Writer’s Desk: Billy Wilder’s Rules

After Cameron Crowe failed to convince director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd., too many other classics to mention) to play a small role in Jerry Maguire, the two struck up a friendship. That turned into a series of conversations. That turned into a book.

That book contained Wilder’s rules for writing. They mostly involve getting attention, not letting up, and then grabbing people’s attention again. He specifies it’s for screenwriting specifically, but many if not all apply to most any kind of fiction:

  • 1: The audience is fickle.
  • 2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
  • 3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  • 4: Know where you’re going.
  • 5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  • 6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  • 7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  • 8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  • 9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  • 10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Screening Room: Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a bandit of an actor. From The Talented Mr. Ripley to Charlie Wilson’s War and The Ides of March, he was rarely better than when committing full-scale larceny on the screen—walking away with an entire film while leaving A-list actors stumbling about in his wake.

With such a rich body of work cut so horrendously short, you would think it would be hard to zoom in on one particular performance that summed up his appeal. But it’s not. Almost every writer who saw Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous still remembers the scene when Hoffman, as stupendously self-destructive rock writer Lester Bangs, advises the film’s adolescent wannabe scribe about remaining true to the art and not giving in to the temptations of flattery and cool.

A few lines are thrown into the lonely night (“good lookin’ people, they got no spine…their art never lasts”) and Hoffman creates a brotherhood of uncool with his awe-inspiring mix of gruff attitude and aching vulnerability:

The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.

The writing is Crowe’s but Hoffman makes it immortal: