10 Tips From Billy Wilder on How to Write a Good Screenplay

billy wilder tips

There’s an old sto­ry — Orson Welles called it “the great­est Hol­ly­wood one-lin­er ever made” — that when some­one attend­ing the 1958 funer­al of Har­ry Cohn, the fear­some pres­i­dent of Colum­bia Pic­tures, asked how it was pos­si­ble that such a huge crowd would show up for Cohn’s funer­al, Bil­ly Wilder quipped: “Well, give the peo­ple what they want.”

The sto­ry is almost cer­tain­ly apoc­ryphal. The line may have been spo­ken by some­one else, at a dif­fer­ent Hol­ly­wood mogul’s funer­al. But the fact that it is so often attrib­uted to Wilder says some­thing about his rep­u­ta­tion as a man with a razor-sharp wit and a firm grasp of the imper­a­tives of pop­u­lar movie-mak­ing. In films like Sun­set Boule­vard, Some Like it Hot, Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty and Sab­ri­na, Wilder used his for­mi­da­ble craft as a direc­tor to tell sto­ries in a clear and effi­cient way. It was an eth­ic he picked up as a screen­writer.

Wilder was born in Aus­tria-Hun­gary and moved as a young man to Ger­many, where he worked as a news­pa­per reporter. In the late 1920s he began writ­ing screen­plays for the Ger­man film indus­try, but he fled the coun­try soon after Adolf Hitler became chan­cel­lor in 1933. Wilder made his way to Hol­ly­wood, where he con­tin­ued to write screen­plays. He co-wrote a num­ber of suc­cess­ful films in the 30s, includ­ing Ninotch­ka, Hold Back the Dawn and Ball of Fire. In the ear­ly 40s he got his first chance to direct a Hol­ly­wood movie, and a long string of hits fol­lowed. In 1960 he won three Acad­e­my Awards for pro­duc­ing, writ­ing and direct­ing The Apart­ment.

Wilder was 90 years old when the young direc­tor Cameron Crowe approached him in 1996 about play­ing a small role in Jer­ry Maguire. Wilder said no, but the two men formed a friend­ship. Over the next sev­er­al years they talked exten­sive­ly about film­mak­ing, and in 1999 Crowe pub­lished Con­ver­sa­tions with Wilder. One of the book’s high­lights is a list of ten screen­writ­ing tips by Wilder. “I know a lot of peo­ple that have already Xerox­ed that list and put it by their type­writer,” Crowe said in a 1999 NPR inter­view. “And, you know, there’s no bet­ter film school real­ly than lis­ten­ing to what Bil­ly Wilder says.”

Here are Wilder’s ten rules of good film­mak­ing:

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’re 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.

Note: Read­ers might also be inter­est­ed in Wilder’s 1996 Paris Review inter­view. It’s called The Art of of Screen­writ­ing.

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via Gotham Writ­ers’ Work­shop

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Tarkovsky’s Advice to Young Film­mak­ers: Sac­ri­fice Your­self for Cin­e­ma

Watch Ray­mond Chandler’s Long-Unno­ticed Cameo in Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty

Film­mak­ing Advice from Quentin Taran­ti­no and Sam Rai­mi (NSFW)

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Comments (11)
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  • HELISE12 says:

    I loved Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty and The Apart­ment! He was bril­liant!

  • Whatever says:

    No won­der Hol­ly­wood sucks

  • ramesh kumar r v says:

    When was a teenag­er i saw movie called Not now darling.just wan­na know. ? Is jean wilder the lead man

  • Tyler St. Mark says:

    It was Red Skel­ton who offi­cial­ly made the state­ment, ”See, give the peo­ple what they want and they’ll show up…” in ref­er­ence to the sur­pris­ing­ly large turnout to the funer­al of the most­ly despised Har­ry Cohn, but even Red admit­ted that this was an antique vaude­ville joke bor­rowed by count­less comics on sim­i­lar occa­sions. Anoth­er pop­u­lar vin­tage quip direct­ed at the late Cohn was, “You had to stand in line to hate him.”

  • Dan Jablons says:

    There is a great book of an extend­ed Bil­ly Wilder inter­view by Cameron Crowe (anoth­er hero of mine). It’s pret­ty amaz­ing, worth read­ing!

  • Vincent says:

    And let’s not for­get that Wilder was a dis­ci­ple of Ernst Lubitsch, arguably the great­est (and cer­tain­ly the most ele­gant) comedic direc­tor in clas­sic Hol­ly­wood his­to­ry.

  • Sathish Kumar R says:

    Very use­ful .

  • Salman Zaki says:

    “In doing voice-overs, be care­ful not to describe what the audi­ence already sees. Add to what they’re see­ing.”

    Great advice there. No won­der he’s one of the great­est director/scriptwriter the world has ever seen!

  • Michael James says:

    Thi know the future we often must seek the past. Sage advice.

  • I’d like to watch these films and read the books to see where I can improve. Thanks for shar­ing.

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