The Art of Screenwriting No. 1, Billy Wilder | Paris Review
Theater vs Pictures
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.
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.
On Writing Partner, Brackett
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.
On Writing Partner, Diamond
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.
On Writing Partner, Chandler
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Producers' Comments
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.
Like The New Yorker editor Harold Ross's imperative "make better."
That would be one word too many for these producers. Just improve.
On 'Idea Guys'
There was one guy who never wrote a word but who came up with ideas. One of them was: San Francisco. 1906 earthquake. Nelson Eddy. Jeanette McDonald.
Great! Terrific! Cheers from the producers. A film came out of that sentence.
Do you know how Nelson Eddy ended up with his name? He was Eddie Nelson. He just reversed it. Don't laugh! Eddie Nelson is nothing. Nelson Eddy was a star.
On Studio Rivalry
The studio era was of course very different from today. There were many different fiefdoms scattered around town, each producing its own sort of picture. The Paramount people would not converse with the MGM people; wouldn't even see each other. The MGM people especially would not consort for dinner or even lunch with the people from Fox.
One night before I was to begin One, Two, Three I had dinner at the home of Mr. and Mrs. William Goetz, who always had wonderful food. I was seated next to Mrs. Edie Goetz, Louis Mayer's younger daughter, and she asked what sort of picture I was going to make. I told her it was set in Berlin and we'd be shooting in Germany.
Who plays the lead?
Jimmy Cagney. As it happens, it was his last picture except for that cameo in Ragtime.
She said, Who?
Jimmy Cagney. You know, the little gangster who for years was in all those Warner Brothers . . .
Oh! Daddy didn't allow us to watch Warner Brothers pictures. She had no idea who he was.
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.
On Writers & Stars
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.
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.
On Being a Director
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.
The Art of Screenwriting No. 1, Billy Wilder | Paris Review