“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 28

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.

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. 259–260 in which Wilder and Crowe discuss the 1939 movie Midnight — starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, and John Barrymore — which Wilder co-wrote with Charles Brackett, but did not direct:

CC: The exposition is so elegant in this script. It's a great example of what we've talked about. If you cover those story points well enough, the audience never knows they've swallowed them.

BW: Yes, that's right. That's the whole idea, just like taking medicine. You just say "Stick your tongue out," and there's a little something there. And then you swallow it and you don't even know that you have done it. But if you can make the exposition, the rules of the game, clear and yet obtuse to the onlooker, he just does not know what's happening to him. He does not know that behind that laugh, there hides a story, a plot point.

CC: There's a wonderful moment with Claudette Colbert where you establish that hat — you know, the wet newspaper that she wears as a hat. And she says, "I forgot my hat." And she reaches for the newspaper. And later that's going to come back, with Don Ameche and so forth. And they fall in love over the hat. Was that always a priority, in your collaborations with Brackett and Diamond, the matter of "We have to get that moment where they fall in love"?

BW: The softer, the funnier the plot points…if you can make the plot points entertaining, they swallow the medicine. But tell them it's going to be wonderful, tell them that it's going to be better than Pepsi-Cola. Just take it, drink it. [Laughter] You should not do it two or three times in a row. That is too much. Then they notice. So you see, you can hammer on it, but if you make them swallow that, then you are okay. But you have to have some funny stuff in between, naturally.

CC: There's also some skillful exposition at the top, when she just says a single line getting off the train. The single line takes the place of an entire explanation of her background. All she says is: "So this is Paris. From here, it looks an awful lot like a rainy day in Kokomo, Indiana."

BW: Yeah. That's medicine that went down easy.

This is such a great way for a screenwriter to think about how to handle exposition: Make the medicine go down easy.

Consider that line: "So this is Paris. From here, it looks an awful lot like a rainy day in Kokomo, Indiana."

That single line tells us:

  • Where's she from.
  • Where's she going.
  • And a little something about her personality, unimpressed by The City of Lights.

All wrapped up in the character's humorous observation.

Wilder and his co-writers were masters of this type of thing, using humor and other means to make exposition "obtuse", and as a result slide down easy like sweetened medicine.

Here's a trailer for the movie Midnight:

Tomorrow: More "Conversations with Wilder." If you have any observations or thoughts, please click on RESPONSES and share them.

For the entire series, go here.


"Conversations With Wilder": Part 28 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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