Billy Wilder and his reliable writing partner Charles Brackett, who had been called the happiest union in Hollywood, had been toying with the idea of making a film about Hollywood for a number of years. The story was originally conceived as a light-hearted comedy about a silent screen star coming out of the darkness of her obscurity to triumph over her enemies, but the storyline soon descended into a darker direction, with Wilder’s exquisite cynicism starting to dominate the theme of the project. In order to keep Paramount, their home studio, at bay, the pair chose to pretend they were actually making a piece called A Can of Beans. When Brackett and Wilder finally reached a block in their creative process, they decided to turn to reporter D. M. Marshman Jr., their frequent bridge partner and former reporter for Life, whom they brought onto the project to assist with the screenplay. The story of a struggling Hollywood screenwriter who encounters an aging, almost completely forgotten silent film star living in a delusional world in which she’s convinced that her major comeback is waiting just around the corner, was appropriately called Sunset Boulevard after the famous street which was a kind of a symbol of Hollywood film production ever since the 1910s. It was the place where Hollywood’s first studio was opened, and a neighborhood flooded with glorious, luxurious mansions belonging to the biggest movie stars of the period. In 1940s, when Brackett and Wilder began working on the story, many of the houses still remained, sticking out of the scenery with their grandiose decadence and occupants who once frequented the billboards and posters of the long-extinguished silent movie era. The creation of Norma Desmond, the central figure of Sunset Boulevard, may have been inspired by any of those former stars living out the remainder of their lives clinging only to their memories of stardom. In Sunset Boulevard, the information on which real-life characters the protagonists were based bears no significance whatsoever. Had Wilder and Brackett decided to shape the people in their film on any specific people, Sunset Boulevard might have lost a solid degree of its appeal and importance, as it stands out as one of the most haunting, memorable and honest depictions of the American film industry ever created. Almost universally praised by the critics, enthusiastically received by the audience of the day, Sunset Boulevard simply hit too close to home for many film industry executives of the period, with MGM head Louis B. Mayer’s furious reaction still being cited as a funny anecdote and proof of the film’s authenticity and value. “You bastard!” Mayer allegedly yelled at Wilder, “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” Rumors had it Mayer was so displeased with the picture he even tried to buy it so he could bury it somewhere out of sight. Wilder had indeed built a fascinating account of the rules and practices of Hollywood, with all its fleeting glory, melancholic vanity, departure from reality and obsession with sex, jealousy and profit, and the fact the film was actually made in that specific time and still stands tall today is nothing but a testament to the power and potential of the Wilder-Brackett partnership.
Written by Wilder, Brackett and Marshman Jr., Sunset Boulevard was shot by the great American cinematographer John Francis Seitz, a seven-time Academy Award nominee who previously worked with Wilder on Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, and would go on to distinguish himself in the field of photographic inventions. The German Empire-born composer Franz Waxman (Rebecca, Stalag 17, Rear Window) provided the score with a beautiful mixture of orchestral music from the 1920s and 1930s and upbeat piano themes, while the legendary Edith Head designed the costumes. It was art directors Hans Dreier and John Meehan who were responsible for the creation of the unforgettable decaying grandeur of Norma Desmond’s deluxe home. Even though Wilder first approach Mae West, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri to play the forgotten film star, it was on George Cukor’s suggestion that Gloria Swanson was finally chosen. Initially offended by Wilder’s suggestion that she does a screen test, Cukor told her she should do whatever it took to get the part because he felt the role in Sunset Boulevard would be the one the world would remember her by. Similarly to her situation, William Holden landed the gig only after a series of his colleagues turned it down, first of whom was Montgomery Clift. The third crucial role, that of Norma’s devoted butler, was written specifically for Erich von Stroheim, but the Austrian-American director and actor, a star of the silent era himself, agreed only because he needed the money.
The greatness and importance of Sunset Boulevard lie not only in its technical mastery, in Brackett and Wilder’s dark but humorous script with several of the most frequently quoted lines of all time (“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”) or even in the career-defining performances of these great actors. A good deal of the film’s value stems from its audacity: first of all, it took a lot of talent and expert maneuvering to get the film made with regard to the Production Code, especially considering the delicacy of the relationship between the two main characters of the picture. Secondly, and crucially, Sunset Boulevard was a shocking breath of fresh air when it came out thanks to the target of its arrows of cynicism. The film industry had already been a popular and successful theme of motion pictures, but never in such a dark, sobering context. Instead of making another jolly comedy or upbeat musical about the business that made him a star, Wilder chose to create a work of honesty, depth and self-reflection. In 1989, the National Film Registry included Sunset Boulevard on its list of the first twenty-five movies to be selected for national preservation, which might not mean an awful lot at the moment, but still proves the United States acknowledged the artistic, cultural and historical value of the Wilder-Brackett effort, even if a lot of feathers were inevitably ruffled and a lot of egos trampled in the process of making this intimate exposure of Hollywood’s dirtiest laundry.
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.’s screenplay for Sunset Boulevard [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Sunset Boulevard preliminary draft with original opening scenes and Montgomery Clift listed on cast sheet, 1948. A fascinating early script draft for Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir with Gloria Swanson and William Holden. A simply typed warning from Wilder and screenwriter Charles Brackett graces the cover page: “This is the first act of Sunset Boulevard. Due to the peculiar nature of the project, we ask all our coworkers to regard it as top secret.” And top secret it remained, especially since Wilder had not finished writing the script. These preliminary pages were all he turned in to Paramount. Interestingly, the second, unnumbered, prologue page lists the film’s characters and corresponding “Actors We Hope To Get,” under which is listed Montgomery Clift as the lead, Dan Gillis (the character’s name would go from “Dan” to “Dick” to “Joe”). Clift was originally slated for the role, and was offered a $60,000 paycheck, but withdrew from the production for personal reasons purportedly having to do with the film’s plotline and his affair with the much older singer Libby Holman. The first five pages of the script are most fascinating: there is no handsome screenwriter floating face-down in a pool, rather, this original version opens with Gillis’ corpse arriving in a morgue, surrounded by other corpses. The conversation and eventual narration that followed was received by screening audiences as humorous. Wilder cut it, of course, but a few hundred lucky individuals saw Wilder’s original vision for the now infamous opening scene. An intriguing memo page is mingled in between dialogue pages, changing Gillis’ first name from “Dan” to “Dick” and his quarters from a storage space to the chauffeur’s room, as well as making Norma’s car a Hispano-Suiza, rather than a Rolls, and her writing project the Salome script, rather than her memoirs (though the idea of “Norma Desmond’s Memoirs, a Norma Desmond Production, starring Norma Desmond” is gruesomely fascinating). Imaged by Heritage Auction Archives.
The following is an excerpt from the Paris Review, written by James Linville, ‘Billy Wilder, The Art of Screenwriting.’ Read the rest of the article at the Paris Review.
You’ve indicated where Lubitsch got his ideas. Where do you get yours?
I don’t know. I just get them. Some of them in the toilet, I’m afraid. I have a black book here with all sorts of entries. A little bit of dialogue I’ve overheard. An idea for a character. A bit of background. Some boy-meets-girl scenarios. While I was working with Mr. Lemmon for the first time on Some Like It Hot, I thought to myself, This guy’s got a little bit of genius. I would love to make another picture with him, but I don’t have a story. So I looked in my little black book and I came across a note about David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter, that story about a married woman who lives in the country, comes to London, and meets a man. They have an affair in his friend’s apartment. What I had written was, What about the friend who has to crawl back into that warm bed? I had made that note ten years earlier, I couldn’t touch it because of censorship, but suddenly there it was—The Apartment—all suggested by this note and by the qualities of an actor with whom I wanted to make my next picture. It was ideal for Lemmon, the combination of sweet and sour. I liked it when someone called that picture a dirty fairy tale.
For a long time I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood. God forgive me, I wanted to have Mae West and Marlon Brando. Look what became of that idea! Instead it became a tragedy of a silent-picture actress, still rich, but fallen down into the abyss after talkies. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I had that line early on. Someplace else I had the idea for a writer who is down on his luck. It didn’t quite fall into place until we got Gloria Swanson. We had gone to Pola Negri first. We called her on the phone, and there was too much Polish accent. You see why some of these people didn’t make the transition to sound. We went to Pickfair and visited Mary Pickford. Brackett began to tell her the story, because he was the more serious one. I stopped him: No, don’t do it. I waved him off. She was going to be insulted if we told her she was to play a woman who begins a love affair with a man half her age. I said to her, We’re very sorry, but it’s no use. The story gets very vulgar.
Gloria Swanson had been a big star, in command of an entire studio. She worked with DeMille. Once she was dressed, her hair done to perfection, they placed her on a sedan and two strong men would carry her onto the set so no curl would be displaced. But later she did a couple of sound pictures that were terrible. When I gave her the script, she said, I must do this, and she turned out to be an absolute angel. I used stars wherever I could in Sunset Boulevard. I used Cecil B. DeMille to play the big important studio director. I used Erich von Stroheim to play the director who directed the first pictures with Swanson, which he in fact did. I thought, Now, if there is a bridge game at the house of a silent star, and if I am to show that our hero, the writer, has been degraded to being the butler who cleans ashtrays, who would be there? I got Harry B. Warner, who played Jesus in DeMille’s biblical pictures, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton, who was an excellent bridge player, a tournament player. The picture industry was only fifty or sixty years old, so some of the original people were still around. Because old Hollywood was dead, these people weren’t exactly busy. They had the time, got some money, a little recognition. They were delighted to do it.
Did you ever feel disappointed with your results, that the picture you had imagined or even written hadn’t turned out?
Sure, I’ve made blunders, for God’s sake. Sometimes you lay an egg, and people will say, It was too early. Audiences weren’t ready for it. Bullshit. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad. The tragedy of the picture maker, as opposed to the playwright, is that for the playwright the play debuts in Bedford, Massachusetts, and then you take it to Pittsburgh. If it stinks you bury it. If you examine the credits of Moss Hart or George Kaufman, no one ever brings up the play that bombed in the provinces and was buried after four shows. With a picture that doesn’t work, no matter how stupid and how bad, they’re still going to try to squeeze every single penny out of it. You go home one night and turn on the TV and suddenly, there on television, staring back at you, on prime time, that lousy picture, that thing, is back! We don’t bury our dead; we keep them around smelling badly.
Is there one you have in mind?
Don’t make me. I may lose my breakfast. Now, I do have to admit I was disappointed by the lack of success of some pictures I thought were good, such as Ace in the Hole. I liked the movie very much but it did not generate any “must-see” mood in audiences. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll have a rough time, and the film will turn out all right. On Sabrina I had a very rough time with Humphrey Bogart. It was the first time he’d worked with Paramount. Every evening after shooting, people would have a drink in my office, and a couple of times I forgot to invite him. He was very angry and never forgave me. Sometimes when you finish a picture you just don’t know whether it’s good or bad. When Frank Capra was shooting Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, after the last shot she said, Will that be all Mr. Capra? We’re all done. All right. Now why don’t you go and fuck yourself. She thought the picture was shit, but she won the Academy Award for it.
So you’re never quite sure how your work will be received or the course your career will take. We knew we’d gotten a strong reaction at the first big preview of Sunset Boulevard. After the screening, Barbara Stanwyck went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing that night. Gloria had given such an incredible performance. Then in the big Paramount screening room, Louis B. Mayer said loudly, We need to kick Wilder out of America if he’s going to bite the hand that feeds him. He was with his contingent from MGM, the king then, but in front of all his department heads, I told him just what he could do. I walked out just as the reception was starting.
Although the movie was a great success, it was about Hollywood, exaggerated and dramatized, and it really hit a nerve. So on the way down the steps I had to pass all those people from MGM, the class studio… all those people who thought this picture would soil the taste of Hollywood. After Sunset Boulevard, Brackett and I parted friends. Twelve years together, but the split had been coming. It’s like a box of matches: you pick up the match and strike it against the box, and there’s always fire, but then one day there is just one small corner of that abrasive paper left for you to strike the match on. It was not there anymore. The match wasn’t striking. One of us said, Look, whatever I have to give and whatever you have to offer, it’s just not enough. We can end on the good note of Sunset Boulevard. A picture that was revolutionary for its day.
How do collaborators work together?
Brackett and I used to share two offices together with a secretary in between. When we were writing he always laid down on the couch in my office while I would walk around with a stick in my hand.
Why the stick?
I don’t know. I just needed something to keep my hands busy and a pencil wasn’t long enough. He always had the yellow legal tablet, and he wrote in longhand, then we’d hand it to the secretary. Brackett and I would discuss everything, the picture as a whole, the curtain situations—first act, second act and then the end of the picture—and the curtain lines. Then we would break it down and go to a specific scene and discuss the mood and so forth, then we’d figure out what bit of the story we’d tell in those ten pages of the scene.
Was that one of the reasons you became a director, the difficulty of protecting the writing?
That was certainly one of the reasons. I don’t come from the theater or any dramatic school like the Strasberg school, and I didn’t particularly have ambitions to be a director, to be a despot of the soundstage. I just wanted to protect the script. It’s not that I had a vision or theory I wanted to express as a director; I had no signature or style, except for what I learned from when I was working with Lubitsch and from analyzing his pictures—to do things as elegantly and as simply as possible.
If you’d always had more respectful directors, such as Lubitsch, would you have become a director?
Absolutely not. Lubitsch would have directed my scripts considerably better and more clearly than I. Lubitsch or Ford or Cukor. They were very good directors, but one wasn’t always assured of working with directors like that.
I see Federico Fellini on your wall of photos.
He also was a writer who became a director. I like La Strada, the first one with his wife, a lot. And I loved La Dolce Vita. Up above that picture is a photo of myself, Mr. Akira Kurosawa, and Mr. John Huston. Like Mr. Fellini and me, they too were writers who became directors. That picture was taken at the presentation of the Academy Award for best picture some years back. The plan for the presentation was for three writer-directors to hand out the award—John Huston, Akira Kurosawa, and myself. Huston was in a wheelchair and on oxygen for his emphysema. He had terrible breathing problems. But we were going to make him get up to join us on stage. They had the presentation carefully orchestrated so they could have Huston at the podium first, and then he would have forty-five seconds before he would have to get back to his wheelchair and put the oxygen mask on.
Jane Fonda arrived with the envelope and handed it to Mr. Huston. Huston was to open the envelope and give it to Kurosawa. Kurosawa was to fish the piece of paper with the name of the winner out of the envelope and hand it to me, then I was to read the winner’s name. Kurosawa was not very agile, it turned out, and when he reached his fingers into the envelope, he fumbled and couldn’t grab hold of the piece of paper with the winner’s name on it. All the while I was sweating it out; three hundred million people around the world were watching and waiting. Mr. Huston only had about ten seconds before he’d need more oxygen. While Mr. Kurosawa was fumbling with the piece of paper, I almost said something that would have finished me. I almost said to him, Pearl Harbor you could find! Fortunately, he produced the slip of paper, and I didn’t say it. I read the name of the winner aloud. I forget now which picture won—Gandhi or Out of Africa. Mr. Huston moved immediately toward the wings, and backstage to the oxygen. Mr. Huston made a wonderful picture that year, Prizzi’s Honor, that was also up for the Best Picture Award. If he had won, we would have had to give him more oxygen to recover before he could come back and accept. I voted for Prizzi’s Honor. I voted for Mr. Huston. —Billy Wilder, The Art of Screenwriting
Over the years the Writers Guild Foundation has recorded interviews with prominent writers about their careers and about their working lives and practices. Here’s a phenomenal conversation with Billy Wilder.
The following interview with Billy Wilder was conducted by Robert Porfirio in July 1975. The full interview is published in ‘Film Noir Reader 3,’ edited by Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini (November 2001; Limelight Editions).
When you started in film, there was a kind of an angst pervading Central Europe after World War I. Did your background, being Jewish in a culture that was becoming rabidly anti-Semitic, create a darker attitude towards life?
I think the dark outlook is an American one.
Even in the noir films? So many were made by émigrés: you worked in Europe with Siodmak, Ulmer, and Zinnemann, but also Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger…
Where does Preminger figure in film noir?
Laura, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Fallen Angel. He took issue with me about Max Reinhardt, German Expressionism, looking for patterns…
But you see, the thing is that you used a key concept there: that is looking for patterns. Now, you must understand that a man who makes movies and certainly somebody like myself that makes all kinds of movies, works in different styles. I don’t make only one kind of movie, like say Hitchcock. Or like Minnelli, doing the great Metro musicals. As a picture-maker, and I think most of us are this way, I am not aware of patterns. We’re not aware that “This picture will be in this genre.” It comes naturally, just the way you do your handwriting. That’s the way I look at it, that’s the way I conceive it. When you see movies, you decide to put some kind of connective theory to them. You may ask me, “Do you remember that in a picture you wrote in 1935, the motive of the good guy was charity; and then the echo in that sentiment reappears in four more pictures. Or, you put the camera…” I’m totally unaware of it. I never think in those terms: “The big overall theme of my œuvre,” I say that laughingly. You’re trying to make as good and as entertaining a picture as you possibly can. If you have any kind of style, the discerning ones will detect it. I can always tell you a Hitchcock picture. I could tell you a King Vidor picture, a Capra picture. You develop a handwriting, but you don’t do it consciously.
But there’s something that brings you to that material. Why, for instance, did you pick a story like Double Indemnity? Why did you choose Chandler to collaborate with?
Ah, that’s a very good question, and I’ve answered it and written about [it] before, as I’m sure you know. So I will give you a very romantic version as explanation. A producer, Joe Sistrom, came to me and said, “Look, do you know James M. Cain?” I answered, “Certainly. He wrote Postman Always Rings Twice.” He said, “Well, we don’t have that, Metro has that, but as an afterthought, and to cash in, he wrote a serial in the old Liberty Magazine called ‘Double Indemnity.’ Read it.” So I read it, and I said, “Terrific. It’s not as good as Postman, but let’s do it.” So we bought it. Then we said, “Mr. Cain, how would you like to work with Mr. Wilder on a screenplay?” He said, “I would love to, but I can’t because I’m doing Western Union for Fritz Lang at Twentieth Century-Fox.” So, the producer said, “There is a Black Mask mystery writer around Hollywood called Raymond Chandler.” Nobody knew much about him, seriously, as a person. So we agreed, “Let’s bring him in.” He’d never been inside a studio. Then he started working. So you see, it is not that I am tossing up and down in my bed like Goethe conceiving art, and wind is playing in my hair, and I plan it all out to the last detail. No. It’s happenstance that we found Chandler.
Regarding Double Indemnity, in the end you decided the sequence in the gas chamber was anti-climactic?
We were delighted with it at first. Fred MacMurray loved it. He didn’t want to play it. No leading man wanted to play it, initially. But then he was absolutely delighted. I am a great friend of his, but can tell you when he shot the scene, there was no hesitation, no nothing, no problem with his performance. I shot that whole thing in the gas chamber, the execution, when everything was still, with tremendous accuracy. But then I realized, look this thing is already over. I just already have one tag outside that office, when Neff collapses on the way to the elevator, where he can’t even light the match. And from the distance, you hear the sirens, be it an ambulance or be it the police, you know it is over. No need for the gas chamber.
MacMurray is ideal as a romantic debunker, tough on the outside, yet soft enough to be lured by this woman.
Well, he was just kind of a middle-class insurance guy who works an angle. If he is that tough, then there is nothing left for Stanwyck to work on. He has to be seduced and sucked in on that thing. He is the average man who suddenly becomes a murderer. That’s the dark aspect of the middle-class, how ordinary guys can come to commit murder. But it was difficult to get a leading man. Everybody turned me down. I tried up and down the street, believe me, including George Raft. Nobody would do it, they didn’t want to play this unsympathetic guy. Nor did Fred MacMurray see the possibilities at first. He said, “Look, I’m a saxophone player. I’m making my comedies with Claudette Colbert, what do you want?” “Well, you’ve got to make that one step, and believe me it’s going to be rewarding; and it’s not that difficult to do.” So he did it. But he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to be murdered, he didn’t want to be a murderer. Stanwyck knew what she had. Dick Powell, he volunteered to do it. He told me, “I’ll do it for nothing.” He knew that was the way out of those silly things–you know where he was singing smack into Ruby Keeler’s face and he had to get out of that, so he was dying to play Walter Neff. That was before Murder, My Sweet. He came to my office to sell me: “For Christ’s sake, let me play it.” “Well look, I can take a comedian, and make it. But I don’t want to take a singer.” And he was damned good, you know, in Murder, My Sweet.
Isn’t this dark aspect of the middle class what Chandler was describing with the image of meek housewives feeling the edge of a knife as they stare at their husbands’ necks?
Chandler was more of a cynic than me, because he was more of a romantic than I ever was. He has his own odd rules and thought Hollywood was just a bunch of phonies. I can’t say he was completely wrong, but [he] never really understood movies and how they work. He couldn’t structure a picture. He had enough trouble with books. But his dialogue. I put up with a lot of crap because of that. And after a couple of weeks with him and that foul pipe smoke, I managed to cough up a few good lines myself. We kept him on during the shooting, to discuss any dialogue changes.
You say he had a way with dialogue, but not plotting…
The plotting was lousy; but then again, it had to be lousy so as not to get in the way of the atmosphere. There again, the plotting was not good in Chinatown. It is not very good in many Ross MacDonald or even Dash Hammett novels. The plotting, no. It is the atmosphere of the hot house. It is the description of the man with hair coming out of his ears long enough to catch a moth. This kind of thing. The funny thing is, Chandler would come up with a good image, pictorial, and like I said I would come up with a Chandlerism, as it were. It’s very strange, you know, that’s the way it always happens. He was not a young man, when we worked together on Double Indemnity for ten or twelve weeks, so he never quite learned it… the craft. And then he was on his own, with John Houseman barely looking over his shoulder. A screenwriter is a bum poet, a third-rate dramatist, a kind of a half-assed engineer. You got to build that bridge, so it will carry the traffic, everything else, the acting, the drama, happens on the set. Screenwriting is a mixture of techniques, and a little literary talent, sure; but also a sense of how to manage it, so that they will not fall asleep. You can’t bore the actors or the audience.
Can we talk about Ace in the Hole and its depiction of how some people exploit others’ tragedies?
Our man, the reporter, was played by Mr. Kirk Douglas. Now, he was on the skids and he thought that a great story would get him back into the big time, big leagues. He remembered the Floyd Collins story. Now, I looked up the Floyd Collins story. They composed a song, they were selling hot dogs, there was a circus up there, literally a circus, people came. I was attacked by every paper because of that movie. They loathed it. It was cynical, they said. Cynical, my ass. I tell you, you read about a plane crash somewhere nearby and you want to check out the scene, you can’t get to it because ten thousand people are already there: they’re picking up little scraps, ghoulish souvenir hunters. After I read those horrifying reviews about Ace In The Hole, I remember I was going down Wilshire Boulevard and there was an automobile accident. Somebody was run over. I stopped my car. I wanted to help that guy who was run over. Then another guy jumps out of his car and photographs the thing. “You’d better call an ambulance,” I said. “Call a doctor, my ass. I’ve got to get to the L.A. Times. I’ve got a picture. I’ve got to move. I just took a picture here. I’ve got to deliver it.” But you say that in a movie, and the critics think you’re exaggerating.
Did you see a kind of trend happening in the 1940s when Double Indemnity spawned a rash of movies with first-person narrations?
I have always been a great man for narration, and not because it is a lazy man’s crutch. That is maybe true; but it is not easy to have good narration done well. What I had in Sunset Boulevard, for instance, the narrator being a dead man was economical story telling. You can say in two lines something that would take twenty minutes to dramatize, to show and to photograph. There are a lot of guys who try narration; but they don’t quite know the technique. Most of the time, the mistake is that they are telling you something in narration that you already see, that is self-evident. But if it adds, if it brings in something new, another perspective, then good.
Obviously I planned to ask about the noir aspects of Sunset Boulevard.
The description of the house was, if I remember, the whole thing was early Wallace Beery, to whom she was married at one time, by the way. At first, you know, this was supposed to be a comedy. We were going to get Mae West, but she turned us down. And then [Gloria] Swanson almost dropped out when Paramount asked for a screen test. There was a lot of Norma in her, you know. The biggest threat to the mood in Sunset Boulevard was when we lost the original actor, [Montgomery Clift], and went with Bill Holden. He looked older than we wanted, and Swanson did not want to be made up to look sixty. It would never have worked anyway. This was a woman who used all her considerable means to go the other way. Who knows what mood a younger actor, or at least younger looking, would have given.
You had the same cameraman lighting these moody interiors in both Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, John Seitz.
Johnny Seitz was a great cameraman. And he was fearless. He should have won an [Academy] Award on Five Graves and I thought surely he would on Sunset Boulevard.
The final scene in the house in Double Indemnity…
Yes, that was beautiful.
And the night exteriors in that picture, the glistening train tracks.
Johnny was brilliant, yes.
In Double Indemnity, the make-up on Barbara Stanwyck…
Mistake there. Big mistake.
I don’t know. I wanted her blonde. Blondes have more fun, but…
She seemed almost ice cold with that.
Yeah, I wanted to do that, to have her look like that. But you must understand one thing, it was a mistake. And I was the first one, to see the mistake after we were shooting. I talked to somebody about George Stevens’ Place In The Sun. A real masterpiece, I think. But this guy said, “That’s a great picture, but there’s one cheap kind of symbolism that is almost not worthy of that great picture, that is, that district attorney, he limps. Justice kind of limping, you’ve got that cane. It was just kind of cheap and cheesy.” “Well, I agree with you. As a matter of fact, Stevens agrees with you.” But you see, if you do that in a play, after the third performance you go backstage and you tell that actor, “Look, tomorrow no cane. Okay. Tomorrow lose the cane.” But after the picture is half-finished, after I shot for four weeks with Stanwyck, now I know I made a mistake. I can’t say, “Look tomorrow, you ain’t going to be wearing the blonde wig.” I’m stuck… I can’t reshoot four weeks of stuff. I’m totally stuck. I’ve committed myself; the mistake was caught too late. Fortunately it did not hurt the picture. But it was too thick, we were not very clever about wig-making. But when people say, “My god, that wig. It looked phony,” I answer “You noticed that? That was my intention. I wanted the phoniness in the girl, bad taste, phony wig.” That is how I get out of it. —Billy Wilder: About Film Noir
The original scripts were printed with the title A Can of Beans, because the writers were afraid the studio wouldn’t support a script that might be seen as negative about the business. Their concerns may have been justified. When the film came out, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer reportedly screamed at Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood!” —Variety, 7/19/93
Billy Wilder on filming the swimming pool scene of Sunset Boulevard.
April 2013 lecture at Simon Fraser University about Sunset Boulevard by Charles Brackett’s nephew. Donald Brackett, an SFU Continuing Studies instructor, explored the dynamics behind the creation of the 1950 film noir classic Sunset Boulevard and the highly combustible and competitive partnership between its director, Billy Wilder, and its writer/producer, Charles Brackett. The lecture also covered the film’s large social impact on popular culture—in particular, the fascination with fame that saturates our contemporary social networks and the film’s prophetic nature in showing—over 60 years ago—the dangers of unbridled star-adulation and self-absorption. Some cinematic works of art have such an intuitive prescience into the human condition that they seem as fresh and insightful today as when they were produced. Sunset Boulevard is just such a film. As Charles Brackett’s nephew, Donald Brackett brings a wealth of personal knowledge and insight to this topic. He specializes in the history, theory, and practice of art, design, music, and architecture. He is also a well-known art historian and curator, and the author of many essays, articles, monographs, and books.
In this clip, writer Robert Towne discusses how Billy Wilder’s work with director Ernst Lubitsch influenced his concerns on this film and Wilder’s concerns with “selling out.”
FILM NOIR: BRINGING DARKNESS TO LIGHT
Film Noir burrows into the mind; it’s disorienting, intriguing and enthralling. Noir brings us into a gritty underworld of lush morbidity, providing intimate peeks at scheming dames, mischievous misfits and flawed men—all caught in the wicked web of a twisted fate. Gary Leva’s Bringing Darkness to Light is the definitive Film Noir documentary, exploring the roots of the genre, its expressions and meanings, and its influence on world cinema. Lavishly illustrated with clips from great Noir classics, the film explores the genre through interviews with filmmakers, actors, and writers such as Christopher Nolan, Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Michael Madsen, Gordon Willis, William Goldman and James Ellroy.
Bruce Block, whose book ‘The Visual Story’ I highly recommend to anyone looking to learn the cinematic language—breaks down some of the visuals of the given film and goes into how Billy Wilder approached filmmaking. —filmschoolthrucommentaries
‘BILLY, HOW DID YOU DO IT?’
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.
“You will not find in my pictures any phony camera moves or fancy setups to prove that I am a moving-picture director. My characters don’t rush around for the sake of being busy. I like to believe that movement can be achieved eloquently, elegantly, economically and logically without shooting from a hole in the ground, without hanging the camera from the chandelier and without the camera dolly dancing a polka.” —Billy Wilder (June 1963)
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Production still photographers: Glen E. Richardson, Allan Grant (The LIFE Picture Collection) © Paramount Pictures/Getty Images. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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