Billy Wilder is the screenwriter’s favourite screenwriter. This isn’t exactly hyperbole; Vulture polled over 40 of the top contemporary screenwriters to name their favourite predecessor. Wilder came out on top, trailed mostly by the more common, modern examples (Tarantino, Kaufman, Coppola, Coen(s)).
Wilder was brilliantly subversive, yet vastly successful. As one of Hollywood’s preeminent writers and later directors, he churned out intermittently hilarious and tragic showstoppers (including Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Avanti and The Seven Year Itch). Full of contradictions and complications, absolute essentials for the irony that made his comedies so gut-bustingly funny, and for the complexity of the characters which made his dramas so irresistibly bleak.
This is an hour long special from the series The Writer Speaks, brought to you by the Writer’s Guild Foundation, and as is remarked by narrator and Wilder collaborator Jack Lemmon, “Talent cannot be taught, but Billy Wilder can teach us a great deal about the technique of screenwriting…”
The special comprises of an extended interview with Wilder wherein he is prodded for his views on various elements in screenwriting. He starts with the importance of Structure as a foundation to keep people in their seats, knowing that sticking around for the third act will be rewarding. Specifically, he finds the traditional system of first, second, and so on, -drafts to be unfruitful, likening writers who manage to work so loosely to Forrest Gump. For Billy, foundation is everything, and the first act, first scene, etc. are the well from where the rest of the story will flow, if it will be any good. As such, he cannot leave an earlier scene to work on a clearer one later on, he must have it settled first. Revisions can come further down the line. For this reason, he later says, he has “drawers of first drafts”.
Later he explains how inconsequential details from other stories can inspire him to write original films. In David Lean’s brilliant Brief Encounter, a London man and woman carry out an extra-marital affair. One night, the two are alone in an apartment which belongs to the man’s friend. The film focuses heavily on their guilt and budding romance, and only features the apartment for a single scene. This scenario, of using someone else’s home as a location for their tryst, leaped out to Wilder as precisely the sort of incident which could be expanded into a prominent premise of its own. What is the story of the man, who has to crawl into his warm bed later that night? He believed the various elements at play meant that it would make for a great “hook” to entice audiences.
He worked a five-page outline into The Apartment. Wilder goes on to explain that the most important thing to consider when deciding whether or not an idea can become a full script is the “Curtain” between Acts 2 and 3. This is the space before the climax of the film, when, typically, all the story’s elements have come to a head, but have not yet entirely resolved themselves. If you can clearly place the launching off point, from which you can satisfy an audiences’ expectations or subvert them in the ending, you’ve got something.
Other topics include; Casting, Collaboration, Developing Characters, and so on. Even if you find it a struggle to draw inspiration from Wilder’s exceptionally particular approach, his mercurial train of thought makes it unlikely that you won’t at least find the interview charming. Beware his Austrian accent, there are no subtitles.