Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Letter from David Mamet II

Homicide (Directed by David Mamet)

This is the second part of writer and director David Mamet’s letter to the writing staff of CBS’s The Unit in which he discusses the task of the dramatist: 

How does one strike the balance between withholding and vouchsafing information? That is the essential task of the dramatist. And the ability to do that is what separates you from the lesser species in their blue suits.

Figure it out.

Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.

Look at your log lines. Any logline reading “Bob and Sue discuss…” is not describing a dramatic scene.

Please note that our outlines are, generally, spectacular. The drama flows out between the outline and the first draft.

Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, in truth, you are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.

Any time any character is saying to another “as you know”, that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.

Do not write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in Bel Air and hire someone to live there for you.

Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. The camera can do the explaining for you. Let it. What are the characters doing - *literally*. What are they handling, what are they reading. What are they watching on television, what are they seeing.

If you pretend the characters can't speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.

If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition, indeed, of speech. You will be forged to work in a new medium – telling the story in pictures (also known as screenwriting)

This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to start.

I close with the one thought: look at the scene and ask yourself “Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?

Answer truthfully.

If the answer is “No” write it again or throw it out. If you’ve got any questions, call me up.

Love, Dave Mamet

Santa Monica 19 Oct 05

(It is not your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your, and my, responsibility to know and to ask the right questions over and over. Until it becomes second nature. I believe they are listed above.)

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