Writer-to-Writer: A Conversation With David Mamet

"Writing a stage play and a screenplay have very little to do with each other. A stage play is just dialogue. One has to be able to communicate the play through disputation. A stage play is basically a form of uber-schizophrenia."
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David Mamet is one of the most acclaimed, and eclectic writers of our time. As a playwright, he has won a Pulitzer Prize and received Tony nominations for Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow. Other plays have included The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and American Buffalo.

House of Games; Things Change; Homicide; Oleanna; The Spanish Prisoner; The Winslow Boy; State and Main; Spartan; Redbelt; Homicide; and the HBO film, Phil Spector, are among the feature films he's written and directed.

His screenplays include The Postman Always Rings Twice; The Untouchables; Hoffa; The Verdict; Wag the Dog; The Edge; Ronin; and Hannibal.

He's written poetry, essays and novels. He's written for television and radio, and is the creator, producer and frequent writer for the television series The Unit. His latest work, Three War Stories, is a trio of novellas to be released November 11th.

Your dialogue has been called street-smart and edgy. It's even called Mamet speak. How does it come to you?
There's an old joke about a guy who comes home and finds his business partner in bed with his wife. And he says, 'Sam, I have to...but you...?' (Laughter) That's not about my marriage...I'm married to a goddess, and I thank the Lord every day for the last 25 years. But the idea is simply...I have to. I just don't know any better. That's how I write. I'm a bit of a freak. There are times I re-craft it, but sometimes it just comes out of me. You just do it until it's done.

Language seems so important in understanding and appreciating David Mamet.

Well, you know, a play is basically a long, formalistic polemic. You can write it without the poetry, and if you do, you may have a pretty good play. We know this because we see plays in translation. Not many people speak Norwegian or Danish or whatever guys like Ibsen spoke, or Russian--yet we understand Chekhov and the others. We don't get the poetry of it because it's been translated. So we follow the plot and get the idea. On the other hand, you can also write it in what's essentially poetry that's going to stick in your mind. The test of that is people remember what's been said in the play. People remember Shakespeare's words all their lives. We remember the rhythm of it. You're a psychiatrist, right?
So as Freud said, it's polymorphous perversity. It's a priori...we can't get beyond the fact that there's something in music that gets to us. And for me, poetry is the music of speech.

Your dialogue has been considered a form of street poetry.

Maybe. I wrote an essay about rap music which is the operative poetry of our time. Speaking of street poetry, it has many precursors. I've been reading this great book by George McDonald Fraser, a Victorian writer. He quotes many of the old Scottish border ballads that were simply folk music. It's clear he was influenced by and immersed in Sir Walter Scott. He was regurgitating the Scottish border ballads. By the way, if you read those ballads, you realize you're partly reading Kipling, and that's where Kipling got many of his ideas. It's the music of the people. And I guess that's the way I write.

Is some of your music, the music of your own people--the primary culture of David Mamet--meaning your own family as a kid? You once said you developed your penchant for dialogue from early family discussions.
Well, my family are Jews. We're newcomers...we've only been Jews for about 7,000 years. But the Jewish family, like the larger Jewish community, operates through disputation, because that's our great talent. That's what the Talmud is, and that's what the Jewish legal system is. You take two completely opposing views and try to find some middle ground.

Was there a great deal of disputation in your family...plenty of shouting at the top of peoples' lungs?
No. I think that's the Italians. We just bear grudges until the end of time. (Laughter). My father was very fond of the phrase, 'Shut up and sit down.' So there you have it. But I did go into poetry because that's where the money is. (More laughter).

Can you compare writing a stage play with a screenplay as opposed to a novel?

Writing a stage play and a screenplay have very little to do with each other. A stage play is just dialogue. One has to be able to communicate the play through disputation. A stage play is basically a form of uber-schizophrenia. You split yourself into two minds--one being the protagonist and the other being the antagonist. The playwright also splits himself into two other minds: the mind of the writer and the mind of the audience. The question is, how do you lure the audience in, so they use their reasoning power to jump to their own conclusion--so that at the end of the play--as Aristotle said--they're surprised. It might even involve leading the audience to its own destruction. So, writing a play might be compared to the workings of psychopaths, who can be the most charming people in the world, and who move you step-by-step to your own destruction.

And writing a novel differs in what way?
Writing a novel is an incredibly free experience. One puts one's self in a narrative mode. You can go off in any direction--the past, the future, or go laterally, or include one's own beliefs. It's total freedom.

So conflict is at the heart of it all?
Yes, of course. That's what a play is about. That's why it has the capacity to cleanse. Here's what happens in a play. You get involved in a situation where something is unbalanced. If nothing's unbalanced, there's no reason to have a play. If Hamlet comes home from school and his dad's not dead; and asks him if he's had a good time, it's boring. But if something's unbalanced, it must be returned to order. The task of a play is to return to order that which has come unbalanced. In Hamlet, Shakespeare not only has conflict between people, but brilliantly conveys conflict inside Hamlet's head. But conflict is the essence of it.

Your plays and films often deal with duplicity, theft, manipulation and con games, like House of Games and Heist or in a play like Glengarry Glen Ross. Is this your view about our times?
Well, it's a view of every time. Some of my plays deal with conflicts in the business world; some deal with marital conflicts or in growing up. Perhaps you're talking about the better known plays. There always has to be some conflict. If you keep writing the same play, why not just go home.

But there's something about the con, the con game that seems to attract you.

Yes. That does attract me. You see, the con game, like the play, lures the mind on to its own destruction. Step A is correct; step B seems correct; step C makes sense, and then I wake up and realize I just gave all my money to a total stranger. How does that happen?

In a movie--which is a different kind of play--you lead the audience on. Or as my friend, Ricky Jay, the great magician says, 'At some point, you just gotta ask for the money.' You've got to lure them on to the point where they--unconsciously--make a leap of faith and then there's the reveal, which is completely absurd.

So to some extent, is all art manipulation?

Maybe so. You know, magic is manipulation for which one signs on. A healthy person doesn't go to a magic show and think, 'I'm gonna find out where that duck actually came from.' Right? They go in order to be fooled. They suspend disbelief. Basically, they trade their power to disbelieve for their power to be amused.

You were once asked what you would have done if you hadn't become a writer; you said you'd have probably become a criminal. Can you tell us more about that?
It was a dramatic thing to say. My mother used to say--and my wife says it now--'Why must you dramatize everything?' And I say, 'Well, that's my nature.' My good friend Patti LuPone performed at a concert out here, and this guy came in--morbidly obese, obviously unhappy, badly dressed--and there was something pathetic about him. But he must have chosen to be the way he was. He could have made different choices. And I thought, that's like me...I had choices, and I made them.

Your choice was to become a writer, a poet, a filmmaker, a director; not a criminal--although you've written extensively about criminals.
So did Brandeis, but he didn't become a criminal. (More laughter).

You once said, "There's no such thing as talent; you just have to work hard enough." What did you mean?
It's not true. You know, you can work forever but you're not going to throw a fastball like Sandy Koufax. He spent time explaining the ergonomics of the fastball, and it made perfect sense to him, because he could throw the fastball.

You know, I was doing a movie with Helen Mirren and we were on the set. She said, 'Oh David, when you direct, you kind of act." Which is what a director does; he kind of acts out the piece for his actors. She said, 'You must have been an actor.' I said, Yeah, I was a kid actor.' She asked how I was; and I told her I was terrible. She said, 'but it's so easy.' And I said, 'Yes, Helen, for you it's easy.' So, if you've got talent, some things are easier. I think Eric Hoffer said, 'the talentless think everything happens without effort.'

Clearly, you make an effort at what you do but you do have that inborn talent.

Yeah, I do. I thank God every day. I used to lay sod for a living, and I washed dishes. I didn't like it. So when I found out I had a gift for writing, it saved me. If I didn't have writing, I'd have become a much more compromised individual than I am. I took this obvious gift and worked very hard. I didn't want to end up like that guy at the concert.

Speaking of working hard, David, some people say writing is really re-writing. Does that characterize your writing or does it just flow and require relatively minor re-writing?
There are some things I work on forever. They can literally take years and years and years. Others may require relatively little effort.

Looking back on your body of work, would you say there's any overriding theme?
I hope not. One of the reasons I go to work is to amuse myself. If I can't amuse myself, it's very hard to work. Someone once said, 'Steal from anybody but yourself.' I don't want to take away the pleasure of writing by trying to pound home some theme. That's a reason I've written non-fiction and a few novels...I just go and knock myself out.

What effects have Hollywood and mass media had on the theatre today?

In my lifetime, television has been at war with the movies and seems to have wiped the movies out. They're dying in the face of the Internet and other media. And theatre is pressed to the wall now and again. When I was a kid, there were the little theatres, and there was amateur theatre. Then there were regional theatres such as--Bob Bluestein at Yale--which spawned a resurgence of the American theater...Joe Papp and people like that. But now, maybe theater's back is to the wall a bit.

But despite the internet and electronics, stage plays will always be relevant, just as rap music has reinvented the idea of poetry. If someone had something important to say it was said within his or her cultural milieu. Similarly, stand-up comedy born in the Borscht belt in the 40s and 50s, spawned improvisational theater. It's become a staple of world entertainment. So I don't think stage theater will ever die.

Do you feel a novel or play should be accessible to a wide audience?
I've been making a living writing for close to 50 years, and I never met a stupid audience. I never read a good book that's inaccessible. I think it's a status notion if we posit that people are dumber than ourselves. I read children's literature because my last teen-ager is still at home...and the literature makes me want to throw up. The idea that kids are stupid and we must write "down" to them is ridiculous. But, it's a great receptacle for second-rate writers.

Which writers do you enjoy reading most?
I feel almost anyone can write a book, but not everyone can write a good sentence. My Three War Stories is an homage to Patrick O'Brian who wrote some of the greatest adventure stories in the English language. If one goes back to the history of literature, there's a whole bunch of them. I adore Hemingway, Kipling, Patrick O'Brian, the Trollope books, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Tolstoy...all the great 19th Century novelists.

Let's talk about your latest work, Three War Stories in which the novellas deal with three wars spanning centuries and continents. Why write about war?

(Laughter) Well, I'm going to have to revert to being in kindergarten. I wrote one, and thought 'that's kind of cute'; then wrote another, and thought if I write a third, I might have a book. So, I wrote three. It just happened like that.

So there was no statement you were making by writing about war?
It's not my job to make a statement. I know there are writers who do that, but as someone said, 'If you want to send a message, send a telegram.' I don't know anything more than anyone else about the world. I just happen to be a writer.

The first paragraph of Redwing, the first novella in Three War Stories reads like this: "Advanced age, accompanied by reasonable health, is generally accounted a blessing. I do not know that it is so, and I suspect that such proclamation is made solely by those ignorant of the actual nature of age. For though age awards, to most, both increased time and ability for reflection, such leisure allows or suggests the question 'To what end?'"
Can you talk a bit about that beautiful opening paragraph?
The question is not can one write a book, but can one write a sentence? So that was my task, especially in writing that novella which was an homage to the beautiful Georgian language of that period.

Yes, the writing in Redwing had that distinctive, formalistic, British quality. You intended that?
Yes. It's a sea novella. There's a tradition that goes back to Frederick Marriot, a captain in Nelson's navy. In the 1930s and 40s, a fellow named Cecil Smith, under the name of C.S. Forester, wrote a series of novels about a fictional character named Horatio Hornblower. In the 1960's or 70s, Patrick O'Brian wrote his version of the Forester novels. No one has ever written better sea novels. His was a magnificent achievement--like Mozart re-writing Salieri.

In your opening paragraph of Redwing, were you reflecting on advancing age, personally?
Well, sure. That's what one does in advancing age.

Does that preoccupy you and will it emerge more in your work as it did for Philip Roth?

I don't know. You've got two other novellas in there. One's about the Indian Plains Wars; the other's about the Israeli War of Independence. The third one's not a reflection on age, but is, I hope, a ripping yarn.

The three novellas' details are astounding. Reading the first, I wondered if you were in the navy. The third made me wonder how much David Mamet knows about airplanes. Do you do enormous research for these, or are you a pilot?
In the first one, I did an enormous amount of reading in the novels I've mentioned. I was also in the Merchant Service for a summer. And, I am a pilot.

If you could have dinner with any five people or writers from history--dead or alive--who would they be?
I would choose my family. Writers don't like to talk with each other. We don't like talking with anybody; that's why we write for God's sake (Laughter).

Will you indulge me...family aside...who would you like to have dinner with?

You know, when I give a talk or lecture, people want to speak with me afterwards. But there's nothing to say to the audience. For them, it's the longing to get close to someone provocative or mysterious. For me, to talk to the audience is like the audience wanting to know how a magician does the trick. The magician can't tell them, because if he does, it ruins the trick. He has to resist the urge to confess, which is what I'm not doing very well today.

But you do talk to audiences and impart knowledge of your craft.

Actually, not. What I'm really doing is just showing off. Because, the things I can't tell them are like the things one doesn't tell one's children...they can't understand. They may understand as a memory--like later, when you say to yourself, 'God, now I see what my dad meant.' But at the moment, there's an unbridgeable gap.

Some writers say "The art speaks for itself. I have nothing more to say. It's far more interesting to read my book or look at my work than to speak with me."
Of course. One is not Beau Brummel--a society wit. You know, someone sitting morosely in a corner at a raucous dinner party is probably a writer.

As an artist living in an absurd world, how do you respond to it?
Existence is absurd. So, I try to find some meaning in it by doing my job. Christians say 'In my father's house are many mansions.' You're never going to get to the middle of the artichoke.

So you find meaning in your work, and I assume, in your family?
Yes. I'm also a big fan of the Bible. It seems to address most of our ineffable questions.

And of course, it's poetry.
Yes, but there aren't enough pages.

Let me ask you about actors. Are there any you've found most interesting to work with?
I find all actors interesting. The job of a director is to work with actors. It's about how one speaks to them in a way to help them play the part and motivate them to go down the road you've conceived

Have you dealt with actors who don't really get what you meant to convey?
One hires them not because they can get it right, but because they can act. The subsequent question is, can they act this part? The actor wants to know what's going to help him understand, and be good in the part. It's the director's job to communicate it. But you know, an actor may keep blowing a line because the line is no good.

Has an actor ever convinced you a line is "no good" and you've changed it?
Sure. The better an actor is, the more he or she understands--intellectually or not--the text. It's happened many times, and actors are right more often than they're wrong.

What's next for David Mamet?
I'm going to shoot this thriller I wrote, and will direct, with Cate Blanchett and I hope to do a new, original play next fall with Al Pacino in New York.

For a full audio version of this interview, follow the link to BookTrib.com

Mark Rubinstein
Author or Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad

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