Friday, October 1, 2010

Billy Wilder on Writing "Some Like It Hot," and Directing Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis died yesterday. His career included roles in The Sweet Smell of Success, Spartacus, The Defiant Ones, and many others, but he’ll be best remembered as Joe (and Josephine) in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot.
   Some years ago, when I was an editor at The Paris Review and was visiting Los Angeles, I learned that Billy Wilder went to the same office every day from ten to twelve in the morning. For two year I’d been trying to get the filmmaker to agree to an interview for the Writers at Work Series, and he’d steadfastly refused. I finally decided simply to show up and introduce myself, to “door-step him,” as he had done, years before, as a young journalist in Vienna.
   The office was a simple suite on the second floor of a low-rise office building. Mr. Wilder, a restless man, even at ninety then, taller than expected, blinked behind large black-framed glasses, and was not quite as surprised to see me as I’d expected. With wonderful Old World manners, he ushered me in, nodding as I gave my name. The mail had just arrived and with the air of a benevolent, even exuberant, dictator, he instructed me to pick it up and carry it over to his desk. He motioned to a leather chair beside it.
   On the wall across from his desk, in gilt letters eight inches high was the question "HOW WOULD LUBITSCH DO IT?" A day bed, like an analyst's couch, was set against one wall. The opposite wall was decorated with personal photos, including a number of him with some of cinema's other great writer-directors--John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini.
   When firmly settled in a large chair behind his desk, we chatted for a half hour while he sorted his mail. Finally, the mail sorted and opened, he peered over his glasses and said, "You wanted to ask me a question."
   Thus began a series of four meetings over ten days, after which we composed and, with my boss George Plimpton, edited a text that became “The Art of Screenwriting.” The edited interview can read in Paris Review Interviews, Volume I, published by Picador. I include below one of the many out-takes from the published piece that were removed due to their concern with the craft of directing, and so outside purview of the magazine’s interviews series, the craft of writing. For Wilder, of course, those two were one and the same, or rather one melded into the other. (Plimpton would have none of this argument unfortunately, and so out these anecdotes went, removed from publication, until now.)
   Sometime into our second meeting I asked Mr. Wilder what happens between the script and the filming of a script.

BILLY WILDER: You have to work with the actors to make sure the dialogue meshes, that there are no pauses. Or, if there is going to be a laugh you need to make a pause there for the audience response, some bit of action maybe.
   When the Marx Brothers were about to shoot A Night at the Opera, Irving Thalberg of MGM did something very intelligent. He had some of the brothers take routines from the movie and play them between vaudeville acts to an audience. Somebody from the studio would be there to analyze the laughter and time everything: "This is good for seven seconds." "This is only good for four." "This falls flat. That we cut."
   So, for instance, when we had the scene in Some Like it Hot where Tony Curtis after a night with Marilyn Monroe, using that Cary Grant accent on her, climbs into the window of his hotel room, where he finds lying in bed Mr. Lemmon, who had just danced the night away, the tango, everything, with Joe E. Brown.
   Curtis says, "What's new?"
   Lemmon says, "I'm engaged."
   "What do you mean you're engaged, for Christ's sake. Who's going to marry you?" In fact, this millionaire guy, Joe E. Brown, wants to marry Jack Lemmon.
   I knew it was a very funny scene and people were going to laugh at all this. There was a group of tourists on the set while we shooting who didn't know the script. As soon as they saw Curtis dressed as a Shell Oil heir-kind of yacht captain, and Lemmon in the dress with the hairdo, there was constant laughter from the sidelines. People were having to leave the stage so as not to disrupt shots. We figured that we had written in about twenty laugh lines, and I knew I would need to slow down, to retard the dialogue to give people time to recoup.
   On the stage, someone will say a straight line to set up a whallop of a joke. Right? Then you need to wait for the laughter to subside before you start in with the next straight line to feed the next joke.
   In pictures, it's almost impossible to stop the laughter, to slow things down. The next joke will come while people are still laughing. So I came up with the idea of Lemmon playing with some Cuban maracas.
   So Curtis: "Why would you want to marry a guy?"
   Lemmon: "Security!" Rum, bum, bum, bah, with the maracas.
   I spread the lines out with the maracas.
   It wasn't so easy when we first showed the guys in disguise. First you see the heels, walking, very high heels, then the legs.
   Slowly I disclose that these two are carrying instruments, and then you figure out it's our two musicians on the run, Lemmon and Curtis. On the MGM lot number three where they had the train, they only had a locomotive and three cars. We wanted to spread the walking out, so we used three takes four times--a train's a train, you can't even tell.
   The audience now has enough time to recover, we're back to a medium shot, the feet and the bottom of a dress. The feet stop walking, and Lemmon says, "It's so drafty!"

[During another meeting I asked Mr. Wilder if when he wrote something whether he could tell when he had it right. – JSL]

BILLY WILDER: Izzy Diamond and I were writing the final scene of Some Like it Hot the week before we shot it. We'd come to the situation where Jack Lemmon tries to convince Joe E. Brown that he cannot marry him.
   "Why?" Brown says.
   "Because I smoke!"
   "That's all right as far as I'm concerned..."
   Finally Lemmon rips his wig off and yells at him, "I'm a boy! Because I'm a boy!"
   Diamond and I were in our room working together waiting for the next line--Joe E. Brown's response, the final line, the curtain line of the film--to come to us.
   Then I heard Diamond say, "Nobody's perfect."
   I thought about it, and I said, "Well, let's put in 'nobody's perfect' for now. But only for the time being.     We have a whole weeks to think about it." We thought about it all week. Neither of us could come up with anything better, so we shot that line, still not entirely satisfied.
   When we screened the movie, that line got one of the biggest laughs I've ever heard in the theater. But we just hadn't trusted it when we wrote it; we just didn't see it. "Nobody's perfect." The line had come too easily, just popped out.
   Now if I go to Europe or if I am in New York sometimes somebody will suddenly stare at me, and without saying my name, maybe not even knowing who I am but just that I had something to do with that movie, they'll say, "Nobody's perfect."