Filmmaking 101 With Billy Wilder

After I graduated from college and decided that I should take a stab at writing for film, I made a vow to learn as much about cinematic history as possible. My knowledge of the great filmmakers and the great films would be second to none—well, that was the idea at least. One of the things I planned to do toward this goal was to track down and talk to as many of the old school movie pioneers who were still alive (this was in the late 1990s). Many of them had already died by this point, but one name among those still living topped my list: writer-director Billy Wilder. I had to meet him. He was one of the most honored filmmakers, having won two directing Oscars (with an additional six nominations) and three screenwriting Oscars (with an additional nine nominations). If he had only made Sunset Boulevard or Some Like It Hot or The Apartment (possibly my all-time favorite), his place in the history books would have been secure. But not only did he give us those gems, he also gave us The Lost Weekend, Ace In The Hole, Sabrina, Double Indemnity, One Two Three and dozens of other bona-fide classics.

I had read that Mr. Wilder kept an office in Beverly Hills and that he still went there almost every day to work, though he was in his 90s. So I figured the best way to meet him was to hang out in front of his office until I eventually ran into him and see if he might be open to talking over coffee. The plan worked, but not before months weeks of waiting and some other hoops that Mr. Wilder happily made me jump through to “prove my worth” (Perhaps I’ll share some of these stories and those of the other old-time filmmakers I met on another day—all of them have since passed away).

Over the course of some amazing meals at his favorite restaurants and meetings at his office, Mr. Wilder was kind enough to humor an obnoxious kid with a notebook full of questions. At one point he threw up his arms and screamed in his Austrian accent: “You’re driving me crazy! Asking me all these things about movies I made 60 years ago! How am I supposed to remember?” But he had a great memory and following are a just few, random filmmaking tips from one of our greats.

NOTE: All of our conversations were casual so when I quote Mr. Wilder below, I’m doing it to the best of my memory but I make no claim that they are precise quotes. However, in some instances when Mr. Wilder talks about a topic that was also covered in Cameron Crowe’s excellent book-length interview with the filmmaker entitled Conversations With Wilder, I have used direct quotes from the book. Those are marked with an asterisk.

I asked Mr. Wilder what one piece of advice he’d give to a young filmmaker embarking on his first project: “Spend time thinking about your transitions (from one scene to the next). No one really thinks about the transitions but they can destroy the rhythm and energy of your film if they are sloppy.”

Mr. Wilder always emphasized the importance of creating character through the use of details that revealed who they were. An example is in The Apartment when lonely bachelor Jack Lemmon uses a tennis racket to strain his spaghetti noodles—in that one image an enormous amount of information about the character is conveyed: “It was obvious that was his apartment—you know, he just never cooked. Or he just bought himself a sandwich or something, on the way home. But there I did not have a sieve, you know. So I don’t know whether it was (co-writer Diamond) or it was me, but it came kind of spontaneously. For macaroni or spaghetti, we need a sieve. So I said, ‘Let’s have a tennis racket.’”*

On endings: “If you have a problem with your third act, the real problem is in the first act.” Translation for film civilians: If the ending of your movie doesn’t work, the real problem is something you did wrong in the first part of the film.

On how one must be open to “accidents.” The final shot of Sunset Boulevard where Gloria Swanson walks into the camera with the famous line “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” as the shot goes out of focus was an “accident”: “The focus gets thrown out by the focus carrier. I left the camera running. I didn’t know where to cut.”*

On the journey from script to screen: “Things are always less funnier on the screen than they are in the script. Something happens when you shoot where things always get more serious than it may have read on the page. So if you’re doing a comedy, your screenplay has to be really funny because in the transition to the screen, a percentage of the humor is always naturally lost.”

On giving actors line readings (showing them how to say a line): “Sometimes somebody hits a note that is so wonderful that you cannot believe you did not think of it. Other times you have to insist on the right reading. Then I would take the actor to the side and say, ‘Could you just do this line again?’ Maybe as a wild line I could just slip in there. But it is not a sin to give an actor a line reading…the nerves sometimes give way, you know.”*

On off-camera relations with his talent: “Don’t make friends with actors, always keep the relationship professional. I’m telling you this so it’ll save you a world of heartache later. Work with them, fuck them, but don’t get personally involved with them.” Of course, Mr. Wilder himself broke this rule on occasion as his good friends included actors William Holden, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon (whom he insisted was his friend only because Lemmon lived next door during their Malibu days but I doubt that’s 100% true).

On all his scripts, Mr. Wilder said he and his co-writers always ran into one big problem that they could not solve. How did he deal with this? Good old-fashioned perseverance: “There’s always one big problem. You work on it, you work it, you don’t solve it. Then…then you solve it and suddenly the script is finished. It always comes down to one big problem that you happily conquer.”*

The last line of Some Like It Hot (“Nobody’s perfect”) may be the most famous last line of any film. But Mr. Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond didn’t like it originally. They just put it in because they couldn’t think of anything better, but with the intention of changing it later. They never did and the rest is history:

Mr. Wilder loved writers and always considered himself a writer who only directed to protect his words after seeing other directors mess up his scripts. He later told me one of the reasons he agreed to talk to me was because I identified myself as a writer as opposed to everyone else who approached him who were “directors.” When I would refer to a film like The Apartment as “your film,” he would always correct me and say it was “Izzy (co-writer Diamond) and my film.” This is one of the last exchanges we had over the phone shortly before his death in 2002:
“So you still want to write? I haven’t dissuaded you from a lifetime of misery?” He asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’m in it for good. I have no plan b.”
(long pause)
“OK, then just try to be a damn fine one. Remember you are now part of a long and noble tradition. Respect that.”
“I will.”
“In other words, don’t fuck up!”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Otherwise, all the time I spent with you was wasted. I’m an old man, I don’t have much time to waste, you know.”
“I’ll try to make you proud.”
“Good, good. Now stop bothering me. You’re keeping me from my own death and it would be very rude of me not to be present for that.”

I still miss his voice. Our talks. But luckily I…we still have all his wonderful films to constantly remind us of Billy Wilder’s talent and genius.

Mr. Wilder's gravestone in Westwood.

13 thoughts on “Filmmaking 101 With Billy Wilder

  1. Wow! I love this piece. Thanks so much for sharing. I not only garnered some great tidbits on the craft, I am in awe of you, Phil. First for persevering on your mission and sustaining a dialogue with a legendary hero. Second, for knowing so completely that you were going to be a writer with no plan B. Finally, for making me want to read your entire book on conversations with movie pioneers. (There will be a book, won’t there?)

  2. Wonderful tribute and reflections…would luv to hear more of your stories and personal interactions. It’s very important to honor and remember those that came before us and to impart, share, and utilize their wealth of knowledge and lessons learned from experience. :-D

  3. Billy Wilder…best screenwriter of all time! The note about comedy disappearing in translation is so true…I’m interested in knowing how to tell if something is funny enough to shoot.

  4. you’re so fortunate to have hung with the man, he is nearly beyond legend — some of his credits are in my Top 10, All Time.

    Sunset Bl. and Stalag 17, both with Holden, are near the top.

  5. Absolutely loved this. Kudos to you for having the passion and fealrlessness to go after him.

    Now, having teased us: you MUST write a blog about proving your worth. Did the man send you out for streudel? Have you type up his handwritten correspondence? Recite Sunset Boulevard (my personal fave) by heart? What? What?

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