Billy Wilder. Cameron Crowe. Conversation and creative insight.
Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. 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.
One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is "Conversations With Wilder" in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.
Here is a series of GITS post in which I go through "Conversations With Wilder" and spotlight excerpts which focus on screenwriting and storytelling.
Today's excerpt comes from PP. 6–7:
CC: Let's talk about one of your favorite actors, one who truly brought your words and your style to life — Jack Lemmon. How did you first hear about him?
BW: I knew he was around. He had played Mr. Pulver, and won an Academy Award, in Mister Roberts . He was screamingly funny, and he was brand-new. He was under contract to Columbia, making three or four pictures, and I liked him. I liked his quality.
His first day on a sound stage [It Should Happen to You, 1954], with George Cukor directing, he's all revved up. He rattles down half a page of dialogue, rararaaumphrara, and then there's "Cut," and he looks at Cukor. Cukor comes up to him and says, "It was just wonderful, you're going to be a big, big star. However…when it comes to that big speech, please, please, a little less, a little bit less. You know, in the theater, we're back in a long shot, and you have to pour it on. But in film, you cut to a close-up and you cannot be that strong." So he does it again, less. And again Cukor says, "Wonderful! Absolutely marvelous, now let's do it again, a little bit less." Now after ten or eleven times, Mr. Cukor admonishing him "a little less." Now after ten or eleven times, Mr. Cukor admonishing him "a little less," Mr. Lemmon says, "Mr. Cukor, for God's sake, you know pretty soon I won't be acting at all." Cukor says, "Now you're getting the idea." [Laughter].
Ask yourself: Why did Wilder zero in on this anecdote? I would argue this: Because it speaks to the essence of Wilder's approach to storytelling.
Less. Is. More.
If you watch his movies, everything from camera placement to actors acting to the seminal choices as exhibited in his screenplays, if Wilder errs in one direction, it's always to underplay what is possible. Avoid schmaltz and melodrama at all costs.
Consider this: In The Apartment, Baxter and Kubelik never kiss. Not once. Think of another comedy with a romantic focus in which that happens. Not that Wilder is against kissing. Of course, he's not. But in this particular movie which walks such a fine line between drama and comedy, he and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond knew it was better to give the audience less than more.
This is a great lesson to screenwriters. While we may feel like we have to hammer home emotional moments, sometimes it's best to allow the moment to breathe. Give the reader room to interpret what's going on and to experience layers of possible meaning in the narrative.
Here is the trailer from It Should Happen to You:
Tomorrow: More from "Conversations With Wilder".
[Originally posted June 29, 2014]