Tuesday, July 3, 2012
BILLY ON BILLY
Writer and director Billy Wilder - the man behind some of Hollywood’s most beloved films, including Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Double Indemnity - wrote or directed more than 50 screenplays, winning six Oscars and numerous other awards.
In a modern Hollywood where big-budget formula films often command the box office, many filmmakers still look to Wilder as a role model of a director/writer that understands the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of making movies that matter. His hard-earned wisdom has been distilled for us in Cameron Crowe’s interviews with Wilder, which I recommend. In the meantime, here is an even more distilled version of his basic set of rules.
The obvious one: be on time to the set, work on schedule — in short, be reliable. But he codified some of his on-set knowledge, as well.
Rule two: ‘grab ‘em by the throat and never let go.’
He means grab us, the audience, with great characters, doing emotionally compelling things, speaking winning dialogue and actors that we love to look at.
Another of Wilder’s creative concepts is to let the audience figure out key plot points. “Don’t underestimate the intelligence of the audience. Treat your audience intelligently. What movies can do, at their best, is let us in — they show us things, they don’t tell us.
But for my money, the most imporatnt of Wilder’s insights had to do with the actual screenplay. According to Billy, a defining characteristic of a well-written screenplay is that it will tell its audience how the movie ends halfway through the script. In other words the conclusion is “planted” at some point in the middle. (But of course, at the time, the audience is not aware of this). To illustrate his point, Wilder cites any number of examples:
In Sunset Blvd: On New Year’s Eve, Joe leaves Norma for a party so he can be around people his own age. Joe is a struggling scriptwriter in his late 20s, Norma is an aging silent movie queen who just turned 50. Joe is Norma’s “kept boy.” Norma gets so upset when Joe leaves her (because nobody leaves a star) that she tries to kill herself. Joe returns to the mansion, and stays with Norma. That scene just told the audience how the movie will end. At the end of Sunset Blvd, once again, Joe leaves Norma, but this time instead of killing herself, she kills Joe.
In The Sixth Sense: Halfway through the movie, Cole, is in bed telling Dr. Crowe that he can see dead people. He says the most important line in the movie, “They don’t even know they’re dead.” Right there, Cole just told you how the movie will end.
In Gone With The Wind: After Rhett ushers Scarlett and Melanie out of burning Atlanta, he leaves Scarlett. What happens at the end of the movie? Once again, Rhett leaves Scarlett.
And in The Wizard of Oz: Halfway through the movie, Dorothy and the others fall asleep in the poppy fields. Glinda comes by and helps them wake-up. Why? Because Dorothy is dreaming. She’s dreaming the entire time. She needs to wake-up. She always had the power. Remember how the Scarecrow is saying, “Dorothy you’re waking up! Wake-up!” Remember at the end of the movie when her aunt and uncles are saying the exact same thing.
Recently, whilst editing a feature screenplay by Adelaide filmmaker, Kelly Shilling, I noticed that she, too, had instinctively planted the ending of her story in a scene that occurs at about the halfway point of the plot.
However, Wilder’s most important rule is also the simplest: Don’t be boring.
Keep these rules in mind, anad when you see a Hollywood blockbuster insulting the audience’s intelligence or taking up too much valuable time, you’ll probably also find it is abusing its privledges by ignoring one or more of these prinicples.