The craft of … Billy Wilder


Double Indemnity. Sunset Boulevard. Ace in the Hole. Stalag 17. Sabrina. The Seven Year Itch. Witness for the Prosecution. Some Like It Hot. The Apartment. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. How many film-makers made five this good, let alone ten? There’s nothing you can say about Wilder that he didn’t say better; so here, straight from the master, are his tips for 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 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.

Truth and fiction

It’s not just Austrian actors who’ve had trouble with knives this week. Just in case we were in danger of placing too much trust in politicians, the Home Office has been accused of unnecessary creativity in its trumpeting of success against knife crime. Thankfully Chris Dillow has written this gleeful deconstruction of some of the ways in which crime statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to. 

There’s a general assumption that people who work with numbers are sensible, rational and factual, while people who work with words and pictures are emotional, irrational and unpredictable. But in reality the logic of a story — or a scene — has to be worked through as thoroughly as any mathematical equation. In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla David Mamet sums up this challenge brilliantly:

The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal, so that he … is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants. […] To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?

2. What happens if they don’t get it?

3. Why now?

This process has to fit both strands of the double helix that makes up the DNA of drama: character and plot. As with statistics, you can try to massage one strand or another to fit the answer that you want; unlike statistics, you’re very unlikely to get away with it. This is because (a) we’ve all seen a vast number of stories, and (b) most people have near perfect pitch for emotional truth, which is why we find ourselves yelling at the screen: “She’d never do that!” or “Those two would never fall in love!”. As Billy Wilder said of the audience, “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together — that is critical genius”. 

This stringent working through of a scene to find its emotional truth is as true of the wildest fantasy as it is of so-called realism, which is one reason why most superhero movies are so unsatisfying. It’s also the real secret behind Disney’s success: they have always understood that the desires and motivations of a candlestick have to be just as well developed as those of a mermaid. Ultimately, every scene in every film is there to make a case: why the audience should care what happens next. This case has to be argued as convincingly and truthfully as possible, or the audience is gone. 

Or, to put it another way: Facts are easy. Truth is hard.

The craft of … Sidney Pollack

Sidney Pollack died this morning aged 73. 

I saw him in London just last summer, when he was presenting his film Sketches of Frank Gehry, followed by a Q&A with Gehry himself, to discuss both the movie and their respective ways of working. He was funny and vigorous, full of excitement about his future projects, and it’s a great shame to lose him so soon.

Pollack is a Mastersvo hero on three counts. First, he was a classic Hollywood craftsman. His films are crisp, elegant and beautiful, with a sure touch for matching form and function: the directing serves the story, never the other way around. Second, he successfully blended the personal, the political and the popular, bringing believable characters to genre pictures in films as different as Three Days of the CondorTootsie and The Firm. And third, as an actor, he was an astringent, bracing supporting presence, raising the game of everyone he played against, whether Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives), George Clooney (Michael Clayton) or Tom Cruise (Eyes Wide Shut). And, of course, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie:

Not all his pictures work. Random Hearts is glum, despite the sparkling Kristin Scott Thomas, Havana is Casablanca at twice the length with half the wit, and The Interpreter, despite some great set pieces, hinges on a premise that makes no sense at all. On the other hand, I prefer his version of Sabrina to Billy Wilder’s (heresy I know), and Sketches of Frank Gehry is one of the best portrayals of creative craft on film. 

Pollack’s producing partner over the past decade was Anthony Minghella, and it’s easy, looking at their work, to see why. Both of them made movies with an elegance, a quiet political engagement and an optimism that is rare in contemporary film, and that should offer inspiration to us all.

Pollack began his career as an actor, and brought an actor’s technique to his directing. Here’s a great note on his craft from a BFI interview that he gave some years ago:

“Every time I get into an intellectual situation which I’m discussing with the studio head or someone, I remember acting classes with my teacher, Meisner, where he would say, ‘What is this scene about?’ to the actor and the actor would say, ‘Well this scene is about the fact that I need money to go to see my dying mother’. And then Meisner would say, ‘Well let me see you act that you need money to go. Let me see you act that’.

“And they didn’t know what to do. Because you can’t act something that doesn’t have anything to do with behaviour. He used to say, ‘My aunt Alice can tell you that the scene is about getting money to go to see your dying father. It’s got nothing to do with acting. That has nothing to do with the scene. That’s just facts. What is the scene about?’ And he would keep on until you got to a point where you said, ‘This is a scene where I have to do the thing that I hate most in the world. It embarrasses me so badly to ask this guy for this money, because I hate to be beholden.’ And then it becomes that. And that’s what the writing process is for me and also what the directing process is.”

PS. There’s a great piece on Pollack’s performance in Eyes Wide Shut here.