10 Great Screenwriting Tips from Billy Wilder

Just saw these 10 screenwriting tips from Billy Wilder when a friend shared the link from Gotham Writers website:

  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.
This is actually from Cameron Crowe’s amazing book Conversations with Wilder, which is the size of a coffee table book, but is worth every filmmaker reading cover to cover.

(One more random endorsement: Cameron Crowe’s DVD commentary on the extended “bootleg cut” of Almost Famous, in which he talks a bit about his relationship with Wilder, and Wilder’s reaction to watching a rough cut of the movie, is fantastic.)

Philip Seymour Hoffman

I had the good fortune to take a semester with Philip Seymour Hoffman in film school.  It was a class about directing actors, and before the first class started, I was excited because I loved him as an actor, but to be honest I also kept my expectations low.  I thought he would shuffle in, keep his eyes down, keep a removed presence from us — I think I had this preconception based on some of the more introverted roles he’d played up till that time — Happiness, Boogie Nights, etc (this was in 2003). Also, that was usually how famous people tended to be when they came to teach classes, in my experience. They liked the idea of giving back through teaching, but really their minds were elsewhere, out in the real world.

But I was very wrong. PSH couldn’t have been more engaged and committed with us, never mind he was also doing a full run of shows in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” at the same time, and we were just a bunch of unproven film students. He came to Columbia to teach us because he thought it was so vitally important that young filmmakers really know what it means to do the work: creating true characters, creating an atmosphere of trust for the actor, how to make no compromises and take no shortcuts. It was an important lesson that other teachers had tried to drill into us, but no one else was as passionate or as shining an example of it in their life and work. He talked the talk, even when he was teaching us.

He refused to let himself (or us) off the hook from looking at the hard aspects of the material, and he insisted we look into ourselves for the answer.  I think we mostly let him down with our scene work — we could never measure up.  But I learned a lot from him.

I’d leave class exhilarated every night.

I’m not sharing this as a way to tack on my fifteen minutes to an acting giant who has just passed away so tragically and upsettingly, but just to say that his class was one of my most memorable experiences. In such a short time, he had a profound effect on me.  I can only imagine how he must have touched and challenged those who really knew him best.

Above all, I was a fan.  He was one of the great actors, and I will miss him.

Martin Scorsese’s Open Letter to his Daughter

The George Lucas/Steven Spielberg “implosion” discussion got a lot more play a few months back, but to me this is a sequel with a lot more heart. An open letter from Scorsese to his daughter about how things aren’t going to be the same in cinema by the time she grows up.

My relationship to film has changed a lot in the last few years, and this open letter touches on a few reasons why.  It’s partly been life’s changes, but it’s also that the movies I see in theaters don’t often reflect the movies I fell in love with and set out to make when I first had the dream of being a filmmaker when I was 11 or 12, or even when I got out of college 10 years after that.  I’m not saying that I couldn’t come up with ten films this year that match up to ten great films from any other year.  As the Scorsese letter attests, the good ones are still out there, and the great filmmakers are still there. But is “cinema as we have known it” going to be the same kind of vital force in the same way?  I have a feeling that we’re seeing the end of cinema being the dominant cultural force in the U.S. right now, and I’m not just talking about the move to television.  There’s a bigger shift happening, and no one has put it more directly than the line in this letter that “audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema – moving pictures conceived by individuals – appear to be headed in different directions.”  That says it better than I’ve heard it.  I’m thankful for the people out there who are meditating on this subject like Scorsese, like Ted Hope and Mynette Louie, and filmmakers like Shane Carruth and Andrew Bujalski, who are not only great filmmakers but are also out there trying to figure out what this future will look like from the inside.

Here’s the full text of the letter:

Dearest Francesca,

I’m writing this letter to you about the future. I’m looking at it through the lens of my world. Through the lens of cinema, which has been at the center of that world.

For the last few years, I’ve realized that the idea of cinema that I grew up with, that’s there in the movies I’ve been showing you since you were a child, and that was thriving when I started making pictures, is coming to a close. I’m not referring to the films that have already been made. I’m referring to the ones that are to come.

I don’t mean to be despairing. I’m not writing these words in a spirit of defeat. On the contrary, I think the future is bright.

We always knew that the movies were a business, and that the art of cinema was made possible because it aligned with business conditions. None of us who started in the 60s and 70s had any illusions on that front. We knew that we would have to work hard to protect what we loved. We also knew that we might have to go through some rough periods. And I suppose we realized, on some level, that we might face a time when every inconvenient or unpredictable element in the moviemaking process would be minimized, maybe even eliminated. The most unpredictable element of all? Cinema. And the people who make it.

I don’t want to repeat what has been said and written by so many others before me, about all the changes in the business, and I’m heartened by the exceptions to the overall trend in moviemaking – Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Alexander Payne, the Coen Brothers, James Gray and Paul Thomas Anderson are all managing to get pictures made, and Paul not only got The Master made in 70mm, he even got it shown that way in a few cities. Anyone who cares about cinema should be thankful.

And I’m also moved by the artists who are continuing to get their pictures made all over the world, in France, in South Korea, in England, in Japan, in Africa. It’s getting harder all the time, but they’re getting the films done.

But I don’t think I’m being pessimistic when I say that the art of cinema and the movie business are now at a crossroads. Audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema – moving pictures conceived by individuals – appear to be headed in different directions. In the future, you’ll probably see less and less of what we recognize as cinema on multiplex screens and more and more of it in smaller theaters, online, and, I suppose, in spaces and circumstances that I can’t predict.

So why is the future so bright? Because for the very first time in the history of the art form, movies really can be made for very little money. This was unheard of when I was growing up, and extremely low budget movies have always been the exception rather than the rule. Now, it’s the reverse. You can get beautiful images with affordable cameras. You can record sound. You can edit and mix and color-correct at home. This has all come to pass.

But with all the attention paid to the machinery of making movies and to the advances in technology that have led to this revolution in moviemaking, there is one important thing to remember: the tools don’t make the movie, you make the movie. It’s freeing to pick up a camera and start shooting and then put it together with Final Cut Pro. Making a movie – the one you need to make – is something else. There are no shortcuts.

If John Cassavetes, my friend and mentor, were alive today, he would certainly be using all the equipment that’s available. But he would be saying the same things he always said – you have to be absolutely dedicated to the work, you have to give everything of yourself, and you have to protect the spark of connection that drove you to make the picture in the first place. You have to protect it with your life. In the past, because making movies was so expensive, we had to protect against exhaustion and compromise. In the future, you’ll have to steel yourself against something else: the temptation to go with the flow, and allow the movie to drift and float away.

This isn’t just a matter of cinema. There are no shortcuts to anything. I’m not saying that everything has to be difficult. I’m saying that the voice that sparks you is your voice – that’s the inner light, as the Quakers put it.

That’s you. That’s the truth.

All my love,




Mynette’s speech at the Indie Spirit Awards

My California Solo producer Mynette Louie and I got to go to the Independent Spirit Awards last week.  Mynette was lucky to be one of the only nominees who didn’t have to be too nervous about whether or not she’d win — they’d already given her the Piaget Producers Award a few weeks earlier at a special luncheon.  Still, she had to go on-stage before a lot of folks. Her speech at the awards show didn’t make the television broadcast. It’s worth a watch, and while there’s a lot to question about the “independent spirit” of these awards (see Andy Samberg’s opening monologue), Mynette showed why she’s the real deal:

California Solo Opens Today!

California Solo opens today in New York!  I’ll be at a number of the screenings this weekend with some of the cast and crew.

Please help us spread the word by posting, tweeting, etc.  For those of you who live in Los Angeles, tell your New York friends to come, and please join us next weekend at the Landmark Nuart.



“A BRAVURA PERFORMANCE…DONT-MISS” -  Rex Reed, New York Observer

(Find more lovely press here)

“California Solo” picked up by Strand Releasing

I was in Mexico last week and blessedly unplugged from email/internet for the first time in what’s been a busy year.  But while I was away, some exciting news was announced: California Solo was picked up for U.S. distribution by Strand Releasing!  Some amazing films have been released by Strand, including Cannes Palme d’Or winner ‘Uncle
Boonmee’; Sundance/Toronto selection & BAFTA winner ‘Tyrannosaur’; and
films by Gaspar Noé, Lodge Kerrigan, Hal Hartley, Fatih Akin, François Ozon, and
Gregg Araki.  It’s a huge honor to be in this company.

Strand is planning a theatrical release this fall in NY, L.A., and other cities to follow. Some press links from last week:

Deadline.com | Strand Releasing Acquires Sundance’s ‘California Solo’

Indiewire | Strand Releasing Buys Sundance Drama ‘California Solo’
Starring Robert Carlyle

Screen International | Strand Releasing takes US rights to ‘California Solo’