On Writing

April 14th, 2014 by

underwood5small“It’s very difficult to do comedy because if they don’t laugh when they should laugh you are there with egg on your face, and that’s sad. In a serious pictures you don’t hear them being bored, but in a comedy you can hear them not laughing. You tried so hard and the guy did the pratfall, but nothing–and you wish you were dead.”

– Billy Wilder

Screenwriting 101: Billy Wilder

April 1st, 2014 by

screenplay“I find with young writers, and some of them with very good ideas, that they get lost in technical descriptions of which they know very little. Nobody will say, ‘This is a great screenwriter because he always has the camera angles.’ Just have good characters and good scenes and something that plays.”

– Billy Wilder

The Writer Speaks: Billy Wilder (Part 1)

March 4th, 2014 by

As many of you may know, my favorite movie is The Apartment, so it’s not surprising that my favorite filmmaker is Billy Wilder. His list of writing and directing credits is almost absurd, both in terms of sheer quantity and breadth of content. Comedies, dramas, crime thrillers, war stories, romantic comedies, other than science fiction, fantasy and horror, Wilder just about touched all the bases: Ninotchka, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Sabrina, The Spirit of St. Louis, Witness for the Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, just to give you some idea of his talent.

So I was completely blown away to discover a Writers Guild Foundation video featuring an hour-long video with Wilder conducted sometime in the 90s (he mentions Forrest Gump, so we know it’s at least after 1994).

Here is that video:

For the next week or two, when I have the time, I’m going to pull excerpts from the interview for an ad hoc series featuring the wisdom of Billy Wilder.

Today: Structure.

Structure to me is compared to building a house. You have to have a base where the house is going to stand. You have to have walls. You have to have pillars that are going to hold it up, the staircase, the second story and whatever.

Writing a picture is a mixture of architecture and – forgive me, a pompous word – poetry, storytelling on a certain level. But it has to have a very solid thing… so the second act follows the first act, it’s strong enough to keep the audience in their seats to see what is in the third act. But you need that very, very, very strongly.

It’s not that I make myself a drawing, a blueprint, it’s just kind of an instinctive thing. I’m talking about myself because if you talk to 500 writers, everybody has got his own method. Some just start writing. Some have the kind of flighty mind of… we have a very good example… Forrest Gump, writers who function like Forrest Gump, you don’t know where it’s going. You can’t do that with your picture, I couldn’t do it with a picture.

Mine is kind of a unique thing. I don’t like if you write a scene and you say, we’ll fix that later, we’ll go to the next scene and the next scene, I just go back to the first scene until it’s about as good as possible. I may change something subsequently, but I never write first version, second version, third version.

Plenty of screenwriters have alluded to the idea of construction, architecture and the like to describe the essence of a screenplay. For example:

“The construction is the most important goddamned thing. It’s like building a house–you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward. Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards. A story starts at the beginning, it develops, it works itself out, and it works up to its finale. The great essence of construction is to know your end before your beginning; to know exactly what you’re working up to; and then to work up to that end. To just start off and wander on the way isn’t any good whatever… because you’re wallowing.”

– Charles Bennett (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The 39 Steps)

“The first draft, the first structure is really important. Do it fast, don’t get stuck.”

– Oliver Stone (Midnight Express, Scarface, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July)

“Screenplays are structure.”

– William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride, Misery)

Wilder certainly took this point of view to heart. Check out his famous list of 10 screenwriting tips:

  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.

2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10 are grounded in the importance of structure to a screenplay.

Since structure was so important to Wilder, he was one of those writers who, along with his writing partners including the famous I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond, broke their stories in prep.

It’s interesting Wilder mentions Forrest Gump as a metaphor for writers who have a “flighty mind” and “don’t know where it’s [the story] going.” I remember talking with producer Wendy Finerman with whom I worked on a few movie projects about Forrest Gump, a book she discovered/ She told me the studio had hired 3 writers to take a crack at adapting the source material. None of those drafts worked. It was only when Eric Roth was hired that he focused on a single narrative thread that tied together all the disparate and meandering events of Forrest’s life into a narrative whole: The love story with Jenny. That subplot provided the necessary physical as well as psychological spine to the story, giving its structure a foundation from which everything else could flow.

More from Wilder’s interview in a few days. Until then, did you know that Wilder was involved in the production of dozens of movies in Germany before escaping the Nazis and relocating to the United States? And some of those movies are available for viewing in their entirety online.

One of them is the 1930 silent film People on Sunday. Check out these credits:

Directing Credits (in alphabetical order)
Curt Siodmak … (as Kurt Siodmak)
Robert Siodmak
Edgar G. Ulmer
Fred Zinnemann
Rochus Gliese … (uncredited)

Writing Credits (in alphabetical order)
Curt Siodmak
Robert Siodmak … (source material)
Edgar G. Ulmer
Billy Wilder

Yes, that Curt Siodmak who wrote dozens of horror and science fiction movies including The Wolfman and The Invisible Man Returns. Yes, that Robert Siodmak who directed dozens of movies including Son of Dracula and The Killers. Yes, that Fred Zinnemann who directed a string of notable movies including High Noon, From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons and The Day of the Jackal.

And, of course, Billy Wilder.

Here is People on Sunday:

What’s your favorite Wilder film?

Billy Wilder on writing with his partner I.A.L. Diamond [Video]

February 25th, 2014 by

One of the most absolute wonders of a site online for movie lovers is this one: Cinephilia and Beyond. I have promoted the site before and have cause to do so again because its host @LaFamiliaFilm has unearthed an absolute gem of a video clip featuring my favorite filmmaker Billy Wilder.

In this short clip, Wilder gives an address in which he talks about his longtime writing partner I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond. Look at this list of movies they created together: Love in the Afternoon (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three (1961), Irma la Douce (1962), Kiss Me Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974). In his speech, Wilder describes how he and Izzy worked as writers, putting in “bankers hours”. He also talks about how neither of them thought much of the final line in Some Like It Hot, which is according to the AFI the 48th most quoatable line in movie history. The most touching moment comes toward the end of Wilder’s speech when he says this:

“He didn’t tell for four years that he had that fatal disease. It was only in the last six weeks that he confided in me. Well, it’s lonely now in that office of ours. I look at that empty chair and I miss him so much. On his birthday maybe, I should put the red rose there, like DiMaggio for Marilyn.”

In those few seconds, we see in this famously cantankerous man a genuine sense of loss and appreciation for the unique partnership he and Diamond had.

That’s worth the watch in and of itself, but there’s more. In the last 5 minutes of the video, Wilder directs two actors doing a short play Diamond had written in his school days about two screenwriters. Those actors? None other than Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

Watch this wonderful bit of cinema history:

If you been following the “Poetics” series on Sundays, you’ll remember that this week the focus was on word choice. The sketch written by Diamond speaks quite comically to this obsession good writers have: Getting just the right word.

Thanks, @LaFamiliaFilm! And to all in the Go Into The Story community, I encourage you to visit Cinephilia and Beyond. While there, why not subscribe or give the site a generous donation. The least we can do for the treasure trove emerging there.

Documentary: “The Human Comedy” (Billy Wilder)

September 8th, 2013 by

A wonderful 55-minute documentary on my favorite filmmaker Billy Wilder. “The Human Comedy” is narrated by Walter Matthau and features a slew of interview subjects, plus some rare footage of Wilder and his longtime writing collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

In the documentary, Wilder offers up this bottom line advice about storytelling: “Don’t bore.” Of course, he could have said, “Be entertaining,” but voiced as a negative, that has the edge and bite we expect from the master writer and director. Great advice. Great filmmaker.

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 13]

February 18th, 2013 by

My favorite writer-director is Billy Wilder. 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.

In the spring issue of the 1996 Paris Review, there is a terrific interview with Wilder. I thought it would be a great way to kick off 2013 by digging into it to see what storytelling lessons we could glean from one of Hollywood’s master filmmakers.

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: If you’d always had more respectful directors, such as Lubitsch, would you have become a director?

WILDER: Absolutely not. Lubitsch would have directed my scripts considerably better and more clearly than I. Lubitsch or Ford or Cukor. They were very good directors, but one wasn’t always assured of working with directors like that.

INTERVIEWER: I see Federico Fellini on your wall of photos.

WILDER: He also was a writer who became a director. I like La Strada, the first one with his wife, a lot. And I loved La Dolce Vita.

Up above that picture is a photo of myself, Mr. Akira Kurosawa, and Mr. John Huston. Like Mr. Fellini and me, they too were writers who became directors. That picture was taken at the presentation of the Academy Award for best picture some years back.

The plan for the presentation was for three writer-directors to hand out the award—John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, and myself. Huston was in a wheelchair and on oxygen for his emphysema. He had terrible breathing problems. But we were going to make him get up to join us on stage. They had the presentation carefully orchestrated so they could have Huston at the podium first, and then he would have forty-five seconds before he would have to get back to his wheelchair and put the oxygen mask on.

Jane Fonda arrived with the envelope and handed it to Mr. Huston. Huston was to open the envelope and give it to Kurosawa. Kurosawa was to fish the piece of paper with the name of the winner out of the envelope and hand it to me, then I was to read the winner’s name. Kurosawa was not very agile, it turned out, and when he reached his fingers into the envelope, he fumbled and couldn’t grab hold of the piece of paper with the winner’s name on it. All the while I was sweating it out; three hundred million people around the world were watching and waiting. Mr. Huston only had about ten seconds before he’d need more oxygen.

While Mr. Kurosawa was fumbling with the piece of paper, I almost said something that would have finished me. I almost said to him, Pearl Harbor you could find! Fortunately, he produced the slip of paper, and I didn’t say it. I read the name of the winner aloud. I forget now which picture won—Gandhi or Out of Africa. Mr. Huston moved immediately toward the wings, and backstage to the oxygen.

Mr. Huston made a wonderful picture that year, Prizzi’s Honor, that was also up for the Best Picture Award. If he had won, we would have had to give him more oxygen to recover before he could come back and accept. I voted for Prizzi’s Honor. I voted for Mr. Huston.

Takeaway: Wilder is noted as a great director, but note his emphasis above — “writer-director” — and throughout this interview. He was a writer first. Story ruled. He was not the most cinematic director, indeed his direction is quite simple: Set up the shot and let the actors act. But the reason he did that, I’m convinced, is that he understood the power of the story. Let the characters do their thing, focus on them, don’t get in the way with fancy camera tricks.

As screenwriters, we can take that to heart. Follow your characters, focus on them. Action, pyrotechnics, all of that is important. But there is nothing more critical to the success of your story than the characters.

Here are links to the first twelve parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

That concludes this series on “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 12]

February 15th, 2013 by

My favorite writer-director is Billy Wilder. 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.

In the spring issue of the 1996 Paris Review, there is a terrific interview with Wilder. I thought it would be a great way to kick off 2013 by digging into it to see what storytelling lessons we could glean from one of Hollywood’s master filmmakers.

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Film really is considered a director’s medium, isn’t it?

WILDER: Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.

Recently, the Writers’ Guild has negotiated with the studios to move the writer’s credit to a place just before the director’s, a more prominent position, bumping aside the producers. The producers are screaming! You look at an ad in the papers and they are littered with the names of producers: A So-and-So and So-and-So Production, Produced by Another Four Names! Executive Producer Somebody Else. Things are slowly changing. But even so the position of a writer working with a studio is not secure, certainly nothing like a writer working in the theater in New York. There a playwright sits in his seat in the empty parquet during rehearsals, right alongside the director, and together they try to make the production flow. If there is a problem, they have a little talk. The director says to the writer, Is it all right if the guy who says, Good morning. How are you? instead enters without saying anything? And the playwright says, No! “Good morning. How are you?” stays. And it stays.

Nobody consults the movie writer. In production, they just go wildly ahead. If the star has another picture coming up, and they need to finish the picture by Monday, they’ll just tear out ten pages. To make it work somehow, they add a few stupid lines.

In the studio era, screenwriters were always on the losing end in battles with the director or the studio. Just to show you the impotence of the screenwriter then, I’ll tell you a story from before I became a director. Brackett and I were writing a picture called Hold Back the Dawn. Back then, no writer was allowed on the set. If the actors and the director weren’t interpreting the script correctly, if they didn’t have the accent on the right word when they were delivering a gag, if they didn’t know where the humor was, a writer might very well pipe up. A director would feel that the writer was creating a disruption.

For Hold Back the Dawn, we had written a story about a man trying to immigrate into the U.S. without the proper papers. Charles Boyer, who played the lead, is at rope’s end, destitute, stranded in a filthy hotel—the Esperanza—across the border, near Mexicali or Calexico. He is lying in this lousy bed, holding a walking stick, when he sees a cockroach walk up the wall and onto a mirror hanging on the wall. Boyer sticks the end of the walking stick in front of the cockroach and says, “Wait a minute, you. Where are you going? Where are your papers? You haven’t got them? Then you can’t enter.” The cockroach tries to walk around the stick, and the Boyer character keeps stopping it.

One day Brackett and I were having lunch across the street from Paramount. We were in the middle of writing the third act of the picture. As we left our table to walk out, we saw Boyer, the star, seated at a table, his little French lunch spread out before him, his napkin tucked in just so, a bottle of red wine open on the table. We stopped by and said, Charles, how are you?

Oh, fine. Thank you.

Although we were still working on the script, Mitchell Leisen had already begun to direct the production. I said, And what are you shooting today, Charles?

We’re shooting this scene where I’m in bed and . . .

Oh! The scene with the cockroach! That’s a wonderful scene.

Yes, well, we didn’t use the cockroach.

Didn’t use the cockroach? Oh, Charles, why not?

Because the scene is idiotic. I have told Mr. Leisen so, and he agreed with me. How do you suppose a man can talk to some thing that cannot answer you? Then Boyer looked out the window. That was all. End of discussion. As we walked back to the studio to continue to write the third act, I said to Brackett, That son of a bitch. If he doesn’t talk to the cockroach, he doesn’t talk to anybody! We gave him as few lines as possible . . . wrote him right out of the third act.

INTERVIEWER: Was that one of the reasons you became a director, the difficulty of protecting the writing?

WILDER: That was certainly one of the reasons. I don’t come from the theater or any dramatic school like the Strasberg school, and I didn’t particularly have ambitions to be a director, to be a despot of the soundstage. I just wanted to protect the script. It’s not that I had a vision or theory I wanted to express as a director; I had no signature or style, except for what I learned from when I was working with Lubitsch and from analyzing his pictures—to do things as elegantly and as simply as possible.

Takeaway: Yes, movies are a director’s medium. It’s they who go off and make the movie. As a writer, you may get lucky and have a director who sees your vision for your story. They may even invite you to the set to participate in production. But as Wilder noted, the default mode is not to have the writer around lest they create a “disruption.” If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you must understand this reality. If you can’t stomach someone having total control over your stories, you have two choices: Become a writer-director or go write novels.

But let’s end on an up note. Remember the saying, “Write what you know”? Check out the plot element from the movie Wilder mentions above Hold Back the Dawn, about a man trying to immigrate to the United States, stuck at the border in Mexicali. Then watch this video of Wilder accepting the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Award:

“I write movies.”
“Write some good ones.”

It’s one of the greatest stories ever… and I have that quote at my desk: “Write some good ones.”

Billy Wilder. Ever the storyteller.

Here are links to the first eleven parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 11]

February 14th, 2013 by

My favorite writer-director is Billy Wilder. 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.

In the spring issue of the 1996 Paris Review, there is a terrific interview with Wilder. I thought it would be a great way to kick off 2013 by digging into it to see what storytelling lessons we could glean from one of Hollywood’s master filmmakers.

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: What was it like working as a writer for a studio?

WILDER: When I was a writer at Paramount, the studio had a swarm of writers under contract—a hundred and four! They worked in the Writers Building, the Writers Annex, and the Writers Annex Annex. All of us were writing! We were not getting big salaries but we were writing. It was fun. We made a little money. Some like Ben Hecht made a lot of money. All the writers were required to hand in eleven pages every Thursday. Why on Thursday? Who knows? Why eleven pages? Who knows? Over a thousand pages a week were being written.

It was all very tightly controlled. We even worked on Saturdays from nine until noon, knocking off half a day so we could watch USC or UCLA play football in the Coliseum. When the unions negotiated the workweek back to five days, the executives ran around screaming the studio was going to go broke.

There was one guy at the studio whom all the writers turned in their work to—a Yale man who was at Life when his classmates Henry Luce and Briton Haddon founded the magazine. Everyone at the start of the magazine had the option of getting something like seventy-five dollars a week or part of his salary in Time stock. Some buildings at Yale were built by people who went for the stock. Our guy at Paramount used to say proudly, I went for the cash.

INTERVIEWER: What happened to the thousand-plus pages a week that were being generated?

WILDER: Most of the writing just gathered dust. There were five or six producers, each specializing in different kinds of pictures. They would read the writing over the weekend and make comments.

INTERVIEWER: What were the producers’ comments like?

WILDER: I was talking once with a writer who had worked at Columbia who showed me a script that had just been read by Samuel Briskin, one of the big men at that studio. I looked at the script. On every page, there was at the bottom just one word: improve.

INTERVIEWER: Like The New Yorker editor Harold Ross’s imperative “make better.”

WILDER: That would be one word too many for these producers. Just improve.

Takeaway: How about these?

* “All the writers were required to hand in eleven pages every Thursday.” 11 script pages per week. Why not set that as a goal for yourself? Hey, if it worked during the heydays of the studio system, why not for you?

* “Most of the writing just gathered dust.” That’s right, most scripted projects do not get produced. But if you land a writing gig or sell a pitch or script which never gets made, that money you earn for your writing services… guess what? You get to keep it!

* “On every page, there was at the bottom just one word: improve.” Like I wrote in this Business of Screenwriting post, there are three groups of people in Hollywood, and two of them don’t know how to solve a script’s story problems. They do, however, know how to say “improve”. And that’s where you – the writer – come in. They see you as a problem-solver. And that’s why you need to learn and do everything you can to become a card carrying member of that third group: People who not only can determine what’s wrong with a story, they can fix it.

Here are links to the first ten parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 10]

February 13th, 2013 by

My favorite writer-director is Billy Wilder. 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.

In the spring issue of the 1996 Paris Review, there is a terrific interview with Wilder. I thought it would be a great way to kick off 2013 by digging into it to see what storytelling lessons we could glean from one of Hollywood’s master filmmakers.

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Does the script you’ve written change as you direct it?

WILDER: As someone who directed scripts that I myself had cowritten, what I demanded from actors was very simple: learn your lines.

That reminds me. George Bernard Shaw was directing a production of his play Pygmalion, with a very well-known illustrious actor, Sir Something. The fellow came to rehearsal, a little bit drunk, and he began to invent a little. Shaw listened for a while and then yelled, Stop! For Christ’s sake, why the hell didn’t you learn the script?

Sir Something said, What on earth are you talking about? I know my lines.

Shaw screamed back at him, Yes, you know your lines, but you don’t know my lines.

On a picture, I would ask the actors to know their lines. Sometimes they would study the part at night and might ask me to come by to discuss things. In the morning, we would sit in chairs around a long table off to the side and read the day’s scene once more. It was wonderful to work with some actors. Jack Lemmon. If we were to start at nine, he’d be there at eight-fifteen with a mug of coffee and his pages from the night before. He’d say, Last night I was running lines with Felicia—his wife—and had this wonderful idea. What do you think here? And he’d go on. It might be wonderful and we’d use it, or I might just look at him, and then he’d say, Well, I don’t like it either. He worked hard and had many ideas, but he never was interfering.

Sometimes I’d have an actor so stubborn that I’d say, All right, let’s do it two ways. We’d do it my way, and I’d say to my assistant, Print that. Then to the actor, All right, now your way. We’d do it his way with no celluloid in the camera.

Takeaway: We writers sit in solitude, communing with our characters and carefully crafting our stories. We may do that in a vacuum, but our hope is that the script gets transformed into a movie. And when that happens, actors get involved. That’s when a special kind of magic can happen.

So we must always remember, everything we write in terms of action and dialogue ends up in the hands of actors. Give them characters into which they can sink their teeth and find that magic.

Here are links to the first nine parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 9]

February 12th, 2013 by

My favorite writer-director is Billy Wilder. 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.

In the spring issue of the 1996 Paris Review, there is a terrific interview with Wilder. I thought it would be a great way to kick off 2013 by digging into it to see what storytelling lessons we could glean from one of Hollywood’s master filmmakers.

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Faulkner seemed to have his difficulties too.

WILDER: I heard he was hired by MGM, was at the studio for three months, quit and went back home; MGM never figured it out and they kept sending the checks down to Mississippi. A friend of mine was hired by MGM to do a script and he inherited the office where Faulkner had been working. In the desk he found a yellow legal pad with three words on it: Boy. Girl. Policeman. But Faulkner did some work.

At some point he worked with Howard Hawks on To Have and Have Not, and he cowrote The Land of the Pharaohs. On that movie they went way over schedule with production and far past their estimated costs. On screen, there were thousands of slaves dragging enormous stones to build the pyramids. It was like an ant heap. When they finally finished the film and screened it for Jack Warner, Warner said to Hawks, Well, Howard, if all the people who are in the picture come to see it, we may break even.

But there were other writers out here who were clever and good and made a little fortune. The playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, for example. Hecht truly endeared himself to the people he worked with. A producer or director would be in a jam . . . the set built, the leads hired, the shooting begun, only to admit to themselves finally that the script they had was unusable. They would bring out Hecht, and he would lie in bed at Charles Lederer’s house and on a yellow tablet produce a pile of sheets, a screenplay ready to go. They’d take that night’s pages from Hecht’s hands, forward them to Mr. Selznick, who’d fiddle with them, have the pages mimeographed and put in the actor’s hands by morning. It was a crazy way to work, but Hecht took the work very seriously, though not as seriously as he would a play of his. They call that sort of thing script doctoring. If Hecht had wanted, he could have had credit on a hundred more pictures.

Takeaway: When it comes to screenwriting, even as an aspiring one, strive to emulate Ben Hecht ["script doctor"], not William Faulkner ["Boy. Girl. Policeman.]

Here are links to the first seven parts of the series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Tomorrow: More from “The Art of Screenwriting.” You may read the entire interview here.