“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 29

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. 267–268:

CC: Did you like the Indiana Jones movies?

BW: I liked them. That was kind of a wham-bang thing there. Very good, very good.

CC: And there is such a great beginning of Five Graves to Cairo: the phantom tank, with all the dead bodies, rolling through the desert.

The 'phantom tank' in the opening scene of "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943)

BW: Where the guy falls out? Yeah, we had fun with the openings of the pictures. Yeah, I have fun. I just have to find a style, and then i write or rewrite the opening. And sometimes we didn't shoot it, or show it — like, for instance — Sunset Boulevard.

CC: Do you find than an audience accepts anything in the beginning of a movie?

BW: No, I find that we fight them. Because they don't know what they're going to see. It's not like a famous play that they know about. Most times they go into the theater without knowing whether they are in the mood for a comedy or for a serious pictures. Some people get up and leave in the first few minutes. So you have to have something arresting, telling them what they're going to see. The first five minutes are very important.

"You have to have something arresting, telling them what they're going to see." Great advice for writers as we do our best to grab the script reader's attention right from the get-go. Let's break down this comment:

  • You have to have something arresting: Some scenario, hopefully with a strong visual, to immediately make a strong impression on the reader. Like this:
Double Indemnity (1944)

Or this:

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Or a tank in the desert motoring along with a dead crew inside… one survivor who chokes to death from toxic fumes, then tumbles onto the sand.

  • Tell the script reader what they're going to read: If it's action, give them a nice taste of action. Drama, immerse them in something dramatic. Comedy, write an opening which gives the reader a sense of the humor the story will have.

The idea is not only to 'arrest' a reader's attention, but also to give them something which will propel them into wanting to read the script.

Wilder knew well the benefits of a strong opening. We should, too.

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 29 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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