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.
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:
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- 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)
Edgar G. Ulmer
Rochus Gliese … (uncredited)
Writing Credits (in alphabetical order)
Robert Siodmak … (source material)
Edgar G. Ulmer
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?