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 P. 169–170 in which Wilder talks about the impact on crafting story structure with the audience in mind:
CC: When you had previews and showed your movies early on to test audiences, did you find this to be true — that at the beginning an audience is so full of love, they're like a little baby, they just want to be amused, and they love you. They give you the world at the beginning, but if you squander that trust, and you lose them, there's a point where they turn — and they can be brutal. Then they give you nothing.
BW: Yes. Of course I've had that. For example, in the first reel, you can give them too much action. Then picture then becomes disappointing, not what they expected. So by act two they dislike you, and by the end of act two they stand up and walk out. Sure. You have to know how to distribute your plot points. What is there to be remembered? What is there to be remembered that leads indubitably into the third-act situation, which they did not quite know existed? But now they'll remember. And now you play your cards openly if you want to. Because that's what they want.
CC: How did you keep from getting cynical about the whole process? You still seem so full of excitement talking about the movies, so full of affection for the audiences who love your work. How did you keep from becoming one of these directors who grew away from your audience and said, "I make movies for me, and that's it. If nobody comes, I don't care."
BW: I kind of think that overall, audiences are pretty smart. Sometimes they are a little cruel; sometimes they are too nice to you. But as soon as you say, "I don't give a damn whether they come to see me or not, what's the next picture?" — then there is no next picture. If you do something that is totally artificial, that is unbelievable, it might be good for the plotting, but you don't want to see "plots." You want to see stories develop.
These comments reflect a few reasons why Wilder was such a successful filmmaker. First, he respected the audience. I can't think of one moment from a Wilder film in which he talked down to the people in the movie theater. Indeed, he challenged them. Lost Weekend — about alcoholism. Double Indemnity — about adultery and murder. The Apartment — about sexual politics in the workplace. And not just the overall subject matter, but the way he handled the characters and — as he suggests above — the structure of the story. Every choice he made in terms of plot was grounded in his sense of the audience.
Second, this gut-level connection Wilder felt with the audience constantly drove him to move beyond plot when writing scripts and focus on how "stories develop," and he did that by making his movies about characters in unique situations.
This reminds me that with all the learning of the craft we do as writers, at some fundamental level, our goal ought to be to ingest all of that, then set it aside and create from our gut. Feed our instincts with movies, scripts, theory, and the rest, but when we write, come from a feeling place to balance out what we have going on in our minds.
A Billy Wilder movie is notable because it is smart. But its intelligence is always grounded in the experience of compelling characters who traffic in universally relatable emotions.
That is a good touchstone for us in our own writing.
Tomorrow: More "Conversations with Wilder." If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.
For the entire series, go here.
[Original post August 9, 2015]