Thursday, June 5, 2008

Billy Wilder: On Raymond Chandler

From "Billy Wilder, The Art of Screenwriting," originally published in The Paris Review

I understand your collaboration with Raymond Chandler was more difficult?

Yes. Chandler had never been inside a studio. He was writing for one of the hard-boiled serial magazines, The Black Mask, the original pulp fiction, and he'd been stringing tennis raquets to make ends meet. Just before then, James M. Cain had written The Postman Always Rings Twice, and then a similar story, Double Indemnity, which was serialized in four or five parts in the Black Mask.
They don't have those serial magazines anymore, but in Germany they were very popular. At the end of that week's excerpt you're left with a great feeling of suspense. I understand that thousands of people would wait near the docks for the arrival of the boat coming from England with the new chapters of a Dickens novel.
Paramount bought Double Indemnity, and I was eager to work out with Cain, but he was tied up working on a picture at Fox, called Western Union. A producer-friend brought me some Chandler stories from The Black Mask. You could see the man had a wonderful eye. I remember two lines from those stories especially: "Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool." The other is when Marlowe goes to Pasadena in the middle of the summer and drops in on a very old man who is sitting in a greenhouse covered in three blankets. He says, "Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth." A great eye. . . but then you don't know if that will work in pictures because the details in writing have to be photographable.
I said to Sistrom let's give him a try. Chandler came into the studio and we gave him the Cain story, Double Indemnity, to read. He came back the next day--"I read that story. It's absolute shit!" He hated Cain because of Cain's big success with The Postman Always Rings Twice.
He said, "Well, I'll do it anyway. Give me a screenplay so I can familiarize myself with the format. This is Friday. Do you want it a week from Monday?"
"Holy shit," we said. We usually took five to six months on a script.
"Don't worry," he said. He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.
He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He'd put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he'd grasped the technique.
I sat him down and explained we'd have to work together. We always met at nine o'clock, and would quit at about four-thirty. I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer, but not of scripts.
One morning, I'm sitting there in the office, ten o'clock and no Chandler. Eleven o'clock. At eleven thirty, I called Joe Sistrom, the producer of Double Indemnity, and ask, "What happened to Chandler?"
"I was going to call you. I just got a letter from him in which he resigns."
Apparently he had resigned, because while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said "please." He accused me of having as many as three martinis at lunch. Furthermore, he wrote that furthermore he found it "very disconcerting that Mr. Wilder gets two, three, sometimes even four calls from obviously young girls."
Naturally. I would take a phone call, three or four minutes, to say, "Let's meet at that restaurant there" or "Let's go for a drink here." He was about twenty years older than I was, and his wife was older than him, elderly. And I was on the phone with girls! Sex was rampant then, but I was just looking out for myself.

Wasn't there something about shaking a riding crop?

Well, when I work it's true I can sometimes have a temper, but that was just ridiculous. Later, in a biography he said all sorts of nasty things about me--that I was a Nazi, that I was uncooperative and rude, and God knows what.
I told them forget about all that shit, let's just go on with the script. I agreed not to use the crop anymore.
I would say, "Would you please move your legs so I can walk past to the toilet?" Always, please, please, please.
Maybe the antagonism even helped. He was a peculiar guy, but I was very glad to have worked with him.
In any case, he must have learned something, because he went on to write two pictures at Paramount without me.
When Double Indemnity premiered in Westwood, Chandler didn't show, had disappeared, but Mr. Cain had come to see it. Afterwards, he was crying, he was delighted with what we'd done.

copyright: James Linville, 1996. Read the whole thing in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1

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