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Playing by his rules

Billy Wilder told me which camera angles to avoid, what shoes to buy, what to eat, and to never be boring.

June 18, 2006|Volker Schlondorff | Special to The Times

"ARE we boring you?" Billy Wilder turned to ask his rapt Sunday guests, before returning to the saucy conversation he was having with screen legend Marlene Dietrich.

"Your violin teacher, was he before or after the aging actor?" Wilder asked, trying to catch up with her catalog of lovers.

"Before, of course, but there was a woman in between," she responded.

"Fritzi Massary?"

"Yes, I think it was her."

"I'll never get your affairs straight," Wilder said, before turning back to his guests and once again asking, "Are we boring you?"

It was Wilder's First Commandment: Never bore anyone! Neither in front of the camera nor behind it, neither in the screening nor drawing room, not on the phone nor in a restaurant. Wilder on the set -- a battered cap perched rakishly on his head, pacing restlessly back and forth, dispatching witty remarks right and left, single-handedly entertaining his entire team: This is how I remember him, from our first meeting in 1976, during the shooting of "Fedora," his second-to-last film.

He was already 70 at the time, vivacious and chipper -- and if not quite wise, at least no longer caustic. He did not direct his leads, he performed with them, palavering in French with Marthe Keller, in Berlin dialect with Hildegard Knef, and in Brooklyn slang with William Holden. Rather than acting out a scene himself to indicate what he was looking for, he used ironic exaggeration. It is my hope to someday achieve his seemingly carefree levity. For as different as our personalities and films may be, he has always been my role model.

I still remember how proud I was the day I received a letter from him. He had seen "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" and he wrote, "... simply the best German picture since Fritz Lang's 'M.' " I drafted one reply after another -- but, in the end, I was too embarrassed to send anything. Then, one day, I got a chiding call from Wilder's agent: "He sent you a fan letter months ago, which you didn't even seem to feel the need to reply to. Mr. Wilder is in Munich, staying in the Four Seasons Hotel. Come and apologize!"

I did. Then, whenever I could, I went to watch him on the set of "Fedora." Scurrying between the camera and actors, he gave out small lessons in filmmaking. Comedies, he said, are like Swiss clockwork: Just as one gear wheel locks into another, each rejoinder drives the next; the straight line must be delivered clearly before the punch line, then a short pause for laughter, followed by another punch line to redouble the laughter and to keep it going. Nothing is worse than sporadic laughter -- only roaring, continuous laughter brings down the house.

As long as he was making jokes, he did not have to talk to anyone on the set. He never wanted to be a confessor, shrink or father-figure. Deflecting every serious moment with a joke, Wilder gained a reputation as a cynic. But for him it was only a question of dignity: The really serious things we should keep to ourselves.

I wanted to learn from Billy Wilder the way he had been inspired by German director Ernst Lubitsch. (As the sign written in large calligraphic letters on the wall of Wilder's office asked, "How would Lubitsch do it?")

But what did I have in common with Billy Wilder? Next to nothing, if you consider our films, except maybe our predilection for journalists as movie characters. And yet, we were friends for 25 years, until his death in 2002. We often discussed films, and he was always full of stories, tricks, rules, answers. He had rules for every situation in life, in a script and on the set: how something should be done, and what should not be done under any circumstances. What shoes you should buy and where. What you should eat. What cut you should never make, and what camera angle you should never use (worm's-eye view or from a chandelier). What an actor cannot express without looking stupid (a sudden realization). What is indecent to show (a close-up of a person who has just learned of a friend's or relative's death).

I had always wanted to make a compilation of all these rules, to put together a little handbook of "Filmmaking According to Billy Wilder." But when I would suggest bringing along a camera, he would talk me out of it.

Until one morning in January 1988, at around 9:30 a.m., I met Mr. Wilder, then 81, on the way to his small office on Santa Monica Boulevard, which was really more of a writer's studio. At the time, Wilder was working on a book with German writer Hellmuth Karasek. I asked if I could join them with a little camera, and he finally agreed. Just as he had wished, my conversations with Wilder remained under lock and key during his lifetime. He gave me permission to show them in the United States only after his death: "Who cares what people think of me then?" he had said.


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