Almost alone among American directors, Billy Wilder has succeeded in hanging on, through Hollywood’s long years of compromise, of an increasingly desperate wooing of the audience, to a corrosive misanthropy, a disenchanted view of the public. If his most recent comedies have occasionally sugared the pill, they have still come out with a philosophy not calculated to please the nursing mothers of Podunk.
Relaxed in Californian T-shirt and casual slacks, his neatly impersonal beige-and-brown office at Mirisch/UA a far cry from the clutter of Walter Matthau’s in Meet Whiplash Willie (aka The Fortune Cookie), Wilder doesn’t immediately convey the harsh directness of his pictures. And indeed, despite nervous warnings from the publicity men (“He can’t sit still,” one told me, “for long enough to get five minutes on to tape”), he proved surprisingly genial and relaxed during the two-hour interview.
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
Wilder on his best behaviour, then: but every now and again the impatient, brilliant mind, coldly disillusioned and tough, showed in its clearest colours. Wilder began by talking about his impatience with arty effects: “I don’t like the audience to be aware of camera tricks. Suddenly you’re shooting a man crossing a street and you take him from the ninth storey of a building, and you begin to think in the stalls: ‘There must be an FBI man looking down from up there,’ and instead it’s just an arty cameraman.
Why shoot a scene from a bird’s eye view, or a bug’s? I guess they call that kind of thing ‘stylish’ or ‘beautifully conceived’. “What an eye,” they say, “shooting stuff through parking meters!” It’s all done to astonish the bourgeois, to amaze the middle-class critic. Actually it’s nothing but the work of the kind of people who are impressed by the fancy set-ups you get in TV commercials: you know, a man with his feet on a desk and you see the soles of his feet covering nine-tenths of the screen and in between the two shoes you see a little bit of his face. What’s the point?”
You are said to have had many casting difficulties with your pictures. True?
It was very hard to get [Barbara] Stanwyck and [Fred] MacMurray for Double Indemnity. They just didn’t like the idea of playing murderers; he in particular was afraid of what it could do to his image. And [Ray] Milland didn’t normally play drunks, but playing a drunk wasn’t quite as dangerous as playing a killer. We even considered casting George Raft for the MacMurray part in Double Indemnity, and 11 actors turned it down.
I wanted Jose Ferrer to play the drunk in Lost Weekend; I had seen him as Iago to Paul Robeson’s Othello, and he was superb. But Paramount told me to forget it: Buddy de Silva said that if the drunk wasn’t an extremely attractive man, who apart from being a drunk could have been a hell of a nice guy, then audiences wouldn’t go for it.
What are your methods of direction?
I don’t rehearse at all. The actors forget what we were rehearsing, I forget how I rehearsed it, absolutely impossible. I have one hour of run-through before I start the shooting, sit around with the crew and the cast and discuss the sequence ahead of us each new day, what is to be noticed, where I’m going to do this and that. There’s no such thing as my coming on the set in the morning with a piece of chalk and drawing little blueprints and saying: “He will move three steps and take the cigarette out and now he will sit on the couch.”
We just fool around with ideas until the scene comes to life for all of us, then I talk to the cameraman and the cutter separately about chopping the whole thing up into separate shots. Then I go in and I might do 20 takes until it’s exactly right.
How have your collaborations worked with Charles Brackett and I. A. L. Diamond?
We would sit in one room and talk out the whole script for weeks, you couldn’t even separate lines of dialogue. Once or twice the other writer came up with an outstanding line on his own – Diamond’s “Nobody’s perfect” at the end of Some Like It Hot, for instance.
Going back to the beginnings, could you fix finally the ‘degree of responsibility’ on People on Sunday?
Oh, that was more nouvelle vague than a hippy picture! We were all dilettantes then. Robert Siodmak was the director for a very simple reason: when kids play football on a meadow the one who owns the football is the captain. He owned the camera, and he got the money from an uncle – 5,000 marks.
I was the writer and carried the camera. [Eugen] Shüfftan was the cameraman, and the only pro on the picture. [Edgar G.] Ulmer worked as [Robert] Siodmak’s assistant director and [Fred] Zinnemann was Shüfftan’s assistant.
What about your isolated French film, made on the way to Hollywood, Mauvaise Graine?
I stopped in Paris in 1933, having left Germany immediately after the Reichstag fire; I’d written dozens of scripts at UFA, including Emil and the Detectives. Mauvaise Graine, no connection with the later Bad Seed, was a story of kids, a gang of automobile thieves in Paris. Danielle Darrieux was the star; she played the sister of one of the boys.
We shot the picture on location in Paris and Marseilles, on a shoestring, with money put in by eight people. We didn’t use a single sound stage, most of the interiors were shot in a converted garage, and even the living-room scenes were shot in it. We did the automobile chases without transparencies, live, on the streets, at high speed, and it was very exhausting.
How did you get to Hollywood?
I sold a story to Columbia – Pam-Pam, about a gang of counterfeiters who live in an abandoned theatre. It’s all boarded up, and they live in it and make their phoney money, and sleep in the boxes, using the rain machine for a shower.
The film was never made but it took me to the United States via Mexico. I began writing original stories in Hollywood, and I kind of starved for a little bit. I shared a room with Peter Lorre, and we lived on a can of soup a day.
When you worked for Paramount, were there many stories they rejected?
Oh, yes. For instance, they wouldn’t take on the idea of Sunset Boulevard, which I put to them in the late 1930s, or of The Apartment. They just didn’t understand these themes, they weren’t ready for them at the time.
What was the creative atmosphere like at Paramount?
It was absolutely marvellous. You just walked across the lot and there they were: von Sternberg, Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Leo McCarey, Lubitsch. We made pictures then, we didn’t make deals. Today we spend 80 per cent of the time making deals and 20 per cent making pictures.
How did you get your first directorial assignment on The Major and the Minor?
I had made myself rather unpopular as a writer at Paramount because I would come on the set and they would chase me off it. I was always trying to put them right on misinterpretations. I was known as ‘The Terror’: they would say, “Keep Wilder away from us, he’s always raising hell, he wants everything done his way.”
The fact is that very few directors know how to ‘read’, how to interpret dialogue correctly, and they are too proud to ask if they don’t understand a particular line. So lines tend to get thrown away. Arthur Hornblow, for whom Brackett and I had written a few pictures, saw my point and thought I had better direct my own scripts.
I think the studio’s attitude was, ‘Let Wilder break his neck, he’ll soon come back as a writer only, and be a good boy.’ But I was careful. I didn’t go out to make a so-called ‘artistic’ success, I went out to make a commercial picture I wouldn’t be ashamed of. My agent, Leland Hayward, went brazenly up to Ginger Rogers, who was then something, she had just won the Academy Award for Kitty Foyle , and sold her on me as a director. And the picture worked well.
What was von Stroheim like to work with on Five Graves to Cairo?
He was fascinating, le grand seigneur at all times. There was something very noble about him, although he wasn’t a ‘von’ at all, his accent belonged to one of the rougher suburbs of Vienna.
Of course, he influenced me greatly as a director: I always think of my style as a curious cross between Lubitsch and Stroheim. When I first saw him at the wardrobe tests for his role as Rommel, I clicked my heels and said: “Isn’t it ridiculous, little me directing you? You were always ten years ahead of your time.” And he replied, “Twenty”.
He was full of interesting ideas. His make-up, for instance: it was black on the face and white on his head above the line of the cap – you see, he pointed out that Rommel was always in the sun, and when he took his cap off there would be no colour in the skin underneath. And he wanted two cameras slung round his neck, and they had to be German; he even insisted on having film in them. He said, “The audience will sense if the films aren’t inside, they’ll feel that they are merely props.”
Of course, he contributed ideas to Sunset Boulevard as well: the idea that the butler writes all the fan mail for Norma Desmond, for instance. But then he could go too far. He said, “Let me do a scene where I am washing and pressing my former wife Norma Desmond’s panties. Please, I can do something with it.” I said, “Yes, I know you can, but I don’t want to shoot it.”
How did you get that perfect Los Angeles look in Double Indemnity?
We used as many locations as possible – they were doing mostly studio work for backgrounds at Paramount in those days, but we changed the tradition. I used the railroad station, parts of downtown, and Los Feliz Boulevard, where the house stood that Stanwyck lived in.
The insurance office was a copy of the old Paramount offices in New York. And I’d go in and kind of dirty up the sets a little to make them look worn. I’d take all the white out of everything. I had John F. Seitz, the cameraman who had worked with Rex Ingram and Rudolph Valentino, with me on the picture, and he helped me a great deal. I wanted that look that Californian houses get, with the sun streaming through the shutters and showing the dust. You couldn’t photograph that, so Seitz made some silver shreddings for me and they photographed like motes in sunbeams.
I like that kind of realism. Everything in Hollywood always looks like the late Jayne Mansfield’s bedroom, and it’s ridiculous.
Didn’t the film end differently in the original version?
Yes. We shot the execution of Fred MacMurray, a complete duplication of a gas chamber scene in San Quentin running a reel, the pellets dropping, the whole thing done with the utmost care, and a warden acting as technical adviser.
Again, in The Lost Weekend, you went out for a total realism…
We used the exterior of Bellevue Hospital in New York and copied the alcoholic ward down to the last detail. Harry and Joe’s Bar was a pastiche of 52nd Street dives, and Sam’s Bar is P. J. Clark’s on 55th Street, the bar where Charles Jackson actually drank. Three houses down from there between Second and Third we shot the apartment building where he lived with his brother, and we copied the apartment exactly.
We had a job persuading the studio to do the picture. I bought the book at a stall while changing trains with Leland Hayward in Chicago on our way to New York and immediately cabled Brackett, but at first Paramount were unwilling. They couldn’t see it our way because up to then drunks had been fit subjects only for comedy. But finally, of course, they came round.
Did Sunset Boulevard cause a stir on its first showings in Hollywood?
I remember there was a big preview in the projection room at Paramount. I’ve never seen so many prominent people at once – the word was out that this was a stunner, you see. After the picture ended there were violent reactions, from excitement to pure horror.
I remember Barbara Stanwyck kneeling down in front of Miss Swanson and kissing the hem of her garment in one of those ridiculous adulation things, and Louis B. Mayer shaking his fist saying, “We should horsewhip this Wilder, we should throw him out of this town, he has brought disgrace on the town that is feeding him!” I don’t know what he was talking about, I don’t know what the hell was so anti-Hollywood in that picture. He lived in a kind of dream world, unfortunately.
Why did you decide to have the whole picture narrated by, as it were, the gigolo writer Joe Gillis’s ghost?
We originally had a weird kind of framing sequence containing some of the best material I’ve ever shot, but when we previewed the picture in Chicago and in the suburbs of New York people just screamed with laughter, so we cut it. We showed the corpse of a man being brought to the morgue in downtown Los Angeles, where we actually did much of the shooting. And in that section of the morgue when he arrives there are eight bodies – a woman, an elderly man, a young boy and so on. And the corpses tell each other events leading up to their deaths. The boy drowned, the old man had retired and had a little avocado grove in Tarzana here, and had a heart attack. And so on.
And now [William] Holden tells the story, but by the time the corpse has been labelled and the tag tied to the big toe the audience is helpless in the aisles. A pity. The opening as we finally shot it wasn’t logical but it was riveting, and as long as something is riveting, they will swallow it.
Where was the Norma Desmond house?
On Wilshire and Crenshaw. It has been torn down now and replaced by Tidewater Oil. It belonged to the richest man in the world, Paul Getty. His wife let us use the house provided we put the pool in. We also put the rats in. Ugh.
What made you choose the specific players for the waxworks’ card game?
We wanted more famous silent stars, but they wouldn’t agree. But we didn’t do too badly, we had Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson – nobody remembered her but she kind of looked right – and Jesus Christ, H.B. Warner.
Why was Ace in the Hole such a box-office flop?
Actually, it did well in Europe but not here, perhaps because Americans expected a cocktail and felt I was giving them a shot of vinegar instead. I read those reviews that said, “How cynical can a director be? How could a newspaperman possibly behave like Chuck Tatum?” And the day I read the reviews I was on Wilshire Boulevard and I was feeling very downhearted, and somebody was run over by a car right in front of me. And a news cameraman came and took the picture. And I said to him, “Come on, let’s help this man, he’s dying.” And he said, “Not me, boy. I’ve got to get my picture in.” And off he went.
When we showed the carnival moving in and the songs being composed, and the hot dogs being sold, it was all factual, based on the facts of the original man in the cave case of Floyd Collins in the 20s. But people just don’t want to see this in a film, the way we really are. And maybe they’re right, maybe one shouldn’t try to get people out of a rut. Maybe I was wrong to do that.
What was it like directing another director, Otto Preminger, in Stalag 17?
He never could remember his lines. He told me that every time he fluffed he would send me a jar of caviar. I soon had shelves full of them.
You’ve adapted several works from the stage in recent years – do you like doing that as much as creating originally for the screen?
Directors are always getting Oscars for things like that, but no, I really don’t like them, or like doing them. To give an Academy Award to a man who adapts a play is like giving the removalists who took Michelangelo’s Pieta from the Vatican to the New York World’s Fair a first award in sculpture. Witness for the Prosecution I did like, though; Marlene [Dietrich] urged me to make the picture because she wanted to play it, and if I agreed to direct it she would have a better chance of getting the part.
Did The Spirit of St. Louis present formidable difficulties?
Yes indeed. We had to cover such a vast area – and we had to fly in the actual replica of the plane. If something went wrong with [James] Stewart’s performance we had to land the thing at a nearby airfield and explain to him because you couldn’t do it in the air. And by then your day had gone, the weather didn’t match.
I’m not an outdoor man: I’ve never done a western. I think I should confine myself to bedrooms, maybe. I was saying the other day, “I’m doing a picture where the boss is chasing the secretary round the desk. But this time I’m going to have Andrew Marton shoot the chase sequence.”
Some Like It Hot rather disappointed box-office expectations, didn’t it?
Yes, it was far ahead of its time. If we made it today it would be a huge success. We had a problem persuading Tony Curtis to get into women’s clothing, but Jack Lemmon was an all-out clown and extrovert and enjoyed the whole thing enormously.
Marilyn Monroe was sensitive and very difficult. She tried hard, but you had to wait for her to come through, to start rolling, and then her tiny kind of inhibition disappeared and after that she was phenomenal, one of the great comediennes. The metabolism had to be right with her, and if it was right, she was a marvellous thing to direct.
The Apartment and Meet Whiplash Willie [aka Fortune Cookie] seem to indicate a return to a more personal style…
That’s true, and of course they aren’t really comedies. We sugar-coated them with a few laughs here and there, but what I wanted to say in them finally was, human beings are human beings. Once again, I wanted the starkest realism. In The Apartment, the apartment itself was small, we took the white out, and the office was built in exact perspective; we had tiny desks at the back with dwarfs and then tinier ones still with cut-outs. Alexander Trauner is the best in the business and he worked it out brilliantly.
In these pictures, I wanted to say: “How corrupt we are, how money mad we are.” As someone says in Meet Whiplash Willie, “People will do anything for money. Except for some people. They will do almost anything for money.” I guess that’s the theme of all my pictures. Maybe my philosophy is cynical, but I have to be true to what I feel.
My next picture is sure to be in bad taste, and I’m hoping the people financing me don’t blow all the money. After all, my ideas about people aren’t so brand new, are they, that they’re going to shock anybody? Say a little bit to rub audiences the wrong way, but not too much, and you haven’t lost them. Have you?
The new issue of Sight and Sound
Sofia Coppola on Priscilla and toppling the king Emma Seligman on Bottoms – David Fincher on The Killer – Todd Haynes on May December – Justine Triet on Anatomy of a Fall – tributes to Horace Ové and Terence Davies – Joanna Hogg interviewedGet your copy
Originally published: 7 August 2020