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 in which Wilder describes his writing process with I.A.L. Diamond comes from Pages 41-42:
CC: Your published screenplays are extremely lively and readable, and though you always work with a collaborator, the scripts all have a single, idiosyncratic voice. For example, in the screenplay of Some Like It Hot, the last line of narrative reads: “And that’s the end of the story, or at least what the public can see.” Or in the script of The Apartment, the final line is, “And that’s about it. Story-wise.”
CC: Is that something you dictated to Izzy Diamond? Or did Diamond write the narrative?
BW: [Quickly] I… I don’t know. All I know is that I’m standing there, like a conductor, you know. And I have my yellow tablet, and I write, and he types. And we compare. Then we agree on something, then we go back and forth. Most of the writing happened in one room, at the Goldwyn office, a great place. I lived there. I had a kitchen, a bed, a shower, and a bathroom. Iz would show me pages and I would correct them, we would work on them. And off they went…
The final scene of Some Like It Hot, we wrote on a weekend in the studio. We just did not have it. We had the guys escaping, jumping into the motorboat of Mr. Joe E. Brown. And a little dialogue between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis. And then we came to the unmasking, when Jack Lemmon says, “You know I cannot marry you because…I smoke.” And finally he takes that wig off and says, “Look, I’m a man.” Now we needed a line for Joe E. Brown and could not find it. But somewhere in the beginning of our discussion, Iz said, “Nobody’s perfect.” And I said, “Look, let’s go back to your line, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ Let’s send it to the mimeograph department so that they have something, and then we’re going to really sit down and make a real funny last line.”
We never found the line, so we went with “Nobody’s perfect.” The audience just exploded at the preview in Westwood…
It’s always very difficult for me to say, “This is mine and this is his,” always, except of course I have to give him credit for “Nobody’s perfect.” Because that’s the thing they jump on, and I say, “That was a temporary line, suggested by Mr. Diamond.” And it wound up to be our funniest last line. I was asked by many people, “What is going to happen now? What happens now to Lemmon, what happens to his husband?” And I always said, “I have no idea.” “Nobody’s perfect.” Leave it up there on the screen. You cannot top that.
I have featured this video before, but let’s revisit it because it is perfect to accompany with this post. It features Wilder giving a speech in which he 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 quotable 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.
* For anyone who would tell you a screenplay can only contain description that an audience member can see, that we can’t use so-called “unfilmables,” all you have to do is read any Wilder and Diamond script. While they don’t go overboard with it, within their scene description, they comment on what transpires — a lot. This contributes not only to the atmosphere of scenes, it also makes for a more entertaining read. To wit: “And that’s about it. Story-wise.” Point being, you have the freedom as a screenwriter to editorialize like that. Just be judicious… and make sure it adds to the experience of the read.
* Elsewhere in “Conversations,” Wilder talks about one of the values of working with another writer: “Because I like to keep strict hours, there was a responsibility if I had a collaborator.” If you work with a writing partner, you know what he’s talking about. But even if you don’t, this speaks to the importance — at least for many writers — of creating a structure that keeps you pounding out pages. You have a responsibility to your story… and to yourself as a writer to be consistent in depositing your derriere on chair and writing.
* The fact the line “Nobody’s perfect” is considered the funniest ending line of a Wilder movie proves, once again, that writing a story is in essence about wrangling magic. You never know for sure what’s going to work… or not work. But if you immerse yourself in your story and your work, there’s a good chance at key points, you will intersect with the story’s magic, and surprises will emerge.
* “You cannot top that.” That reminds me of Wilder’s ten principles of screenwriting which I have posted here. Here are the last two:
9. The 3rd act must build, build, build in tempo until the last event, and then…
10. …that’s it. Don’t hang around.
This is one of the things that is so great about Wilder: his impeccable sense of timing, like knowing when to exit a scene. When you have achieved the point of the scene, that’s it. You cannot top that. Don’t hang around. Get on to the next scene. Same thing with your story’s ending. If you think about it, in both The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, there really is nothing in the way of what we would typically think of as a denouement. As Wilder indicates in the excerpt above, he has no idea what happens with Lemmon and Joe E. Brown. Sometimes the best endings are those which resolve, but don’t make explicit what it all means. It takes a skilled, experienced eye to know when that’s the case, but this is good advice no matter what — to remind us not to overstay our welcome in any scene or story ending. Get done with it. Then get on with it.
Next week: More from “Conversations With Wilder.” If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.
For the entire series, go here.