Billy Wilder had a theory about everything and, like so many of the great directors, he was also a great raconteur. Just before he died, a book of his conversations with Cameron Crowe was published. It’s no accident that so many wonderful film books are structured in this way (I’m thinking of Truffaut’s dialogues with Hitchcock and Bogdanovich’s with Welles). Conversations with Wilder is a book I treasure, full of technical insight and bitchy gossip about old Hollywood. It has personal significance too, since I bought it with a book voucher from my secondary school before I went off to university to study film!
Wilder had a long and fascinating career, as both a writer and director. Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes… these are all films I’ve returned to with pleasure again and again. In fact, Wilder was so prolific that there’s many more I’ve yet to see. Given my love of Kirk Douglas, I’m especially looking forward to Ace in the Hole!
In the back of the Crowe book of conversations, Wilder lists his advice to budding writers. I’ve had a photocopy blue-tacked next to my desk for years.
WILDER’S TIPS TO 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.
Still, don’t worry if you have trouble keeping to Wilder’s rules. Nobody’s perfect!