Billy Wilder: A Role Model For Screenwriters
In my opinion, the greatest success story in screenwriting belongs to Billy Wilder.
The Austrian-born Wilder was a Jewish scribe in the prewar German film industry. When Hitler and the Nazi regime began their rise of power, Wilder, who was very street-smart and astute, knew it was time to get out of Germany and fast. He fled to Paris, and then over to the United States. He couldn’t speak a word of English and literally had two cents to his name. He taught himself some rudimentary English on the boat ride. After he arrived in Los Angeles, he moved in with a bunch of displaced Austrians.
So Wilder was an impoverished immigrant who could barely speak English. He had worked in the German film industry, but that wasn’t Hollywood by any stretch of the imagination.
He was the ultimate underdog.
In less than a decade, he’d be the most sought-after screenwriter in Hollywood.
How’d he do it?
Talent and chutzpah.
He was also funny.
Moreover, Wilder’s wit was razor sharp, and he picked up English quickly. He picked up American slang even faster. Soon he’d be a master of jivey dialogue and wicked quips.
With the help of a single industry contract, Wilder found himself in the Paramount writing stable. He was paired with another contract writer: Charles Brackett. Well-versed in the film business, Brackett was the perfect collaborator, and no doubt helped Wilder with his shaky English in the early days. Brackett tended to be more conservative and story-oriented, whereas Wilder was more focused on character and pithy dialogue. They balanced each other perfectly. Within a few years, the team of Wilder and Brackett were legendary in Hollywood: legendary for their talent; legendary for their fights. They were the original Odd Couple, and people loved them.
Wilder especially began to shine.
Years prior to becoming a director, Wilder was the life of the party and everyone wanted to be around him.
He was also passionate about writing.
According to Wilder, he only became a director because he was sick of seeing his scripts get butchered. His directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, was nothing special, but soon he’d be writing and directing such classics as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard (possibly the definitive film about screenwriting and Hollywood), Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment. Decades before Woody Allen and the Coen brothers, Wilder was one of the rare writer-directors who alternated between comedies and dramas without missing a beat. He always collaborated with other writers (I.A.L. Diamond being his most frequent collaborator), but Wilder’s films were characterized by his subversive sense of humor. The writing was always foremost in Wilder’s mind; as such, he directed his films in a simple, understated style that never takes you away from the story and characters.
Up to the end, Wilder thought of himself as a writer. On his gravestone, it says the following:
I’M A WRITER
BUT THEN NOBODY’S PERFECT
Billy Wilder’s journey from an Austrian immigrant without a cent to his name to successful screenwriter and finally to acclaimed writer-director is nothing short of miraculous.
And it should be an inspiration to any screenwriter.
Edwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.