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

February 18th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

Part 12

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

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

February 15th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, fine. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Wilder. Ever the storyteller.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

Part 11

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

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

February 14th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTERVIEWER: What were the producers’ comments like?

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

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

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

Takeaway: How about these?

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

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

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

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

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

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

February 13th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

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

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

February 12th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Faulkner seemed to have his difficulties too.

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

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

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 8]

February 11th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Why have so many novelists and playwrights from the East, people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, had such a terrible time out here?

WILDER: Well, because they were hired for very big amounts of money. I remember those days in New York when one writer would say to the other, I’m broke. I’m going to go to Hollywood and steal another fifty thousand. Moreover, they didn’t know what movie writing entailed. You have to know the rules before you break them, and they simply didn’t school themselves. I’m not just talking about essayists or newspapermen; it was even the novelists. None of them took it seriously, and when they would be confronted by their superior, the producer or the director, who had a louder voice and the weight of the studio behind him, they were not particularly interested in taking advice. Their idea was, Well, crap, everybody in America has got a screenplay inside them—the policeman around the corner here, the waiter in Denver. Everybody. And his sister! I’ve seen ten movies. Now, if they would only let me do it my way . . . But it’s not that easy. To begin to make even a mediocre film you have to learn the rules. You have to know about timing, about creating characters, a little about camera position, just enough to know if what you’re suggesting is possible. They pooh-poohed it.

I remember Fitzgerald when he was working at Paramount and I was there working with Brackett. Brackett, who was from the East, had written novels and plays, and had been at Paramount for years. Brackett and I used to take breaks and go to a little coffee joint across the street from the studio. Oblath’s! we used to say. The only place in the world you can get a greasy Tom Collins. Whenever we saw Scott Fitzgerald there, we’d talk with him, but he never once asked us anything about writing screenplays.

Pictures are something like plays. They share an architecture and a spirit. A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman and is able to tell what’s wrong with the third act. What a veteran screenwriter produces might not be good, but it would be technically correct; if he has a problem in the third act he certainly knows to look for the seed of the problem in the first act. Scott just didn’t seem particularly interested in any of these matters.

Takeaway: Here’s a money quote: “A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman.” That combines the spirit of movies which are both art and commerce, the poet for art, the craftsman for commerce. Right-brain, left-brain, heart, head, whatever metaphor you like, a screenwriter needs both.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

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

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 7]

February 8th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: I understand your collaboration with Raymond Chandler was more difficult?

WILDER: Yes. Chandler had never been inside a studio. He was writing for one of the hard-boiled serial magazines, The Black Mask—the original pulp fiction—and he’d been stringing tennis rackets to make ends meet. Just before then, James M. Cain had written The Postman Always Rings Twice, and then a similar story, Double Indemnity, which was serialized in three or four installments in the late Liberty magazine.

Paramount bought Double Indemnity, and I was eager to work with Cain, but he was tied up working on a picture at Fox called Western Union. A producer-friend brought me some Chandler stories from The Black Mask. You could see the man had a wonderful eye. I remember two lines from those stories especially: “Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool.” The other is when Marlowe goes to Pasadena in the middle of the summer and drops in on a very old man who is sitting in a greenhouse covered in three blankets. He says, “Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth.” A great eye… but then you don’t know if that will work in pictures because the details in writing have to be photographable.

I said to Joe Sistrom, Let’s give him a try. Chandler came into the studio, and we gave him the Cain story Double Indemnity to read. He came back the next day: I read that story. It’s absolute shit! He hated Cain because of Cain’s big success with The Postman Always Rings Twice.

He said, Well, I’ll do it anyway. Give me a screenplay so I can familiarize myself with the format. This is Friday. Do you want it a week from Monday?

Holy shit, we said. We usually took five to six months on a script.

Don’t worry, he said. He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.

He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He’d put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he’d grasped the technique.

I sat him down and explained we’d have to work together. We always met at nine o’clock, and would quit at about four-thirty. I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts.

One morning, I’m sitting there in the office, ten o’clock and no Chandler. Eleven o’clock. At eleven-thirty, I called Joe Sistrom, the producer of Double Indemnity, and asked, What happened to Chandler?

I was going to call you. I just got a letter from him in which he resigns.

Apparently he had resigned because, while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through, I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said please. He accused me of having as many as three martinis at lunch. Furthermore, he wrote that he found it very disconcerting that Mr. Wilder gets two, three, sometimes even four calls from obviously young girls.

Naturally. I would take a phone call, three or four minutes, to say, Let’s meet at that restaurant there, or, Let’s go for a drink here. He was about twenty years older than I was, and his wife was older than him, elderly. And I was on the phone with girls! Sex was rampant then, but I was just looking out for myself. Later, in a biography he said all sorts of nasty things about me—that I was a Nazi, that I was uncooperative and rude, and God knows what. Maybe the antagonism even helped. He was a peculiar guy, but I was very glad to have worked with him.

Takeaway: Well, let’s see. Be careful of a writing partner who doesn’t know screenplay form… thinks it takes a week or so to write a screenplay… and gets jealous of the other writer’s romance life.

To read Chandler’s take on working in Hollywood, go here to read a first person essay by the writer from 1945.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

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

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 7]

February 7th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: How do collaborators work together?

WILDER: Brackett and I used to share two offices together with a secretary in between. When we were writing he always laid down on the couch in my office while I would walk around with a stick in my hand.

INTERVIEWER: Why the stick?

WILDER: I don’t know. I just needed something to keep my hands busy and a pencil wasn’t long enough. He always had the yellow legal tablet, and he wrote in longhand, then we’d hand it to the secretary. Brackett and I would discuss everything, the picture as a whole, the curtain situations—first act, second act and then the end of the picture—and the curtain lines. Then we would break it down and go to a specific scene and discuss the mood and so forth, then we’d figure out what bit of the story we’d tell in those ten pages of the scene.

INTERVIEWER: Was it the same working with I. A. L. Diamond?

WILDER: Pretty much the same as with Brackett. Discuss the story, break it down into scenes, and then I would dictate and he would type. Or he would sit there thinking, and I would write on a yellow tablet and show it to him.

How’s this? I’d say.

No. No good, he’d say. Never in an insistent way, however.

Or he might suggest something to me, and I’d shake my head. He’d just take it, tear it up, and put it in the wastebasket, and we’d never come back to it.

We had a great deal of trust in each other. But sometimes with writing you just can’t tell, especially if you’re writing under pressure. Diamond and I were writing the final scene of Some Like It Hot the week before we shot it. We’d come to the situation where Lemmon tries to convince Joe B. Brown that he cannot marry him.

“Why?” Brown says.

“Because I smoke!”

“That’s all right as far as I’m concerned.”

Finally Lemmon rips his wig off and yells at him, “I’m a boy! Because I’m a boy!”

Diamond and I were in our room working together, waiting for the next line—Joe B. Brown’s response, the final line, the curtain line of the film—to come to us. Then I heard Diamond say, “Nobody’s perfect.” I thought about it and I said, Well, let’s put in “Nobody’s perfect” for now. But only for the time being. We have a whole week to think about it. We thought about it all week. Neither of us could come up with anything better, so we shot that line, still not entirely satisfied. When we screened the movie, that line got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in the theater. But we just hadn’t trusted it when we wrote it; we just didn’t see it. “Nobody’s perfect.” The line had come too easily, just popped out.

Takeaway: First of all there’s this:

Cut to 1:40 in the clip. There’s I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond. There’s Wilder. And there’s Wilder’s stick! Looks like a fly-swatter to me.

Beyond that, notice how Wilder breaks a story: Start big, “curtain lines” or if you prefer plot points, then “break it down to scenes,” then write. Note that relationship: Scenes service the story. You have to figure out the Big Picture in order to have any chance of knowing how and what to do with each scene.

There you go. More screenwriting wisdom from Billy Wilder. That… and get a goddammed script!

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

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

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 6]

February 6th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever feel disappointed with your results, that the picture you had imagined or even written hadn’t turned out?

WILDER: Sure, I’ve made blunders, for God’s sake. Sometimes you lay an egg, and people will say, It was too early. Audiences weren’t ready for it. Bullshit. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad.

The tragedy of the picture maker, as opposed to the playwright, is that for the playwright the play debuts in Bedford, Massachusetts, and then you take it to Pittsburgh. If it stinks you bury it. If you examine the credits of Moss Hart or George Kaufman, no one ever brings up the play that bombed in the provinces and was buried after four shows.

With a picture that doesn’t work, no matter how stupid and how bad, they’re still going to try to squeeze every single penny out of it. You go home one night and turn on the TV and suddenly, there on television, staring back at you, on prime time, that lousy picture, that thing, is back! We don’t bury our dead; we keep them around smelling badly.

INTERVIEWER: Is there one you have in mind?

WILDER: Don’t make me. I may lose my breakfast.

Now, I do have to admit I was disappointed by the lack of success of some pictures I thought were good, such as Ace in the Hole. I liked the movie very much but it did not generate any “must-see” mood in audiences.

On the other hand, sometimes you’ll have a rough time, and the film will turn out all right. On Sabrina I had a very rough time with Humphrey Bogart. It was the first time he’d worked with Paramount. Every evening after shooting, people would have a drink in my office, and a couple of times I forgot to invite him. He was very angry and never forgave me.

Sometimes when you finish a picture you just don’t know whether it’s good or bad. When Frank Capra was shooting Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, after the last shot she said, Will that be all Mr. Capra?

We’re all done.

All right. Now why don’t you go and fuck yourself. She thought the picture was shit, but she won the Academy Award for it.

So you’re never quite sure how your work will be received or the course your career will take. We knew we’d gotten a strong reaction at the first big preview of Sunset Boulevard. After the screening, Barbara Stanwyck went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing that night. Gloria had given such an incredible performance. Then in the big Paramount screening room, Louis B. Mayer said loudly, We need to kick Wilder out of America if he’s going to bite the hand that feeds him. He was with his contingent from MGM, the king then, but in front of all his department heads, I told him just what he could do. I walked out just as the reception was starting.

Although the movie was a great success, it was about Hollywood, exaggerated and dramatized, and it really hit a nerve. So on the way down the steps I had to pass all those people from MGM, the class studio . . . all those people who thought this picture would soil the taste of Hollywood.

After Sunset Boulevard, Brackett and I parted friends. Twelve years together, but the split had been coming. It’s like a box of matches: you pick up the match and strike it against the box, and there’s always fire, but then one day there is just one small corner of that abrasive paper left for you to strike the match on. It was not there anymore. The match wasn’t striking. One of us said, Look, whatever I have to give and whatever you have to offer, it’s just not enough. We can end on the good note of Sunset Boulevard. A picture that was revolutionary for its day.

* Takeaway: This speaks to William Goldman’s line about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.” Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. But as Wilder’s words and demeanor suggests in order to work in the movie business, you have to have a tough skin.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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

Billy Wilder: “The Art of Screenwriting” [Part 5]

February 5th, 2013 by

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

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

Here is today’s excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: Sunset Boulevard?

WILDER: For a long time I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood. God forgive me, I wanted to have Mae West and Marlon Brando. Look what became of that idea! Instead it became a tragedy of a silent-picture actress, still rich, but fallen down into the abyss after talkies. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I had that line early on. Someplace else I had the idea for a writer who is down on his luck. It didn’t quite fall into place until we got Gloria Swanson.

We had gone to Pola Negri first. We called her on the phone, and there was too much Polish accent. You see why some of these people didn’t make the transition to sound. We went to Pickfair and visited Mary Pickford. Brackett began to tell her the story, because he was the more serious one. I stopped him: No, don’t do it. I waved him off. She was going to be insulted if we told her she was to play a woman who begins a love affair with a man half her age. I said to her, We’re very sorry, but it’s no use. The story gets very vulgar.

Gloria Swanson had been a big star, in command of an entire studio. She worked with DeMille. Once she was dressed, her hair done to perfection, they placed her on a sedan and two strong men would carry her onto the set so no curl would be displaced. But later she did a couple of sound pictures that were terrible. When I gave her the script, she said, I must do this, and she turned out to be an absolute angel.

I used stars wherever I could in Sunset Boulevard. I used Cecil B. DeMille to play the big important studio director. I used Erich von Stroheim to play the director who directed the first pictures with Swanson, which he in fact did. I thought, Now, if there is a bridge game at the house of a silent star, and if I am to show that our hero, the writer, has been degraded to being the butler who cleans ashtrays, who would be there? I got Harry B. Warner, who played Jesus in DeMille’s biblical pictures, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton, who was an excellent bridge player, a tournament player. The picture industry was only fifty or sixty years old, so some of the original people were still around. Because old Hollywood was dead, these people weren’t exactly busy. They had the time, got some money, a little recognition. They were delighted to do it.

Some takeaway:

* Parse that first paragraph and you learn something about the creative process. The initial inspiration for Sunset Blvd. was Wilder’s interest in doing a comedy about Hollywood. The movie, of course, switched genres to a drama. That occurred when Wilder hit on this idea: “Tragedy of a silent-picture actress, still rich, but fallen down into the abyss after talkies.” And then this: “Someplace else I had the idea for a writer who is down on his luck.”

What can we learn from this? Sometimes stories don’t come to us whole cloth, rather they evolve over time. We may conjure up a story conceit, a shred of an idea. Don’t let it go, write it down. Then keep thinking. Play it this way or that way. This genre or that genre. This Protagonist or that.

If you come up with a kernel of a story idea, but it doesn’t reveal itself as a movie in full, don’t toss it. Keep it. And keep working it.

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

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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