Saturday, March 11, 2017

Conversations With Billy Wilder

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), 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. 59:

CC: You’ve often used mirrors as a clever way of revealing a story point, but the most powerful instance has to be the broken-compact-mirror shot in The Apartment.

BW: Yes. when Baxter sees himself in the mirror and he adds up two and two. He gave it to the president of the insurance company [Fred MacMurray], the big shot at the office, now he knows what we know. And we see it in his face in the broken mirror. That was a very elegant way of pointing it out. Better than a third person telling him about the affair — that we did not want to do. This was better. This gave us everything, in one shot. Some ideas came easy, like that one. It was good, it came easy. That’s why it was good.

In Hollywood, there’s an old saying: “Show it, don’t say it.” That speaks to a fundamental truth about movies: They are primarily a visual medium. This bit of business with the broken mirror from The Apartment is a perfect example.

In the story, Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has a thing for Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). She works as an elevator girl in the same office building as Baxter. Toward the end of Act One, the audience learns something Baxter doesn’t yet know: Kubelik is the mistress of Sheldrake, the aforementioned “big shot at the office” played by MacMurray. What this means — and again, Baxter doesn’t know this — is that Sheldrake, who has obtained a key to Baxter’s apartment, is using it for his trysts with Kubelik. That leads to this scene in Baxter’s new office, the promotion he gained by allowing Sheldrake to use Baxter’s apartment:

I have something here -- I think it
belongs to you.
Out of his pocket he has slipped the compact with the fleur-
de-lis pattern we saw Fran use at the Rickshaw. He holds it
out to Sheldrake.
To me?
I mean -- the young lady -- whoever
she may be -- it was on the couch
when I got home last night.
Oh, yes. Thanks.
The mirror is broken.
(opens compact,
revealing crack in mirror)
It was broken when I found it.
So it was.
(takes the compact)
She threw it at me.
You know how it is -- sooner or
later they all give you a bad time.
I know how it is.
You see a girl a couple of times a
week -- just for laughs -- and
right away she thinks you're going
to divorce your wife. I ask you --
is that fair?
No, sir. That's very unfair --
especially to your wife.

This is the second beat with the compact, the first as noted in the scene description here. This sets up a later scene where Baxter is showing off his new hat to Kubelik, still unaware she is Sheldrake’s mistress:

No problem. Why don't we discuss it
sometime over the holidays -- I
could call you and pick you up and
we'll have the big unveiling --
(touching the brim of
his bowler)
-- you sure this is the right way
to wear it?
I think so.
You don't think it's tilted a
little too much --
Fran takes her compact out of her uniform pocket, opens it,
hands it to Bud.
(examining himself in
the mirror)
After all, this is a conservative
firm -- I don't want people to
think I'm an entertainer --
His voice trails off. There is something familiar about the
cracked mirror of the compact -- and the fleur-de-lis
pattern on the case confirms his suspicion. Fran notices the
peculiar expression on his face.
What is it?
(with difficulty)
The mirror -- it's broken.
I know. I like it this way -- makes
me look the way I feel.

Here is the scene in the movie:

Look at that shot at 1:45 in the scene: Precisely what Wilder describes, Baxter seeing his reflection in the broken mirror as he “adds up two and two.”

Visual. Storytelling. Better than a third person telling him about the affair — that we did not want to do. This was better. This gave us everything, in one shot.

By “everything,” Wilder means everything because there is not only Baxter’s realization that Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress. There is also the fact that just prior to this moment, Kubelik discovered Sheldrake has had a lot of affairs with women in the company, Kubelik just the most recent victim. Hence her line: “I like it this way — makes me look the way I feel.” A shattered soul.

Dialogue is great, especially when you have masters like Wilder and Diamond writing it. But Wilder knew the primacy of visual storytelling. And so should all screenwriters.

Tom0rrow: More from “Conversations With Wilder.” If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

[Originally posted August 31, 2014]


Conversations With Billy Wilder 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

Conversations With Billy Wilder

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