Conversations with Wilder

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In Conversations with Wilder, Hollywood's legendary and famously elusive director Billy Wilder agrees for the first time to talk extensively about his life and work.

Here, in an extraordinary book with more than 650 black-and-white photographs -- including film posters, stills, grabs, and never-before-seen pictures from Wilder's own collection -- the ninety-three-year-old icon talks to Cameron Crowe, one of today's best-known writer-directors, about thirty years at the very ...

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In Conversations with Wilder, Hollywood's legendary and famously elusive director Billy Wilder agrees for the first time to talk extensively about his life and work.

Here, in an extraordinary book with more than 650 black-and-white photographs -- including film posters, stills, grabs, and never-before-seen pictures from Wilder's own collection -- the ninety-three-year-old icon talks to Cameron Crowe, one of today's best-known writer-directors, about thirty years at the very heart of Hollywood, and about screenwriting and camera work, set design and stars, his peers and their movies, the studio system and films today. In his distinct voice we hear Wilder's inside view on his collaborations with such stars as Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, William Holden, Audrey Hepburn, and Greta Garbo (he was a writer at MGM during the making of Ninotchka. Here are Wilder's sharp and funny behind-the-scenes stories about the making of A Foreign Affair, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Love in the Afternoon, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Ace in the Hole, among many others. Wilder is ever mysterious, but Crowe gets him to speak candidly on Stanwyck: "She knew the script, everybody's lines, never a fault, never a mistake"; on Cary Grant: "I had Cary Grant in mind for four of my pictures . . . slipped through my net every time"; on the "Lubitsch Touch": "It was the elegant use of the super-joke." Wilder also remembers his early years in Vienna, working as a journalist in Berlin, rooming with Peter Lorre at the Chateau Marmont -- always with the same dry wit, tough-minded romanticism, and elegance that are the hallmarks of Wilder's films. This book is a classic of Hollywood history and lore.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A world-class director interviews the Master, and every line is fascinating. As with Zen and the Art of Archery and other texts about mastery, the shock of pleasure in reading this enlightened and affectionate conversation is the utter simplicity that comes with true mastery. There is laughter too, as with anything first-rate in this form. Wilder and Crowe don't waste time on theory or generalities, and the result -- as in their film work -- is truth, pure and simple." -- Mike Nichols

"It's always best to hear straight from the director about his own work. This book of interviews is just that: rich in information and autobiographical detail, filled with wonderful anecdotes and observations, often irreverent and hilarious, and sometimes surprisingly moving. Cameron Crowe's book is like Wilder's best films: sharply observed, absolutely succinct and precise, funny but always with a very strong, serious foundation. Billy Wilder is one of the few genuine masters we have left, from a period in film history that is now gone. Which makes Conversations with Wilder all the more precious and valuable." -- Martin Scorsese

Scott Tobias
In his memorable Oscar acceptance speech for 1993's Best Foreign Film winner Belle Epoque, Spanish director Fernando Trueba quipped, "I'd like to thank God, but I don't believe in God, so I'd like to thank Billy Wilder." It's a tribute to the venerable comic genius behind Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment that Trueba may have been only half-joking.

Since Wilder's retirement after 1981's Buddy Buddy, many aspiring filmmakers have made a pilgrimage to his office in Beverly Hills, but Cameron Crowe--whose impressive credits include Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Say Anything..., and Jerry Maguire--was intent on sticking around until the elusive 91-year-old answered all his questions. Crowe's persistent visits finally broke down the director's resolve, and their lively sessions are documented in the essential Conversations With Wilder, a candid and frequently hilarious volume on his life and work. Doomed from the start to fall under the shadow of François Truffaut's Hitchcock--for the obvious reason that Crowe is no Truffaut and Wilder is no Hitchcock--their dialogue contains the expected, though still priceless, anecdotes about four decades in Hollywood. But it's also a surprisingly insightful look into Wilder's creative mind. A former writer and associate editor for Rolling Stone, Crowe uses his skill as a journalist to coax Wilder into in-depth discussions about his successes and failures, each recalled with a vividness that belies his age. Wilder's unfailing populist instincts have most of his opinions corresponding with public response--though he's proud of his lacerating media satire Ace In The Hole a.k.a. The Big Carnival, a box-office disaster--but he claims no higher goal than entertaining the masses. To that end, Conversations makes a solid case for Wilder as one of cinema's supreme entertainers. Just leafing through the book's collection of black-and-white stills is like taking a brief, nostalgic tour through a Golden Age in American comedy.

Charles Winecoff
Though there have been several Wilder biographies in recent years, this is probably the best book about his work to date, since Crowe is able to extract so much new behind-the-scenes detail from the notoriously reticent filmmaker.
Entertainment Weekly
Ben Greenman
Remembering those films, Wilder displays an uncharacteristic vulnerability. In fact, Crowe's portrait of the director, alternating between caustic irony and frank pathos, calls to mind one of Wilder's films. And that may be the highest praise of all.
Time Out New York
Tom Huntington
Lavishly illustrated, Conversations with Wilder provides much to facinate film buffs and also offers an understated but warm look at the growing friendship between interviewer and subject. If nothing else, it's evidence that, like Sunset Boulevard's Nora Desmond, Wilder is still big- it's the pictures that got small.
American History
Scott Heller
Outstanding. Crow knows his way around a movie set, certainly, but he's also a superb interviewer—generous, perceptive, almost inhumanly thorough...In spending more than a year interviewing Billy Wilder, Crowe wrote a book for the ages.
American Prospect
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375709678
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/25/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 8.04 (w) x 9.99 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Cameron Crowe was an associate editor and frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. In 1979, he wrote the book Fast Times at Ridgemont High and later adapted it as a screenplay. He wrote and directed Say Anything, Singles, and the Academy Award-winning Jerry Maguire. He lives in Los Angeles and Seattle.
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Read an Excerpt

CAMERON CROWE: You've written women characters so well over the years. You had no sisters. Is there a character who resembles your mother in any of the movies?

BILLY WILDER: No. My mother was different. No, you see, we were not a family of readers, of collectors, of theatergoers. My father was a man who dabbled in many directions. He was an owner of a string of railroad restaurants. In those days we didn't have diners, I am talking about the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. So he had restaurants at various stations, where the trains stopped. The guy came with the bell, "We are staying here for forty-five minutes!" People are stuck there. The menus are all printed already. They ate there.

CC: Did you ever feel the desire to do an autobiographical movie, about your childhood?

BW: No. I graduated from the worst high school in Vienna. The students were either retarded, or they were crazy geniuses, absolutely. And the sad thing was that when I came to Vienna the last time, three years ago, I told the newspaper people, "Please write, anybody who went to school with me, please call me, I am at the Bristol Hotel." Not one called me all day. Five years before that, when I was in Vienna, I had a big lunch, and I told the concierge, "If somebody asks for me, I'm not here. I'm going to bed." Fifteen minutes later, the phone rings, and he says, "I'm very sorry, Mr. Wilder, but there is a man who went to school with you -- his name is Martini." And I said, "Martini, of course! Martini! Have him come up!" Then the guy comes there. Bowed forward. Bald-headed. "Hello, Mr. Wilder." And I say, "Martini! Do you remember this guy, this professor? . . . Do you remember these things!?" [Quietly:] And he looks at me and says, "I think you are talking about my father. He died four years ago." He had the son that looked like him. So the guys are gone, you know.

This is ninety years old. If somebody would have come to me when I was twenty, and said, "How would you like to get to be seventy?" I would have said, "You've got a deal! Seventy!" Now I am twenty and a half years older than that, and nobody will make that bet anymore. [Laughs.]

CC: Did you have a sense that you would live a long life?

BW: Not at all. No. I've had so many crazy things happen in my life. But it would not have ended by suicide. It would not have been being caught with somebody's wife, or something like that. This is not my style. I'm too clever for that. I wrote that too often.

CC: It's interesting, because when I first became a director, somebody said to me, "Well, you know, your life expectancy just went down, because the average age of a director is fifty-eight."

BW: Don't tell anybody my age. Shhhhhh.

CC: You think to yourself, I could be a dentist and live twenty years longer.

BW: I believe it. A director -- a serious director, not a director of television, or something like that -- it eats you inside. You just have to absorb so much. And the thing is that you have to swallow so much shit from people. It's a very, very simple formula. You've got to live with them, once you've started with them. Because if the picture is half-finished, if there's anything wrong, they're gonna throw me out, not one of the actors.

CC: I had that thought when Tom Cruise signed on for Jerry Maguire. My first thought was that if there were a serious problem, I would be gone and he would still be there. I would wake up on a desert island, someone would put a drink with an umbrella in my hand, and I would say, "Excuse me, but wasn't I directing a movie with Tom Cruise yesterday?" [We laugh.]

BW: But that did not happen. He is a thinking actor. He makes it look effortless. For example, Rain Man. It took several years for everyone to realize that the roles could have been switched. That is a movie I would have liked to have seen -- the crazy guy is the good-looking one. The ease in which he handles the hardest roles . . . Tom Cruise, he's like Cary Grant. He makes the hard things look simple. On film, Cary Grant could walk into the room and say "Tennis anyone?" like no one else. You don't value the skill until you see a less skilled actor try the same thing. It's pure gold.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction xi
1 Jack Lemmon and George Cukor
Final scene of Some Like It Hot
"Cary Grant slipped through my net every time"
On Spielberg and Kubrick
"Mr. Goldwyn knew what was working"
Charles Boyer and the cockroach
Dancing in Berlin
"Laughton was everything that you can dream of, times ten"
The "Lubitsch touch"
Marilyn Monroe
Collaborating with Charles Brackett and I. A. L. Diamond
2 William Holden for Sunset Boulevard
Double Indemnity
"You dig?"
Audrey Hepburn
"It was a picture that looked like a newsreel"
"Fritz Lang told me, 'Look for the good shooters'"
The broken compact mirror
Thonet furniture and art direction in The Apartment
Shooting in black-and-white
Dietrich lit herself
On not losing the straight line
3 Jean Arthur
A Foreign Affair
"Dietrich would do anything that I wanted her to do"
The look
Ace in the Hole
"You can never predict an audience's reaction"
The Seven Year Itch
Lindbergh and The Spirit of St. Louis
Gary Cooper
"I don't shoot elegant pictures"
Dirty men and Stalag 17
"When I write, I'd like to direct. When I direct, I'd like to write"
4 The ghost of Sunset Boulevard hung over Fedora
"I'm a company man"
"There are no rules"
Romantic comedies
"Jack Lemmon was my Everyman"
First love
The Fortune Cookie
Mother at Auschwitz
"I never introduce anybody to an agent"
Jean Renoir and Fellini
"Print number one"
5 Picasso and Freud
"Make it true, make it seem true"
Leading men and leading ladies
"You are attracted to something which is on the screen only"
Love in the Afternoon
"I never raise my voice on the second or third take"
Witness for the Prosecution
Charles Laughton
Dean Martin
Some Like It Hot
"I never knew what Marilyn was going to do"
One Two Three
"Overall, audiences are much smarter than what they are getting"
6 Fleeing Berlin for Paris after the Reichstag fire
"Mom was a good cook"
Reflection in the monocle
"Capra hit the times right on the head"
Preston Sturges in the Cafe Alexandre
Howard Hawks and Ball of Fire
Barbara Stanwyck dancing "Drum Boogie"
A script on scratch paper
Writing for other directors
Final shot of Ace in the Hole
"I never put much camera direction into the screenplays"
Marx Brothers
Mars and time capsules
7 Scoring a film
Shooting at the Hotel del Coronado
Givenchy for Audrey Hepburn
Drag in Some Like It Hot
"We have sold out to the guys making special effects"
Newspapermen in Vienna and Berlin
Ghostwriting for movies
Ginger Rogers
"I always need a plot"
Jazz in Berlin
"I write with the camera, but not too much"
8 The Front Page
Pauline Kael
"Famous 'lost sequences'"
Woody Allen
Hiding the plot point
Roommate Peter Lorre at the Chateau Marmont
Five Graves to Cairo
"Pictures were made to play for a week"
The Lost Weekend
John Barrymore
Wilder's women
"I'm at my best writing against my mood"
Working with I. A. L. Diamond
Good sentimentality
9 The small movie
Exercising with Billy
Salinger and Catcher in the Rye
Lubitsch and Ninotchka
"We made fifty pictures a year then. But we wrote a hundred and fifty"
"I don't make cinema, I make movies"
Monday Night Football at the Wilders'
"I am mostly a writer"
Timing and casting
"Lubitsch did it better"
The Movies 332
Miscellany 355
Index of Film Titles 361
General Index 364
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2003

    A Treasure For Wilder Fans

    This is truly the most enjoyable Billy Wilder book I have ever read, for the simple fact that it is in his own witty words. We should be grateful that Cameron Crowe took on this incredible task and assembled these intelligent and entertaining interviews with Billy, the last great cinematic genius of his era.

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