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