“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 27

Billy Wilder. Cameron Crowe. Conversation and creative insight.

Long time MGM head Louis B. Mayer

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.

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. 255–256 in which Wilder recalls an encounter he had with one of the original Hollywood movie moguls Louis B. Mayer:

CC: There is a famous story from the first Hollywood screening of Sunset Boulevard. Louis B. Mayer was standing on a stairway, railing about "how dare this young man, Wilder, bite the hand that feeds him?" What did you say to him, when you overheard all this?

BW: "I am Mr. Wilder, and go fuck yourself."

CC: What did he say to that?

BW: He was astonished. He was standing with the great MGM bosses who were below him, there at the studio… Mr. [Eddie] Mannix and Mr. [Joe] Cohen. And that so astonished them that somebody had the guts to say "Why don't you go and fuck yourself" because I knew that I had a good picture there.

CC: And you had just seen Barbara Stanwyck kiss the hem of Gloria Swanson's dress over the performance, so you must have felt especially good.

BW: And then I was going out, and they were down below the steps of the projections room, and Louis B. Mayer had a group of his cohorts next to him and he was lecturing them. "That Wilder! He bits the hand that feeds him, ruh-ruh-ruh!" I said, Mr. Mayer, I'm Mr. Wilder. Why don't you go and fuck yourself."

CC: And your paths never crossed again after that?

BW: No, not so long after that he was out of MGM.

I love this anecdote! It's so OLD Hollywood. And that attitude among production executives, that writers should be grateful for the beneficence bestowed upon them by the studios, it still exists, witness the current negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP.

That said, the ability, even courage of a writer to say "Go fuck yourself" is something we have to be willing to summon up on occasion. Here's an example from screenwriter Marc Norman:

"I'll tell you one thing I've noticed, and it's absolutely true for me. My best writing has been on the the scripts I wrote as suicide notes to the industry–sort of, 'Fuck you, guys, I'm outta here. This is the last script you'll ever get from me. I'm tired of this. I'm going to put everything I know into this one and if you don't buy it, 'See ya!'" I've reached that point, I'd say, five or six times, maybe seven times; I've been so frustrated and pissed off, so self-blaming, so disgusted with what I've gotten myself into and the shame of what I had to do for a buck, that I said, 'I'm getting out of the business after this one last piece of writing, something that expresses me, what I want.' One of those scripts, by the way, was 'Shakespeare In Love.'"

From time to time, we need to be able say "Fuck you" to Hollywood. Not necessarily to anyone in particular, more of a symbolic F.U., but the willingness to unlatch our lips from Hollywood's teat, to know we can be free of our reliance upon the oftentimes maddening reality of being a movie or TV writer, to write something strictly because it burns within our soul and our creative spirit cries out to write it…

We have to have the freedom to do that.

To Billy Wilder's credit, he managed to do that with movie after movie within the Hollywood studio system, Sunset Blvd. a prime example.

Gloria Swanson in the final shot from "Sunset Blvd."

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

For the entire series, go here.

"Conversations With Wilder": Part 27 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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