Billy Wilder's Rules of Good Filmmaking

Billy Wilder's experiences in a Europe torn apart by war inspired many of his classic films.

Billy Wilder's experiences in a Europe torn apart by war inspired many of his classic films. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon on the set of the 1959 cross-dressing classic 'Some Like it Hot'

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon on the set of the 1959 cross-dressing classic Some Like it Hot. CORBIS SYGMA hide caption

itoggle caption CORBIS SYGMA

Wilder in His Own Words

View a clip from a documentary filmed before Wilder's death -- footage Wilder insisted stay in the can until after his death:

Writer and director Billy Wilder was the man behind some of Hollywood's most beloved films — Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity and many more. He wrote or directed more than 50 films, winning six Oscars and numerous other awards.

In a modern Hollywood where big-budget formula films often command the box office, many filmmakers still look to Wilder — who would have turned 100 this month — as an example of how to make movies that matter. And his formula for success — from hard-boiled thrillers to daffy romantic comedies — is still available. It's distilled into a basic set of rules.

The Wilder Touch

From madcap comedy to dark drama -- view clips from two of the filmmaker's best-known movies, plus one you may have missed:

Some are obvious: be on time to the set, work on schedule — in short, be reliable. But he codified some of his on-set knowledge, as well.

"Some of these rules are straightforward," says writer-director Cameron Crowe, who conducted a series of interviews with Wilder before the great director's death in 2002. "Rule two is 'grab 'em by the throat and never let go.' He means grab us, the audience, with great plots, winning dialogue and big Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe."

Another of Wilder's rules is to let the audience figure out key plot points. "Don't underestimate the intelligence of the audience," says film producer Tom Jacobson, another Wilder acolyte. "Treat your audience intelligently. What movies can do, at their best, is let us in — they show us things, they don't tell us."

Wilder's most important rule is also the simplest: Don't be boring.

Keep these rules in mind this summer, when a Hollywood blockbuster is insulting the audience's intelligence or taking up too much valuable time. And hope whoever made the movie has watched his share of Wilder, too.

Billy Wilder's Screenwriting Tips

As told to Cameron Crowe:

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 in 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’'e 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 — that's it. Don’t hang around.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.