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), Ace in the Hole (1951), 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.
Every Sunday for the next several months, I'm going to post excerpts from the book, add a few thoughts, and invite your comments. I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us. And while we're at it, why don't we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a great writer and director he was.
Today's excerpt comes from P. 66–67:
CC: I once read an interview with Truffaut that I found very helpful. He felt that in the filming and the acting of a script, the movie always gets more serious. So if you put more comedy than you want in the script, you'll end up with the right mix of comedy and drama.
BW: [Agreeing] Because they're not gonna laugh at some things.
CC: Is that something you've found to be true?
BW: Yeah, well…I do the joke if the joke is germane to the whole story, to the picture. But not if I have to squeeze it in artificially, with a shoehorn. I don't do that. I never overestimate the audience, nor do I underestimate them. I just have a very rational idea as to who we're dealing with, and that we're not making a picture for Harvard Law School, we're making a picture for middle-class people, the people that you see on the subway, or the people that you see in a restaurant. Just normal people. And I hope they're gonna like it. If I have a good scene, a good situation with the characters, then we fool around with it and explore it. That is the fun. because there are many versions that you can do. You find the theme of the situation, find the joke, find the high point, and end the scene on the high point. I don't let it dribble on.
There's more to Wilder's response which we'll get into next week because there's enough here to chew on.
- First off, notice how jokes service story, not story service jokes. A joke for joke's sake comes off "artificially." And in my view, the best test of this is to consider the joke in relation to the characters: Does it feel natural for them? Would they actually do or say this bit of business in the context of the scene. If it feels forced, just to play for laughs, then — artificial.
- Wilder had a specific audience in mind when making his movies which is in line with one of the first pieces of advice given to me by my original agents: When assessing a story concept or writing a script, ask the question, "Who's the audience?" For a comedy, this is essential because you have to have a sense of who they are in order to shape the tone of your story accordingly.
- When you have a scene or bit of business that feels like it has strong comedic potential, "fool around with it and explore it." Don't just go with your first instinct, consider a variety of options. In next week's post we'll see an example of this from Wilder drawn from the movie Some Like It Hot.
- Find the joke. A scene or scenario may seem generally funny, but zero in on the core of why it's funny, then work from that.
- Finally when you discover the high point of the scene, build to that, provide the moment with a big finish, then get out.
Comedy is such a hard genre to write. It doesn't get the respect it deserves in part, I think, because the filmmakers who do it so well make it seem so easy. It's not. To make people laugh, you have to not only find the funny, but know your audience, tailor the humor for them, exploit the best version of each bit, and construct the scene in such a way it builds to a proper climax all the while servicing character and plot.
Wilder was a master at comedy. Here is a classic example of how he and Izzy Diamond took a situation — Jerry (Jack Lemmon) as Daphne trying to get close to Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) by sharing some hootch — and added layer on layer on layer to build to that "high point" Wilder discussed.
And check this out! I found this online: "The Making of Some Like It Hot" featuring interviews with Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis:
Next week: More Some Like It Hot and "Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.
For the entire series, go here.
[Originally posted September 7, 2014]