“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 6

July 27th, 2014 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 movies.

Every 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 watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 33:

CC: There’s a great story you told once, and it is about the very nature of collaboration. I heard that when you were writing Ninotchka, you and Charles Brackett were stuck on just how to accomplish her eventual love affair with capitalism. You’d written pages and pages–

BW: Yeah, pages. We needed a thing to prove in a short, in an abrupt, version that she too fell under the spell of capitalism, that she too is vulnerable.

CC: And you were all stuck on this story point. And [Ernst] Lubitsch didn’t like anything you’d written. Then Lubitsch goes to the can, emerges after a minute, and says, “It’s the hat.”

BW: “The hat.” And we said, “What hat?” He said, “We build the hat into the beginning!” Brackett and I looked at each other–this is Lubitsch. The story of the hat has three acts. Ninotchka first sees it in a shop window as she enters the Ritz Hotel with her three Bolshevik accomplices. This absolutely crazy hat is the symbol of capitalism to her. She gives it a disgusted look and says, “How can a civilization survive which allows women to wear this on their heads?” Then the second time she goes by the hat and makes a noise–tch-tch-tch. The third time, she is finally alone, she has gotten rid of her Bloshevik accomplices, opens a drawer and pulls it out. And now she wears it. Working with Lubitsch, ideas like this were in the air.

I love this anecdote. “Why, Scott. It’s just about a hat.” Ah, you think! Check out the setup of this precious little subplot:

First off, this bit of business with the hat is precisely the type of thing screenwriters face all the time in crafting a story. You’re going along, something doesn’t work, then you hit on a solution which causes you to go back to set something up so you can pay it off here or later. We reverse engineer stories constantly, stumbling into a payoff which requires an earlier setup.

Next: This is a great example of visual storytelling. One’s instinct might be to have Ninotchka express her shift in favor of capitalism through dialogue, but those are just words that drift in one ear, out the other. So much more effective to demonstrate her transformation through an image which the audience can see. The Hat = Capitalism. We know that because Ninotchka has said as much with her first line of dialogue about it. She sees it as decadent symbol of all that is wrong with capitalism. Yet by the third beat in the subplot, when she surreptitiously puts on the hat when she is alone, that says it all. She has bought into capitalism. Picture worth a thousand words – boom!

Then there is the fact that the hat has its own subplot. Movies are filled with subplots, each of them – in good stories – tied to and advancing the Plotline. Ninotchka’s relationship to the hat is one way to trace her metamorphosis.

Finally, there is the Magical Number 3. The idea of Beginning-Middle-End, the foundation of narrative as first elucidated by Aristotle, works not only in terms of an overall story, but also for scenes, sequences, and subplots. And here we have a perfect example:

Beginning: Ninotchka decries the hat as a symbol of capitalistic decadence.
Middle: Her “tch-tch-tch” still conveys a generally negativity, but not as firm as before.
End: She dons the hat signifying acceptance of capitalism.

This is how professional screenwriters think. They confront a problem. They try various solutions. They push themselves to come up with one that really works. And they look for simple, elegant, and oftentimes visual solutions that are always tied to the overall narrative.

It’s not just a hat in Ninotchka. It is creative brilliance.

ninotchka-1939-greta-garbo-hat

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

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 5

July 20th, 2014 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 movies.

Every 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 watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from PP. 20:

BW: My only ambition was to entertain, this way or that way. To entertain and not to repeat myself and to make as few mistakes as possible. There are so many mistakes. I remember, I lived at 704 Beverly Drive, and the way to the studio, to Paramount, is a ride of about fifteen or eighteen minutes. I mapped out in my mind where, on the way back, on the corner of La Cienega and Melrose, I always hit my leg, my thigh, and I said, “Goddamm it, that’s the way I should have done it!” But most of the time it’s too late. Too late, because the picture is cut and the actor’s in Yugoslavia and the sets are down. If you do a picture like George Stevens–he did that very famous picture A Place in the Sun [1951]. Now, there is a district attorney in that picture who limps. I talked to somebody and said, “It’s a very fine picture, but he did not have to make justice itself limp.” That was too allegorical. That was not good. Because it was just a wonderful picture. And I just told him, “Look, if that was in the theater, you go backstage, and you tell the actor who plays the district attorney, ‘Tonight, no cane.’” But “Tonight, no cane” in a picture, you have to remake 80 percent of the picture!

The anecdote about A Place in the Sun is typical Wilder: A character’s limp being too allegorical. Wilder’s movie show a consistent kind of restraint. His camera work, never flashy, just set it, and let the actors act. Remember the George Cukor story Wilder told here, how the director told Jack Lemmon to keep doing a scene over and over, each time just a “little bit less,” to the point where Lemmon said, ““Mr. Cukor, for God’s sake, you know pretty soon I won’t be acting at all.” To which Cukor responded, “Now you’re getting the idea.” Why did Wilder love that story? In part because it’s funny, but also the story reflects Wilder’s ‘less is more’ attitude toward storytelling, his restraint as a filmmaker.

A great example of this is the classic 1944 film noir film Double Indemnity, written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler [their relationship is a whole other story]. Wilder wrote and shot an ending scene in which the Protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is put to death in a gas chamber. Here is the only known photo of that scene:

Wilder shot the scene, but it didn’t feel right to him, too much, over the top. Despite the considerable cost of shooting the scene, he cut it. Which has left us with this final scene:

As it should be, some final ‘bromance’ moments between Neff and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), capped by the payoff to the lighting-the-match runner. Wilder’s restraint gave us a pitch perfect ending to a great movie.

One takeaway for writers and filmmakers: We don’t have to clobber a reader over the head with emotion, exposition, action, style and all the rest. Sometimes the best path is to explore our characters at such depth that we give them room to do their thing. Restrain our instincts, get out of the way, and let them ‘tell’ the story.

Now let’s zero in on this line: To entertain and not to repeat myself and to make as few mistakes as possible.

I’ve just written this out on a 3×5 inch index card and tacked it up on my desk. Why?

* “To entertain”: Always good to remember this is Job Number One whenever we write a story.

* “Not to repeat myself”: Once we find a bit of business, angle, theme or whatever narrative element that works, it’s so tempting to go to the well again… and again… and again. But that is the easy way out. Even if we write in one genre, we should challenge ourselves to approach tropes and memes, and even those aspects of our writing that work, and push to find new ways to use them in telling a story.

* “To make as few mistakes as possible”: I would never use this advice during prep or writing early drafts. That is primarily a journey of discovery, finding the story, and the process is rife with decisions and passes that prove to be unfruitful, but in the end, we will have needed to go through all that to land on the story we want and need to tell. However, when it comes to rewriting and editing, we can push ourselves to avoid falling into narrative traps. Moreover from a career standpoint, this is also solid advice. The fact is, you will fuck up with your career choices. Learn from them and minimize your mistakes.

Final thought: Think of all the filmmakers working today, how so many of them – in effect – repeat themselves, making the same movie. Hell, the studios have totally bought into this mentality. Sequels. Remakes. Reboots. Fundamentally, that is not a creative choice, rather it reeks of playing it safe.

That wasn’t Wilder. He told stories that interested and challenged him regardless of genre. Indeed while he did focus on comedy, he trafficked in a myriad of other story arenas. As a result, he left us with a fascinating opus of movies…. and we are all the better for it.

It makes me wonder: Would Wilder have had the opportunity to work in Hollywood as it is today? Frankly, I doubt it. We are blessed he was alive and stumbled into Hollywood when he did because I don’t think anybody, other than perhaps Megan Ellison, would have supported his type of wide-ranging artistry just as her production company Annapurna Pictures has with Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and David O. Russell.

To think a talent such as Wilder would not find a home in today’s Hollywood is an incredible statement on the current state of affairs. It’s not an inspiring commentary.

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

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 4

July 13th, 2014 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 movies.

Every 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 watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from PP. 18-19:

CC: The champagne-popping device worked for you once before, in Ninotchka. When Melvyn Douglas pops the champagne and Garbo crumbles behind his back, as if she’s been shot.

BW: Yeah, she crumbles, she is blindfolded. There were three of us on that script [Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Walter Reisch]. And the fourth one was [Ernst] Lubitsch. He never took credit, but he did a lot of wonderful writing, or offered suggestions. He was absolutely the best when it comes to that kind of picture. He didn’t do any comedies in Germany, he did great big expensive historical pictures. Just great big pictures, they were locomotives–showmanship pictures like Madame Du Barry…He himself was a comedy actor in two-reelers. Schuhpalast Pinkus [1916] was the name [of one]…a shoe palace where he was one of the guys who sold shoes. It was all very funny and very solid. It never occurred to him that there was gold to be mined in directing comedy, because he did not make out-and-out elegant comedies in Berlin. He arrived in Hollywood in the early twenties with an avalanche of European people, actors, directors. They cam because they were searched out by Mr. Louis B. Mayer, who had gone to Europe to look at talent. Whereas I cam here because I didn’t want to be in an oven.

Schuhpalast Pinkus [1916], directed by and starring Ernst Lubitsch

I came here with nothing. Lubitsch was then making his first American picture. He just did not know what they wanted him to do. And in his bewilderment, he made Rosita [1923], a picture with Mary Pickford. A serious picture, not very good, and he left Hollywood right away. He had a contract with Warner Bros., I think. It was then that he saw a picture by Mauritz Stiller, a Swedish director, and this is where he got his style. This is where Lubitsch saw that his future was in comedy, silent as it is. Sound came later. The first or second sound musical, he made, The Love Parade [1929]. But he was already searching for comedy subjects. And he did them gloriously. He realized that if you say two and two, the audience does not have to be told it’s four. The audience will find it themselves; let the audience find the joke. There was always an innuendo, in setting up situations, and you were rewarded by the laugh of the people who added it up. And it was a whole new technique. That was in the Swedish picture too. Mauritz Stiller did it. I never saw it. And this was where Lubitsch became Lubitsch. This was where he discovered the “Lubitsch touch.” He was absolutely astonished, and thought, “My God, what things you can do by innuendo!” It changed his life; it was the beginning of the Lubitsch touch. And the next picture he made [after Rosita] had it–The Marriage Circle [1924]. And the emotions of his work got sharper and sharper and sharper.

From then on, he only made comedies, if you call The Shop Around the Corner [1940] a comedy, which I think it was. His favorite was a picture called Trouble in Paradise [1932]. He told me so himself.

A scene from Trouble in Paradise

It stars [Herbert] Marshall as a thief. He acts the part of a doctor and he places something [chemically treated] over the mouth of his patients that puts them out. And then he and his girlfriend commit thievery. I remember the third act was that Marshall goes to a party. And he sees Edward Everett Horton, who he had robbed, and who then tries to remember, where did he see that man before? Every time he passes him, he looks. Then ultimately, he smoke a cigarette and uses an ashtray, which is a metal gondola. And the gondola reminds him, because it happened in Venice. The Lubitsch touch [marvels]. It was his favorite picture; he liked it better than any other that he did, including Ninotchka. But the beginning of it all was this picture made by Mauritz Stiller…

And to this I must say, Mauritz Stiller was a very, very find director. Swedish pictures were then not as popular as American. But Swedish, French pictures, Polish pictures, Argentinian pictures, it did not matter…they were silent pictures, you only had to translate the titles, that was all…

But you see, I am a great admirer of Mr. Lubitsch. I really loved the man, as a human being, and as an artist–way ahead of his time.

To say that Wilder was a fan of Ernst Lubitsch may be the biggest understatement in the history of cinema. Wilder famously had this plaque hanging in his office:

“How would Lubitsch do it?” That one illustration of the “Lubitsch touch” Wilder provides is illustrative of so much of Wilder’s approach, not only to humor, but storytelling in general: Let the audience find the joke. Let’s parse that observation:

* It implies a respect for the moviegoer: Wilder didn’t think of the audience as dumbbells for whom everything has to be telegraphed and explained, but rather gave them credit for having brains, experience and common sense to figure things out themselves.

* It engenders active engagement: If the viewer is given the opportunity to think for themselves, indeed, challenged to put two and two together, this makes them an active participant in the process of the unfolding narrative, rather than a passive one for whom everything is laid out for them.

* It requires the filmmaker to have confidence in their storytelling ability: One key to this “innuendo” approach is for a filmmaker to have a solid instinct for how much little / how much to dole out to the audience. This was particularly important for a writer-director like Wilder whose movies often pushed the envelope in terms of tone, not fitting into neat little genre-boxes.

Here are two examples of this approach, both from The Apartment. In this first scene, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the head of the company, has called in Baxter (Jack Lemmon) because Sheldrake has heard a rumor about a “certain key floating around the office.” Baxter thinks he is being called on the carpet for allowing four upper level managers at the company use his apartment for their extramarital affairs, perhaps even concerned that he [Baxter] is about to be fired:

During this, Bud has risen from his chair, started inching
toward the door.

                         SHELDRAKE
                   (turning to him)
            Where are you going, Baxter?

                         BUD
            Well, I don't want to intrude --
            and I thought -- since it's all
            straightened out anyway --

                         SHELDRAKE
            I'm not through with you yet.

                         BUD
            Yes, sir.

                         SHELDRAKE
                   (into phone)
            The reason I called is -- I won't
            be home for dinner tonight. The
            branch manager from Kansas City is
            in town -- I'm taking him to the
            theatre Music Man, what else? No,
            don't wait up for me -- 'bye,
            darling.
                   (hangs up, turns to Bud)
            Tell me something,  Baxter  -- have
            you seen Music Man?

                         BUD
            Not yet. But I hear it's one swell
            show.

                         SHELDRAKE
            How would you like to go tonight?

                         BUD
            You mean -- you and me? I thought
            you were taking the branch manager
            from Kansas City --

                         SHELDRAKE
            I made other plans. You can have
            both tickets.

                         BUD
            Well, that's very kind of you --
            only I'm not feeling well -- you
            see, I have this cold -- and I
            thought I'd go straight home.

                         SHELDRAKE
            Baxter, you're not reading me. I
            told you I have plans.

                         BUD
            So do I -- I'm going to take four
            aspirins and get into bed -- so you
            better give the tickets to somebody
            else --

                         SHELDRAKE
            I'm not just giving those tickets,
            Baxter -- I want to swap them.

                         BUD
            Swap them? For what?

Sheldrake picks up the Dobisch reports, puts on his glasses,
turns a page.

                         SHELDRAKE
            It also says here -- that you are
            alert, astute, and quite
            imaginative --

                         BUD
            Oh?
                   (the dawn is breaking)
            Oh!

He reaches into his coat pocket, fishes out a handful of
Kleenex, and then finally the key to his apartment. He holds
it up.

                         BUD
            This?

                         SHELDRAKE
            That's good thinking, Baxter. Next
            month there's going to be a shift
            in personnel around here -- and as
            far as I'm concerned, you're
            executive material.

Here is a case where we – the audience – are way ahead of Baxter. Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond give the viewer room to figure out where Sheldrake is going before the story’s Protagonist does.

An even more sublime example is the use of a ladies compact which plays out as a setup and payoff. In this first scene, Baxter is in his office when Sheldrake visits, now using Baxter’s apartment for his trysts with Fran Kubelik [Shirley MacLaine]. Note: Baxter does not know Sheldrake is having an affair with Kubelik, who as it turns out is the woman Baxter has a thing for.

He glances toward the glass partitions to make sure that
nobody is watching.

                         BUD
            I have something here -- I think it
            belongs to you.

Out of his pocket he has slipped the compact with the fleur-
de-lis pattern we saw Fran use at the Rickshaw. He holds it
out to Sheldrake.

                         SHELDRAKE
            To me?

                         BUD
            I mean -- the young lady -- whoever
            she may be -- it was on the couch
            when I got home last night.

                         SHELDRAKE
            Oh, yes. Thanks.

                         BUD
            The mirror is broken.
                   (opens compact,
                   revealing crack in mirror)
            It was broken when I found it.

                         SHELDRAKE
            So it was.
                   (takes the compact)
            She threw it at me.

                         BUD
            Sir?

                         SHELDRAKE
            You know how it is -- sooner or
            later they all give you a bad time.

                         BUD
                   (man-of-the-world)
            I know how it is.

                         SHELDRAKE
            You see a girl a couple of times a
            week -- just for laughs -- and
            right away she thinks you're going
            to divorce your wife. I ask you --
            is that fair?

                         BUD
            No, sir. That's very unfair --
            especially to your wife.

Let’s acknowledge how this scene demonstrates how far down the slippery moral slope Baxter has slid, buying into the whole married-man-can-justifiably-have-an-affair mentality of 1960 when the movie was released. But per the focus of this post, the point of the scene is to establish Baxter’s awareness of the compact, especially its broken mirror.

Onto the second scene, this time at the office Christmas party. There is so much going on in this scene — for instance, Kubelik has just discovered Sheldrake has a history of flings with women in the company — but let’s focus on the compact:

Fran takes her compact out of her uniform pocket, opens it,
hands it to Bud.

                         FRAN
            Here.

                         BUD
                   (examining himself in
                   the mirror)
            After all, this is a conservative
            firm -- I don't want people to
            think I'm an entertainer --

His voice trails off. There is something familiar about the
cracked mirror of the compact -- and the fleur-de-lis
pattern on the case confirms his suspicion. Fran notices the
peculiar expression on his face.

                         FRAN
            What is it?

                         BUD
                   (with difficulty)
            The mirror -- it's broken.

                         FRAN
            I know. I like it this way -- makes
            me look the way I feel.

The phone has started to ring. Bud doesn't hear it. He
closes the compact, hands it to Fran.

                         FRAN
            Your phone.

                         BUD
            Oh.
                   (picks up phone from desk)
            Yes?
                   (throws a quick look
                   at Fran)
            Just a minute.
                   (covers mouthpiece;
                   to Fran)
            If you don't mind -- this is sort
            of personal

                         FRAN
            All right. Have a nice Christmas.

She exits, closing the door. Bud takes his hand off the
mouthpiece.

                         BUD
                   (every word hurts)
            Yes, Mr. Sheldrake -- no, I didn't
            forget -- the tree is up and the
            Tom and Jerry mix is in the
            refrigerator -- yes, sir -- same to
            you.

He hangs up, stands there for a moment, the bowler still on
his head, the noise from the party washing over him. He
slowly crosses to the clothes-tree. Picks up his coat -- a
new, black chesterfield. With the coat over his arm, he
starts out of the office.

Once again, we are ahead of Baxter. As soon as we see the compact, we can anticipate what Baxter’s reaction will be because we know that Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress and that the compact is hers. Moreover this significant plot point is conveyed through an object, a visual clue. None of the characters says anything directly to suggest this revelation has happened, it all occurs in subtext. Just one reason why this scene is so brilliant… and yet more evidence that The Apartment is — in my view — a perfect movie.

Takeaway: Respect the audience. Don’t spell out everything, rather use innuendo as a tool. Tease the script reader, provide clues, and get them actively engaged in the story process.

Two last things. First the 1920 silent film Erotikon by director Maurice Stiller, “A comedy in five acts”:

And this from Cameron Crowe:

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

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 3

July 6th, 2014 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 movies.

Every 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 watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from PP. 16-18:

CC: Who wrote the last line in The Apartment — “Shut up and deal” — you or I.A.L. Diamond?

BW: [Famously cagey on the subject of which collaborator wrote which lines, Wilder eyes me evenly] “Shut up and deal”? I don’t remember. Could have been Iz. Could have been me. [Pause]. We had that gin game in the plot–when she’s recovering from her suicide attempt, they played gin, and the game’s not finished–and we didn’t want to have a kiss, and we didn’t want to have something too sweet. But we had a very good stepping stone for the last scene. We had planted somewhere that he once attempted suicide, with a gun, but he did not quite know how to handle it and shot himself in the knee. So we knew that he had a gun. Then we also planted there that it’s in his luggage which he’s packing up because he’s going back to Cincinnati, or wherever. We also planted there that Dr. Dreyfus brings him a bottle of champagne. So we had that thing, you remember, it was at midnight, the lights go out. It’s New Year’s Eve. Mr. Fred MacMurray, by this time, is divorced. He’s popped the question to Shirley MacLaine, finally, finally, finally. Then when the lights go on, she’s gone. We used that trick at midnight all the lights go out. Now, she’s running, she’s running and running and running to the apartment. And we know that it’s…that could be the ending, right?

CC: Right–

BW: He could be standing in the window and wave at her, or he opens the door and she kisses him. We didn’t want to have that ending, that kiss ending. We had that good idea of, she’s running, and now she hears a shot. And now, we don’t know yet, but she thinks, “My God, he wanted to commit suicide on account of another girl, but maybe this time he’s not gonna hit his knee!” So she hurries up much more, and she’s faster and faster, and she gets to the door, and she knocks. He opens it and he’s got the bottle of champagne foaming over [grinning], which it always does when you shake it. So, “Oh, God, thank God,” but still no kiss. But he wants to ask her, “What’s the matter?” “Nothing, let’s finish the gin game.” They’ve got the cards there, still down on the table. And he asks her something amorous.

CC: He says, ‘I love you, Miss Kubelik.”

BW: “I love you.” Then she says, “Shut up and deal.” And he deals the whole deck, you know, not just ten cards.

CC: The kiss would have been too romantic, too sweet.

BW: Yeah. It’s not an ending like “Nobody’s perfect.” but then again, at least it was not too schmaltzy.

At least it was not too schmaltzy. Ha! Talk about underselling yourself! To me, “Shut up and deal” is the best last line of any movie ever. There’s such a perfection to it, I have always just felt that. But in reading Wilder’s background on the line’s genesis, we can see why it is just right. Look at all the plot details Wilder and Diamond set into motion for the line:

* The game of gin.

* Baxter’s previous attempt at suicide.

* He has a gun.

* Dreyfus gave Baxter a bottle of champagne.

* Midnight on New Year’s Eve when the lights go down which enables Kubelik to ‘escape’ Sheldrake.

* It figures Baxter would pop open champagne, seeing as (A) he’s moving and (B) it just turned to the New Year.

So all of those bits of business were set in place for the actual details of what the characters did and said in the movie’s final scene. But what Wilder doesn’t mention is in the story’s Internal World, the psychological domain: Kubelik would not be running on the streets of Manhattan to see Baxter unless certain things were revealed to her. And that’s precisely what happens in the movie’s penultimate scene:

INT. CHINESE RESTAURANT - NIGHT

It is five minutes before midnight, New Year's Eve. Sitting
alone in the last booth is Fran, a paper hat on her head, a
pensive look on her face. There are two champagne glasses on
the table, and the usual noisemakers, but the chair opposite
her is empty. Above the general hubbub, the Chinese pianist
can be heard playing. After a moment, Fran glances off.

Threading his way through the merrymakers crowding the bar
and overflowing from the booths is Sheldrake. He is in
dinner clothes, topped by a paper hat. Reaching the last
booth, he drops into the chair facing Fran.

                         SHELDRAKE
            Sorry it took me so long on the
            phone. But we're all set.

                         FRAN
            All set for what?

                         SHELDRAKE
            I rented a car -- it's going to be
            here at one o'clock -- we're
            driving to Atlantic City.

                         FRAN
            Atlantic City?

                         SHELDRAKE
            I know it's a drag -- but you can't
            find a hotel room in town -- not on
            New Year's Eve.

                         FRAN
                   (a long look at Sheldrake)
            Ring out the old year, ring in the
            new. Ring-a-ding-ding.

                         SHELDRAKE
            I didn't plan it this way, Fran --
            actually, it's all Baxter's fault.

                         FRAN
            Baxter?

                         SHELDRAKE
            He wouldn't give me the key to the
            apartment.

                         FRAN
            He wouldn't.

                         SHELDRAKE
            Just walked out on me -- quit --
            threw that big fat job right in my
            face.

                         FRAN
                   (a faint smile)
            The nerve.

                         SHELDRAKE
            That little punk -- after all I did
            for him! He said I couldn't bring
            anybody to his apartment --
            especially not Miss Kubelik. What's
            he got against you, anyway?

                         FRAN
                   (a faraway look in
                   her eye)
            I don't know. I guess that's the
            way it crumbles -- cookie-wise.

                         SHELDRAKE
            What are you talking about?

                         FRAN
            I'd spell it out for you -- only I
            can't spell.

The piano player is consulting the watch on his upraised
left arm. He drops the arm in a signal, and the lights go
out. At the same time, he strikes up AULD LANG SYNE.

The fact that Baxter quit his job — his dream job — because of his feelings for Kubelik, not only convinces Fran that Baxter is a guy she deserves to be with, his courage to make a break from Sheldrake inspires her to do the same thing, which provides the emotional impetus — combined with everything about the plot Wilder mentioned — to take us to this:

Wilder and Diamond had two other hurdles they had to overcome to come up with the perfect ending line, both self-imposed. (1) As noted, they didn’t want “that kiss ending,” nothing “too schmaltzy.” While that would have been the easy way out, such an ending would have flown in the face of the entire atmosphere and tone of The Apartment, basically a dark comedy about office politics and sexism in the workplace. (2) Wilder and Diamond had to write a line that fit Fran Kubelik’s character. Fortunately, she herself is not “too schmaltzy,” indeed several times she conveys an edgy, even biting sense of humor. Here is one notable example, Fran in Baxter’s apartment for a tryst with Sheldrake on Christmas Eve:

                         SHELDRAKE
            I have a present for you. I didn't
            quite know what to get you --
            anyway it's a little awkward for
            me, shopping --
                   (he has taken out a
                   money clip, detaches
                   a bill)
            -- so here's a hundred dollars --
            go out and buy yourself something.

He holds the money out, but she doesn't move. Sheldrake
slips the bill into her open bag.

                         SHELDRAKE
            They have some nice alligator bags
            at Bergdorf's --

Fran gets up slowly and starts peeling off her gloves.
Sheldrake looks at her, then glances nervously at his wrist
watch.

                         SHELDRAKE
            Fran, it's a quarter to seven --
            and I mustn't miss the train -- if
            we hadn't wasted all that time -- I
            have to get home and trim the
            tree --

Fran has started to remove her coat.

                         FRAN
            Okay.
                   (shrugs the coat back on)
            I just thought as long as it was
            paid for --

                         SHELDRAKE
                   (an angry step toward her)
            Don't ever talk like that, Fran!
            Don't make yourself out to be cheap.

                         FRAN
            A hundred dollars? I wouldn't call
            that cheap.

That ending side — “Shut up and deal” — is something Kubelik’s character would totally say, very much in line with her established character. Of course, understanding the character and her voice is one thing. Grabbing the magic which results in four simple words that translate into perfection is another. But that was the genius of Wilder and Diamond.

What can we learn here? Well, short of resurrecting Wilder and Diamond to oversee our creative efforts, how about this:

Set-up and payoff.

Every single item Wilder noted in his conversation with Crowe about the ending of The Apartment is a set-up that is paid off. Indeed, he doesn’t even mention the many lines of dialogue in the last few scenes that are callbacks: “ring-a-ding-ding… cookie-wise… only I can’t spell… I’ll send him a fruitcake every Christmas.”

Therefore it’s not just the line — “Shut up and deal.” It’s all of the set-ups and payoffs that lead up to the line that make it pitch perfect.

So whatever stories we write, pay attention to bits of business that pop up here and there. They may be a setup just waiting for a payoff… and perhaps a last line of dialogue remotely approximating the greatness of the one in The Apartment.

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

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 2

June 29th, 2014 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 movies.

Every 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 watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from PP. 6-7:

CC: Let’s talk about one of your favorite actors, one who truly brought your words and your style to life–Jack Lemmon. How did you first hear about him?

BW: I knew he was around. He had played Mr. Pulver, and won an Academy Award, in Mister Roberts [1955]. He was screamingly funny, and he was brand-new. He was under contract to Columbia, making three or four pictures, and I liked him. I liked his quality.

His first day on a sound stage [It Should Happen to You, 1954], with George Cukor directing, he’s all revved up. He rattles down half a page of dialogue, rararaaumphrara, and then there’s “Cut,” and he looks at Cukor. Cukor comes up to him and says, “It was just wonderful, you’re going to be a big, big star. However…when it comes to that big speech, please, please, a little less, a little bit less. You know, in the theater, we’re back in a long shot, and you have to pour it on. But in film, you cut to a close-up and you cannot be that strong.” So he does it again, less. And again Cukor says, “Wonderful! Absolutely marvelous, now let’s do it again, a little bit less.” Now after ten or eleven times, Mr. Cukor admonishing him “a little less.” Now after ten or eleven times, Mr. Cukor admonishing him “a little less,” Mr. Lemmon says, “Mr. Cukor, for God’s sake, you know pretty soon I won’t be acting at all.” Cukor says, “Now you’re getting the idea.” [Laughter].

Ask yourself: Why did Wilder zero in on this anecdote? I would argue this: Because it speaks to the essence of Wilder’s approach to storytelling.

Less. Is. More.

If you watch his movies, everything from camera placement to actors acting to the seminal choices as exhibited in his screenplays, if Wilder errs in one direction, it’s always to underplay what is possible. Avoid schmaltz and melodrama at all costs.

Consider this: In The Apartment, Baxter and Kubelik never kiss. Not once. Think of another comedy with a romantic focus in which that happens. Not that Wilder is against kissing. Of course, he’s not. But in this particular movie which walks such a fine line between drama and comedy, he and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond knew it was better to give the audience less than more.

This is a great lesson to screenwriters. While we may feel like we have to hammer home emotional moments, sometimes it’s best to allow the moment to breathe. Give the reader room to interpret what’s going on and to experience layers of possible meaning in the narrative.

Here is the trailer from It Should Happen to You:

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

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 1

June 22nd, 2014 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 movies.

Every 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 watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.

Today’s excerpt comes from PP. 7-9:

CC: The language and rhythms of your scripts are so specific, did you often give actors line readings?

BW: We sat around in a circle and we read. Is that what you mean?

CC: No–let’s say the performance wasn’t right on the line, wasn’t the way you heard it in your head. Would you perform the line for the actor, the way you wanted to hear it?

BW: Yeah, but I am not a Strasberg man. I am not an actor. I’m not even a born director. I became a director because so many of our scripts had been screwed up.

The idea was that we [Wilder and collaborator Charles Brackett] were under contract to Paramount, and had to deliver eleven pages every Thursday, on yellow paper. Eleven pages. Why eleven, I do not know. And then the script. We were not allowed to be on the set. We were supposed to be upstairs on the fourth floor writing the script. So they would chase us off, and [Mitchell] Leisen was the worst one. Mitch Leisen.

I remember one episode. Leisen was directing Hold Back the Dawn [1941]. We were already writing the next script, and not allowed on the set. Policemen! Policemen were on the set to say, “No, no, no!” That was the situation we had then. In pictures, in those days, they didn’t even let you watch what you wrote.

So we had written a scene in Hold Back the Dawn where the hero–actually, he’s a gigolo–Charles Boyer, is lying there in that dirty Hotel Esperanza, across the border. It was for the first third of the picture, he’s stranded in Mexico. He hasn’t got the papers to get in, but he would like to get to America. He lies there in bed all dressed, and there is a cockroach that is crawling up the wall and the cockroach wants to get onto the broken, dirty mirror. And Boyer was to imitate a border guard, with a stick in his hand, and say to the cockroach [officiously], “Hey, where you going? What are you doing? Have you got a visa?…What, no visa?! How can you travel without a passport!! You can’t!” That was the scene, meant to appear in the first act. They are shooting the picture, and Brackett and I are going for lunch to Lucy’s–that was the restaurant across the street from Paramount. Now we are finished with lunch, and we passed a table where Mr. Boyer had a nice French lunch with the napkin tucked in here, and a little bottle of red wine. “Hi, Charles, how are you” “How are you boys?” “What are you shooting today?” “We are shooting the scene with the cockroach.” “Oh, yeah, that’s a good scene, isn’t it?” He says, “We changed it a little bit.” [Wilder's eyes widen.] “What do you mean, you changed it?” He says, “We changed it because it’s idiotic–why would I talk to a cockroach if a cockroach can’t answer me?” I say, “Yeah yeah yeah, but just the same, we would like you to do it.” “No no no,” say Boyer, “we talked and I convinced Mr. Liesen, I’m not talking to a cockroach.” So it was nothing. The scene became flat, nothing.

So now we were upstairs writing the end to this picture, Hold Back the Dawn, the last ten pages. I say to Brackett, “If that son of a bitch doesn’t talk to a cockroach, he ain’t talking to nobody! Cross out his dialogue!” [Laughs] We won…kind of.

Great anecdote and much to glean from it.

First off, Wilder is a great story-teller. He’s efficient in setting up the story, moves into the middle, which is where the conflict arises with Boyer, slipping in and out of the conversation from both sides, then wraps it up with a nifty ending. Beginning, Middle, Ending, boom-boom-boom.

Any writer worth his/her salt should be able to recognize the value of the cockroach bit of business. The Protagonist has suffered at the hands of the border authorities. What is his reaction to that? Obviously he has feelings, but since this is a movie which is an externalized reality, we can only know what those emotions are if we see and/or hear them. Hence the cockroach: Georges (the Protagonist) gets to voice his feelings in his exchange with the bug. The point is not a conversation with the cockroach, but rather an opportunity to peer into the Protagonist’s inner world through his dialogue.

Even though writers could grasp this fact, Boyer (an actor) could not. And he managed to convince the director to change the scene. While the movie was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay, it’s probably most notable for this fact: It was the last movie Wilder wrote that he didn’t direct.

In other words, this exchange about the cockroach scene is likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. So I guess we should be thankful for how obtuse Charles Boyer was because it led to Wilder’s great career as a writer-director.

Interestingly, Wilder always looked at directing as a way of protecting his stories. He was not a flashy filmmaker. He’s set the camera and let the actors act. It was always about the characters within the context of the scene and the scene’s relationship to the overall narrative.

Finally there’s this. Watch Billy Wilder’s speech accepting the Irving Thalberg Award at the 1987 Academy Awards:

Again a great story. Now compare to the setup for the plot of Hold Back the Dawn:

Georges Iscovescu (Boyer) recounts his story to a Hollywood film director at Paramount. He is a Romanian-born gigolo who arrived in a Mexican border town seeking entry to the US. He endures a waiting period to obtain a quota number of up to eight years with other hopeful immigrants in the Esperanza Hotel.

Wilder took a powerful event from his own life-experience and used it as a starting point for this movie. Truly, this is a case of “write what you know.”
Here’s a scene from Hold Back the Dawn:

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

For the entire series, go here.

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.