It was an idea that Charles Brackett and I had long before we tackled it. We wanted to do it, believe it for not, five years before we actually got around to it. We wanted to make a picture with a kind of a passé star. We wanted to do it with Mae West. That’s all I can tell you. But it didn’t come out this way.
There is no such thing as somebody sitting down and saying, “Now, all right, I’m going to make a new picture.” Not at all. You have ideas stashed away, dozens of them—good, bad or indifferent. Then you pull them out of your memory, out of your drawer, you combine them. An actor is available, and that’s the way it starts. People think when it comes to a screenplay you start with absolutely nothing. But the trouble is that you have a million ideas and you have to condense them into a thousand ideas, and you have to condense those into three hundred ideas to get it under one hat, as it were. In other words, you start with too much, not with nothing, and it can go in every kind of direction. Every possible avenue is open. Then you have to dramatize it—it is as simple as that—by omitting, by simplifying, by finding a clean theme that leads someplace.
Sunset Boulevard was a picture where everything sort of fell into my lap. I needed the Paramount studio, and we got permission to shoot at Paramount. I needed Cecil B. DeMille to play DeMille, and he played it. I needed somebody to play the part Stroheim played. Stroheim at one time had been a director and had, indeed, directed Gloria Swanson in Queen Kelly. We needed old faces and got Buster Keaton. Everything was just right.
When we made that picture with Gloria Swanson people forget that she herself was considered sort of an old bag from silent picture times. At the time when we shot the picture she was actually fifty years old, that was all. She was then three or four years younger than Audrey Hepburn is today. But it was the split, you know, the divide between sound pictures and silent pictures that made such a difference. She was actually very young for that thing. She was just forgotten because she had stopped making pictures when she was about thirty, when sound came in. But what would she be doing today? As you heard in the picture, she had those oil wells, pumping, pumping, pumping. I guess she would have four or five gigolos. She would now be living somewhere in Santa Barbara with George Hamilton.