‘Billy, How Did You Do It?’: A Unique and Rewarding Window into the Mind of One of Hollywood’s Greatest

The Austrian-born filmmaker who would become one of the most important figures of American cinema, Billy Wilder could have been proud of a rich career filled with many movies now deemed true classics. From Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, through Sunset Boulevard and The Seven Year Itch, all the way to Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Wilder is responsible of some of the best works Hollywood ever produced. Respected for his vision and craft, he nevertheless remained something of a mystery to the public. Sometime in the early eighties the great director sent a letter to a young German filmmaker called Volker Schlöndorff, telling him how much he appreciated his film The Tin Drum, hailing it as one of the best works of contemporary German cinema. These two filmmakers then started a friendship that would last for decades and which would, to our immense satisfaction, give birth to a documentary entitled Billy, How Did You Do It? (in the original: Billy Wilder, wie haben Sie’s gemacht?) The title itself is a reference to the famous sign that Wilder proudly held in his office, saying “How would Lubitsch do it?,” a point of reference for Wilder whenever he faced an obstacle in his professional path. Just like he looked at Lubitsch for inspiration, Schlöndorff, who says that during his formative years he was always torn between the nouvelle vague and Wilder, held his role model in very high regard. In 1988, therefore, Schlöndorff brought a camera crew into Wilder’s Los Angeles office with the intention of shooting an “improvised conversation between friends.”

The fascinating result is a true gem of a three-hour documentary: divided into three parts, Schlöndorff’s film is mostly set in Wilder’s office, as the two of them discuss a whole range of themes from Wilder’s incredibly rich career, both in English and German: projects, collaborations, memories, technical details, passions and personal anecdotes. Originally aired on BBC, the film was hidden from public screenings for a very long time, especially in the States, where Wilder the perfectionist didn’t want it to be shown. Schlöndorff and Wilder’s conversations are enriched with clips from Wilder’s numerous films. All in all, Billy, How Did You Do It? is a unique and extremely rewarding opportunity to explore the mind of one of Hollywood’s most significant filmmakers, and we can only express our gratitude to Matt Jones, who pointed us to this invaluable film through Twitter.

 

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife,
a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”
—Billy Wilder

 
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