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. 160–161 in which Wilder discusses the origin of Some Like It Hot:
BW: The genesis of the idea was a very low-budget, very third-class German picture [Fanfares of Love, 1932] where two guys who need a job go into blackface to get into a band…they also dress up to go into a female band. But there was not one other thing that came from this terrible picture. We had to find, I thought, the key to why they go into that band and what keeps them there. If the gangsters who are chasing them see them as women, only as women, then…once they are seen as men, they are dead. It's life and death. They cannot come out into the open. It's a question of life and death. That triggered everything. So we began to have a picture. But that German film was absolutely terrible, absolutely terrible. Deliriously bad.
Upon reading this, I dug into YouTube and sure enough, a clip from the 1932 movie Fanfare der Liebe:
So the central conceit — two male musicians dress up as women to get a job — derived from this German film. As we've seen before in "Conversations," Wilder didn't hesitate to find 'inspiration' in prior movies. But what's really intriguing is how he would find that kernel of an idea in a bad movie. What can infer from that?
First, he actually watched bad movies. Second, he didn't let their poor quality get in the way of his search for a good idea. Clearly, two male musicians dressed up as women is a strong concept.
But the really important thing to remember was how Wilder took an idea, then elevated it. If you watch the clip from Fanfare der Liebe, it's amusing enough, however from the very start of the scene where they're going to audition for the gig, the duo just strolls along. No jeopardy, other than their unpaid bills, resulting in a rather flat scene.
Wilder's instincts drove him to a central question: Why go to the lengths of impersonating women? Need money, yes, but how to raise the stakes. To get away from gangsters. Now acting like women musicians is no longer a stroll in the park, but a matter of life and death. With that creative choice, as Wilder said, now "we began to have a picture."
This instinct is something we see in virtually all of Wilder's movies: Put characters under pressure. Then increase the pressure. And keep doing that throughout the narrative. Pressure makes comedies funnier, dramas more dramatic, and movies more interesting.
So two takeaways:
- Look for inspiration in older movies, in particular great story concepts which were handled poorly in translation into a movie.
- Use pressure as a narrative device to put characters under duress and create more interesting stories.
A third thing as well: Now you know the name of the movie that inspired Some Like It Hot.
Next week: More "Conversations with Wilder. If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.
For the entire series, go here.
[Originally posted May 24, 2015]