An Interview with the Playwright: Mike Bencivenga on Billy & Ray

features-small_bencivengaBilly and Ray is based on the true story of legendary screenwriter/director Billy Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler’s contentious collaboration to write the screenplay for Double Indemnity. Vineyard Theatre Literary Associate Miriam Weiner sat down with Mike Bencivenga, playwright of Billy & Ray, to discuss what inspired the play, the legacy of film noir, and his collaboration with another legendary Hollywood writer and director, Garry Marshall.

Miriam Weiner:  Can you talk about your inspiration for writing Billy & Ray?

Mike Bencivenga:  The play is about Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s battles to write Double Indemnity — that they were a match made in hell is one of those legends that turns out to be very true. I could never believe no one had written a play or made a movie about Billy Wilder. I mean, he was just brilliantly witty. Like Groucho Marx but without a team of writers. Also, I wanted to do a piece about collaboration, about people who don’t necessarily agree turning out good work together. Something the government might learn a thing or two about.

MW: So you were a Billy Wilder fan?

MB: I was huge Billy Wilder fan growing up. You know, when you’re thirteen years old and watching movies you start realizing, somebody came up with this idea, somebody wrote it.  So I started noticing who wrote and directed things, and then I noticed that most of the films that I truly, truly loved were all made by the same guy. They were all Billy Wilder movies.

MW:  Then you are a real fan?

MB:  I am a real, real fan.  In 1982, they honored him right at Lincoln Center and I rented a tux, got a ticket to the thing, and was determined that I was going to meet Billy Wilder, my idol — and I did.  I asked him, “Do you have any advice for a young filmmaker?” and he said, “Don’t listen to anybody, not even me.” And I’ve listened to him ever since.  We ended up speaking on the phone three or four times while I was a film student, and he would give me advice.

MW: Wow.

MB: And because I was fascinated with his life, I learned about this crazy collaboration he had with Raymond Chandler. This producer had bought the rights to [James M. Cain’s novel] “Double Indemnity” for Billy Wilder and his then writing partner Charles Brackett, and Brackett just thought it was the biggest, dirtiest, low life, pulp, most crappy thing ever. But Billy Wilder loved it. But he said, “I need a guy who can write the lingo, you know, ‘cause I am always mispronouncing and misstating words — I don’t wanna embarrass myself.”  Which is why he never wrote alone.

Billy also said, “I like the friction of banging ideas against another guy.” Well, he got more than he bargained for, because Chandler had never written a script for a movie and he was also kind of down and out; he hadn’t quite made it yet as a novelist, but he had very specific ideas about how everything should be done, and so they battled on everything. And through those battles, they invented much of what we know as the style of film noir.

MW: What has it been like to work with the legendary Garry Marshall? Is it legendary?

MB: It is legendary!  We premiered an earlier version of this play at the Falcon Theatre in LA, where Garry’s daughter, Kathleen, is Artistic Director. Before I left to go to California to work on the show, I was here in New York and my wife saw me looking in the mirror, staring at myself, and she said, “What are you doing?”, and I said, “I’m practicing saying ‘no’ to Garry Marshall, because the day is gonna come that I’m gonna have to say no to Garry Marshall.” I figured because he’s a television writer, because he’s done so much, that he would have very definite ideas about changing the script. But when I met him he could not have been lovelier and more respectful and exactly the opposite. Outside his door, there’s a sign that says it’s important to be nice, and he means it. Working with him is like working with Lieutenant Columbo – he gives brilliant, specific observations.

MW: You did a great deal of archival research for this play.  What was one of the most surprising things you found out while you were researching?

MB: I could find almost nothing about Helen, Wilder’s secretary for fifteen or twenty years. There’s almost nothing in the archives written about her. But the interesting thing was, I actually had the real scripts that they were working from, and a lot of women characters in particular were written in pen or pencil, or something would be underlined or a description circled, and it was all in a very feminine handwriting. Her notes would read something like, “I don’t think so.” I suddenly was like, wow, she was really weighing in. She was weighing in on details and dialogue and then I’d flip to the next draft, and it would be changed. They almost always took her suggestions. I think they thought of her as the female point-of-view. She would just underline something and write “no.” There’s that scene in the play when she says that Phyllis and Walter wouldn’t meet at a bar, it’s just so obvious, and that’s actually something I saw in the script. When they meet at a bar to discuss the murder plot, she just circled it and wrote “no,” and magically it became the supermarket. So I made it that she came up with that location, or inadvertently came up with that location. Then I found letters that she wrote to executives and people, just saying “I want to apply for this job,” and they were so witty. They were so sharp and sassy that I said “well, here’s the key to that character.” She really was like a Rosalind Russell, she was very funny, and so she spoke to me through the ages.

MW: For a person who isn’t a movie buff, or who wasn’t around in the heyday of film noir – why is it important as a genre?

MB: Well, film noir was the moment the movies grew up. In America, even during the depression, the vast majority of films were about, you know, let’s put Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in gowns and tuxedos so people can feel better about themselves, but let’s not make movies about the fact that they’re unemployed. World War II and World War I resulted in a maturing of the American character. Guys had come back from the war shell-shocked. The depression hardened America, we weren’t still “Yankee-Doodle Dandies,” we were a nation with problems.  A lot of European writers brought their European sensibilities with them and started sneaking in more mature themes. People mistake film noir—they think film noir means detective stories and they’re not, there have been detective stories since the beginning of time. What it is is “dark film,” or films about darker parts of peoples’ characters. The main characters of Double Indemnity are the people who commit murder and adultery—they are not secondary characters. It isn’t about a detective trying to find them– it’s about them and what they do and their own moral dilemma. So film noir really asked audiences to go through a moral dilemma, something a little more grown up.  And yet, the movies had such a strict censorship code that they couldn’t show people killing each other and they couldn’t show people in bed, so it all had to be done with sly dialogue and sexy lighting. And it forced them to raise the bar, they created a style where you had to imply all these dark sinister things going on. The reason audiences should care about film noir today is that it’s gone on as a style. Any film that you watch where there’s an “anti-hero,” a lot of that comes from film noir.

MW: Are there things audiences need to know about Double Indemnity to appreciate Billy & Ray?

MB: The main thing audiences should know about Double Indemnity is that until that movie was made, there had never been main characters who were adulterous murderers, where it’s their journey you are supposed to follow. Before that, there was always, say, an evil woman and a nice guy, or there was a nice woman and she was seduced by an evil guy, but in this case they were both—

MW: — they were terrible —

MB: Yes, they give into their worst instincts. Walter, who was played by Fred MacMurray, is kind of a nice guy, but he’s the one who knows how to commit murder and get away with it, has thought about it a million times, and he’s interested in sex with Phyllis.

MW:  In the play, Billy says “Every story is a love story.”

MB: Right. Wilder used to say that all the time.

MW: Do you see Billy & Ray as a love story?

MB: I do.  If there is a love story, it is the love of an idea.  I think about Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler metaphorically as a couple who have fantastic sex, but they can’t sit down and have a civil breakfast together. They fight about everything, but they stay together because the sex is so good. In this case, because of the writing. The words that were coming out through them pushing each other were sensational and even they admitted it. So that is their romance. They begin and they end as two guys who are not friends, but they also end as two people that respect and love what the other can do and what they created together.

MW: Do you see a political element in that idea?  You mentioned the government needing to learn a thing or do about collaboration.

MB: There’s a line in the play wherein Billy Wilder says that getting along is overrated, and that’s the idea. You don’t have to agree on everything, but there are fundamental things you can agree on, and you can make something terrific by being challenged by somebody else. Chandler and Wilder both — their reputations were made by Double Indemnity — Wilder became a forefront director and Chandler became a major screenwriter and novelist—all because that film just so captured a style, and broke so many barriers that it transformed them. But to do that — there is violence in the birthing process. They had to sit in a room and crash their heads together for months. If there’s a message, it’s to not be afraid of having a disagreement with a person — that disagreements don’t have to be disagreeable.  And even if they are, they may yield something that’s bigger than the both of you.

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