What can the late, great Billy Wilder teach us about screenwriting and filmmaking?

Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.

We turn to the Writers Guild Foundation‘s video The Writer Speaks: Billy Wilder for insights on structure and cinematic storytelling.

1. Structure

“Compare it to building a house. You have to have a base where the house is going to stand. You have to have walls. You have to have pillars that are going to hold it up. Staircases to the second story. And whatever. It is a kind of mixture — writing movies — of architecture and poetry or storytelling.”

Wilder goes on to elaborate by saying that you need to have a strong first act that can support the second and both need to be strong enough to keep the audience interested through the third act.

“It’s not that I make myself a drawing or blueprint. It’s just kind of an instinctive thing. I’m talking about myself because you talk to another five hundred writers, everybody has got [their] own method.”

2. Developing Characters

Wilder states that he learned from a peer of his that you can use people around you to inform a character. You look at the way the way they walk, talk, and how they handle themselves. And you use that to build a base — and then elaborate.

3. Camera Direction in Screenplays

“I don’t indulge in camera tricks [while writing the script]… no close-up, no cut here, no camera pans, nothing.”

He does point out that if you’re a director that writes his own scripts, yes, you can include those types of elements. But when you’re a writer writing a screenplay that another person will take on as a director, you shouldn’t be including camera angles or any camera direction.

4. Writers Partners

“He (writing partner Iz Diamond) sits at the typewriter. First he sits. Then I sit. And then [The Hollywood Reporter] for Variety and drink our coffee. And then nothing. Somedays absolutely nothing until five o’clock in the afternoon… and then [when writing] we would discuss and compare. And there was a wonderful understanding between us two. If I’m very strongly defending my version, and it would be tough for me to win it, I would take the thing and throw it into the wastepaper basket. The same thing with him.”

Wilder would dictate a scene or moment while Diamond would type (Billy Wilder could not type well). And then they’d discuss it. It was always calm, cool, and friendly, but collaborative with mutual respect for each other’s vision and ideas.

“I don’t remember in all of those years that I worked with him that he would say, if I came with a suggestion, ‘That’s marvelous! That’s great.’ His highest compliment was always, ‘Why not?'” 

Watch the full interview below where Wilder elaborates on these points and discusses his films.

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Michael Lee

Author Michael Lee

Michael Lee has worked in development as a script reader and story analyst for a major studio, Emmy Award-winning production company, and iconic movie director.

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