The new year is a time for resolutions -or anti-resolutions. I made several (of the former), two of which are: (1) that I would work out more and (2) that I would, as much as possible, only watch movies that I have never seen before. (So long, ritual viewings of Mamma Mia.) The first month of the year is almost over and I failed on both counts, and at the same time too, as I decided that time was better spent watching “Some Like It Hot”, “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment” than going for a run (like that’s even a question).
All these films are some of my favourite films ever made (alongside Mamma Mia, as was stated before, albeit for very different, almost antagonistic reasons) and they’ve all been made by the same man: Billy Wilder.
He was one of the most prominent filmmakers of the 20th century and, if his filmography wasn’t enough, he had six Academy Awards to his name to prove it (in three fields, writing, directing and producing). He had a singular voice marked with acerbic wit, and a deeply ironic worldview that permeated through the reels. Here are 7 things you can and MUST learn from him to become the next triple-threat filmmaker.
1) Give credit where credit is due
Out of his six Oscars, half of them are for writing -for “The Lost Weekend”, “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment”. It should also be said that he’s tied with Woody Allen for the most wins for a writer, followed by Tarantino’s two wins. In hindsight, it’s quite fitting as Wilder always considered himself to be a writer first and foremost.
Billy Wilder’s career is marked by two major collaborations: the first one with Charles Brackett, with whom he worked until they had a falling out after Sunset Boulevard, the second one with I.A.L Diamond. The latter gave the world gems such as “Nobody’s perfect” and “Shut up and deal” -arguably some of the most iconic final lines in film history.
When asked who came up with each line, Wilder invariably said that they came up with it together. Was that out of shyness? Perhaps. Was that out of loyalty for his collaborator? Most certainly. That kind of self-effacement is a trademark of both his work ethic as well as his work: his visual style is rid of flourishes for fear that they may get in the way of the story.
2) Know what you want, and don’t stop till you get it
Mr. Wilder worked with Marilyn Monroe twice. Their first time together was the 1955 “The seven-year itch” which gave us the iconic image of Marilyn standing in a white dress over a subway grate.
The second one was on “Some Like It Hot”. That production was messy as Monroe was often late, and stumbled on her lines. When many would have given up, Wilder didn’t relinquish any effort to get to what he wanted. He told the story of how she managed to give an entire speech about her character’s thing for saxophone players in just one take and how it took her eighty failed takes to say properly “It’s me, Sugar”. Yet he knew she’d be perfect on the eighty-first -and she was.
But what happens when you don’t know what you want? On “Sabrina”, there came a point when Wilder had to shoot a scene with Audrey Hepburn with which he wasn’t satisfied. But he had to shoot. In a desperate move, he went up to his star, explained the situation to the actress and asked her for the unthinkable. She had built a career on being a consummate professional, who knew her lines and knew how to deliver them and didn’t delay the production. This was on a Thursday evening, and Wilder asked her to mess up the lines on the Friday, so he could rewrite the scene over the weekend, and get what was fitting for the film. So she did.
3) Write fast and snappy
Exposition is the most difficult part for most writers (along with every other part of writing anything). Wilder knew how to make it quick and -equally as important- how to let the audience put two and two together. Take the example of “Some Like It Hot”: a chase sequence has established the Prohibition era setting, then a police officer arrives with an informant by a place he is about to raid. The dialogue goes “Is that the joint?” “Yes” “Who runs it?” “I already told you” “Refresh my memory” “Spats Columbo” “That’s very refreshing.”
The dialogue is fast, snappy and we’ve pretty much established all that we need to know: in the first two minutes we’ve seen people running an activity that was illegal at the time, and a police officer talking with an informant. And with these two elements, we’ve not only established tone and setting, but we understand that there’s going to be some action in the next few minutes. Moments later we meet the leading duo and we understand that the film is going to be about them running from these events. That’s exposition done right.
4) Have a sense of buildup and payoff
Almost every time Wider started writing a movie, he had an outline for his three acts. He didn’t necessarily know the specifics, but he knew for instance that the first act of “Some Like It Hot” was going to be about Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon finding themselves embroiled in the Valentine’s Day massacre and running away, the second act was going to be about them trying to pass for women, and the third about them trying to run away from the gangsters who’ve found them again, with the added fact that they’ve gotten involved with different people during the second act.
Never mind that it’s unlikely that the gangsters found themselves in the same hotel as them of all places -are they even going to make it? That was the question at the beginning and it’s still the question at the end, and it’s resolved with the perfect twist of “Nobody’s perfect”.
Wilder never let anything get in the way of a good story. When Cameron Crowe was interviewing him for what was to become the “Conversations with Billy Wilder” book, Wilder was reluctant at first, then reluctantly curious and engaged in the endeavor. At one point, the veteran filmmaker asked “Do you have an ending?” to which Crowe replied that he didn’t. Then Wilder suggested Crowe would have a good, emotional ending if he -Wilder- died. Crowe was astonished that his mentor would even suggest such a thing, but Wilder sensed an appropriate ending to the story -and nothing gets in the way of a good story.
5) Keep things moving
“I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut.”
A staple of his work is that things always happen. Every character wants something, and hopefully things that are contradictory so that conflict will emerge. Most strikingly in “The Apartment” everyone wants something: the bosses want the apartment, C.C. Baxter wants his apartment, he also fancies Shirley MacLaine, who fancies his boss, who has access to the apartment. If that seems like a mess, it is. But it’s by finding a way through the mess that you’ll find surprising elements to your story, and an emotional ending.
6) Be confident
Billy Wilder was probably as crippled with self-doubt as any artist that has ever walked this earth, but he knew a good picture when he was one -and boy was “Sunset Boulevard” a good picture. Most of us will understand what it’s like to be not so self-confident, but confident enough in your work and in your art to defend it if you know it’s good.
When “Sunset Boulevard” was shown to studio heads, Louis B. Mayer was furious. “How dare that Wilder bite the hand the feeds him!”, he exclaimed, to which Wilder replied, probably in his characteristic, deadpan tone: “I’m Mr. Wilder and go fuck yourself.”
When asked about the incident and how he had the guts to say that to one of the most powerful people in the business he replied “I knew I had a good picture there.” If that’s not confidence, what is?
7) What would Lubitsch do?
As Wilder was an inspiration to Cameron Crowe, Wilder was inspired by his mentor, director Ernst Lubitsch. Over the many decades over which his career spanned, Wilder famously had a frame in his office saying “What would Lubitsch do?” What did that mean exactly?
It simply meant not going the easy way. It meant giving poignancy to a character’s arc. For instance, in the 1939 classic “Ninotchka”, the writers didn’t know how to show the softening of Garbo’s character’s attitude towards capitalism. Then they remembered they’d made her comment on a hat in a shop window at the beginning, saying that a country where a woman would wear such an attire would definitely be corrupt. So what does she do at the end? She wears the hat. Simple? Yes. Poignant? Definitely. Eloquent? You bet, and the character’s arc is shown by her doing something, not telling.
How does this play within a Wilder film, then? When trying to crack the scene on the boat, with Tony Curtis’ pretend millionaire and Marilyn Monroe? It could have been a lot of fun to see them playing the seduction game -but not very funny. So what to do? He plays it impotent. That’s funny. Funnier? Well she does have some effect on him, but if he plays it impotent, how do we show it? Of course! steam on his glasses, and his leg goes up every time she kisses him. From what could have been a fun scene, he (and Lubitsch) made it funny, and memorable.
Why should you steal these? Because Wilder probably wouldn’t have tolerated borrowing, and because artists steal. What are you going to steal, then? Tell us in the comments. Or better yet, don’t tell, show.