The process by which a writer tells a story in dramatic form is frequently discussed here. And I try to throw in a few jokes, keep it amusing. Now at the Vineyard off Union Square, Mike Bencivenga’s play Billy & Ray does something I don’t think has ever been done before: depicting writers coming up with a masterpiece of popular dramatic art. I’ll have more things to say about my own process, creating non-masterpiece musicals, in upcoming entries. But don’t wait around for that: Get thee to the Vineyard!
Amazingly, it’s based on a true story. In 1943, a potboiler by James M. Cain was adapted into the breakthrough film noir Double Indemnity by a delightfully odd couple, Hollywood insider Billy Wilder and the pulp novelist Raymond Chandler, who knew nothing about cinema. There they are, forced to deal with each other, forced to meet a deadline. There’s a fretful producer, a doubting Thomas of a studio exec, and, worst of all, censors to deal with. For Billy and Ray, though, the hardest thing to deal with is each other’s personality: they get under each other’s skin.
That reminds me of a song, but not the one you’d suspect. In 1940, Larry Hart’s Take Him lyric (from Pal Joey) includes the line “I know a movie executive who’s twice as bright.” That’s a hell of an insult, I always thought, especially back when my father was a network television executive. I’m also reminded that I once considered making a Cain story into a musical. But, since I don’t recall anything about that, back to the play:
Collaborators Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler meet every weekday in Wilder’s studio office. This, naturally, puts the partners on unequal footing. Billy’s in his lair, comfortable enough to carry on conversations through the bathroom door while he’s using it. Chandler’s used to pounding his Underwood home alone, but, for the hefty weekly salary Paramount is offering, he’ll try it this way. So, already you can see that the big difference between this situation and musical writing isn’t the lack of piano, it’s the fact that these lucky ducks get paid to do it.
Early on, the idea that Billy and Ray will manage to work together seems so impossible, people literally bet against it. But Wilder ascribed to the principle, “If another person’s going to agree with me on everything, I don’t need him in the room.” It’s very amusing to watch polar opposites make the necessary accommodations enabling them to reach their common goal. Speaking as someone who’s suffered through a number of insufferable collaborative situations, and yet lived to tell the tale and got a number of shows on the boards, it’s telling that Wilder and Chandler don’t disagree about what they want their movie to be at its core. Murder, avarice and truly sexual lust: these elements are the essence of Double Indemnity and both pairs of eyes stay on that prize. (Once, when writing a piece about contemporary reality, I had to part company with a collaborator who wanted to send all seven characters on a trip to outer space together. I’m not kidding. Wish I was.)
Spending so much time in a room together means unraveling each other’s mysteries. Chandler, a detective story-writer, has a natural inclination to sleuth. Wilder wants to know what makes his partner tick not as a would-be gumshoe, but as someone so interested in character, he’s fascinated by motivation. And, of course, all these themes and discoveries find their way into the finished film. But Billy and Ray don’t seem aware of this process. The audience is captivated, seeing something the characters don’t see, and that’s the stuff of great drama.
And, here, great comedy. Wilder is something of an unstoppable force of mayhem, with an eye towards finding the fun to be had in any situation. Stuck with a serious-minded confederate, he pokes fun and goes to great lengths to loosen Ray up. Since we fans of stage comedies are rooting for frivolity to carry the day, we cheer the effort, and feel complicit in its darker complications. But I don’t want to give away too much.
But wait, you say, we all know how this story ends: They succeeded in making Double Indemnity, widely acknowledged as one of the screen’s greatest dramas. Funny you should say that, because in Double Indemnity (as well as Wilder’s other serious masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard), we also know the ending at the beginning. The question of how, exactly, did they get to that ending, spurs our interest every minute of the movie, and every minute of this play.
And by “our” I mean, in particular, those who are interested in the process of how entertainments are created: I’m looking at you, readers-of-this-blog. Have the fun of peeking in on a mismatched pair hammering out a highly-regarded script, as imagined by Mike Bencivenga. The man’s a great entertainer himself and here proves himself such an expert on collaboration, I have to say I can’t wait to collaborate with him.
But I’ll let Wilder have the last word:
- The audience is fickle.
- Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around.