Conversations With Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder. Cameron Crowe. Conversation and creative insight.

Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Billy Wilder on the set 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. 136–137 in which Wilder answer Crowe's question about the genesis of The Apartment:

BW: The origin of The Apartment was my seeing the very fine picture by David Lean, Brief Encounter [1945]. It was the story of a man who is having an affair with a married woman and comes by train to London. They go to the apartment of a friend of his. I saw it and I said, "What about the guy who has to crawl into the warm bed…?" That's an interesting character. Then I put that down, and put down some other things in my notebook. The hero of that thing was the guy who endured this, who was introduced to it all by a lie. One guy in his company needed to change his clothes, he said, and used the apartment…and that was it.

I picked it up again because we were just through with Some Like It Hot, and I liked Lemmon so much. The first time we worked together was on Some Like It Hot, and I said, "This is the guy. This is the guy to play the leading man." A little nebbish, as we said, you take pity on him. But The Apartment, I had it in mind for years and years before it was really activated. "How will it feel for the guy who crawls into that bed after the lovers have left?" That was really how it started… I had the point of view of the insurance guy, C.C. Baxter. And I wanted to say that Lemmon is a naive guy. His superior — that guy that runs the company — wants to go to the opera, and he would like to use the apartment to change his clothes. And Lemmon says, "You can have it!" And that triggers how he becomes a servant to the head guy, the president of the insurance group, which then gets him a better job."

This says a lot about Wilder's creative process:

  • He had no problem using other movies as inspiration, here a movie called Brief Encounter.

  • He would find a unique entry point into the story. As opposed to looking at an affair from the perspective of either lover, what caught Wilder's imagination was the experience of the "guy who crawls into that bed after the lovers have left."
  • And we can see his mind immediately go the question, "Why would the guy let someone use his apartment for an affair?" First, he is duped due to a lie. But to sustain the conceit, the person using the apartment would have to hold something over the guy, which led Wilder to the idea the guy having the affair and using the apartment is the guy's boss. Right there, you have the central idea of The Apartment.

This is a good example of the power of two words: What if? What if a guy allowed his boss to use his apartment for his trysts in order for the guy to get promoted at work? What if. Perhaps the two most powerful words in generating story ideas and fleshing out narratives.

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

For the entire series, go here.

[Originally posted May 17, 2015]


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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