David Mamet has solidified himself as a master of the stage and silver screen, having penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning play-turned-film Glengarry Glen Ross, as well as receiving Oscar nominations for two of his screenplays. He's a no-nonsense director, known to use a metronome during scene rehearsals in order to produce that iconic rhythm to his dialog, and his grasp of the scene makes him a credit to filmmaking. He shares his thoughts on film in a 15-minute video commentary, touching on everything from theories of the narrative to how to teach actors to "look at a scene."
The commentary is full of useful advice and interesting views on the craft, but here are three things that stuck out to me from different areas of filmmaking Mamet touches on:
My screenwriting professor told me once that screenwriting is the easiest thing to do until you actually do it, and Mamet explains why that is when he says:
It's hard to write a drama -- because it's hard to write a drama with a plot, because a plot means that you have to at the end of the drama resolve that problem which gave rise to the drama in such a way that it's both surprising and inevitable as per Aristotle. The thing is, can you turn the film around in the last 10 seconds -- one of the hardest things in the world to do.
Though there are no rules when it comes to screenwriting (or any writing for that matter,) there is one law for almost anything an artist creates, "don't make it boring." A common structure helps measure pacing, guides the audience, and plays to the expectations of almost every filmgoer (which makes telling stories easier, though, perhaps boring or uninspired.)
It was an interesting thing to hear Mamet talk about how planning for a film is essentially a futile endeavor, since, as he puts it, you will always find yourself with an inability to follow the plan you set out, because the more you plan, the more you learn about your project -- and down the rabbit hole you go:
Directing a film is one of the oddest occupations in the world, because you spend so much time planning and if you've directed before, you spend so much time saying, "I'm never going to make that mistake again." And then when you start directing a film, it cannot be an homage to anybody else -- you gotta make that film. You gotta take the plan, however good it is, and you're gonna take your ability to execute that plan, however good it is, and then, in effect, make an improvisation based upon your inability to completely fulfill that plan. And I always feel rather unequal to the task, that is that one cannot study hard enough and long enough to be able to make the film, because there's just so much to know, and the more you prepare it, the more you find out.
Learning how to teach or guide actors is probably the top aspects of filmmaking a director needs to have a command of. Mamet offers some great advice for working with actors:
I came more and more to realize that, what acting, to me, came down to me teaching is teaching somebody to look at a scene and then to teach someone to analyze what the scene was actually about in such a way that it could be done. It came down to a physical action.
His rehearsal style is quick and robust, as demonstrated in the short television documentary, David Mamet: The Playwright Directs, produced in 1976.
What do you think about David Mamet's thoughts on film? Let us know in the comments.