“The Wilder message is don’t bore – don’t bore people.”
By the time Billy Wilder directed Sunset Boulevard he had already worked on over 40 feature films. He had already been nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two for his work on The Lost Weekend. It’s safe to say that Wilder knew what he was doing when he made Sunset Boulevard which would bring him another Oscar as one of the movie’s three writers. A few years ago when the Writer’s Guild of America picked the best 101 screenplays of all-time they listed Sunset Boulevard at #7.
So just in case you aren’t that familiar with the film I wanted you to know the importance of the script and film. If you’ve read the post Screenwriting by the Numbers you’ll see how Sunset Boulevard perfectly fits the classic three-act structure. Heck, Wilder even fades to black so the audience doesn’t miss the act breaks. (A nod to the theater when the curtain would go down at act breaks.)
Here’s my breakdown of the movie and how it measures up with some things I’ve written about in the past. (It’s best read if you’ve seen the film because there are some spoilers mentioned. And this is a film that every writer should watch multiple times.)
Sunset Boulevard has 57 scenes. (40-60 is average for most feature films.)
Sunset Boulevard runs 110 minutes. Which averages around 2 minutes a scene. (Most features tend to run 90-120 minutes.)
Only three scenes are over three minutes in length and they are saved for key moments. (If characters move from one part of the house to the next and it’s a different camera set-up I mark that as a scene break.)
There are two main characters (Norma Desmond & Joe Gillis).
William Holden, who plays Gillis, is in almost every scene in the film. (“Stay with the money” is the old Hollywood saying.)
There are three reoccurring supporting characters (Max, Nancy, Artie).
Except for the long voice-overs of Joe Gillis, most dialogue is three lines or less.
There are three acts. Act 1 ends at 26:51, Act 2 ends at 75:48 min., and Act 3 ends, of course, at the end of the film 110 minutes. (Though the script does indicate they worked in five different sequences marking them “A,” “B”, “C”, “D” and “E.” so one could argue a five-act structure.)
There is one main story (Gillis writing Norma’s script and becoming a boy toy in the process) and three subplots. The subplot with Nancy ties directly to the main plot and the climax of the film. The youthful Nancy new to Hollywood also offers a contrast to Norma, the aging movie star.
Almost every scene has conversation with three people or less.
A good amount of the scenes are just two people talking.
Norma’s house is one giant set piece and where most of the story takes place.
The film is a mix of drama, comedy, action, satire, melodrama and film noir.
Gillis’ lack of work and money sets the story in motion. (Read the post Gordon Gekko vs. Paul Newman)
The title is literal and metaphorical as it is the name of a street in L.A. where Norma lives and sunset also represents her fading career/life. “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”
Contrasts is used throughout the film; interior/exterior scenes, day/night scenes, theme of rich/poor, old/young, small apartment/huge mansion.
Coincidence is used early in the film to put Gillis at Norma’s house.
Exposition is sprinkled throughout the film with Max’s little secret coming when toward the end of the film when it would have most impact.
The ending is ironic. Gillis gets his pool and Norma gets back in the spotlight. Though what they get is not in the way they thought they’d get it. He’s dead and she’s off to jail. (On top of that her desired close-up is out of focus.)
Of course, it was the solid writing during the 110 minutes that sets the film a part. That is the hard part. But I did want to show you the simplicity of limiting characters and locations as the writers Charles Brackett, D.M Marshman, Jr, and Wilder did on their way to creating screen magic.
The bottom line is study the masters.
Bonus low-budget production tip; To get the famous shot of Joe Gillis floating face down dead in the pool with the police looking down on him was shot by placing a mirror in the pool under the floating body and shooting down into the mirror. They found that having a water temp of 40 degrees added the right mix of visual clarity with a hint of distortion.
copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith