This week the Film Forum is showing a single screening of Billy, How Did You Do It?, a documentary by Volker Schlöndorff on the filmmaker Billy Wilder. More often than not, in a conversation on film the question isn’t whether someone likes Billy Wilder, but rather, how much?
Wilder, who died just over a decade ago, was responsible for writing and directing over a dozen of the most influential films in cinematographic history. He wrote and directed The Apartment, widely recognized as an example of the perfect screenplay. He had a famously aggressive personality, but was, by many accounts, very sweet at times. He had a recognizably heavy German-Jewish accent, a frighteningly low tolerance for poor thinkers, and was famous for his squabbles with Bogie and for driving Raymond Chandler crazy when they co-wrote Double Indemnity–the quintessential Film Noir. In short, Billy Wilder left his mark on Hollywood.
He also left an impression on director Volker Schlöndorff, who noticed a sign hanging in Wilder’s office that read “How Would Lubitsch Have Done It?” This was a reference to director, writer, and producer Ernst Lubitsch, with whom Wilder collaborated several times over his career. This sign made Schlöndorff ask himself a similar question about Billy Wilder, and this question manifested itself in several weeks of non-stop, recorded interviews with Wilder.
The final results were long rants, anecdotes, bizarre and personal stories, meditations on film and art, a lot of joking, some friendly bickering, all jumping back and forth between German and English. The documentary offers unrestricted access to one of the most important filmmakers, and to one of Hollywood’s most interesting and unusual characters. It is a rare glimpse into Wilder’s mind as it existed off paper and off celluloid. Edited, Billy, How Did You Do It?, is just a few minutes short of three hours. Concerned that it wouldn’t pass Wilder’s standard of excellence–which, to be fair, was unreasonably high–Schlöndorff tried at first to prevent the film from ever being shown. Schlöndorff will be at The Film Forum to introduce his film.
Billy, How Did You Do It? [Film Forum]