Monday, 22 November 2021

A Letter From David Mamet I

David Mamet is a playwright and screenwriter renowned for his precise representation of American vernacular, which he uses to investigate the link between language and action. 

Mamet was born in 1947, in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Vermont's Goddard College and New York's Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. 

Mamet's first successful play, The Duck Variations (1972), has some characteristics with the rest of his work: a fixed location, a small cast, a minimal story, and language that mimics the rhythms and syntax of everyday speech. Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), tackled the complexity and misunderstandings surrounding male-female interactions and was adapted for the screen as About Last Night.

Mamet delves into the corporate world in American Buffalo (1975) and The Water Engine: An American Fable (1977). American Buffalo, for which Mamet won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, takes place in a junk store where three men plan the theft of a precious coin. The protagonist of The Water Engine invents a revolutionary engine but is assassinated for refusing to sell it to corporate attorneys. 

A Life in the Theatre (1977) depicts the theatrical world in stark and wryly funny detail via the performances and backstage talk between an experienced actor and a beginner. The Woods (1977) is a about a young couple who uncover the darker aspects of their love while vacationing in a remote wooded cottage. Mamet followed The Woods with three brief domestic dramas in which he emphasises conversation heavily. Reunion (1977) is about a lady and her alcoholic father reconciling their twenty-year separation; Dark Pony (1977) is about a father telling a tale to his little daughter as they drive home late at night; and The Sanctity of Marriage (1979) is about a married couple's separation. 

Glengarry Highlands Glen Ross (1982), Mamet's best-known work, is a satirical look at American industry. Four Florida real estate brokers compete to be the greatest salesman for their organisation by victimising naïve consumers. While Mamet depicts the agents as dishonest and amoral, he admires their dexterity and sympathises with their excessively competitive lifestyle. Glengarry Glen Ross won the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Mamet's subsequent play, Edmond (1982), centres on a businessman who abandons his wife and wanders into New York City's seedier neighbourhoods. Following his beating and robbery, he resorts to violence and is arrested for the death of a waitress.

Along with his stage career, Mamet has written many screenplays. Mamet's first script, an adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice was followed by The Verdict, which follows a despondent, drunken lawyer as he confronts judicial unfairness in order to win a malpractice action. Mamet’s screenplay for The Untouchables centres on Ness's battle to enforce Prohibition and bring gangster Al Capone to justice.

Mamet's other major films include Things a change, Redbelt, The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games, which he wrote and directed and which won Best Film and Best Screenplay awards at the 1987 Venice Film Festival. 

He also directed Spartan, Heist, State and Main, The Winslow Boy, Oleanna, and Homicide. 

He directed the 2013 HBO film Phil Spector, starring Al Pacino as Spector with Helen Mirren and Jeffrey Tambor. 

Mamet has become particularly known for his vivid style of dialogue, defined by a sardonic, street-smart edge and meticulously structured for impact.

When asked how he acquired his style of dialogue writing, Mamet said, "In the days before television, my family enjoyed whileing away the nights by making ourselves unhappy merely on the basis of our ability to speak the language brutally. That is most likely where my skill was developed.

Mamet has also served as an instructor at Goddard College, Yale Drama School, and New York University. Additionally, he often teaches to courses at the Atlantic Theater Company, where he was a founding member. 

This is a letter that playwright, director and screenwriter David Mamet addressed to the writing staff of the CBS show The Unit, in which he lays out his guiding principles for compelling screenwriting. Mamet also takes time to criticise TV executives, who he refers to as ’penguins’. Overall, it offers some penetrating insights into what makes good writing and storytelling.

To the Writers of The Unit


As we learn how to write this show, a recurring problem becomes clear.

The problem is this: to differentiate between drama and non-drama. Let me break-it-down-now.

Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time.

Our friends. The penguins, think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information — and, so, at times, it seems to us.

But note: the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.

Question: what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

So: we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.

1) Who wants what?
2) What happens if her don’t get it?
3) Why now?

The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted.

There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene after it leaves your typewriter. You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic.

This means all the “little” expositional scenes of two people talking about a third. This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less than useless, should it finally, god forbid, get filmed.

If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.

Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.

All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.

Any scene, thus, which does not both advance the plot, and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous, or incorrectly written.

Yes but yes but yes but, you say: what about the necessity of writing in all that “information?”

And i respond “*figure it out*” any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”.

When you’ve made it so clear that even this blue-suited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.

The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.

Any dickhead, as above, can write, “But, Jim, if we don’t assassinate the Prime Minister in the next scene, all Europe will be engulfed in flame”.

We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.

Yes but, yes but yes but you reiterate.

And I respond figure it out.

Monday, 15 November 2021

Martin Scorsese on Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers

Rocco and His Brothers (Directed by Luchino Visconti)

A distinct feature of Luchino Visconti's work is his realistic approach to individuals caught up in the conflicts of modern society, which led to the designation of Visconti as the ‘father of Neorealism’ in relation to Italian cinema. 

From an aristocratic background, Visconti was familiar with the arts as his mother was a noted pianist, and his father hired professional entertainers to play at their own theatre throughout his boyhood. He spent around 10 years studying cello and, after that, worked briefly as a theatre set designer. 

Visconti joined Renoir as his assistant in 1935, at a time when the French filmmaker was beginning to address social and political concerns in his films. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, he began to distinguish himself as an inventive theatrical and opera director. 

The first major project to establish him as a filmmaker was Obsession, an adaptation of the James M. Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film he produced employed natural locations, paired professional performers with locals, and included footage captured with concealed cameras to augment the believability of the story. Neorealist directors like as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica were some of the most prominent filmmakers during the postwar period. The Earth Trembles (a documentary-style study of Sicilian fishermen) took home the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Senso from 1954 is widely acclaimed by critics. Among Visconti's other noteworthy works is Bellissima (1951; The Most Beautiful). White Nights, an adaptation of a story by Dostoevsky, and Rocco e I suoi fratelli (1960; Rocco and His Brothers).

His 1963 drama Il gattopardo (The Leopard) is widely admired, and connects strongly with Visconti through his identification with the character of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, an aristocrat with liberal political convictions. When he died in 1976, Visconti was finishing the editing of his last picture, L’innocente (The Innocent), based on a novel by D’Annunzio. 

Here, Martin Scorsese pays tribute to Luchino Visconti, whose early classic Rocco and His Brothers had been recently restored to its original glory.

Luchino Visconti was one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema. He had a fascinating life, which was intertwined with many different strands of European art and culture.

Visconti came from the Milanese branch of one of Europe’s oldest families, whose roots can be traced back to the early 13th century. He might have appeared as a character in one of his own films about the aristocracy, such as Senso or The Leopard – that’s the life he was born into. But at a certain point in the 1930s, his passion for theatre, opera and the cinema set him on a radically different path.

Visconti had a kind of apprenticeship with Jean Renoir and worked as an assistant on some of the pictures he made during the period when he was associated with the French Popular Front – Renoir was actually the one that gave him the idea for his first film, Ossessione, an adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti’s artistic and political lives became almost one and the same – he started making films and directing theatre during the war years, the same period in which he joined the Communist party and worked with the Resistance.

He has often been referred to as a great political artist, but that’s too limiting and frozen a description. His sense of European history was vast and he knew the lives of the rich and powerful first hand – but at a certain point he became drawn to understand the other side of life, that of the poor and powerless. He had a strong sense of the particular manner in which absolutely everyone, from the Sicilian fishermen in his neorealist classic La Terra Trema to the Venetian aristocrats in Senso, was affected by the grand movements of history.

Visconti directed 14 features in his lifetime, each one extraordinary. Some, such as Senso, The Leopard and Rocco e i suoi Fratelli [Rocco and His Brothers], are among the greatest in the history of the art form. Written by Visconti and his long-time collaborator Suso Cecchi D’Amico (along with the contributions of four other writers), Rocco was based on elements of Ghisolfa Bridge by the Milanese writer Giovanni Testori, but it was also inspired by themes found in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Visconti follows the fortunes of Rocco (Alain Delon) and his three brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori), Ciro (Max Cartier) and Luca (Rocco Vidolazzi), who travel with their mother (Katina Paxinou) from south to north in search of a better life. Unlike Senso and The Leopard, Rocco was set in the present, which at the time was in the midst of the industrial and economic boom that transformed Italy during the mid-1960s. The picture is about the effects of life in this new world on the family, which gradually comes apart at the seams.

When Rocco and His Brothers came out, in 1960, a lot of people criticised it for what they perceived as emotional excess. It is operatic, as were all of Visconti’s films, but the remarks about excess made no sense to me. Rocco is Italian culture. I grew up in Italian-American culture, but there wasn’t much of a difference. For us – that is, me and my family and my friends – the physical and emotional expressiveness of the characters in the film, Katina Paxinou’s character in particular, seemed like an accurate and only slightly heightened reflection of the life we knew. We all saw that kind of ‘excess’ on a regular basis.

Rocco is one of the most sumptuous black-and-white pictures I’ve ever seen. The images, shot by the great Giuseppe Rotunno, are pearly, elegant and lustrous – it’s like a simultaneous continuation and development of neorealism. Thanks to Gucci and The Film Foundation and our friends at the Cineteca di Bologna, Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece can be experienced once again in all its fearsome beauty and power.

MARTIN SCORSESE, founder and chair of The Film Foundation, is a director, producer, screenwriter, actor and film historian, and widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential film-makers in cinema history;