Conversations With Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder. Cameron Crowe. Conversation and creative insight.

Billy Wilder directing Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in the final scene of "The Apartment"

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. 100–101 which is ostensibly the end of Crowe's interviews with Wilder:

CC: Thank you for your time. And may I finally note that you've accomplished all this, your entire body of work, without one overly complicated shot.

BW: If it does not follow the story, why? It's phoniness. The phoniness of the director. [Does a hushed voice:] The director, the director…wearing a buttonhole here…the director is just another guy that helps with the making of the picture. I have a little louder voice, I've got a little more freedom, the choice is mine, and it's fun. But many people make the movie. It's fun to make pictures because you live, actually you live five, ten, or fifteen, or twenty different lives. Because you're moving in different backgrounds. You're not going every day to the shop and selling hats your whole life. No. I have a hat shop, but also I am a brain surgeon, and…I've lived many lives. It all depends how interesting the background is. And, of course, the character.

Takeaways:

  • If a shot does not follow the story, Wilder claims it's phony. The same goes with a screenplay. If we write a line of dialogue… or a piece of action… or even a whole scene that looks or feels great, but is not directly tied to the playing out of the story, that's phony. That's being a [W]riter, drawing attention to ourselves, instead of being a [w]riter in service of the story.
  • One of the joys of writing is it gives us the chance to live "five, ten, or fifteen, or twenty different lives." We get to experience reality through the perspective of each character we create and in a sense live vicariously through them.
  • "And, of course, the character." Yes. Yes. And yes. Begin with character. End with character. And everything in between with character. After all, it's their story, they are the active agents within that particular story universe. Whenever we are in doubt or stuck with a story, we need to remember that. Go to the characters. Dig more deeply into them. Engage them directly. They have the answers. We just need to get them talking.

Re-reading "Conversations With Wilder," I have come to this realization: I love Wilder as a director because he's all about the story. And I love Wilder as a storyteller because he's all about the characters.

Fortunately Crowe finagled a few more interview sessions with Wilder. To be continued.

Tomorrow: More "Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

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[Originally posted November 2, 2014]


Conversations With Billy Wilder was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

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