William Wyler is perhaps the most honored filmmaker in Hollywood history. He was known as a perfectionist and one of the most meticulous directors in the business.
Wyler won three Academy awards for Screen Direction – Mrs Miniver (1942), The Best Years of our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959) – and was nominated for the award twelve times. His films won 38 Oscars out of a total 127 nominations. These are all record numbers – no other director has come close.
Wyler was a consummate actor’s director. He was so well respected that he had actors fighting to work for him throughout his career, even before they read a script.
His technique was rigorous and he would shoot and reshoot scenes until they were perfect (he was nicknamed “40-take Wyler”). But nobody could argue with the results.
No director in history has guided actors to more academy award nominations (thirty-five) or more academy award winning performances (thirteen).
Wyler’s career as a director spanned forty-five years, beginning with a series of two-reel westerns in the 1920s. He went on to make some of the most critically acclaimed films in the history of cinema.
He started with a good story and didn’t allow style, camera technique or performances to distract from telling the story.
William Wyler believed that director’s hand shouldn’t be evident in a movie and try to tailor himself to the subject. He once said:
In this article, we’ve put together a list of our favorite William Wyler quotes on filmmaking covering everything from story to shooting the movie and much more.
William Wyler Filmmaking Quotes
I’m here to make good pictures. If I don’t see it, I won’t touch it. I may not make a good picture, but I still gotta believe in it!
I could never make a good film without a good writer, but neither could Preston Sturges. Only he had one with him all the time. He was a true auteur, the complete creator of his own films.
I could hardly call myself an auteur – although I’m one of the few american directors who can pronounce the word correctly.
I wondered why so few films and so few plays honestly reflect the conflicts of our times. every age, every generation, every decade, every year, has some battle of mind, of emotion – some social cause that favors the time. Why does the screen seldom find these conflicts?
[Wyler] loved writers. He enjoyed the process of working with writers and good writing, so I think that is often what led him to plays. But on the other hand, he was easily bored and he always wanted to follow whatever the last picture was with something really different.Catherine Wyler, the director’s daughter
He had a wonderful pictorial sense – he knew how to pack so much into a shot that I felt I could leave certain things unsaid, knowing Willy would show them. We had to become friends, because we were the only two people in the Goldwyn asylum who weren’t completely loony. Willy left you alone. He said things like, ‘Don’t bother about the shots. Just do the dialogue. Don’t tell me where to put the camera.’ and I thought, this is heaven.Lillian Hellman (screenwriter) on working with William Wyler
To know what it was to be a bum, we both [Wyler with John Huston] took ten cents with us, went downtown in old clothes… We got a lousy free dinner in a mission after we listened to a spiel and signed statements to the effect that we had come to Christ. Then we spent the night in a flophouse. Ten cents it cost.
A movie should not be an advertisement. Drama lies in the subtle complexities of life – in the greys, not the blacks and whites.
Pictures that will live on for years, like ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Gone With the Wind,’ had great historical events in the background.
Wyler on Shooting the Movie
Stills belong in the lobby, not on the screen.
I was in the habit of saying, ‘Put the camera here with a forty-millimeter lens, move it this way, pan over here, do this.’ Well, he [Gregg Toland] was not used to that… I considered it part of my job. You don’t do that with a man like Gregg Toland.
[on cinematographer Gregg Toland] A great and happy influence on my work. Usually photography doesn’t influence direction, but Toland’s deep focus work did because we were able to let the audience do its own cutting. But if the photography allows you to see all four actors in one shot and in sharp focus, reacting to each other within the same shot, you’ve gained the opportunity to use a big close-up at the most important point. In this way Toland improved upon my direction.
I can have action and reaction in the same shot, without having to cut back and forth from individual shots of characters. This makes for smooth continuity, an almost effortless flow of the screen, for much more interesting composition in each shot, and lets the spectator look from one to the other character at his own will, do his own cutting.From his 1947 essay “No Magic Wand
[on deep focus] Because of it, I have been able to stage scenes in depth, keeping two or more people on the screen at the same time during extended dialogue scenes, and eliminating the need for cutting back and forth from one to the other. This makes for greater flow and continuity, intensifies dramatic situations, holds the audience’s attention more compellingly and, of course, in addition makes for more exciting composition by adding the illusion of the third dimension, depth, to the two-dimensional screen.
Most photography in Hollywood is ‘soft’ and diffused, using less light and a larger lens opening. This photography is a handmaiden of the star system, and is designed to make the stars as young, beautiful and glamorous as possible. Toland’s style, on the other hand, was an attempt to achieve reality or truthfulness on film.
Willy [Wyler] once said to me, “If you’re going to shock an audience, get them almost to the point of boredom before doing so…” And of course he’s right.David Lean
Wyler on Working with Actors
[on Sir Laurence Olivier] Laurence Olivier is one of the most disciplined, prepared, able and intelligent and cooperative actors I have ever worked with. This may well be because he is also a director and a very good one.
[on Humphrey Bogart] I found him very professional, very easy. His acting was never hammy, it was very simple — in fact he underplayed and I think that’s the reason why his films stand up so well today. As an actor he obviously had limitations — his range was not that great, but within his range he was the best around.
It is always a great pleasure to work with an actress who is so professional. She is eager to do a good job; you never have to tell her what a scene was about — you just have to calm her down once in a while and keep her from becoming over-enthusiastic.
[Wyler] had infinite patience and never once raised his voice. Without putting it into specific terms, I realize now that each day he was teaching me something important – the technique of how to move, how to build to a climax, how important it is to listen to a scene – but most of all he taught me that integrity was absolutely vital to acting.Bonita Granville on working with William Wyler
[on Jean Simmons] The first thing you look for is talent and this girl is full of it. She can play comedy and drama with equal facility.
William Wyler on Hollywood Quotes
It’s a miserable life in Hollywood. You’re up at five or six o’clock in the morning to be ready to start shooting at nine. The working hours aren’t arranged to suit the artists and the directors; they’re for the convenience of the technicians. If you go to a party at night, you’ll never find anyone there who’s shooting a picture; they’re all home in bed.
[Samuel Goldwyn] I don’t recall his contributing anything other than buying good material and talent. it was all an attempt tomake a name for himself as an artist. but as far as being creative, he was a zero.
I always chose the best material he had. I refused to do things I didn’t like… When I refused I was suspended and extended.
[on accepting the director’s role on Ben-Hur] Also, I thought that this picture would make lots of money and, you know, maybe I’ll get some of it. Which I did!
They asked me to do Ben-Hur. It was really not the kind of picture I… I been making. But, I felt it would be intriguing to see if I could make a Cecil B. DeMille picture.
[Ben-Hur] It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ.
I made over 40 westerns. I used to lie awake nights trying to think up new ways of getting on and off a horse.
William Wyler: Directed by William Wyler (YouTube, Opens in new tab)
William Wyler Final Words
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Check out our film director quotes article section of the website for more wisdom from the masters of cinema including John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock.