Interview: David Mamet

Want to make movie magic? It’s not taught in school, Mamet says
Playwright and filmmaker says ultimately, writers are their own best teachers

Feb. 17, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

“Hello, I’m David Mamet.”

Mamet, playwright and filmmaker, enters an Austin restaurant with let’s-do-this punctuality, upon a gust of finger-snapping velocity. He doesn’t know who he’s addressing. There are two of us sitting in the small room. He looks right between us, betting one of us is his interview date. Here I am. Come on.

Mamet’s built like a tree stump. His hair matches his beard, a silver frost of buzzed stubble. He wears owlish glasses, a white polo shirt tucked into loose jeans without a belt and suede mountain boots. During a 45-minute conversation, he sips decaf coffee and talks in a chunky Chicago accent that’s so thick it borders on Bronxian.

It’s 9 a.m. He’s been up for hours writing in his hotel room. (Later we learn he borrowed a manual typewriter from the hotel.)

Is he working on a screenplay? “I don’t know. I might be,” Mamet, 60, says.

He’s like that. Alternately glib and evasive, thorny and direct, reflective and expansive. He’s soft-spoken and extremely polite. (And generous. He leaves a $20 tip for a free cup of coffee.)

With dozens of plays — including “American Buffalo” and the Pulitzer-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross” — as many screenplays, several books of essays and a few novels, Mamet is a writer’s writer, a brusque man with a formidable work ethic. He admits he writes with unquenchable fecundity, even, perhaps, “too much.”

How much does he write each day? “No idea,” he says.

Does he write every day? “Probably.”

Last year the Ransom Center acquired more than 100 boxes of Mamet’s manuscripts, journals, sketches and letters. As part of the deal, Mamet agreed to a series of short residencies at the University of Texas. Earlier this month, Mamet spent three days speaking to several UT classes.

Ironically, pushing teachers out of the way is the linchpin of his advice. “Listen,” he says, “anybody who is going to learn how to write is going to teach himself how to do it.”

Mamet finds it “impious” to think too much about his own work and processes. He once told an interviewer that he paces a lot when he gets stuck writing. He told me that he “shoots a couple hundred rounds from a .22” outside his rural home in Vermont. (He splits his time between there and Los Angeles.)

Does gunfire clear the mind?

“No, it’s great for making things go ‘bang,'” Mamet says.

American-Statesman: Why is it important that a university archive acquire and take care of your life’s work — writings, drafts, journals?

David Mamet: We all like to flatter ourselves that when we’re dead and gone that someone will find some hidden meaning in what we’ve done. What someone might find interesting are the different stages a work goes through. I don’t think there’s any social value in it. Some hobbyist might get a kick out of it someday.

And students might find it instructive.

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think one can teach writing. And I’ve got a lot of experience under my belt to prove that.

You’re rather an autodidact in that sense.

I think all writers are. Everybody who I was ever interested in was.

Like who?

Tolstoy never went to writing school. Willa Cather never went to school. Hemingway never went to school.

So I assume you don’t believe in prestigious writing incubators like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

I don’t know what they’re doing there. They may be doing good stuff. But if someone came to me and said, “I want to be a writer,” I’d tell him what Hemingway said: “What’s stopping you?”

Something that’s always struck me about your essays is a fearsome, almost intimidating dogmatism about your own theories and techniques, especially in your codes for proper directing, acting and writing.

I don’t know if it’s dogmatic or not. I would understand that as a term of opprobrium, meaning a little too much discipline and too little content. But in life as I understand it, if you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to take yourself in hand pretty early, because there’s nobody but you and the pencil. So anything that I’ve inflicted upon the reading public about my theories is not so much an attempt to influence them – because I never took advice in my life and never met anybody who did – but rather an attempt to codify the things that I think and the way I like to live my life.

I’m fascinated by your theory that the perfect film should be able to be viewed silently, that the edited action should say it all. In the introduction to the published screenplay of your movie “House of Games” you paraphrase Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein: “The shot not only NEED not, but MUST not be evocative.” Can you elaborate?

It all comes from Eisenstein sitting around and trying to figure out why a film worked. He made his films based on his theories of human perception. He said that you had to do something that involves something other than the conscious mind, that interrupts the thought process. You have to be able to get the audience to ask and answer the question for itself – in effect, to self-suggest itself.

For example, look at the movie “Notorious” and one of its great sequences: You’re shown shots of Ingrid Bergman, and Cary Grant says, “You don’t look well.” Next scene she’s coughing and someone asks if she’s all right and she says she’s fine. So you start wondering, “What is this about?”

At the same time somebody keeps bringing her cups of coffee and there are all these shots of the coffee. At some point in this sequence that Hitchcock so spectacularly designed, the viewer goes, “Oh, my God! They’re poisoning her with the coffee!” That happens in the viewer’s mind, and it’s one of the great moments in film. So the viewer puts it together.

Hewing to this theory of “less is more,” what then is your opinion of visually extravagant filmmakers, who use swooping crane shots and the like? Someone like Paul Thomas Anderson.

There are people who just have their own vision and are kind of reinventing the whole palette of making movies. Anderson and Terence Davies are filmmakers about whom you go, “What in the world are these guys doing? It’s spectacular!” They just knock your socks off. But I believe they approach filmmaking differently. They have real genius for filmmaking, where I approach it rather ploddingly. I’m a very good writer, but as far as a filmmaker, I have to figure it out beforehand. I really do. I don’t have that gene.

One of your writing rules is to toss the things you love, chucking the florid and anything “beautiful.”

Yeah. If you look at movies, almost every movie has the obligatory scene, the big scene, in which the girl sits down and tells us how as a child she was raped or she saw her parents burn up in a car wreck. It’s the “death of my kitten” scene. You know, someone says, “When I was young I had a kitten, and ever since that kitten died I’ve never been able to …” and so on. It’s a bunch of nonsense. It always happens two-thirds into the movie. It stands out like a sore thumb. It’s also the scene with which they have the actor audition , and so they’re just acting their socks off, because that’s the scene that got them the part. So the acting’s no good. And the scene’s no good. Take the (expletive) scene out. We get it!

You say the perfect film would be silent. It shouldn’t need dialogue. How could your own films be silent when, like your plays, they are so chatty and crackling with your words?

Well, turn off the sound and watch. The dialogue’s great, but the audience doesn’t care. And neither do I. Here’s how you test it: Next time you’re on a plane, take off the earphones and watch the movies. What you’ll see, as Hitchcock said, is that most movies are pictures of people talking. And once you get it watching with no sound, the question is, what good is the dialogue?

You mentioned Anderson and Davies as working filmmakers you admire. Can you name any others?

I don’t want to talk too much about filmmakers today, because I don’t want to make invidious comparisons. I will say I’m a big fan of Powell and Pressburger. Love their movies. And I love Michael Curtiz. I just adore “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Really? You like James Cagney’s dancing? I think he’s almost comical.

Really? He’s the greatest dancer I’ve ever seen on the screen.

Better than Astaire?

Oh, yeah. Are you kidding me?

Cagney vs. Astaire?

Oh, yeah. That’s how it looks to me. I could watch those dance sequences every week of my life.

In your books you’ve boiled down your idea of storytelling to three questions: “What does the character want? How does he go about it? And what happens next?” This seems very liberating for the writer, but in practice it’s quite difficult.

You bet it is. It’s really hard. You have to throw everything out. Everything that’s not the plot. Because that’s all the audience cares about.

So you don’t like frosting at all?

I don’t like it, because I gotta pay the rent. If you sit in a theater and watch the audience, when the show stops being the story, they go to sleep.

You’ve probably thrown out some wonderful stuff.

I hope so. That’s what makes you strong. Not throwing out the bad scene, but throwing out the great scene that kills the good play. That’s the difference between an amateur and a professional writer. The ability to do that.

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