Billy Wilder and Improvisation

Billy Wilder was a writer and director of some of my favorite movies. He directed “Some Like It Hot” and wrote “The Seven Year Itch.” I recently read his rules for film-making and thought it applied to longform improvisation (especially the Harold) quite nicely. Here’s what I discovered:

220px-Some_Like_It_Hot_poster1. The audience is fickle.

True, don’t be lead by what they think is funny.. trust the ensemble and show to lead you- not applause or laughs.

2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go!

Be interesting! Especially with improv, how can so many shows look and seem so familiar? Break your own “style” and create new, fascinating shows based on each unique suggestion.

3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

Avoid plot, but when it does show up try to keep it simple so that the characters are still interesting in and of themselves.

4. Know where you’re going.

This depends on the form, of course, but know your form. In the Harold, in the third beats we know that the end for these characters is near—let’s provide some sort of resolution for them.

5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

And the better you are as an improviser.

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

Replace the word “act” with “beats” and you get the picture.

7. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.

Subtlety is our friend. We don’t have to beat them over the head.

8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.

Spot on. And I’d add call-backs and tag-outs to that admonition as well.

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

The second act/chapters of a Harold (or a longform) should be about change or decisions… this will greatly influence the end of the “movie.”

10. The act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then- that’s it. Don’t hang around.

If we know it’s the end, let’s act like it. Make a finale, be climatic, wrap it up and perhaps have someone you trust on lights.


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