explanation for why he excised the gas chamber scene. Here are the only known production stills of that scene:

Double Indemnity Gas Chamber 1

Double Indemnity Gas Chamber 2

As far as the script goes, the scene is called Sequence E and is three pages long. There is only one side of dialogue, that from a Guard — “That’s all, gentlemen. Vacate the chamber, please” — directed toward the witnesses after Neff (MacMurray) has been found to be dead by the medical authorities.

In his comments above, Wilder talks about the “wonderful look between the two” — Neff and Keyes (Robinson), but in the script the only time they acknowledge each other is when Neff enters the gas chamber: “He moves into the gas chamber, looks through the window in the direction of Keyes and nods quickly, recognizing him.” That’s it. So the “wonderful look” must have been something Wilder went for in directing the actors on set.

Here is the ending of the sequence as described in the shooting script:

The guard withdraws and closes the door by which he entered.
The witnesses slowly start to file out.  A guard has opened
the outer door.  The witnesses put their hats on as they pass
through.  A few go close to the windows of the gas chamber
to look in at the dead man before they leave.

All the witnesses have now left, except Keyes, who stands,
shocked and tragic, beyond the door.  The guard goes to him
and touches his arm, indicating to him that he must leave.
Keyes glances for the last time towards the gas chamber and
slowly moves to go out.

E-12 CORRIDOR OUTSIDE THE DEATH CHAMBER

CAMERA SHOOTING IN THROUGH THE OPEN DOOR AT KEYES, who is
just turning to leave.  Keyes comes slowly out into the dark,
narrow corridor.  His hat is on his head now, his overcoat is
pulled around him loosely.  He walks like an old man.  He
takes eight or ten steps and puts it in his mouth.  His hands,
in the now familiar gesture, begin to pat his pockets for
matches.

Suddenly he stops, with a look of horror on his face.  He
stands rigid, pressing a hand against his heart.  He takes
the cigar out of his mouth and goes slowly on towards the
door, CAMERA PANNING with him.  When he has almost reached
the door, the guard stationed there throws it wide, and a
blaze of sunlight comes in from the prison yard outside.

Keyes slowly walks out into the sunshine.  Stiffly, his head
bent, a forlorn and lonely man.

FADE OUT

Compare that to the actual ending of the movie:

Check out the movie’s last three lines of dialogue:

Neff: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya’.
Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.
Neff: I love you, too.

As Wilder says: “The story was between the two guys… It was moving–but the other scene, the previous scene, was moving in itself… It was a very good scene. But we’d said it.”

Again with Wilder, it comes down to characters. He could have gone for the “shocking ending” — the gas chamber — but the interchange between Neff and Keyes says it all about the bromance between these two characters. Capped off by the lighting of the match, a runner throughout the movie in which Neff would light Keyes’ cigar… only here Keyes lights Neff’s cigarette.

This moment says everything that needs to be said about these two characters and their tight-knit relationship. And in this moment, we can already see the “forlorn and lonely man” emerging in Keyes’ face as he watches his friend Neff wasting away in front of his eyes.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 25

August 5th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 221-222 in which Wilder talks about two cross-dressing movies – Tootsie and Some Like It Hot:

CC: What did you think of Tootsie (1982)?

BW: There was an interview in the New York Times with Mr. [Sydney] Pollack where he said, “I developed something that is kind of brand-new. When Dustin Hoffman decides to become a woman, we did not do that dull thing, you know, where he goes and borrows a dress here, and tries the hairdo, and he slowly becomes Tootsie.” He said, “I just cut and there was Tootsie.” [Wilder, who is not prone to such credit taking, feels strongly about this one cut. He continues, earnestly. He wishes it on the record.] I did that in Some Like It Hot. I had that years ago. In other words, when Tony Curtis says over the phone, already mimicking the voice of a woman, that he and his friend are open for the touring date…the next cut we see the two dressed as women. The two guys decide to go with the ladies’ band, because that’s the only job they can get. They’re gonna be dames. And I cut, and there they were. Wherever they got the dresses–from a girlfriend who forgot to put it back on, whatever–we just omitted that. We just had a sharp cut, and big laugh, once we see the two of them dressed as women, coming down the train platform. Walking. And we had such big laughs with the walks…We had, like, two or three railroad cars on the MGM lot, maybe they’re still there. So we cut and we saw the two walking, and the laughs kept coming and coming. They were bigger and bigger, so that I went back and I used the beads and the shoes and the stuff, always cheating, because we only had three wagons.

CC: A very modern cut.

BW: That was a modern cut, because there was no dissolve, no nothing, just bang–cut. From the two big heads in the telephone booth to the shot of their legs walking along the railroad platform. Not one word. It could have been so dull, you know. “Let’s see whether we can do a hairdo.” Nothing. We did nothing. We just cut when the guys are on the phone, and when Mr. Curtis says to the agent that he’s a woman, you know? And now the problem is solved. And they are women.

Tootsie is very good, but they tried to make it a little too serious with that element of actors looking for parts and not getting them, or whatever.

Here is the cut in Some Like It Hot from Tony Curtis, mimicking a woman on the phone with the agent, to he and Lemmon dressed as women for the first time in the movie:

I can’t find a video clip of the same cut in Tootsie, but here is an image of it – same thing, Michael immediately transforms into Dorothy, and we see her walking along as woman for the first time:

Not to diminish Tootsie — it is a brilliant film — but Pollack didn’t do anything new with the transition from male to female. He totally copped what Wilder did in Some Like It Hot.

Takeaway:

* Hitchcock said, “Movies are life with the dull parts cut out.” Wilder subscribed to this theory. Of the many considerations he had in the story choices he made, economy was definitely one of them. Why show Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon transitioning into becoming women when a more efficient — and as Wilder notes funny — transition is the ‘modern’ cut. They talk about it. Then there they are: Women.

* We can do this in our own writing. Move things along. Contemporary audiences need less exposition. They want the story to zip along. Whenever you can omit a scene and still make a transition work, do that. Sometimes… oftentimes… less is more.

Tomorrow: 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 24

August 4th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 205 in which Wilder talks about one of the most famous shots in his movies:

CC: One of your greatest shots, the most bravura shot in all your films, is the final shot of Ace in the Hole. Kirk Douglas, stabbed with a pair of scissors, falls dead on the floor into a close-up. Spike Lee, who did an homage to the shot in Malcolm X, asks how you came up with that.

BW: [Smiles] I like Spike Lee. He’s a good, lively filmmaker. The shot was always in my mind, but it wasn’t part of the script. I never put much camera direction into the screenplays. We dug a hole and put the camera there. We were sure he was going to end up in the hole himself. We knew he was gonna die. How he was going to die–that came in the writing of the thing. The shot we had as we wrote the script. The camera is down low because something’s gonna happen. It’s gonna pay off. And then Kirk Douglas falls into the close-up. I wanted something powerful, and that was one of the few times I went for a bold shot like that. I needed it, but I never based a scene around a shot. Never an outré shot. That was outlandish. Never to astonish people. It was logical there. Instead of–he falls down in a long shot, then we cut to the close-up. No. I didn’t want to do that.

Here is Spike Lee introducing Ace in the Hole on TCM with host Robert Osborne. At the very end of the clip [3:47], Lee talks about the movie’s last image, calling it “one of the greatest final shots in cinema”:

Here is the final camera shot from Ace in the Hole:

It is, indeed, a “powerful” shot and unlike Wilder in some ways in that he rarely featured such “bravura” visuals. He was always character and story first.

But we see in his comments, this is not a director wanting to show off his cinematic chops, rather it is a storyteller. The shot services the plot. It works within the internal logic of the scene. And it is a fitting and dramatic visual ending to the Kirk Douglas character.

The current screenplay style is to avoid camera shots and directing jargon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ‘direct’ the action in our scene description. We can be literary and visual. However we would be wise to follow Wilder’s lead: The visuals should support character and plot.

Tomorrow: 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 23

August 3rd, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 169-170 in which Wilder talks about the impact on crafting story structure with the audience in mind:

CC: When you had previews and showed your movies early on to test audiences, did you find this to be true–that at the beginning an audience is so full of love, they’re like a little baby, they just want to be amused, and they love you. They give you the world at the beginning, but if you squander that trust, and you lose them, there’s a point where they turn–and they can be brutal. Then they give you nothing.

BW: Yes. Of course I’ve had that. For example, in the first reel, you can give them too much action. Then picture then becomes disappointing, not what they expected. So by act two they dislike you, and by the end of act two they stand up and walk out. Sure. You have to know how to distribute your plot points. What is there to be remembered? What is there to be remembered that leads indubitably into the third-act situation, which they did not quite know existed? But now they’ll remember. And now you play your cards openly if you want to. Because that’s what they want.

CC: How did you keep from getting cynical about the whole process? You still seem so full of excitement talking about the movies, so full of affection for the audiences who love your work. How did you keep from becoming one of these directors who grew away from your audience and said, “I make movies for me, and that’s it. If nobody comes, I don’t care.”

BW: I kind of think that overall, audiences are pretty smart. Sometimes they are a little cruel; sometimes they are too nice to you. But as soon as you say, “I don’t give a damn whether they come to see me or not, what’s the next picture?”–then there is no next picture. If you do something that is totally artificial, that is unbelievable, it might be good for the plotting, but you don’t want to see “plots.” You want to see stories develop.

These comments reflect a few reasons why Wilder was such a successful filmmaker. First, he respected the audience. I can’t think of one moment from a Wilder film in which he talked down to the people in the movie theater. Indeed, he challenged them. Lost Weekend – about alcoholism. Double Indemnity – about adultery and murder. The Apartment – about sexual politics in the workplace. And not just the overall subject matter, but the way he handled the characters and – as he suggests above – the structure of the story. Every choice he made in terms of plot was grounded in his sense of the audience.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Second, this gut-level connection Wilder felt with the audience constantly drove him to move beyond plot when writing scripts and focus on how “stories develop,” and he did that by making his movies about characters in unique situations.

This reminds me that with all the learning of the craft we do as writers, at some fundamental level, our goal ought to be to ingest all of that, then set it aside and create from our gut. Feed our instincts with movies, scripts, theory, and the rest, but when we write, come from a feeling place to balance out what we have going on in our minds.

A Billy Wilder movie is notable because it is smart. But its intelligence is always grounded in the experience of compelling characters who traffic in universally relatable emotions.

That is a good touchstone for us in our own writing.

Tomorrow: 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 22

August 2nd, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 168 in which Crowe asks Wilder about some of Wilder’s quotes on the craft of writing:

CC: A few of your statements about writing, I’d love to throw some of them back at you right now for your comments. “The audience is fickle. Get at their throat and keep them the entire movie.”

BW: Yeah. That’s a line of mine. You grab them by the throat, their heart is beating, and you never let go. You just apply more and more pressure. Then at the end, as they’re going for the last gasp, you let them go, it’s over, and the circulation starts again.

Wilder, Crowe

CC: “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, that’s how good you are as a writer.”

BW: Yeah. I just think that you have to be very, very careful so that you smuggle in a very important piece of action, or dialogue, whatever, so they don’t know when they’ve swallowed the premise. So, you know, no premise. You just catch them in the theater, you’ve got them, now you’ve got to keep them. You don’t want people to get and say, ‘I’ve seen that trick before.’ Yeah, the structure is very, very important because everything you build up in act one comes back to haunt you in act three. If you do something for which you don’t have payoffs in the third act, then you’ve failed.

You have probably seen this list of 10 tips on screenwriting attributed to Wilder:

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

In the interview with Crowe, Wilder alludes to four from the list: 1, 2, 5, and 6.

The first two are more about pace, the importance of making a connection with the audience immediately, then sustaining that thread scene to scene to keep their attention.

The second two are more about structure. About #5, Wilder uses a most interesting word: “smuggle”. Whatever narrative bit of business you want to pull off in any given scene, it’s best to “smuggle” it into the action so the audience doesn’t recognize what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing.

Re #6, Wilder drives home a point we all need to recognize: The direct connection between what happens at the end of a script having its roots in the first act. One big reason why we must make sure every aspect of our story setup works.

Tomorrow: 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 21

August 1st, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller 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.

Tomorrow: 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 20

July 29th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller 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 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 19

July 28th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller 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

July 27th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.

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 movie s.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

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 master storyteller 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.\

Tomorrow: More from “Conversations With Wilder.” If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.