Nobody consults the movie writer. In production, they just go wildly ahead. If the star has another picture coming up, and they need to finish the picture by Monday, they’ll just tear out ten pages. To make it work somehow, they add a few stupid lines. In the studio era, screenwriters were always on the losing end in battles with the director or the studio. Just to show you the impotence of the screenwriter then, I’ll tell you a story from before I became a director. Brackett and I were writing a picture called Hold Back the Dawn. Back then, no writer was allowed on the set. If the actors and the director weren’t interpreting the script correctly, if they didn’t have the accent on the right word when they were delivering a gag, if they didn’t know where the humor was, a writer might very well pipe up. A director would feel that the writer was creating a disruption.
One day Brackett and I were having lunch across the street from Paramount. We were in the middle of writing the third act of the picture. As we left our table to walk out, we saw Boyer, the star, seated at a table, his little French lunch spread out before him, his napkin tucked in just so, a bottle of red wine open on the table. We stopped by and said, »Charles, how are you?« »Oh, fine. Thank you.« Although we were still working on the script, Mitchell Leisen had already begun to direct the production. I said, »And what are you shooting today, Charles?« »We’re shooting this scene where I’m in bed and...« »Oh! The scene with the cockroach! That’s a wonderful scene.« »Yes, well, we didn’t use the cockroach.« »Didn’t use the cockroach? Oh, Charles, why not?« »Because the scene is idiotic. I have told Mr. Leisen so, and he agreed with me. How do you suppose a man can talk to some thing that cannot answer you?« Then Boyer looked out the window. That was all. End of discussion. As we walked back to the studio to continue to write the third act, I said to Brackett, »That son of a bitch. If he doesn’t talk to the cockroach, he doesn’t talk to anybody!« We gave him as few lines as possible ... wrote him right out of the third act. Was that one of the reasons you became a director, the difficulty of protecting the writing?
One of the classics Wilder made in the 1950s: »Some Like It Hot«  starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
That was certainly one of the reasons. I don’t come from the theater or any dramatic school like the Strasberg school, and I didn’t particularly have ambitions to be a director, to be a despot of the soundstage. I just wanted to protect the script. It’s not that I had a vision or theory I wanted to express as a director; I had no signature or style, except for what
I NTE RV IE W — BILLY W ILD E R: THE A RT OF SC REENW RITING
For Hold Back the Dawn, we had written a story about a man trying to immigrate into the U.S. without the proper papers. Charles Boyer, who played the lead, is at rope’s end, destitute, stranded in a filthy hotel – the Esperanza – across the border, near Mexicali or Calexico. He is lying in this lousy bed, holding a walking stick, when he sees a cockroach walk up the wall and onto a mirror hanging on the wall. Boyer sticks the end of the walking stick in front of the cockroach and says, »Wait a minute, you. Where are you going? Where are your papers? You haven’t got them? Then you can’t enter.« The cockroach tries to walk around the stick, and the Boyer character keeps stopping it.
T RI E N N I A L S C RE E N WRI T E RS FE ST IVA L
bumping aside the producers. The producers are screaming! You look at an ad in the papers and they are littered with the names of producers: A So-and-So and So-and-So Production, Produced by Another Four Names! Executive Producer Somebody Else. Things are slowly changing. But even so the position of a writer working with a studio is not secure, certainly nothing like a writer working in the theater in New York. There a playwright sits in his seat in the empty parquet during rehearsals, right alongside the director, and together they try to make the production flow. If there is a problem, they have a little talk. The director says to the writer, Is it all right if the guy who says, Good morning. How are you? instead enters without saying anything? And the playwright says, No! »Good morning. How are you?« stays. And it stays.
Published on Mar 15, 2014