I NTE RV IE W — BILLY W ILD E R: THE A RT OF SC REENW RITING T RI E N N I A L S C RE E N WRI T E RS FE ST IVA L
or, »Let’s go for a drink here.« He was about twenty years older than I was. And I was on the phone with girls! Sex was rampant then, but I was just looking out for myself. Later, in a biography he said all sorts of nasty things about me – that I was a Nazi, that I was uncooperative and rude, and God knows what. Maybe the antagonism even helped. He was a peculiar guy, but I was very glad to have worked with him. Why have so many novelists and playwrights from the East, people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, had such a terrible time out here? Well, because they were hired for very big amounts of money. I remember those days in New York when one writer would say to the other, I’m broke. I’m going to go to Hollywood and steal another fifty thousand. Moreover, they didn’t know what movie writing entailed. You have to know the rules before you break them, and they simply didn’t school themselves. I’m not just talking about essayists or newspapermen; it was even the novelists. None of them took it seriously, and when they would be confronted by their superior, the producer or the director, who had a louder voice and the weight of the studio behind him, they were not particularly interested in taking advice. Their idea was, Well, crap, everybody in America has got a screenplay inside them – the policeman around the corner here, the waiter in Denver. Everybody. And his sister! I’ve seen ten movies. Now, if they would only let me do it my way... But it’s not that easy. To begin to make even a mediocre film you have to learn the rules. You have to know about timing, about creating characters, a little about camera position, just enough to know if what you’re suggesting is possible. They pooh-poohed it.
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I remember Fitzgerald when he was working at Paramount and I was there working with Brackett. Brackett, who was from the East, had written novels and plays, and had been at Paramount for years. Brackett and I used to take breaks and go to a little coffee joint across the street from the studio. Oblath’s! we used to say. The only place in the world you can get a greasy Tom Collins. Whenever we saw Scott Fitzgerald there, we’d talk with him, but he never once asked us anything about writing screenplays. Pictures are something like plays. They share an architecture and a spirit. A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman and is able to tell what’s wrong with the third act. What a veteran screenwriter produces might not be good, but it would be technically correct; if he has a problem in the third act he certainly
knows to look for the seed of the problem in the first act. Scott just didn’t seem particularly interested in any of these matters. Faulkner seemed to have his difficulties too. I heard he was hired by MGM, was at the studio for three months, quit and went back home; MGM never figured it out and they kept sending the checks down to Mississippi. A friend of mine was hired by MGM to do a script and he inherited the office where Faulkner had been working. In the desk he found a yellow legal pad with three words on it: Boy. Girl. Policeman. But Faulkner did some work. At some point he worked with Howard Hawks on »To Have and Have Not«, and he cowrote »The Land of the Pharaohs.« On that movie they went way over schedule with production and far past their estimated costs. On screen, there were thousands of slaves dragging enormous stones to build the pyramids. It was like an ant heap. When they finally finished the film and screened it for Jack Warner, Warner said to Hawks, »Well, Howard, if all the people who are in the picture come to see it, we may break even.« But there were other writers out here who were clever and good and made a little fortune. The playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, for example. Hecht truly endeared himself to the people he worked with. A producer or director would be in a jam... the set built, the leads hired, the shooting begun, only to admit to themselves finally that the script they had was unusable. They would bring out Hecht, and he would lie in bed at Charles Lederer’s house and on a yellow tablet produce a pile of sheets, a screenplay ready to go. They’d take that night’s pages from Hecht’s hands, forward them to Mr. Selznick, who’d fiddle with them, have the pages mimeographed and put in the actor’s hands by morning. It was a crazy way to work, but Hecht took the work very seriously, though not as seriously as he would a play of his. They call that sort of thing script doctoring. If Hecht had wanted, he could have had credit on a hundred more pictures. Does the script you’ve written change as you direct it? As someone who directed scripts that I myself had cowritten, what I demanded from actors was very simple: learn your lines. That reminds me. George Bernard Shaw was directing a production of his play Pygmalion, with a very wellknown illustrious actor, Sir Something.
Published on Mar 15, 2014