“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 13

October 12th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

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

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 69-70 in which Wilder shares what he thought of working with Raymond Chandler:

BW: I had made two grim pictures, Double Indemnity and Lost Weekend. Double Indemnity was so grim, by the way, that [Charles] Brackett kind of ducked out. He says, “No, it’s too grim for me.” So that’s how I got [Raymond] Chandler. Mr. Raymond Chandler, from whom I learned in the very beginning, you know, what real dialogue is. Because that’s all he could write. That, and descriptions. “Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth”…or the other I loved: “Nothing is as empty as an empty swimming pool.” But he could not construct.

He was about sixty when we worked together. He was a dilettante. He did not like the structure of a screenplay, wasn’t used to it. he was a mess, but he could write a beautiful sentence. “There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool.” That is a great line, a great one. After a while I was able to write like Chandler…I would take what he wrote, and structure it, and we would work on it. He hated James Cain [the Double Indemnity novelist]. I loved the story, but he did not care for Cain. I tried to get Cain, but he was busy making a movie…

CC: Over the years, it appears you’ve upgraded your estimations of… Chandler.

BW: Sure, the anger gets washed, gets watery. You know, you forget about it. That’s a very good thing. That’s the only thing. Sure. I cannot forgive Mr. Hitler, but I certainly can forgive… Mr. Chandler. That’s a different story. [Pause] But the… there was a lot of Hitler in Chandler.

CC: [Laughs] In what way?

BW: In the way he talked behind my back. And the way he quit writing with me and then came back the same day. Because I had told him to close that window, a Venetian blind in the office, and I didn’t say “please.”

CC: You had the stick too, right? The riding crop. And you said, “Shut the window.”

BW: Yeah, I had the stick. I had the stick, and I had three martinis before lunch, and I called girls–six girls. One of them took fifteen minutes for me to get off the phone…and he was just outraged. He just could not take it, because he was impotent, I guess. And he had a wife who was much older than he was, and he was in AA, Alcoholics Anonymous–an unnecessary thing, because he got to be a drunkard again when we finished. [Wilder is poker-faced.]

CC: So it must have driven him crazy to see you having a martini.

BW: Yes, and I had one more martini than I should have had…because of him!

I have covered the infamous relationship between Wilder and Chandler before, such as here and here. It’s easy to watch an interview with Wilder and come away thinking he’s a sort of good-natured grandfatherly type, but in this excerpt from “Conversations,” we get a nice dose of his edge — comparing Chandler to Hitler, his annoying behavior with Chandler while working on Double Indemnity. But Wilder movies wouldn’t have been nearly as successful had he not had that bite in his personality.

Beyond that as far as writing takeaway is concerned, two things:

* Even if he loathed Chandler, Wilder appreciated the novelist’s ability to write dialogue and scene description. When this interview was conducted, it was literally 50 years since he and Chandler had worked together, yet Wilder still remembers that line about an “empty swimming pool”. Wilder was attuned to great lines, memorable lines. It’s a standard we would do well to hold ourselves to in our own writing.

* No matter how well Chandler could churn out great lines, Wilder knew that this was secondary to structure when writing a screenplay. William Goldman has said, “Screenplays are structure,” and Wilder would seem to subscribe to that opinion as well. Screenplays are not novels, an adjustment Chandler seems to have had a difficult time making, even going so far as to disparage the narrative form. But there is no way around it: A screenplay is the foundation for the production of a movie. Therefore its structure has to be spot on in order to have any chance of making a good movie.

How to handle screenplay structure? You may well have seen this before, but the list of 10 screenwriting tips from Wilder is worth considering one more time:

1. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let go.
2. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
3.The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
4. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
5. Tip from Ernst Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
6. The audience is fickle. Know where you’re going.
7. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.
8. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
9. The 3rd act must build, build, build in tempo until the last event, and then…
10. …that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Honestly, you don’t need one of those screenplay formulas floating around. That can lead to formulaic writing. Rather follow these 10 tips, immerse yourself in the lives of your story’s characters, and the screenplay’s structure will naturally emerge.

By the way, Wilder evidently got along well enough with Raymond Chandler to include him in one shot in Double Indemnity. This one:

Double Indemnity Chandler

That’s Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) on the left, Chandler seated in the chair as Neff passes by him. In other words, Chandler appears in the movie about 5 seconds… which is probably about 4 seconds too long for Wilder!

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

For the entire series, go here.

Video: 1961 Billy Wilder interview clip

October 3rd, 2014 by

It’s short, but it’s Wilder and worth it. All the way back in 1961 (the year after The Apartment was released):

Via @LaFamiliaFilm.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 12

September 28th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

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

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 66-67 in which Wilder follows up on what I covered in the previous post about writing comedy:

BW: Like, for instance, one of the big laughs in Some Like It Hot. There was a scene that played about three or four minutes. That’s very long. That was the scene where Mr. Tony Curtis climbs up the back of the hotel, goes in the room, and there is Jack Lemmon with the maracas. He’s still singing the tune [from his evening with Joe E. Brown], and the maracas were very important. They were very important because I could time the jokes there. In other words, I say something, you say something, now I needed some kind of an action that helped time the joke. For instance, Tony Curtis comes up. He says, “Well, what’s new here?” [Does Lemmon:] “Well, you’ll be surprised, a little new here, I’m engaged.” Ya-dup-pap-pap-pap [shaking imaginary maracas]. Now I knew, when I cut back, I knew how long the laugh was gonna be…then I put in the other straight line, then comes another joke. But I timed it so that not one straight is lost. Because sometimes you have a straight line and the straight gets the laugh. So now you’re really dead, because they will not hear the payoff. They laughed over the straight line. And then they hear the top of the next joke already, without hearing the preparation. The rhythm is off. You have to be very, very careful.

For two years, I made a living doing what could charitably be called a ‘stand-up comedy act’. At least some people thought I was funny or else the clubs wouldn’t have kept hiring me. I learned many valuable lessons during that stint and one was about the critical importance of timing when it comes to humor. The rhythm of straight line – punch line, pauses between bits, the length of bits and not letting them play too long, callbacks and when to use them, and on and on. So much of comedy is about timing.

One problem with a movie, as Wilder notes, is because it’s not live, you can’t adjust pauses from audience to audience, you have to lock the picture and hope for the best your timing is such that it allows for the laughter of the crowd to play out just long enough before having a character say the next straight line. What Wilder discusses here in Some Like It Hot, using the maracas (“very important”) as “some kind of action that helped time the joke,” is something writers need to consider.

Here are the scenes in question. First, Jack Lemmon’s character (Daphne) dances the night away doing the tango with Joe E. Brown (Osgood Fielding III):

Next the scene Wilder discusses:

Let’s break down the dialogue between Lemmon and Tony Curtis (Josephine), noting the use of the maracas as a device to provide the audience time to laugh at each punch line:

Josephine: What happened?
Daphne: I'm engaged.
Josephine: Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
Daphne: I am.

Maracas!

Josephine: What?
Daphne: Osgood proposed to me. We're planning a June wedding.

Maracas!

Josephine: What are you talking about? You can't marry Osgood.
Daphne: Do you think he's too old for me?
Josephine: Jerry, you can't be serious.
Daphne: Why not? He keeps marryin' girls all the time.

Maracas!

Josephine: But... you're not a girl. You're a guy. And why would 
a guy wanna marry a guy?
Daphne: Security.

Maracas!

Josephine: Jerry, lie down. You're not well.
Daphe: Would you stop treatin' me like a child. I'm not stupid. 
I know there's a problem.
Josphine: I'll say there is.
Daphne: His mother. We need her approval. But I'm not worried
because I don't smoke.

Maracas!

Josephine: Jerry, there's another problem.
Daphne: Like what?
Josephine: Like your honeymoon.
Daphne: We've been discussing that. He wants to go to the Riviera, 
but I kinda lean towards Niagara Falls.

Maracas!

Jospehine with the straight lines. Daphne with the punch lines. And a break after each joke for Daphne to shake the maracas, creating the timing the scene needs to work with a movie audience.

If we reverse engineer the creative process whereby Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond came up with these bits, remember the whole dancing with Osgood thing came about because Joe (Josephine) prevailed upon Jerry (Daphne) to go out with the millionaire so Joe could have access to Osgood’s yacht in order to try to woo Sugar (Marilyn Monroe).

So a date. What would be funny in a visual way? Dancing. What type of dancing would offer the most opportunities for humor? The tango, a la the bit about the rose clamped between Daphne, then Osgood’s teeth. But they needed an object for Jerry to use in the follow-up scene with Joe to help “time the joke”. Maracas are from Latin America like the tango. How about that?

Done!

I should note, the maracas not only help with comedic timing, they’re also visual, playing to the cinematic nature of movies.

So much of writing comedy is about surfacing bits with potential for humor we can mine with the characters for an extended period of time. The tango bit in Some Like It Hot is a great example, plus reminding us of the importance of timing and visual storytelling.

Next week: More Some Like It Hot and “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

Interview [Video]: Billy Wilder

September 14th, 2014 by

This gem courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation: Over an hour-long conversation with writer-director Billy Wilder.

For the Writers Guild Foundation YouTube site, go here.

For my series Conversations With Wilder, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 11

September 7th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

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

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 66-67:

CC: I once read an interview with Truffaut that I found very helpful. He felt that in the filming and the acting of a script, the movie always gets more serious. So if you put more comedy than you want in the script, you’ll end up with the right mix of comedy and drama.

BW: [Agreeing] Because they’re not gonna laugh at some things.

CC: Is that something you’ve found to be true?

BW: Yeah, well…I do the joke if the joke is germane to the whole story, to the picture. But not if I have to squeeze it in artificially, with a shoehorn. I don’t do that. I never overestimate the audience, nor do I underestimate them. I just have a very rational idea as to who we’re dealing with, and that we’re not making a picture for Harvard Law School, we’re making a picture for middle-class people, the people that you see on the subway, or the people that you see in a restaurant. Just normal people. And I hope they’re gonna like it. If I have a good scene, a good situation with the characters, then we fool around with it and explore it. That is the fun. because there are many versions that you can do. You find the theme of the situation, find the joke, find the high point, and end the scene on the high point. I don’t let it dribble on.

There’s more to Wilder’s response which we’ll get into next week because there’s enough here to chew on.

* First off, notice how jokes service story, not story service jokes. A joke for joke’s sake comes off “artificially.” And in my view, the best test of this is to consider the joke in relation to the characters: Does it feel natural for them? Would they actually do or say this bit of business in the context of the scene. If it feels forced, just to play for laughs, then — artificial.

* Wilder had a specific audience in mind when making his movies which is in line with one of the first pieces of advice given to me by my original agents: When assessing a story concept or writing a script, ask the question, “Who’s the audience?” For a comedy, this is essential because you have to have a sense of who they are in order to shape the tone of your story accordingly.

* When you have a scene or bit of business that feels like it has strong comedic potential, “fool around with it and explore it.” Don’t just go with your first instinct, consider a variety of options. In next week’s post we’ll see an example of this from Wilder drawn from the movie Some Like It Hot.

* Find the joke. A scene or scenario may seem generally funny, but zero in on the core of why it’s funny, then work from that.

* Finally when you discover the high point of the scene, build to that, provide the moment with a big finish, then get out.

Comedy is such a hard genre to write. It doesn’t get the respect it deserves in part, I think, because the filmmakers who do it so well make it seem so easy. It’s not. To make people laugh, you have to not only find the funny, but know your audience, tailor the humor for them, exploit the best version of each bit, and construct the scene in such a way it builds to a proper climax all the while servicing character and plot.

Wilder was a master at comedy. Here is a classic example of how he and Izzy Diamond took a situation — Jerry (Jack Lemmon) as Daphne trying to get close to Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) by sharing some hootch — and added layer on layer on layer to build to that “high point” Wilder discussed. Note: The video quality is not the best, but the scene works nonetheless:

And check this out! I found this online: The Making of Some Like It Hot featuring interviews with Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis:

Next week: More Some Like It Hot and “Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 10

August 31st, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

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

Today’s excerpt comes from P. 59:

CC: You’ve often used mirrors as a clever way of revealing a story point, but the most powerful instance has to be the broken-compact-mirror shot in The Apartment.

BW: Yes. when Baxter sees himself in the mirror and he adds up two and two. He gave it to the president of the insurance company [Fred MacMurray], the big shot at the office, now he knows what we know. And we see it in his face in the broken mirror. That was a very elegant way of pointing it out. Better than a third person telling him about the affair–that we did not want to do. This was better. This gave us everything, in one shot. Some ideas came easy, like that one. It was good, it came easy. That’s why it was good.

In Hollywood, there’s an old saying: “Show it, don’t say it.” That speaks to a fundamental truth about movies: They are primarily a visual medium. This bit of business with the broken mirror from The Apartment is a perfect example.

In the story, Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has a thing for Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). She works as an elevator girl in the same office building as Baxter. Toward the end of Act One, the audience learns something Baxter doesn’t yet know: Kubelik is the mistress of Sheldrake, the aforementioned “big shot at the office” played by MacMurray. What this means — and again, Baxter doesn’t know this — is that Sheldrake, who has obtained a key to Baxter’s apartment, is using it for his trysts with Kubelik. That leads to this scene in Baxter’s new office, the promotion he gained by allowing Sheldrake to use Baxter’s apartment:

                         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.

This is the second beat with the compact, the first as noted in the scene description here. This sets up a later scene where Baxter is showing off his new hat to Kubelik, still unaware she is Sheldrake’s mistress:

                         BUD
            No problem. Why don't we discuss it
            sometime over the holidays -- I
            could call you and pick you up and
            we'll have the big unveiling --
                   (touching the brim of
                   his bowler)
            -- you sure this is the right way
            to wear it?

                         FRAN
            I think so.

                         BUD
            You don't think it's tilted a
            little too much --

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.

Here is the scene in the movie:

Look at that shot at 1:45 in the scene: Precisely what Wilder describes, Baxter seeing his reflection in the broken mirror as he “adds up two and two.”

Visual. Storytelling. Better than a third person telling him about the affair–that we did not want to do. This was better. This gave us everything, in one shot.

By “everything,” Wilder means everything because there is not only Baxter’s realization that Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress. There is also the fact that just prior to this moment, Kubelik discovered Sheldrake has had a lot of affairs with women in the company, Kubelik just the most recent victim. Hence her line: “I like it this way — makes me look the way I feel.” A shattered soul.

Dialogue is great, especially when you have masters like Wilder and Diamond writing it. But Wilder knew the primacy of visual storytelling. And so should all screenwriters.

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 9

August 24th, 2014 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

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

Today’s excerpt in which Wilder talks about his philosophy of how to shoot a movie comes from Page 58:

CC: The way you shot The Apartment seemed very specific, a lot of wider shots and masters. By doing that, C.C. Baxter always seem very alive, struggling against the bigger world of business. Was that the visual concept?

BW: Yes. The idea behind shooting it is getting everything that is written on the screen. Everything, making it clear. I did not shoot a face like this, and like that, and then over again, from other angles. No, I just shot it once. And that was about forty-some-odd years ago. I did not endlessly try to find any specific good angle. I just tried to be good, careful that one thing led into the other thing. One close-up here, another there…never too many, only when necessary. And when I’m through with a picture, there’s only about a thousand feet left on the floor of the cutting room. We did The Apartment in fifty days and edited it in less than a week. We had three feet of unused film. That was good.

The story was good, our ideas worked. For example, we had the dame, a broad with Lemmon, coming back into the apartment. And he was dancing around, and making fun, and suddenly he sees the girl, Shirley MacLaine, asleep in his bed, but he cannot wake her up. That’s why, in structuring it, we invented a doctor who lives next door, Dr. Dreyfuss.

CC: The mensch who helps save her and teaches Baxter how to live a better life.

BW: Yeah. We never went into the apartment [of the doctor]. No time for that. We only went into the doorway.

Some takeaway:

* In previous posts, we have seen how in Wilder movies, there is a sense of economy. Nothing grand. Nothing elaborate. Simple shots, rarely if ever calling attention to himself as a director. But then, his fingerprints are all over things that really mattered to him: Story, Scene, Character. In other words, the script: The idea behind shooting it is getting everything that is written on the screen.”

* The story was good, our ideas worked.” Having worked out the story in detail – “…careful that one thing led into the other thing” — he could do the shoot with confidence. I mean, really! They edited The Apartment in less than a week… with three feet of unused film.

* For you screenwriters out there, Wilder lets slip a gem about his process, and it’s about this character in The Apartment:

The Apartment Dreyfuss

This is the heretofore mentioned Dr. Dreyfuss. How did this character come into existence?

“…suddenly he sees the girl, Shirley MacLaine, asleep in his bed, but he cannot wake her up. That’s why, in structuring it, we invented a doctor who lives next door, Dr. Dreyfuss.”

One thing leads to another, right? You’ve got Baxter back at his apartment. There’s his Attractor (Kubelik) completely passed out and he knows she’s taken his sleeping pills, but how to wake her up? Establish a doctor who lives next door and introduce him earlier, then voila! Problem solved.

This is the beauty of creativity: The potential of this character to provide an important narrative function. Dreyfuss is, as Crowe suggests, a Mentor figure: “The mensch who helps save her and teaches Baxter how to live a better life”. I did a post on this very subject in 2010 as part of the Great Character series. Here is the relevant excerpt:

How is Dreyfuss a Mentor character? Here are three examples:

The first time we see Dreyfuss, he is returning from an emergency call and happens to see Baxter as he’s setting out a trash can full of bottles of booze all the guys using his apartment for their trysts have consumed. Dreyfus assumes it’s Baxter who has been carrying on with all the booze and late night carousing with a variety of women. Here is an excerpt of their exchange:

DR. DREYFUSS
(indicating bottles)
Say, Baxter -- the way you're
belting that stuff, you must have a
pair of cast-iron kidneys.

BUD
Oh, that's not me. It's just that
once in a while, I have some people
in for a drink.

DR. DREYFUSS
As a matter of fact, you must be an
iron man all around. From what I
hear through the walls, you got
something going for you every night.

BUD
I'm sorry if it gets noisy --

DR. DREYFUSS
Sometimes, there's a twi-night
double-header.
(shaking his head)
A nebbish like you!

BUD
(uncomfortable)
Yeah. Well -- see you, Doc.
(starts to back
through door)

DR. DREYFUSS
You know, Baxter -- I'm doing some
research at the Columbia Medical
Center -- and I wonder if you could
do us a favor?

BUD
Me?

DR. DREYFUSS
When you make out your will -- and
the way you're going, you should --
would you mind leaving your body to
the University?

BUD
My body? I'm afraid you guys would
be disappointed. Good night, Doc.

DR. DREYFUSS
Slow down, kid.

“Slow down, kid.” Prudent advice befitting a Mentor. Another instance is how Dreyfuss uses his medical knowledge to help save Fran (Shirley MacLaine) from dying due to her suicide attempt:

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/__mokxbTmuJM/STW5Tc0pyLI/AAAAAAAADP0/ls8hcM2s4o4/s400/apartment--film-B.jpg

And the third instance? After this close call, Dreyfuss tells Baxter:

DR. DREYFUSS
(taking a big gulp of
the spiked coffee)
I don't know what you did to that
girl in there -- and don't tell
me -- but it was bound to happen,
the way you carry on. Live now, pay
later. Diner's Club!
(another swig)
Why don't you grow up, Baxter? Be a
mensch! You know what that means?

BUD
I'm not sure.

DR. DREYFUSS
A mensch -- a human being!

And why is that important? Because when Baxter quits his job — remember a promotion was his conscious goal at the beginning of the movie — he offers these words to his boss Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), proof of his personal metamorphosis:

SHELDRAKE
What's gotten into you, Baxter?

BUD
Just following doctor's orders.
I've decided to become a mensch.
You know what that means? A human
being.

SHELDRAKE
Now hold on, Baxter --

BUD
Save it. The old payola won't work
any more. Goodbye, Mr. Sheldrake.

Dr. David Dreyfuss is an excellent reminder that even the secondary characters we write should be great ones, too.

Sometimes in our stories, characters or moments emerge out of necessity. When they do, don’t just think about how they may solve this specific problem. Rather look at them in the larger perspective of the narrative. Perhaps you can use them in a bigger sense… like turning a doctor into a Mentor.

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 8

August 17th, 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 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.”

BW: Yes.

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.

Some takeaways:

* 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.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 7

August 10th, 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 in which Wilder discusses the hit 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot comes from Pages 37-38:

BW: There was, for instance, the situation where Tony Curtis steals the clothes of the guy, and plays now Mr. Shell. The Shell family, do you remember? And he now gets also the boat of Mr. Joe E. Brown, who is dancing somewhere with Mr. Lemmon. You have two things going there. Now Joe E. Brown, dancing a tango with Lemmon, that’s going to be good, I knew that. We had that cold, the dips, and the rose in the teeth, you know.

CC: Is that the kind of moment you’d already acted out in the room, writing with Izzy [Diamond]?

BW: [Shakes his head immediately] No, we just knew it. Now, when we were writing, we got a very good idea, a very important part of the picture. The idea was that he, Curtis, invites Monroe back to the boat of Mr. Shell. And it’s all set up, they’re alone. Now there’s going to be sex, right? I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking, this is no good, this is expected. But what we will do is that [sparkle in his eye] he plays it impotent! And she suggests the sex. And she fucks him–that has to be better. It must be better to be subdued, seduced, and screwed by Marilyn Monroe–what could be better? So we switched this thing around. And we had the scene, right? I cam in the morning before we filmed. I just said, “Look–we are now at the situation where he takes her to the boat. There’s nothing new here. But how about this?”

Now, we set it up, it was just like picking oranges, you know. Because it was just all there. And now we can say what his family spent his fortune on, trying to cure him. “We tried Javanese dancers with bells on, we had every goddamn thing, and every doctor–it doesn’t work.” [Laughs] And she says, “May I try?” And then they try. And you know his real feelings by what happens to his leg, as it goes up, the leg goes up, and she’s kissing him. “How is that?” she says. “I don’t know,” he says. And up goes the leg. She says, “Let me give it another try, just one more thing.” Now we lose them and we know what happens. So the idea, that made that scene. Because otherwise it’s just too flat. [Wilder still marvels at the scene.] She’s kissing, and Curtis is laying there on the couch. Kissing him, with the camera here, and now you see the leg coming up, in back of her. Wonderful!

CC: And the leg is so important, it’s the final touch.

BW: Absolutely, yes.

CC: The leg is everything. And did that come in the rehearsals, or was that part of the idea?

BW: That was part of the writing. It was easy. It just came.

When you write comedy, you dream of inspirations like this, where the idea for a scene makes everything about its execution easy, “just like picking oranges.” But to get to these type of creative breakthroughs, generally you have to push yourself. That is the subtext of this anecdote.

Put yourself in Wilder’s position. You’ve constructed the Joe-Daphne plot of Some Like It Hot to build to a seduction scene with Tony Curtis (Joe) and Marilyn Monroe (Sugar). The Marilyn Monroe. There will be his assumed identity. Her desire to marry a rich guy. Making out on a huge yacht. Leading to implied sex. Easy, right? The scene writes itself.

Not for Wilder. He thought the original take — Joe seducing Sugar — was “expected,” it was “just too flat.” In pushing himself, he topped it: Make her the seductress. Talk about the ultimate moviegoer fantasy: Marilyn Monroe seducing you!

How to do that? Make the Curtis character ‘impotent’. As soon as you hit on that, now you are in orange-picking territory. And because it’s 1959, you have to be metaphorical when it comes to sex. So what comes up during their hot-and-heavy petting sessions? His leg. In virtually the entire scene, there in the background is Curtis’ ‘erect’ leg.

Check out the scene and the cross-cuts to Jack Lemmon (Jerry) and Joe E. Brown (Osgood) doing the tango:

Everything you see there is scripted, all the action, cross-cut to cross-cut.

Takeaway: Don’t be satisfied with the first inspiration. Try putting a spin on the dynamics. Brainstorm how to make the scene more visual — erect legs, fogged up glasses, a rose passed between two dancers’ mouths. Push yourself to find the real funny.

The hard part is finding an inspired bit of business. Once you’ve got that, it’s easy… just like picking oranges.

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 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.