Conversations with Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond [Part 6]

A 10-part series with the writers of The Apartment and Some Like It Hot.

I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder

More excerpts from a sit-down interview with writer-director Billy Wilder and longtime screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond:

Q: After working on a script, have you ever found yourself on a set improvising dialogue or departing from the script when something doesn’t work?
Diamond: Never, never, never.
Wilder: We should have, maybe. Totally improvise, no. But sometimes we sense that it does not work, and we withdraw into a corner and rewrite a little or do something during lunchtime. But to sit there for half a day and then kind of slap it together, no, never.
Diamond: If you ever listen to actors talk, you will not improvise. When Howard Hawks was making Man’s Favorite Sport? and Hatari, all the publicity said he was improvising on the set. What was happening was that he would come on the set in the morning and say to the actors, “Now you say something to her, and she says something to you, and then you try to kiss her, and she slaps your face.’’ But in his back pocket he’d have four pages that were written by Charlie Lederer or somebody else. The actors didn’t know where the scene was going, but he knew exactly where it was going. During rehearsal he’d gradually work the lines around to what was written in the script. Ingmar Bergman has said, ‘’Before I can improvise, I have to write it.’’ There is no such thing, despite John Cassavetes.
Wilder: The best example is Chorus Line in New York. They were improvising, but they had two writers there, and they were taking the words down, taping it all, and distilling it. I imagine at the first performance, the first time they started improvising, Chorus Line was not what it is today.
Diamond: The real improviser is the writer. By the time you’ve gotten to shooting a scene he may have written it fifteen different ways. Now, that’s obviously much more economical than waiting until you get on the set with electricians standing around to start to improvise. Then you cannot keep all your options open, because if you shoot one scene two ways you’d have to shoot the following scene four ways and the following scene eight ways. Robert Altman is another man who has no respect for words. The critics rave about the overlapping dialogue, but the fact of the matter is that nobody has anything worth saying in the first place, which is the only time you can afford to overlap dialogue.
He may shoot an eight-hour picture like Nashville and cut it down to two-and-a-half hours, but this is not the normal way to make pictures, and it’s not a very feasible way. Elaine May has now worked over two years on a picture called Mikey and Nicky. She’s exposed over a million feet of film. The studio finally had to go to court to take it away from her, because she’s never going to finish.
Wilder: Maybe they could latch it on to Casanova.
Diamond: I’ll give you another example of improvising on the set. This one happened to me in the old days. A director was shooting, and he didn’t like the ending of a scene. But in a later scene in the script there was a tag line he did like, so he simply stole the tag line and put it in the early scene, figuring he’d worry about the later scene when he came to it. What he neglected to notice was that there was a plot point in that line — it’s a revelation that required an immediate reaction from the characters. So, what happened on the screen was this: A revelation is made, twenty minutes go by, and nobody pays any attention to it. Then suddenly they react to it. The director had stolen a line from one part of the script and put it in another, and he hadn’t stopped to think it all out.
Somebody once asked Dick Brooks, a writer-director, ‘’The night before you shoot a scene, do you sit down with the script and figure out the angles and all that?” He said, ‘’I sit down with the script not to figure out the angles. By now I may have written eight versions of that scene, but I look at it once more just to make sure there isn’t a ninth version somewhere that I’ve overlooked.’’ The stuff that goes into the wastebasket is the improvisation.
Wilder: I remember what made me decide early on that some day I should try to be a director. I had written a picture in Germany for the old UFA company. In one scene something was going on in a nightclub where undesirable elements were to be kept out. A big sign outside said, ‘’Shoes and ties obligatory.” There were two doormen looking to see that people had shoes and ties. One of the gags was that a man with a long beard appears, and the doorman stops him and looks under the beard to see if the guy has a tie. Later I went to see the picture, and I found that the director gave that actor a little goatee. There was nothing to lift and look under. But he kept that joke because he thought it was still going to be funny, but it was not.
Diamond: I once wrote a scene that took place in the Guggenheim Museum, and at the time I was writing it I had no idea what the exhibit would be when we finally got around to shooting it. I just said, “It’s an op-art show, and two characters are standing in front of a geometric painting, and one says to the other, ‘I bet he cheated and used a ruler.’ ‘’ Just a throwaway line to get the scene started. The film crew gets to the museum six months later, and now there’s a sculpture show. The scene opens and you see somebody standing in front of a piece of round sculpture, saying, ‘’I bet he cheated and used a ruler.’’ It occurred to nobody on the set — the director, the actor, the script girl — that somebody should have said, ‘’Wait a minute. This line is wrong now. We either have to change it or throw it out altogether.’’ But this is what happens when people stick too literally to the script.
Wilder: It is respect for the written word, and you should be very proud.
Diamond: But I think today there’s probably more respect for writing than any time in the history of the industry.
Wilder: Absolutely.
Diamond: Yet I see something happening: Not many people are interested in just writing any more. They see it as a stepping stone toward directing. This is as if every composer said to himself, ‘’It’s Bernstein and Previn who get the publicity. If I can just knock off a piece maybe they’ll let me conduct it.’’ But writing is a discipline in itself. It may have something to do with directing, and it may not. But today the young are primarily interested in directing, because, let’s face it, there’s more recognition for the director than for the writer. I hate to see that happen because there are never enough good writers.
Q: But the writer faces the obstacles of being underrated and underpaid, of not having the kind of ego support that a director has.
Diamond: I think financially the writer is in a very strong positio n today. In the old days you could not sell an original screenplay unless it was for a Western at Republic. It was all either books or plays or scripts written by contract writers at the studios. A good original screenplay can now command tremendous sums of money. I think it is more wide open than it ever was.
Wilder: This is illustrated by Lucky Lady, the follow-up to American Graffiti. My suggestion is that you cannot just freelance and hop around town. You have to latch on to a director with whom you work most of the time or, preferably, continuously. But it’s very, very difficult to do that. It’s tougher believe me, to get on in a director-writer relationship than in one’s marriage. Somebody asked me one day, “Is it important for a director to know how to write?’’ It’s not important. It’s important for a director to know how to read. When you find a director who knows how to read, who asks the proper questions, who is not ashamed to say, “I don’t get the meaning of this scene,” instead of just going off on location and shooting something contrary to what you wanted to express in that scene, then hold on to him. And if you’re good I’m sure he will hold on to you because good writers are rare.

Part 1 of the conversation with Wilder and Diamond here.

Part 2 here.

Part 3 here.

Part 4 here.

Part 5 here.

Tomorrow: More from the dynamic writing duo.