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INTERVIEW : A New Turn for ‘Sunset Boulevard’ : Billy Wilder dismisses rumors that he’s unhappy about the adaptation of his film. It was a ‘wonderful surprise,’ he says

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Previews finally start tomorrow in London, after two weeks’ delay caused by technical problems, of the most eagerly awaited stage musical in several years: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of the classic 1950 Billy Wilder film “Sunset Boulevard.” It is costing about $4.5 million to stage, and Lloyd Webber has spent twice that on buying and refurbishing the Adelphi Theatre, where it will be performed.

Still, advance bookings for “Sunset Boulevard” already amount to $4.5 million, which suggests that it will follow a pattern established by Lloyd Webber musicals such as “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” “Starlight Express,” “Evita” and “Aspects of Love.” These works are generally adored by the millions who have seen them while enjoying at best faint critical praise.

“Cats” alone has grossed $1 billion and has been seen by 42 million people. “Phantom” and “Starlight” are still playing in several productions worldwide. The next production of “Sunset Boulevard” is already fixed; it is scheduled to have its U.S. premiere Dec. 2 at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, with Glenn Close in the lead role (previews begin Nov. 18).

In London, Patti LuPone, formerly Evita on Broadway and recently star of ABC’s drama series “Life Goes On,” plays Norma Desmond, the faded silent-screen star holed up in her opulent Beverly Hills mansion, hoping in vain for a comeback. The role was memorably played in the film by Gloria Swanson.

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Opposite Swanson was William Holden as Joe Gillis, the younger, down-at-the-heels, ambitious Hollywood writer upon whom she showers gifts and money so he will stick around and write a script in which she will star; his disgust at being a kept man and gigolo becomes increasingly apparent. Gillis is played in London by Kevin Anderson (“Sleeping With the Enemy,” “JFK”).

Playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) wrote the book from the original script by Wilder, his partner Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr.

The imminent opening of Lloyd Webber’s production has re-awakened interest in the prime mover of “Sunset Boulevard.” Billy Wilder is acknowledged as the greatest living veteran among Hollywood filmmakers. He was born in Austria 87 years ago and as a young man worked as a newspaper reporter before ghostwriting scripts for about 200 silent movies in Berlin.

He arrived in Hollywood in 1934. With Brackett (and Walter Reisch) he wrote “Ninotchka” (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Greta Garbo. During World War II, Wilder started directing his movies as well as writing them (with Brackett, then with I. A. L. Diamond). In an astonishing 16-year spell Wilder made seven Hollywood classics: “Double Indemnity” (1944), “The Lost Weekend” (1945), “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Some Like It Hot” (1959) and “The Apartment” (1960).

He directed his last film 12 years ago, but each day Wilder goes to work at his Beverly Hills office, which he mans alone with only occasional help. In his thick Austrian accent he talked and reminisced for almost two hours. His conversation is cheerfully profane; Wilder retains his famously venomous wit, which, as usual, is often aimed at modern-day Hollywood. He is notoriously sour about the fact that he has no financial stake in the movie of “Sunset Boulevard.” As he wrote to Christopher Hampton “Call it injustice or a cruel boo-boo of the capitalist system, the sole possessor of the property is Paramount Pictures.”

But Wilder is genuinely enthusiastic about Lloyd Webber’s stage adaptation and wanted to quash a lingering rumor that he was unhappy about it.

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Question: So--are you concerned about the musical?

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Answer: Not at all. When they sent me the libretto of this, this opera-to-be, I was absolutely staggered, you know? By this wonderful surprise, this great idea that occurred to them. They left the script alone. They didn’t try to improve on it.

I’ll be at the first night, and I’ll be interested to see how they solve the technical questions. But I have the discipline of being one of the audience, wondering what they have done. I don’t want to be sitting there like an expert. I want to be naive and pretend I’ve never seen it before.

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Q: A lot of people have contemplated making a musical from “Sunset Boulevard.” I think Hal Prince optioned it. Sondheim was considering it. Why do you think it seems to lend itself to a stage treatment?

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A: I don’t know why. But it goes back further. It seems to me a lot of people had the idea of making it musical--they would just make the old diva an opera singer and have Maria Callas or somebody. And that would have been death, you know? That would have been absolutely terrible.

I’ve had two experiences of successful pictures of mine becoming musicals. “Some Like It Hot” became “Sugar,” and “The Apartment” was “Promises, Promises.” They didn’t (succeed), I don’t know why. But then, who could predict that a three-hour operetta with just one memorable song--"Hello, Dolly!"--would be a hit? I have no idea why. If I did, I’d be a very well-to-do man.

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Q: Do you have confidence that Lloyd Webber can succeed where others have failed?

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A: Oh, yes, I think the combination of all those people, and the plays they’ve done . . . I think there’s no town over 300,000 people in the world where “Phantom of the Opera” isn’t being sung right now. Not in New Zealand, not in Norway.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s the composer, but he’s also in charge of everything. I see the way he goes about it--he prepares the show, takes his time, announces who’s going to be the female lead, all these interesting items. He makes an event of the thing, and it all ends up with the showing of the work itself.

And Christopher Hampton, he came to see me when he was working on his play “Tales of Hollywood,” about German exiles in California. I didn’t think the play worked, but I found him intelligent and bright. He seems an OK guy.

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Q: Essentially, of course, “Sunset Boulevard” is a four-person character study, isn’t it?

A: Yes. The silent movie star, the unemployed writer. Erich von Stroheim’s character (Max, the devoted butler and former husband and director to Norma Desmond) is very interesting.

But what made it work would not work in pictures today. “Sunset Boulevard” was made in 1950, and back then you could still dramatize and have a very valid background, the demise of silent pictures.

In other words, this was when we had big stars like John Gilbert, who just disappeared with the advent of the talkies. And of course, Gloria Swanson was one of them. To dramatize that today, with some star who’s simply out of the spotlight--it’s not as good as having someone who was one of the biggest stars here, but suddenly there are no parts for her.

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Q: What do you remember most about “Sunset Boulevard”?

A: The remarkable access we got. We were able to use Paramount Studios and its famous gate. Then there was Norma’s house, which we used for exteriors. It was actually not on Sunset Boulevard, but on Wilshire. It’s now demolished, but it belonged to one of the divorced wives of (J.) Paul Getty. We were looking for a house that we described as early Wallace Beery.

The one access we did not get came after Swanson shoots Holden, and the house was swarming with police and press. I wanted two gossip columnists--Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons--each on the phone, one upstairs, one down, neither of them giving up the phone and saying: “Get off the line, you bitch! I was here first!”

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Hedda I got easily, but Louella knew quite well she would lose that duel because Hedda was a former actress, and she would wipe the floor with her.

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Q: Weren’t you worried that Paramount would regard “Sunset Boulevard” as an anti-Hollywood picture?

A: No. The first question was: Will this be a successful picture? First come the grosses, then come moral questions. That’s the way we operate here.

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It’s a pro-Hollywood picture for no other reason than that the most important man on the Paramount lot back then, Cecil B. DeMille, is in the picture himself--and he behaves in a most humane way. He’s like Mother Teresa, except for his jodhpurs, his riding boots, which he always wore whenever he shot pictures.

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Q: There’s a famous line in “Sunset Boulevard . . . “

A: “I am big.”

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Q: Right. Gloria Swanson says: “I’m still big, it’s the pictures . . . “

A: But you (expletive) it up. There’s no still there. These lines are like lyrics! They must be sung with the seriousness of a Mozart opera! The line is simple. Holden says: “You used to be in pictures, you used to be big.” And she says: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” That still would kill it. Take my word for it.

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Q: I do. But my question is, did the pictures get small?

A: The structure of studios changed. They had stars under contract, directors under contract--they were like fiefdoms all around town. They were dynasties, and they would not mix.

I once told (MGM studio boss) Louis B. Mayer’s daughter I was making a movie with a big star, James Cagney. She said James who? And she explained her father never let her see Warner Bros. movies--they were full of gangsters.

I went through a lot of decades when power went from studios to producers to directors, and now it’s in the lap of agents and actors. It’s all packaging. The agent says, “You want Paul Newman for your film?” He must make it opposite, whoever, Susan Sarandon. And it must be this supporting actor, this cameraman--other people he represents. You have to have the whole package.

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Studio writers used to write two or three pictures a year; a studio would have 50 directors under contract. A script would be there for, say, Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, and the studio would say, “Go on, take him.” There weren’t all these big sessions with CAA that go on for months. You were living movies , not percentages of gross.

Now it’s easy to make a picture, it’s much more difficult to make deals. And there’s a brand-new language. Nobody ever heard of turnaround .

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Q: Obviously you regret all this.

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A: I regret the uncertainty. Once, you worked on a picture, decided with the front office what it should be about, and you made it. But now, after three months of ass-kissing, negotiations and whatever, you come back to the studio and there’s a new boss there.

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Q: Do you see a lot of movies still?

A: Films by directors I admire. Scorsese and Kubrick, of course, and Jonathan Demme. I see some Italian films, some Japanese films. But I don’t feel the need to see every new (Hollywood) film. I mean, I get the general idea.

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As long as people spend money to see a piece of (expletive), the studios won’t stop making (expletive). They’re not about to go over the heads of the audiences.

As filmmakers, we should have educated people about movies. What’s a dissolve for? What’s a fade-out for? But we didn’t, which is why films today are about special effects, not good scripts.

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Q: So are you through with movies?

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A: I didn’t make a picture in over 10 years because I don’t want to do what they (the studios) want me to do, and they don’t want to do what I propose. I don’t make a picture unless I get final cut. And I have enough money to say, “Screw you, I don’t need you.”

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Q: But since “Buddy, Buddy” (Wilder’s last picture, from 1981) have you written?

A: I have themes, I have first acts, I have characters. A whole library of things, enough for three or four pictures.

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Q: Going back to “Sunset Boulevard,” I gather it could have been a very different picture.

A: We kept going back to it for years. We would work on it, then put it in a drawer while we worked on another picture. People think all you think about is that one picture. But not so.

It started off as an acid comedy about Hollywood, but gradually it got more serious. I couldn’t get a handle on it. It seemed to drag on for 10 years.

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Swanson wasn’t the first choice. I asked Mae West first. Then Mary Pickford and Pola Negri. They said no. So Gloria Swanson became Norma.

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Q: Was there ever talk of a movie sequel to “Sunset Boulevard”?

A: Just talk. But no--we told what we had to tell and we got out hale and hearty. Because we assume (Norma’s) crazy. Is there a trial? Is she guilty? Well, she shot (Gillis). So it’s uninteresting.

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