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 in which Wilder follows up on what I covered in the previous post about writing comedy:
BW: Like, for instance, one of the big laughs in Some Like It Hot. There was a scene that played about three or four minutes. That's very long. That was the scene where Mr. Tony Curtis climbs up the back of the hotel, goes in the room, and there is Jack Lemmon with the maracas. He's still singing the tune [from his evening with Joe E. Brown], and the maracas were very important. They were very important because I could time the jokes there. In other words, I say something, you say something, now I needed some kind of an action that helped time the joke. For instance, Tony Curtis comes up. He says, "Well, what's new here?" [Does Lemmon:] "Well, you'll be surprised, a little new here, I'm engaged." Ya-dup-pap-pap-pap [shaking imaginary maracas]. Now I knew, when I cut back, I knew how long the laugh was gonna be…then I put in the other straight line, then comes another joke. But I timed it so that not one straight is lost. Because sometimes you have a straight line and the straight gets the laugh. So now you're really dead, because they will not hear the payoff. They laughed over the straight line. And then they hear the top of the next joke already, without hearing the preparation. The rhythm is off. You have to be very, very careful.
For two years, I made a living doing what could charitably be called a 'stand-up comedy act'. At least some people thought I was funny or else the clubs wouldn't have kept hiring me. I learned many valuable lessons during that stint and one was about the critical importance of timing when it comes to humor. The rhythm of straight line — punch line, pauses between bits, the length of bits and not letting them play too long, callbacks and when to use them, and on and on. So much of comedy is about timing.
One problem with a movie, as Wilder notes, is because it's not live, you can't adjust pauses from audience to audience, you have to lock the picture and hope for the best your timing is such that it allows for the laughter of the crowd to play out just long enough before having a character say the next straight line. What Wilder discusses here in Some Like It Hot, using the maracas ("very important") as "some kind of action that helped time the joke," is something writers need to consider.
Here are the scenes in question. First, Jack Lemmon's character (Daphne) dances the night away doing the tango with Joe E. Brown (Osgood Fielding III):
Next the scene Wilder discusses:
Let's break down the dialogue between Lemmon and Tony Curtis (Josephine), noting the use of the maracas as a device to provide the audience time to laugh at each punch line:
Josephine: What happened?
Daphne: I'm engaged.
Josephine: Congratulations. Who's the lucky girl?
Daphne: I am.
Daphne: Osgood proposed to me. We're planning a June wedding.
Josephine: What are you talking about? You can't marry Osgood.
Daphne: Do you think he's too old for me?
Josephine: Jerry, you can't be serious.
Daphne: Why not? He keeps marryin' girls all the time.
Josephine: But… you're not a girl. You're a guy. And why would
a guy wanna marry a guy?
Josephine: Jerry, lie down. You're not well.
Daphe: Would you stop treatin' me like a child. I'm not stupid.
I know there's a problem.
Josphine: I'll say there is.
Daphne: His mother. We need her approval. But I'm not worried
because I don't smoke.
Josephine: Jerry, there's another problem.
Daphne: Like what?
Josephine: Like your honeymoon.
Daphne: We've been discussing that. He wants to go to the Riviera,
but I kinda lean towards Niagara Falls.
Jospehine with the straight lines. Daphne with the punch lines. And a break after each joke for Daphne to shake the maracas, creating the timing the scene needs to work with a movie audience.
If we reverse engineer the creative process whereby Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. "Izzy" Diamond came up with these bits, remember the whole dancing with Osgood thing came about because Joe (Josephine) prevailed upon Jerry (Daphne) to go out with the millionaire so Joe could have access to Osgood's yacht in order to try to woo Sugar (Marilyn Monroe).
So a date. What would be funny in a visual way? Dancing. What type of dancing would offer the most opportunities for humor? The tango, a la the bit about the rose clamped between Daphne, then Osgood's teeth. But they needed an object for Jerry to use in the follow-up scene with Joe to help "time the joke". Maracas are from Latin America like the tango. How about that?
I should note, the maracas not only help with comedic timing, they're also visual, playing to the cinematic nature of movies.
So much of writing comedy is about surfacing bits with potential for humor we can mine with the characters for an extended period of time. The tango bit in Some Like It Hot is a great example, plus reminding us of the importance of timing and visual storytelling.
Tomorrow: 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 28, 2014]