In 1988, Volker Schlöndorff, the director of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and The Tin Drum, brought a camera crew into Billy Wilder’s Los Angeles office. The goal, as Schlöndorff put it, was to record “an improvised conversation between friends.” The special three-hour version of the resulting documentary, Billy, How Did You Do It?, was originally aired on the BBC soon afterward (against Wilder’s wishes). But it had not been publicly shown until Film Forum’s special screening in September, during its run of Schlöndorff's cut of The Tin Drum.
It all started with an effusive letter from Wilder that Schlöndorff initially thought was a hoax. Surely, he reasoned, the great Billy Wilder doesn’t send fan mail to young directors, telling them that their films (The Tin Drum, in this case) are the greatest to come from German cinema since Fritz Lang’s M. But the letter was genuine and the two men became friends.
Split into three parts, Billy, How Did You Do It? is mostly set in Wilder's office, with Schlöndorff and crew sitting opposite the legendary writer-director. Schlöndorff peppers Wilder with questions which he answers from behind his desk while multitasking—chewing on pills, fiddling with a backscratcher, and answering the phone in French. Linking these bull sessions are illustrative clips from Wilder's films and the occasional Intimate Aside in which Schlöndorff—clad in a velveteen vest and shot from close-up—glosses the preceding sequences with Herzog-esque meta-ironic earnestness.
We learn that Wilder was nicknamed Billy by his mother, and started out as a journalist and press agent for a Berlin jazz band, and at one point, according to Schlöndorff, may have worked as a male “go-go dancer at a club for lonely hearts” to make ends meet. Jewish, he fled Germany as the Nazis gained power, first stopping in France and then coming to Hollywood, where he would go on to write and direct Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, winning six Oscars along the way.
Wilder seemed to have a wise quip for everything: “If the [audience] notices the camera, you’re lost;” “Never do an interview on a moving chair;” and “You have to use both knees”—finishing the sentence in German, “to kick them in the balls.” When Wilder faced a situation for which he lacked a rule, he consulted a sign on his office wall that read, “What would Lubitsch do?”
Although Wilder had a rule against fraternizing with actors, he happily broke it for Marlene Dietrich, whom he held in particularly high esteem as a person, an actress and a “great technician” who was capable of telling when “a key light was out of place.” When in Paris he would telephone her, but always evasive, she would “impersonate a Czech cook or a French maid.” When he'd finally convince her he knew it was her on the phone, she'd invent excuses.
Unlike Dietrich, Wilder claimed to be uninterested in the technical craft of filmmaking, and was content to leave “looking through the camera” to his “excellent” DPs. Yet he was an avid collector of art from his earliest days in Berlin to his later acquisition of works by Picasso, Matisse, and Schiele. Schlöndorff attended the collection’s 1989 sale at Sotheby’s, which Wilder said netted him more money than all of the film work he had ever done combined. A savvy businessman, Wilder was also a restaurateur whose Beverly Hills joint The Bistro took its interior—literally, according to Schlöndorff—from the set of Irma la Douce, thanks to a deal Wilder had struck with production designer Alexandre Trauner.
Wilder's grumpy exterior masked a magnanimous spirit and a fecund mind. Drafted into the US Army at the end of WWII, Wilder was perhaps the first filmmaker to turn footage of the concentration camps into a film. As part of the Army's effort to reeducate the German public, he organized screenings of his 1945 documentary Death Mill about the Nazi atrocities in the camps (where his own mother had been gassed). As Wilder tells it, before one screening, paper and pencils were distributed to the audience of German civilians with the request that they write down their responses to the film. By the time the movie ended, Wilder recalls with a pregnant smile, “barely anyone remained, not one card was filled out and all of the pencils had been stolen.”
When a fellow got too puffed up, Wilder was more than happy to burst his bubble. Despite Erich von Stroheim’s claims of real-life military accomplishment, Wilder dryly notes, he was only ever a drill sergeant in the Mexican army. When Raymond Chandler—not satisfied with the role of co-screenwriter for Double Indemnity—informed Wilder that he would also be in charge of camera placement, Wilder didn’t hesitate to set him straight.
But as a prolific screenwriter himself, Wilder respected the craft: “A writer has to be many things—an organizer, an architect, a bookkeeper.” For him, writing screenplays was less about creativity than about the selective curation and ordering of one's ideas, however catchy or numerous: “For every 500 great dialogue writers, there are maybe five who are great constructionists. It's the toughest thing to do.”
After Sunday’s screening, Volker Schlöndorff took questions from the audience. But, not having seen Billy, How Did You Do It? in 20 years, he was quickly moved to tears, and asked for a moment to compose himself. Having worked as assistant director to Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Resnais, Schlöndorff explained that his background in film was not really what one might expect from a Billy Wilder fan. Yet even during the shoot of Last Year at Marienbad, he made sure to “sneak away and go see the opening night of The Apartment.” Schlöndorff confessed, “I was always torn between the nouvelle vague and Billy Wilder.”
As Schlöndorff’s film demonstrates, Wilder often spoke in parables that exploded into confetti when you touched them; everything was a gag because, well, everything was a gag at some level. Fond of remarking that “a beautiful woman verges on the edge of ugliness,” Wilder used movies to articulate the knife's edge on which laughter and tears were inextricably bound. “You have to use both knees.”