Until Woody Allen came along, Billy Wilder had more screenwriting Academy Award nominations to his credit than any other individual. Counting Oscar nominations and wins makes for a faulty metric of excellence, but the implicit message is sound in the case of Wilder. The Austrian emigree to the bizarre wonderland of Hollywood is one of the true greats of U.S. cinema, a man who earned an endless stream of accolades and yet remains somewhat underrated, unlikely to be evoked with the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks as a defining voice in the medium. He should be considered a true peer of those greats as a director. As a writer, though, I’d argue Wilder was unmatched in his time. When I think of how screenplays are supposed to work, I think of Wilder.
Venerating Wilder in this respect is complicated by the fact that Wilder was almost always a collaborator in the writing process. I.A.L. Diamond is the most famous co-writer of Wilder’s film, but there is a small battalion of others whose names appear next to the director’s in the opening credits, such as Edwin Blum (Stalag 17) and no less than Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity). But there is an unmistakably unifying quality to the writing in Wilder’s films that can only be reasonably attributed to him. His films are sharp, bleakly funny, cunning, and deeply authentic.
Cameron Crowe’s hefty collection of interviews with Wilder remains one of the best books about filmmaking I’ve ever read. For as much discussion as Wilder rightly devotes to casting, image framing, and other mechanics of directing, it’s clear that the core of his philosophy is locked in on the writing process. The ten rules of filmmaking he provides are almost entirely connected to the screenplay. In modern cinema, there is no quality that is more rare and endearing than this one, defined perfectly by Wilder: “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.” As no maxim is more ignored — to the point of supreme irritation — than the one Wilder acknowledges he borrow from his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”
Wiser, more refined cineastes that me have observed that characters in film noir don’t talk like real people, but their banter represents the way people should talk. Wilder triumphed in practically every genre, including film noir. And his pinnacle effort in that subgenre, the phenomenal Double Indemnity, provides insight into what Wilder did better than anyone, before or since. He somehow created dialogue that was recognizably wiser and wittier than most real world discussions, and yet it felt honest and true rather that jaggedly aspirational. That cascade of lines didn’t match how people talked, and yet it did. In Wilder’s words exists the big messy us of the American experience, one he entered into rather than inherited, which likely gave him a keener insight.
There’s one more cinematic storytelling tip that’s worth sharing: “Know where you’re going.” Wilder always did. Of course I was — and am — always eager to follow.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.