“You don’t want to see ‘plots’. You want to see stories develop.” — Billy Wilder

Billy and Audrey Wilder

It’s his birthday today.

I love him for his humor, his cynical pessimistic view of human beings – which, honestly, just feels realistic, his versatility with material (noirs, melodramas, war movies, comedies). Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, The Apartment, the prophetic Ace in the Hole. His life spanned from pre-Hitler Vienna to the early 2000s. His entire family was killed in concentration camps. He emigrated to the US shortly after Hitler took power.

Here’s a letter to Wilder from Alfred Hitchcock after seeing The Apartment:

I love his tips for screenwriters (#6 helped me enormously when I was writing my own script and problem-solving the final scene.)

Billy Wilder’s Tips for Writers

1. The audience is fickle.

2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

4. Know where you’re going.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.

9. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then —

11. — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Taken from the essential “Conversations with Wilder“, by Cameron Crowe

These two are up to no good.

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22 Responses to “You don’t want to see ‘plots’. You want to see stories develop.” — Billy Wilder

  1. Wren Collins says:

    The only Wilder film I’ve seen is The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s one of my favourites.

    • sheila says:

      Love that! His other films are well worth seeking out – Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard … I’m forgetting many! But he was a cynical satirical fellow with an ear perfectly tuned towards comedy!

  2. carolyn clarke says:

    One of my favorite directors. In some of his movies, there are segments have no dialogue just the action on the screen. What I love about his movies is that all of them, whether they are comedies or mysteries or whatever, they are also smart. They don’t dumb down to the viewer.
    My favorite of his is “The Apartment”. Fred MacMurray was never so nasty and Jack Lemmon never so lovable. The supporting cast is also great in that movie. The doctor, Jack Kruschen, is adorable. I also love the fact that the apartment looks like a NY apartment. It’s dark with lots of wood and brick. You can see the kitchen and living room from the bedroom. “Shut up and deal. ” Great line.

    Sabrina (the original, not the remake) is one my husband’s all time favorite movies and he doesn’t like romantic comedies.

    I’ve also seen The Seven Year Itch with the iconic Marilyn Monroe subway scene, Some Like It Hot, Witness for the Prosecution (such a slime is Tyrone Power), Five Graves to Cairo, The Lost Weekend, Double Indemity. Love his work.

  3. #7 is gold for writers too. I usually express this as “give the reader something to do.” Reading is an activity.

    • sheila says:

      Jincy – yes, I love #7 too! I’m trying to think of a book that does that. Evelyn Waugh seems to do it automatically – at least in his comedies. Setting up the joke for us, the audience – leaving the main character clueless that he is a punchline – so that we get to roar at his misfortunes.

      Do you have any good examples of this?

  4. Jessie says:

    6 and 7 are so important!

    What you’re talking about with Waugh, I saw this characterised yesterday as writing on the Watson level and the Doyle level (I’d rather the Wooster and Wodehouse level lol). It’s best (for me) when it’s not as explicit as an epistolary or “reporting back” narrative. All these species of unreliable or limited or ignorant narrator are some kind of magic and it’s a really effective way of giving the reader “something to do” as Jincy so well puts it.

    My go-to example for number 7 is always Patrick O’Brian. Not because the terminology or arcane language is so hard and you have to “work” at it, but because everything APPEARS so simple. He very much writes “this happened then this happened” kinds of stories. The emotional and intellectual and characterful meaning is between the words.

    Scott McCloud wrote about comic books (he is not the first to do it but he’s the first I read so I remember his name) that the magic of comics is actually in the gutter, in the space between the panels, because the reader is having to get themselves in there to make the transition. It’s a similar thing to film editing. That lacuna where the reader/viewer has to work to make the connection. The interpretive moment is what makes it ALIVE. I love to read writing with a lot of gutters and I try to put a lot of gutters in mine. (And this is why fiction writing is always gonna be more interesting than academic writing because unless you’re Derrida gutters are verboten!!!!!)

    • sheila says:

      // My go-to example for number 7 is always Patrick O’Brian. Not because the terminology or arcane language is so hard and you have to “work” at it, but because everything APPEARS so simple. He very much writes “this happened then this happened” kinds of stories. The emotional and intellectual and characterful meaning is between the words. //

      I love this observation!! Yes! The depth of those stories, the depth of those characterizations – are just incredible, and in many ways his writing appears to stay on the surface. Or – his style is a 19th-century narrator style – a la George Eliot – who remained an omniscient narrator on a cloud, looking down on all of us with perfect 3-D perspective on the human condition. And he is so good at it.

      // The interpretive moment is what makes it ALIVE. //

      That is so right. I mean, I think this is what a lot of us respond to in Supernatural. It is explicit, yet it has all these gaps – and it is in those gaps that the magic happens – where we enter the story as participants, collaborators.

      I like the “gutter” analogy a lot – had not heard that!

      • Jessie says:

        Yes! The way Supernatural’s explicitness belies or even almost prompts a total clusterfuck of ambiguity and potentiality certainly keeps me coming back. I’ve never been so interested in characters’ offscreen lives — collaborators, ha ha, that has a disturbing resonance.

        • sheila says:

          // I’ve never been so interested in characters’ offscreen lives //

          I know! It’s insane. I’m deeply engrossed in The X-Files now which plays a similar glamorous cat-and-mouse game with audience emotional expectations – but it doesn’t come close to the Grand Opera of Supernatural melodrama.

  5. I’ve always been a fan but I never quite realized how much his work has impacted the way I watch movies until I started teaching a film course. Called “Lawyers in Movies”, after I had put together my syllabus I discovered that he was the only director who appeared twice. (“The Fortune Cookie” and “Witness for the Prosecution” if you are keeping score at home. ) His Paris Review interview is terrific also.

    • sheila says:

      Lawyers in Movies! How fascinating! Can you share more of the syllabus?

      and so interesting about Wilder appearing twice – what do you think that’s about?

      Was Otto Preminger included?

      • The syllabus varied from term to term– students just bounced off some movies, and there were occasional availability issues. They had a hard time with black and white too, which was vexing. The class was really about how to watch a movie– I could do the same thing with Hotels in Movies, or Vampires, or anything, I suppose. The nice part about lawyers is that law is a good hook for storytelling.

        I always start with “To Kill A Mockingbird” and follow with “Inherit the Wind”. At that point I have to drop in a color picture to hold the class. Sometimes it’s “The Verdict”, but for some reason a lot of the students struggled with that one. Sometimes “Michael Clayton” shows up around then, but its unusual narrative structure can get them hung up. “The Lincoln Lawyer” works well. “A Civil Action” is also on the list. William Wilder’s “Counselor At Law” is wonderful, and I always include it. Likewise “Anatomy of a Murder”. Preminger has so much going on in every shot that I feel as though the class has to have been trained to see before we get to him.
        Sometimes I’ll assign “…And Justice for All” which is pretty terrible, but accessible. I like “The Talk of the Town”, and I usually close the semester with “My Cousin Vinny”.
        “Witness for the Prosecution” and “The Fortune Cookie” are not always available (the students watch them on their own via Netflix usually, although I have dvds on reserve). I like that I have a movie from every decade from the 30’s to the Oughts.

        What does it say about Wilder? Well, its a pretty good illustration of his range, for starters. Not just in tone (although “Witness” has its comic moments it is mostly a melodrama). Think about the actors he was working with. Charles Laughton. Elsa Lanchester. For most of the students it is their first awareness of Marlene Dietrich. “Fortune Cookie” basically sets the template for Jack Lennon and Walter Matthau. Both are movies about the uses of artifice, but they come at it from very different places. It is pretty cool that one is an adaptation and the other an original screenplay (with the redoubtable I.A.L. Diamond.)
        What it comes down to, I suppose, is that Wilder’s body of work can stand with anyone’s. Because of his range I am not so sure he gets the recognition he ought.

      • sheila says:

        Bill – really really interesting, thank you so much for sharing more – as well as different student reactions to things. What a great class!

        and bless you for Talk of the Town!!

  6. Patrick says:

    “The Apartment” is by far my favorite of his, one of my favorite movies ever in fact. I think it might be considered a comedy by some, but in a lot of ways it’s fairly bleak, but I like that it does resolve itself in a hopeful way – I like a happy ending if it’s well deserved. “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” that’s mentioned above is another good one, some of these movies seem to be forgotten for some reason, that one doesn’t seem to get a lot of play

    • sheila says:

      I love The Apartment so much. It’s so smart, so accurate. Brutal, too.

      And yeah, I really enjoy Sherlock Holmes too.

  7. Eenusch says:

    I’m always amazed that English was Wilder’s third language and he didn’t speak it until he was in his 20s. To be able to master a foreign language via comedy is very difficult and proves his genius.

  8. Brooke A L says:

    His tips for writing are seriously brilliant. They are now mentally bookmarked forever. Thanks, Sheila.

  9. Bill Wolfe says:

    My two favorites of his as a director are The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – I’m amazed to see someone else with that same choice! – and Kiss Me, Stupid, which I think ought to be acclaimed for its unrelenting cynicism without a cheap, unearned escape for the audience at the end to make them feel good about themselves. Dean Martin deserves huge credit for playing “Himself,” as imagined by Wilder. (And probably a big chunk of the audience, as well.) My favorites of his as a screenwriter only is Hold Back the Dawn. Among his most notable skills is his ear for American slang, similar to that of Irving Berlin, another Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe.

    • sheila says:

      // its unrelenting cynicism without a cheap, unearned escape for the audience at the end to make them feel good about themselves. //

      This was so his thing. I mean, think about Stalag 17, right? That is such a tough-minded movie, and there’s no betrayal of that central character – played by William Holden – no moment where he “softens” so we can fall in love with him and take the edge off of his devotion to self-interest. I love that aspect of Wilder!

      // Among his most notable skills is his ear for American slang, //

      This is so true! Great observation. Ball of Fire is all about American slang!

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