Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Conversations With Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder. Cameron Crowe. Conversation and creative insight.

Joe E. Brown, jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot”

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 in which Wilder discusses the hit 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot comes from Pages 37–38:

BW: There was, for instance, the situation where Tony Curtis steals the clothes of the guy, and plays now Mr. Shell. The Shell family, do you remember? And he now gets also the boat of Mr. Joe E. Brown, who is dancing somewhere with Mr. Lemmon. You have two things going there. Now Joe E. Brown, dancing a tango with Lemmon, that’s going to be good, I knew that. We had that cold, the dips, and the rose in the teeth, you know.

CC: Is that the kind of moment you’d already acted out in the room, writing with Izzy [Diamond]?

BW: [Shakes his head immediately] No, we just knew it. Now, when we were writing, we got a very good idea, a very important part of the picture. The idea was that he, Curtis, invites Monroe back to the boat of Mr. Shell. And it’s all set up, they’re alone. Now there’s going to be sex, right? I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking, this is no good, this is expected. But what we will do is that [sparkle in his eye] he plays it impotent! And she suggests the sex. And she fucks him — that has to be better. It must be better to be subdued, seduced, and screwed by Marilyn Monroe — what could be better? So we switched this thing around. And we had the scene, right? I came in the morning before we filmed. I just said, “Look — we are now at the situation where he takes her to the boat. There’s nothing new here. But how about this?”

Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot”

Now, we set it up, it was just like picking oranges, you know. Because it was just all there. And now we can say what his family spent his fortune on, trying to cure him. “We tried Javanese dancers with bells on, we had every goddamn thing, and every doctor — it doesn’t work.” [Laughs] And she says, “May I try?” And then they try. And you know his real feelings by what happens to his leg, as it goes up, the leg goes up, and she’s kissing him. “How is that?” she says. “I don’t know,” he says. And up goes the leg. She says, “Let me give it another try, just one more thing.” Now we lose them and we know what happens. So the idea, that made that scene. Because otherwise it’s just too flat. [Wilder still marvels at the scene.] She’s kissing, and Curtis is laying there on the couch. Kissing him, with the camera here, and now you see the leg coming up, in back of her. Wonderful!

CC: And the leg is so important, it’s the final touch.

BW: Absolutely, yes.

CC: The leg is everything. And did that come in the rehearsals, or was that part of the idea?

BW: That was part of the writing. It was easy. It just came.

When you write comedy, you dream of inspirations like this, where the idea for a scene makes everything about its execution easy, “just like picking oranges.” But to get to these type of creative breakthroughs, generally you have to push yourself. That is the subtext of this anecdote.

Put yourself in Wilder’s position. You’ve constructed the Joe-Daphne plot of Some Like It Hot to build to a seduction scene with Tony Curtis (Joe) and Marilyn Monroe (Sugar). The Marilyn Monroe. There will be his assumed identity. Her desire to marry a rich guy. Making out on a huge yacht. Leading to implied sex. Easy, right? The scene writes itself.

Not for Wilder. He thought the original take — Joe seducing Sugar — was “expected,” it was “just too flat.” In pushing himself, he topped it: Make her the seductress. Talk about the ultimate moviegoer fantasy: Marilyn Monroe seducing you!

How to do that? Make the Curtis character ‘impotent’. As soon as you hit on that, now you are in orange-picking territory. And because it’s 1959, you have to be metaphorical when it comes to sex. So what comes up during their hot-and-heavy petting sessions? His leg. In virtually the entire scene, there in the background is Curtis’ ‘erect’ leg.

Check out the scene and the cross-cuts to Jack Lemmon (Jerry) and Joe E. Brown (Osgood) doing the tango:


Everything you see there is scripted, all the action, cross-cut to cross-cut.

Takeaway: Don’t be satisfied with the first inspiration. Try putting a spin on the dynamics. Brainstorm how to make the scene more visual — erect legs, fogged up glasses, a rose passed between two dancers’ mouths. Push yourself to find the real funny.

The hard part is finding an inspired bit of business. Once you’ve got that, it’s easy… just like picking oranges.

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

For the entire series, go here.

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[Originally posted August 10, 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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