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Published: Saturday, 10/20/2001

David Mamet chooses his words very carefully, both onscreen and off

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TORONTO - David Mamet looks like he talks, and he looks like a bullet. His hair is a crewcut, cropped tight across his forehead, forming a dark helmet. He wears clear plastic frames and stares. He has a constant poker face. The man has never blinked in his life.

When he speaks, the words are clear and precise, as you might expect of someone known for writing theater and film dialogue that's artfully fragmented. He chooses words that detonate. Every one counts, when he's talking to you or when he writes. A few years back, while preparing a profile of Mamet, New Yorker magazine writer John Lahr told Mamet that he would be visiting Mamet's Vermont home.

“Oh, goody gumdrops,” Mamet said. “Goody gumdrops from the gumdrop tree.”

In early September, the playwright was at the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of his eighth film as a director, Heist, which opens Nov. 9. In an interview, you can't help but notice the connection between how he speaks and how he writes. He repeats words two, three times, speaks in fragments, cuts words in mid-sentence.

It's not unlike the dialogue he slings around in American Buffalo, the 1977 play that made his name, or the back-and-forth in Glengarry Glen Ross, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. This is his contribution to pop culture: a new idiom that replaces the refinement of complete thoughts with the chaos of everyday speech.

In an interview, he rarely lets bursts of words go by without quoting from someone else, then coming back to finish his own thought. For example, midway though the conversation, you ask: Since your films tend to involve the underworld and con games, do you do much research on the topics?

“No,” he says. In 1988, he explains, he wrote a movie, Things Change, with his good friend, the late Shel Silverstein, the children's author famous for The Giving Tree. “The great Shel Silverstein,” he emphasizes. “I asked him once about research. I was writing a movie, Hoffa. Danny [Devito] directed that. An absolute cinematic masterpiece. I was complaining to Shelly. I said `Shelly, what books on Hoffa do I have to read?' He said, `Never do research.' He said, `When you're doing research, all you're doing is reading books.'

“So no, I don't do no research.”

Mamet once wrote that the author has the final word on his play, and not even an actor shall impose changes. His is a spare, rigid, streamlined style that intimidates actors; when an actor can't grasp or believe in the meanings behind Mamet's broken syntax, the performance collapses.

“I never had the impulse to add things, to improvise,” said Gene Hackman, who headlines Heist. “That's always the great tip-off for me that things are pretty much right in the script. As an actor, when you find yourself doing a scene that's not quite fulfilling, then you're impulse is to say something more. [Mamet's dialogue] rolls right off your tongue. When you read it, it sometimes feels heavy, somewhat stilted, and repetitious. When you perform it, it comes right out.”

“The words are set and unchanging,” Mamet once wrote, and he meant, everything is unchanging. Every pause. Every digression. Every convoluted dead-end conversation and every profanity. In the past, if you wrote Mamet an letter about the cascade of curses found in his work, he'd answer back with a form letter:

“Too bad, you big crybaby.”

Mamet says there are two things he keeps in mind now when writing. “One, you obviously want to get the plot right, because that's the thing. Somebody will say at one time or another that this scene doesn't work or this scene is superfluous, and you got to listen.

“Second thing: A lot of times a line won't work and the actors will stumble over the line or they can't even get to the line. This is another tip-off. I've found that if the actors can't say the line, then it's probably because the line is wrong.”

He values clarity, directness. For example, you ask: Is it easy to make movies with one's wife? (That would be Rebecca Pidgeon, the Scottish actress he met backstage in London in 1989 at the Royal National Theater production of his play Speed-the-Plow. She's been in two of his plays and six of his movies, including Heist.)

He stares. “Well,” he says, “I like working with her.” He pauses. “I like working with her. I like living with her. I like her acting. She's a great broad.”

Mamet doesn't talk much about his background. But as the son of a labor lawyer, he's pure working-class Chicago, and often considered a Chicago playwright, though he only worked there for four years (1973-1977).

“They say nobody with a happy childhood went into show business,” Mamet says. “I think that's probably true. Most of us are outcasts in a way or perhaps more than one way. Most of us started out poor and friendless in the big wide world. We don't know nobody and we don't even know nobody who knows nobody.”

When he started, he wanted to be an actor. “But like most people who want to be an actor or actress, most of us find out we can't. That is, we can't make a living doing it. We go home and find something we can do.”

So instead of acting, he changed American theater.

What's less appreciated about Mamet is his work as a filmmaker; in fact, he's the first major playwright with consistent success with movies. In the past 20 years, he's written or tinkered with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), The Untouchables (1987), The Verdict (1982), Wag the Dog (1997), Hannibal (2001), and adaptations of Glengarry (1992) and his 1975 hit play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, renamed About Last Night ... (1986). Some are more inspired than others.

His work as a writer/director, however, is both rock solid and underrated: House of Games (1987), Homicide (1991), Oleanna (1994), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), The Winslow Boy (1999), and last year's State and Main.

Basically, he drops his dialogue into the machinery of established film genres: the wrong-man thriller, the Preston Sturges screwball comedy, the cop movie. “Spanish Prisoner was a light homage to Hitchcock,” he said. “Heist is very much a tough-guy picture, a film noir, like those wonderful poverty-row B-pictures where the filmmaker just took a van out on the highway with some great actors and made up the story as they went along.”

He mentions Stanley Kubrick's The Killing as an influence, as well as Sexy Beast and Thunder Road. But never gangster films. He doesn't make gangster films.

“A gangster film is sentimental,” he says. “A gangster film is all about sentiment and code, someone violating the code, or one brother is good, one brother is bad. Someone, I think Jimmy Cagney, said the only question in a gangster film is if the hero dies at the top or the bottom of the church steps.”

But film noir suits the bleakness of his outlook and the sharpness of his words.

“[Film noir] is about violence,” he says. “It's about irony. There's no sentiment involved. Everybody's bad.” It's an outlook that extends beyond his films to Hollywood itself.

“The similarity to the confidence game and the motion picture industry fascinates me. It's depressing. I tell you, the older I get, the more everything in the world looks like a confidence game.

“You form friendships very young,” Mamet continued. “To the people you went to acting school with or the people who gave you your first job. You learn to prize loyalty because anybody who ain't your friend is going to screw you. Over the years, it doesn't stop. You just get screwed by people in better suits.



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