David Mamet is an award winning playwright (Oleanna, Speed the Plow, Glengarry Glen Ross) and an award nominated screenwriter (The Verdict, The Untouchables, House of Games). His latest play, China Doll, starring Al Pacino, has just opened on Broadway, so it seemed like a good time to post some Mametian pearls of wisdom.
Mamet (In case that was not obvious)
“As obliquely as possible”
This is in reference to “the essential information of the play.” This information, Mamet says, is vital because otherwise the play does not make sense. “You want to give people information before they know they’ve been given it,” Mamet remarked.
“They’re just jabbering to try and convince you of something.”
Mamet agrees with Aristotle that character is action. “It’s not what they say, it’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish… Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man…Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character.”
“People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective.”
“I don’t know.”
Speaking of work habits, Mamet relates, “It’s really not an intellectual process…I think the process of writing a play is working back and forth between the moment and the whole. The moment and the whole, the fluidity of the dialogue and the necessity of a strict construction. Letting one predominate for a while and coming back and fixing it so that eventually what you do, like a pastry chef, is frost your mistakes, if you can.”
This is what drama is about, Mamet says, just a set of circumstances. Tragedy is due to individual choice, however. “That’s why we identify with a tragic hero more than with a dramatic hero—we understand the tragic hero to be ourselves.”
In House of Sand and Fog, Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley make bad decision after bad decision until practically everyone is dead or in jail.
The question was, have you ever considered putting in stage direction in your plays? It set off quite the quote:
” if you’re writing a drama, to get involved in it is kind of nonsense. It’s like, you read a screenplay and it says: BRENDA comes into the room. She’s beautiful, she’s sassy, she’s smart, she’s twenty-five, she’s built like a brick shithouse. This is the kind of girl that you’ll leave your wife for. When you see those deep blue eyes . . . I mean, you’re going to cast an actress and she’s going to look like something, right? Some idiot script-reader from Yale is going to get a kick out of what you’ve thrown in, but it has nothing to do with making the movie, because you’re going to cast an actress who will have qualities that are going to have nothing to do with what you made up. When you write stage directions—unless they’re absolutely essential for the understanding of the action of the play (He leaves. She shoots him.)—something else is going to happen when the actors and directors get them on the stage.”
“Does the character need to convey that information?”
Mamet is not a fan of unmotivated speech: “If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist — I try to adopt that as an absolute tenet. I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.”
Check the whole thing out: Mamet Paris Review Interview