There are few directors that had a career like Billy Wilder‘s. There are probably none that reached his level of skill and notability while staying as diverse as a storyteller. The man did drama and comedy with equal acuity, but his dominance of filmmaking almost didn’t happen. Born in what is now present-day Poland, Wilder left for Paris during the initial rise of the Nazi party in Germany and soon left for the States. He got out early, yes, but it’s difficult to think about the magic he’s delivered without being reminded that but for a few years he may have found himself a victim of the fear-mongering and murder that befell European Jews at the height of Hitler.
Fortunately, he did get out and did go on to craft some of the best scripts and movies of the era (and, you know, of all time). His breakout was writing the hilarious Best Picture nominee Ninotchka; success he translated into a fruitful writing/directing career which produced a truckload of notable classics like Double Indemnity, A Foreign Affair, Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, Witness for the Prosecution, Sabrina and more. The man was seriously prolific.
With six Oscars and a ridiculous list of incredible films under his belt, he’s a perfect director to take a few tips from. So here it is, a bit of free film school (for filmmakers and fans alike) from a legend.
Grab ‘Em By the Throat
In Cameron Crowe’s must-read “Conversations With Wilder,” the director offers some incredible insights to his personal career and delivers some dynamite advice to writers in the process. The entire list is worth scoping out, but the stand out piece of advice?
“Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.”
It’s straightforward, but easier said than written. What will thrill an audience? What will captivate them? Storytelling has a profound power, and the key to harnessing it is in discovering something (whether it be a plot point, an action, a visual or a delivery style) that will pull people physically forward in their seats. Is it a passionate archeologist looking out on an expansive valley filled with living dinosaurs? Is it a mobster slapping his moll with a piece of fruit? Is it simply good dialog? Find your throat-grabber, and the heavy lifting…has just begun, because you’ve got to hold on tight.
Still, if you’ve got something that will wrap your movie’s hands around the audience’s throat, you’ve got a start.
Think Outside the Door
“An actor entering through the door, you’ve got nothing. But if he enters through the window, you’ve got a situation.”
It might sound simple, but sometimes tweaking a normal situation is all that’s needed to make it pop. When someone climbs in through a window, it demands an explanation.
Consider Sunset Blvd. for a moment. It opens with a perfectly normal backyard pool. Except there’s a body floating in it. This is the kind of thing that instantly proves there’s a story worth telling. When his car breaks down, Joe Gillis (William Holden) doesn’t abandon it or walk to the gas station; he hides it in a stranger’s garage. It’s also clearly a very wealthy person’s garage. It’s not ordinary, which is why it’s fascinating.
In The Apartment, two people are having sex in a studio apartment, but neither of them live there.
In Stalag 17 two men are attempting to escape but are killed far too easily. The guards must have known.
In Sabrina, a young man meets a beautiful stranger at the train station…but the same car picks them up…and they’re headed to the same house.
These are all situations that are slightly different, more interesting versions of real life, but the important part is that they deliver a set up that needs an explanation. They need stories. The audience is now curious as to how all of it came to be or will work out. In other words, there’s something tight around their throats.
Be On Time
Sometimes it boils down to good old-fashioned work ethic.
Be Prepared To Be These Things
“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”
In the process of making a picture, you’ll be laying down the law, coaxing a newborn out into the world, attempting to figure out your characters and colleagues, appeasing people’s frail egos and smashing them to the ground. For Wilder, it was clearly a matter of that balance. Plus, the old guy loved to contradict himself (even though he didn’t include “clown” in that list of occupations).
Either way, all of this sounds exhausting. It’s about knowing when to apply pressure and when to give in. What battles to fight and which ones should get the white flag. Cat herding comes to mind.
Do Something In Your Story
“I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut.”
How are you going to grab someone by the throat again? Do something. Anything.
When I was reading scripts, the most common problem I saw among aspiring writers was a crushing inability to have anything happen in their screenplays. They would be filled with scenery and characters doing things that people do, but there was no plot. No forward momentum. No goals or obstacles. They were boring. Of course, the price to avoid boredom is to do away with safety. Fortunately, it’s just fictional characters that have to be put in danger.
To dig into Wilder’s scripts or his finished films, it’s easy to see his aversion to boredom. Something is always happening, whether it’s physical or emotional. As a result, his movies feel full and vibrant. They were vacations where the world seemed energetic and alive. Men have to dress in women’s clothing to avoid being murdered by the mob, or a woman wants her husband dead but needs it to look like an accident, or a man gets life-alteringly drunk one weekend. Does any of that sound safe? No. Does it sound boring?
In receiving his Irving G. Thalberg Award, he thanked the necessary Academy affiliates and his fans, and then proceeded to thank an American consulate representative in Mexicali, Mexico. During the rise of Hitler in Germany, Wilder “got lucky” and sold a story which brought him on a visitor’s visa to the United States. After six months, he was to leave the country, but he didn’t want to, so he had to get an immigration visa. Which means temporarily leaving the country. Which means a road trip to Mexico.
The rest is a stirring story set up perfectly by a master. He wants to thank the one person who made it possible for him to be there that night, but he can’t remember that person’s name? That’s the kind of set up that demands an explanation. Wilder is pretty damned good at this.
But luck is definitely a factor. Wilder once echoed the sentiment that hindsight is 20/20, but it’s in looking at the past that we can see all the forks in the road that could have gone the other way. In a darker universe, Wilder might have become a statistic of the Holocaust; he might have been denied re-entry into the country; he might have never sold that first story to begin with.
He had a towering talent, but it’s nice to know he gave credit to a little bit of luck along the way as well.
What Have We Learned
There’s a fearlessness to Wilder’s output. He seemed comfortable taking on humor and dire straights alike, often in the same movie. More than anything though, he created stories born from a twisting of situations.
It’s easy to think of “high concept” as a dirty phrase, and it’s often used in the pejorative sense to describe a movie that’s narratively too easy, but Wilder excelled at high concept movies that had deeper emotions embedded within. He was no wandering navel-gazer, but he crafted commercially viable, often complex work that asked and raised questions of humanity. And he did it all without pretense.
Plus, he rocked giant, square glasses. Which is probably the true source of his power
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