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.