“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 24

August 30th, 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. 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.

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 23

August 9th, 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. 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.

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 22

August 2nd, 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. 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.

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 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.