The Salon Interview: David Mamet

by Richard Covington

Illustration by Zach Trenholm

Illustration by Zach Trenholm

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright
trashes the Internet, denounces "Schindler's List" and
praises summer movies as the reappearance
of ancient mystery cults.

Reprinted from Salon Magazine:

Seething with impeccably timed profanity, David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. But in an interview, hardly a swear word escapes the playwright's lips. With his close-cropped beard and inscrutable poker face behind clear Lucite-framed eyeglasses, Mamet is the epitome of self-control, rarely cracking a smile, yet he spins out discourse on everything from aesthetics to Hollywood producers and what he sees as gratuitous sex in movies, false grief over the death of Princess Diana and the pernicious exploitation of Jews in "Schindler's List" with bitingly dry wit.

The 49-year-old Chicagoan made his name with Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974) and American Buffalo (1977), spare, dark dramas whose incisive characterizations and brilliant dialogue (like James M. Cain channeling Harold Pinter) built enormous dramatic tension. His stories, often involving the plight of small-time grifters, dubious real estate salesmen and other marginal types, explore a desperate, obsessed landscape that is deeply American. Since then Mamet has turned his caustic gaze upon Hollywood (Madonna played the aspiring actress in 1989's Speed-the-Plow) and sexual harassment (in 1993's subversive Oleanna). Another play, "The Old Neighborhood," opens this November on Broadway.

Despite being an outspoken critic of the American film industry, Mamet has written some of the best-crafted film scripts of the past two decades, including The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, The Untouchables and this year's The Edge. House of Games and Things Change, two films he wrote and directed, are jewels of the confidence man's art. His latest film, The Spanish Prisoner, is another hall of mirrors, with Steve Martin as trickster-in-chief. (He was also one of several screenwriters on Adrian Lyne's controversial version of Lolita.)

Mamet is also the author of numerous works of nonfiction, including Writing in Restaurants and his latest, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, as well as two works of fiction.

Mamet lives in Vermont and Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, actress Rebecca Pidgeon. Salon interviewed him earlier this month at the festival of American film in Deauville, France, following the European premiere of The Spanish Prisoner.

How did you get the idea for the film of "The Spanish Prisoner?"

My wife and I were sitting around in the Caribbean on a vacation and it pissed down rain the whole time. I was looking at this little lagoon from our porch and there was this huge 130-foot motor yacht, a vast ocean-going yacht that had a helicopter on the fantail. God knows how much the whole thing cost, $50 million anyway with the yacht. And I wondered what someone would be like who came off that yacht. Then I started wondering, what if someone came off the yacht and you weren't sure if they came off the yacht. That was the inception of the story.

Is the idea of the con game something that appears in all your films?

Yeah, it appears in most of them. I think that film, as opposed to theater, is intrinsically a melodramatic medium. And one of the wonderful categories of melodrama is the confidence thriller.

Elsewhere you mentioned the "light thriller." What is that?

I contrasted the light thriller and film noir. The light thriller is much closer to the tradition of comedy. The film of comedy is such that in every scene, the hero makes a misstep and yet is rescued at the end by the forces of good, or by God, or by a deus ex machina. Tragedy is exactly the opposite. At each step, the hero seems to be doing the correct thing, but at the end of the movie ends up consigned to perdition, or death, or disgrace, because of some internal flaw. So film noir is much closer to tragedy and the light or Hitchcockian thriller is much closer to comedy.

And The Spanish Prisoner is a light thriller?

That's right.

Are your films a reflection of the way you look at life? Is all of life a con game of some sort?

No, I don't think that all of life is, but I certainly think that all of commerce is. In the United States, it's our pleasure and joy to consider life as a commercial enterprise. That's our national character.

When do we get out of that mode?

I think that's part of our national problem, how to extricate ourselves sufficiently to be able to take a look at the life we lead and perhaps have a better time.

You said in your recent book of essays, Make Believe Town, that Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy was your favorite American novel and that the story shows how violence takes precedence over love in America. Could you explain that a bit?

If you look at An American Tragedy, which I've always considered the great American novel, the reason it's specifically an American tragedy is that the problem with the hero is that he sees love as basically a commercial endeavor. He wants to trade up. He finds this perfectly nice girl who wants to sleep with him and who loves him and whom he's very fond of and then he finds someone he likes better. And the only way he can get rid of the first girl is to kill her. That's the American tragedy.

How has that changed over time?

I don't think it has. It's still a problem of the national character. I don't think any country has it better than any other country. For example, in Scandinavia, they have to eat very, very salty fish. One wouldn't want to live like that either. But in America, our problem is we're a consumer culture and there's nothing we won't do if someone tells us -- or we intuit -- that it's going to make money, or it's going to make us happy through consumerism. That's our American problem. It's the American equivalent of the salty fish. We're constantly buying crap we don't need and devoting ourselves to endeavors which, perhaps on reflection, with a little bit of distance, would reveal themselves to be contrary to our own best interests.

How do films feed into this?

We have our own film tradition which has created some extraordinary works of film, some masterpieces. Nonetheless, the American tradition of film overall is that it's a commercial medium. That's not necessarily bad. The films of William Wyler came out of that and the films of Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick happened in spite of that. Nonetheless, we don't have a tradition of film as art. As the media gets more and more powerful, film as mass entertainment, which is to say solely as marketing of the consumer product, that tradition gets much, much stronger. The job of mass entertainment is exactly the opposite of the job of art. The job of the artist gets more difficult. On the other hand, maybe that's always been the case.

Why is the job of the artist the exact opposite of mass entertainment?

I like mass entertainment. I've written mass entertainment. But it's the opposite of art because the job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let's reexamine it.

You've mentioned Schindler's List as an example of a movie that fit into the audience's need to applaud itself.

I think it did. I don't think that's why Steven Spielberg made the movie. I think he made it from the best possible motives and it was a subject close to his heart. It just happened to be a movie the premise of which I disagree with.

Why is a movie like this that feeds into the audience's need to feel good about itself pernicious?

I thought it was especially pernicious in the case of Schindler's List because, as a Jew, I don't like the fact of the Jewish people being exploited, whether in the name of good or ill. For example, everything that has been said about Diana, including this, is gossip. The people who showed pictures of her embracing X, Y, Z and the people who wrote that the pictures were bad and this comment I'm making are all gossip and exploitative about something that's nobody's business. They're all exploitative about that dead person. Just so, attempts to picture Jews going to the gas chambers are exploitative, even if they're done for the best reasons in the world.

The only response is silence?

I think so.

Is that the only legitimate response to someone else's grief?

Absolutely so. It's in the Talmud that you're not supposed to say anything when someone is in mourning. What's there to say?

Is the reaction of false grief to Diana's death the same as the public response to the Oklahoma City bombing?

I think so. It's obviously the release of some great, widespread social need. What that need is, I'm certainly not equipped to say.

What do you think the media's role has been in Diana's death?

Anyone who deals with the public, myself no less than Diana, is involved in a process in which each party is going to utilize each other for something. Somebody wants their product broadcast, whether for emotional or personal or commercial reasons. And the journalist wants to have something which is newsworthy. So there's a very intricate and delicate interchange between the celebrity and the press. It's possible for either one of them to misuse it. It's very, very difficult for it to be used in a reputable fashion, to engage in the process in a way that is not going to be exploitative.

To serve the purpose of understanding something about human nature?

Not necessarily that, but even to legitimately publicize a film. To do so, one has to walk a fine line between telling the truth and telling those things which are appropriate to the specific medium. I like to talk and I taught college for too many years. It would be very easy for me to veer off and start talking about the metaphysical underpinnings of film, or of my film, or about Stanislavsky. I'm trying to take my cow to market here.

I don't mind learning something about metaphysics and Stanislavsky.

I hope I have the strength to refrain. It's very easy for the person being interviewed to warp the process toward some inappropriate, ulterior ends.

What's an example?

To try to defend one's self. To try to explain one's personal life. To do anything other than explain why the public might enjoy the film. It happens all the time where, given the extraordinarily complimentary flattery and heady lure of "a public wanting to know," one becomes, as I'm becoming now, disquisitive. I think it's very flattering. One might want to, as we see many celebrities do, justify or explain a life of theirs that is not related to the specific problem, or to exploit the process in a way that draws interest to some wider problem: a social good, or a perceived social good.

You mean a celebrity criticizing nuclear power?

Yeah, or saving the whales. The other side of the equation is something we've seen in a rather stark way with Diana: The media saying, this person belongs to me and everything they do is mine and I'm not ever going to let them alone.

Somewhere, you wrote about the mass media, including the computer industry, conspiring to pervert our need for community. That the dream of having all this information at our fingertips to make us godlike is really doing the opposite and making us forget our humanity. Could you elaborate on that?

It's not really that they're conspiring to, but they might as well be. If you sit down in front of the television with 700 channels, there's probably something on those channels that's going to interest you. It's a very good way to get stupid very quickly.

There's nothing you get from television? The information is just a delusion?

I absolutely think so. If there's any information, it's purely accidental. Furthermore, I don't think there is any information to be gotten from television. I think it's an illusion. It's an interesting narcotic.

Even documentaries or historical programs?

No, it's television.

What about the Internet and the promise of all this information becoming available?

I don't know anything about it, but I'm sure it's worse.

I also wanted to ask you about pornography and why it seems to be on the rise in mainstream films.

That's true. It's on the rise because it doesn't work. It's like the defense department. If you have this fiction of wanting to become the principal power of world domination, no amount of arms is going to work. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, believing that arms are going to make you safe. It's like buying a car to make you beautiful. It doesn't work. So next year, you buy another car and hope that's going to work. It doesn't.

What's the connection between those examples and pornography?

The relationship is that it might seem provocative and fulfilling to see a moment of pornography in a feature film, but it's not. And because it's not, we have to have two moments of pornography. Because that's not fulfilling, we have to have another moment. It's really the compulsion to repeat, to come back to that thing that didn't work previously, because we're addicted to it. A good example is cigarettes. One keeps smoking because it seems like a good idea, but as soon as you light up, you say, "Oh my God, what have I done?"

That's what you mean when you say audiences need to see gratuitous sex in films?

I don't think they need to see it; I think they're habituated to it. Most of the time sex scenes in movies are like the plastic frogman in breakfast cereals. They're put in to fool the audience that what they're getting is a better product.

Some producers think they need to have sex scenes.

That's why they call them producers. It's a fairly ironic name.


I don't think I'll say more on that subject.

Have you had any pleasant experiences in Hollywood?

I love working with Art Linson, who's been kicked out of every studio. He's now ensconced at Fox. I had a great experience with Bob Rafaelson with my script for The Postman Always Rings Twice. He was my rabbi out there for a while, really adopted me, showed me the ropes, or turned me on to the life, as it were. I had a great experience with Sidney Lumet.

What about with Lolita?

I had a wonderful time writing it.

But in terms of the reaction in the U.S.?

They didn't end up using my script. They kicked me off the movie and ended up hiring somebody else. I haven't seen the finished movie.

Why did they hire someone else to write it?

For the same reason the moron threw the alarm clock out the window -- to see time fly.

What about Four Queens?

Al Pacino asked me if I wanted to write a poker movie. I said yeah.

Do you still play poker?

I haven't played poker for a number of years, but I've been writing a little bit about poker.

Why do you say in your book On Directing Film that nobody in the studios knows how to read a script?

Because it's true. The people who read scripts, the people who go into studios, have exactly the opposite life of people who actually work in the movies. One wonderful, wonderful thing about show business is that almost everybody in it got into it when they were young and frightened. We were out on the street because we couldn't keep a job or we didn't want a job and we didn't have a skill and we had to learn how to work in a world where we didn't have any support. We had to learn how to trust each other and how to trust ourselves. The people who come into the studio system come in from a very, very different life. These are people who have stayed in school, done very well, gone to graduate school and have gone into an institution which is going to reward them for being true to the institutional ideals, and only reward them for being true to the institutional ideals. It's like Jews and Christians, two completely different societies and two completely different traditions.

You mean between privileged and unprivileged groups?

Not necessarily privilege. It's the difference between a nomadic people and an indigenous people. The studio people are going to be there every year. They have a way things are done, and as long as they subscribe to the way things are traditionally done and please their superiors, they have a reasonable certainty of a secure life. On the other hand, a nomadic people -- you could say Jews, you could say Gypsies, you could say artists -- are going to come into a new situation where they aren't particularly welcome, assess the situation as quickly as they can and make something new out of it, make a new solution that hasn't occurred to the indigenous people because the indigenous people have been there too long.

Has this conflict between the artist and members of the institutional side of filmmaking gotten worse?

I don't think so. If you go back and read memoirs of the cinema, every filmmaker wrote about the same situation.

At one point, you mentioned that it's an accident that movies were connected with drama. Why do you say that?

I think it's so. Films started out as a carnival entertainment. I was just reading [French director Jean] Renoir talking about them and he says they came from the baraque foraine, the fair booth. They seem to be wanting to get back there. That's what some movies are.

Like action films?

Especially summer movies.

Does that drive out other films, yours for example?

Not at all. Look at the success of Fargo, or Prime Suspect and Absolutely Fabulous on TV.

You wrote some scripts for Hill Street Blues. Are you tempted to write more scripts for television?

I'm always tempted, but they've been teasing me for many years. I've written stacks and stacks of material for television and the only thing I've gotten made was two episodes of Hill Street Blues -- which I loved making, by the way.

Why was nothing else produced?

People say, give me something new, and I give them something new. Then they say, but I don't get it.

It's sort of a booby-trapped offer?

They say, woe be to you when all men praise you, so the story of my life in flailing my way through the movie business has always been people saying I love your work, I love everything you've ever done. I hand them something and they say: except this. It's like Brandon Tartikoff complaining to Robert Penn Warren at Yale that D.H. Lawrence could write a good story, but needed to get to the point faster. Warren told him he should go into television and the rest is history. Someone in Hollywood said tragedy always comes in threes. There was Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Brandon Tartikoff. So there you are. Rest in peace.

In On Directing Film, you talk about what a mistake it is for actors to search for a "character" to play. What did you mean?

Actors don't need to put on some extraneous character. Their character exists in the action and the words. The best actors, people like Jimmy Stewart and Anna Magnani, are not pretending to be a character; they're saying the words and letting the story tell itself.

On the other hand, that's why Laurence Olivier is terrible in films. He eats up the scenery. The audience ends up paying more attention to the actor's technique than to the story. Looking for a "character" to imitate may be fun for the actor, but it's less fun for the audience. When you listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach, you don't say what great technique he has. You say how great Bach's music sounds. It's the same thing with film acting.

Do films require more and more spectacle?

Perhaps so. I like to think old movies were better, but if you go back to B movies of the 1940's and 1950's, a lot of them are absolutely atrocious and unwatchable. They're just atrocious and unwatchable in the way which was specific to that time.

How do you mean?

If you look at the films of Terence Davis, which I think are great films of genius, they're specific to this postmodern time, or whatever the hell people are calling this time. You look at the films of William Wyler. Those are not films that are going to be made today.

What are the films that are going to be remembered from this period?

If you go back to the 60's, there were great films by Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick. Since then, the films of Sidney Lumet are great. Sally Potter's film of Orlando was magnificent.

I wanted to ask about your essay A Jew for Export in Make Believe Town. How do we counteract unconscious anti-Semitism, the kind that, as you point out, offends Jews by placing a Christmas tree on the courthouse lawn, for instance?

It's important for any minority to speak up. American Jews have a lot to learn from other minorities that have spoken up, for example, the gay people, the African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans. I think it's important for one to regain one's spiritual heritage.

To counteract unconscious anti-Semitism?

Sure. I think it's important to counteract it in one's self. That's what my movie Homicide is about. It's about self-loathing.

What does it say about society that film audiences are asking for more and more spectacle and less and less drama?

The problem is that back in the misty reaches of time, it was all one. Spectacle, drama and religious observance were all one. In various places in various histories of various civilizations, they all bifurcated, or trifurcated. Now they're coming together in many ways in some marvelously interesting pagan attempts at reunification.

What are some examples?

Summer movies. I'm fascinated by summer movies. I think they're the equivalent of the state fair. At the state fair, we go to see the latest in technology, the special effects. We also go to see the prize heifers, the movie stars. We go to get a touch of the sordid or louche in the hoochie-koochie shows. And the state fair goes back to the Grecian and pre-Grecian summer festivals, much as you went to the Eleusinian mysteries to get laid in a way that pleases God.

So the era we're living in now is not any different in the kind of entertainments it offers?

The difference is that it's been split off from religious awe. People need to put their religious awe somewhere else, for example on the imperial presidency, or on Princess Diana. They need someplace to put their need to be in awe of a demigod.

What do you think of the reevaluation of Nixon? Will this lead to a reevaluation of Vietnam as a good war?

I think it's loathsome. But that's what history is. It's always revisionist. Historians have got to have something to write about. I remember that when I was a kid looking at movies in the late '50s, all the Germans were good. Every American war movie had good Germans in it. Kurt Jurgens played a million good Germans. They were people who were misunderstood and wanted to kill Hitler. It was rewriting history. Filmmakers had to have something new to say. I think it always happens. A few years from now, people are going to rediscover that Nixon was a vile brigand. But historians have a tough gig. They've got to write something new about the past.

What did you mean by saying in Make Believe Town that all crimes are possible in the all-possible future?

The future doesn't exist. If you keep saying we have to do something because of the future, if you boil it down, it means we have to do this now because I'd like you to. The future is a mythical construct in which there's no strife. So what the politicians say is that if you do X, Y and Z now, you can have that beautiful future in which there is no strife. It's the same thing as saying if you get rid of the Jews, or the blacks, or the gays, all the strife will be gone. As somebody said, all great crimes are committed in the name of public tranquillity. To ensure peace, I have to annex the Sudetenland. To ensure peace with honor, I have to stay in Vietnam. To ensure the tranquillity of this town, we have to get rid of all the black Americans. It's a confidence trick for taking power.

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