Billy Wilder's Rules of Good Filmmaking Many filmmakers still look to Billy Wilder as an example of how to make movies that matter. Wilder could helm hard-boiled thrillers or romantic comedies with equal dexterity because he followed a basic set of rules. We honor Wilder on what would have been his 100th birthday.
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Billy Wilder's Rules of Good Filmmaking

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Billy Wilder's Rules of Good Filmmaking

Billy Wilder's Rules of Good Filmmaking

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(Soundbite of movie "Sunset Boulevard")

Ms. GLORIA SWANSON (Actress): (As Norma Desmond) All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.


That's the iconic line from the movie Sunset Boulevard, one of many classics directed by Billy Wilder. Some others: Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity. In total Wilder wrote or directed more than 50 movies, winning six Oscars and numerous other awards. Billy Wilder would have been 100 years old today. He died in 2002. He wrote and directed all kinds of movies, from hardboiled thrillers to romantic comedies. And it's that legacy that's kept him relevant to modern filmmakers. Day to Day's Nihar Patel has more.

NIHAR PATEL reporting:

Here's a sampling of the dozens plus books promising instant success in Hollywood. Write Screenplays That Sell, Writing Screenplays That Sell, How to Write a Selling Screenplay. Books like these are often written by people who haven't even sold screenplays.

PATEL: Billy Wilder made more movie classics than practically anyone and he offered his own sage advice to a group of film students in 1986.

Mr. BILLY WILDER (Filmmaker): I wake on schedule, I show up, I don't drink, I've never missed a day. I'm an honorable, reliable man. Talent, ph-t-t-t, but reliable. That's the most important thing.

PATEL: Reliability was important, of course, but Wilder wasn't exactly cranking out Model T Fords. He was trying to create movie magic. And he did it with rules that influenced filmmakers to this day.

Mr. CAMERON CROWE (Filmmaker): Billy Wilder's tips for writers, he's got about 12 of them.

PATEL: That's filmmaker Cameron Crowe - you know, the guy who did Jerry McGuire, Almost Famous - in an interview with NPR a few years ago. Crowe is the Moses of this list of moviemaking commandments. They were handed down to him from Wilder during a series of interviews.

Mr. CROWE: I know a lot of people who have already Xeroxed that list and put it by their typewriter. And there's no better film school, really, than listening to what Billy Wilder says.

PATEL: Some of these rules are straightforward. Rule Two is, Grab them 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.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MARILYN MONROE (Actress): (Singing) I want to be loved by you, alone, boop-boop-e-do.

PATEL: But a few of these rules are a little more abstract but essential if you're in the business of making movies like Hollywood producer Tom Jacobson. He Xeroxed that list. Well, technically he had the rules printed on a 5x7 beige cardstock.

Mr. TOM JACOBSON (Producer): And I would occasionally give them out to writers until I decided it was slightly obnoxious.

PATEL: Tom Jacobson takes material from writers and shapes it into movies that audiences will hopefully find enjoyable. So Rule Seven is especially important.

Mr. JACOBSON: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever. And simply what that means is, don't tell the audience, four. Don't underestimate the intelligence of the audience. Treat your audience intelligently. And that's sort of what movies can do in their best, is they let us in, they show us things, they don't tell us.

PATEL: There's a scene in Double Indemnity when a murder is taking place in the backseat of a car and the audience never sees the killer do the deed. Instead, it's a shot of the victim's scheming wife in the front seat, looking straight ahead, cold and emotionless, maybe even a little turned-on.

(Soundbite of movie "Double Indemnity")

PATEL: We recognize that same icy stare at the end of the movie right before she shoots her lover. Wilder's last rule was about how to end a movie. He advised, let it build, build, build, and then that's it. Don't hang around. Take Some Like it Hot, a classic story of boy meets girl, girl is a boy in drag, first boy can't take a hint.

(Soundbite of movie "Some Like it Hot")

Mr. JACK LEMMON (Actor): (As Jerry/Daphne) I'm gonna level with you, we can't get married at all.

Mr. JOE E. BROWN (Actor): (As Osgood Fielding III) Why not?

PATEL: They're skimming across the water together on a power boat.

(Soundbite of movie "Some Like It Hot")

Mr. LEMMON: (As Jerry/Daphne) In the first place, I'm not a natural blonde.

Mr. BROWN: (As Osgood Fielding III) Doesn't matter.

Mr. LEMMON: (As Jerry/Daphne) I can never have children.

Mr. BROWN: (As Osgood Fielding III) We can adopt some.

PATEL: When finally the wig is yanked off. Then the movie's last but most memorable line is delivered.

(Soundbite of movie "Some Like It Hot")

Mr. LEMMON: (As Jerry/Daphne) I'm a man.

Mr. BROWN: (As Osgood Fielding III) Well, nobody's perfect.

Mr. JACOBSON: That's an ending that you remember because it's pithy and it gets a joke and you go out on a laugh.

PATEL: Producer Tom Jacobson has seen his share of audiences suffering through never-ending stories. There's the squirming, the constant watch-checking, the despair in the eyes of parents just hoping the babysitter can hang around for one more hour.

Mr. JACOBSON: Don't hang around. End it, be efficient, get out. Don't have multiple endings. Because the ending's the last thing that the audience is reacting to, if someone is filling out a card, grading a movie, or making comments about it, that's the freshest thing in their mind. So if that's not working, that'll come through somehow.

PATEL: Billy 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 your intelligence or taking up way too much of your valuable time. And just hope, whoever made the movie you're watching, has watched a lot of Billy Wilder movies.

Nihar Patel, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: You can see video clips from three of Billy Wilder's classic films plus an excerpt from a rare interview that Wilder insisted only be shown after his death. It's all at our website,

(Soundbite of music)

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