David Mamet – Isn’t it time we revived his plays

June. 2008 By Philip Berk

At his press conference for Redbelt in Los Angeles, David Mamet, wearing his trademark black beret, greets me with a surprising admonition.

“How come you walked past me in Vegas and failed to recognize me?”

I was dumbfounded. 

Of course he was referring to ShoWest where he was there to promote Redbelt. 

Having interviewed him three times previously, I should have been more observant, but I make up for it by sharing my enthusiasm for the film, by far his best, and its superlative screenplay that employs his rat a tat dialogue rhythms to stunning effect.

The day before, the media had pounced on the story that he had renounced his liberal agenda and thrown his lot with American conservatism.

But in all fairness, if you read his manifesto, which he published in the Village Voice, it comes across as fairly benign.

Before the press conference begins I ask if he is prepared to talk about his defection (I hadn’t read the Village Voice piece yet, only newspaper accounts of it.) 

“Later on if you want to buy me a drink,” is his genial answer.

Ironically the last time we spoke, he didn’t mind taking about his liberalism.

Where does it come from? I asked him.

“I guess my background had something to do with it. My father – may he rest in peace – was a labor lawyer. He worked his whole life for the rights of working people. I was exposed at a very young age to these traditions of social justice.”

Is that why he became a writer?

“When I started out, I was a kid actor in television and radio in Chicago. Later I went to acting school but quickly realized I wasn’t any good. But I was always making up jokes when I was a kid. I used to make up jokes and stories all the time. I’m naturally very curious — I’ve been doing it for more than thirty years — and it’s always exciting.” 

Regardless of what one thinks of him as a filmmaker, as a playwright he is without peer.

In England he is considered America’s greatest living playwright, and that’s where he goes for peace of mind.

Once unhappy with a work in progress, he sent the manuscript of Glengarry Glen Ross to playwright Harold Pinter, asking for advice. Pinter sent back a message, “Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect. I want to direct it.”

He later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for that play. But before that there was American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and A Life in the Theatre.

On his way to theatre immortality he found work in Hollywood (much like Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner) adapting The Postman Always Rings Twice for Bob Rafelson (and Jack Nicholson) The Verdict for Sidney Lumet (and Paul Newman) and The Untouchables for Brian De Palma (and Robert DeNiro.) 

But unlike them, he steeped himself in filmmaking and has directed a number of films, including  The Spanish Prisoner, the provocative Oleana, the 1999 remake of The Winslow Boy, the biting satire State and Main, two genre films Heist and Spartan, and his first his most acclaimed House of Games.

Redbelt surpasses them all.

Set in the fight world of Los Angeles, its brooding hero is Mike Terry a Jiu-Jitsu teacher who has avoided the prize fighting circuit, choosing instead to pursue an honorable life by operating a self-defense studio with a samurai’s code.

Terry and his wife Sondra struggle to keep the business running  and to make ends met. An accident on a dark rainy night between an off duty officer and a distraught lawyer puts in motion a series of events that will change Terry’s life dramatically and introduce him to a world of promoters, and movie personnel. 

Faced with debts he can’t pay off Terry must step into the ring for the first time.

The film arrived almost unannounced despite the presence of an intriguing international cast (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Rodrigo Santoro.) 

So how was it able to slip through the radar? I ask him.

“I made several movies for Sony Classics; so they wanted me to do a movie based on a 1905 Harley Granville Baker play called The Voysey Inheritance. which I had adapted for the stage. I said I’ll be glad to do that, but would you mind doing this one first, and they said, Sure; so that’s how it happened.”

Unlike Sidney Lumet he doesn’t demand a rehearsal period. Is it something that doesn’t work for him?

“It’s not that it doesn’t work for me. We just don’t have the time. If you’re working on a limited budget and using people from all over the world, to do a movie like this, you have to be working all the time. That’s one of the reasons I work with the same people (Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, David Paymer, his wife Rebecca Pidgeon.) You don’t have to sit down and explain to them what you think because they’ve read the script and you know they’re going to do great, and they know you’re going to take care of them, and off you go.”

What drew him to Jiu-Jitsu, which serves as the backdrop for the film?

“I was a high school wrestler, and then I boxed for a bit. I did a little kung fu, and then my friend Eddie O’Neill (of Married with Children) who has a small part in the film said, ‘If you ever come out to Los Angeles, I want you to meet these guys. They’re Brazilian, and they’ve invented this whole new world of Jiu Jitsu.’ So I moved out to Los Angeles, and on my first day I ran into Ed at a restaurant. ‘So where are these Brazilian guys you were going to introduce me to?’ And he said, ‘They’re right here.’ They were a hundred yards from the restaurant. I thought somebody’s trying to tell me something, and that’s how it got started.”

Does he still take martial arts lessons?

“Yes, and I have been studying well with my teacher for about six years, but I was really impressed by the Brazilians. Their attitude towards fighting is very very different from Americans. They believe in having fun. Their whole idea of Jiu Jitsu is to conserve your strength and to treat it, if you can, as a game, like chess. It’s a great philosophy.’

Equally important in the film is their sense of honor.

“You’re right. The film is very much a homage to the films of Kurasawa, and of course the sport of Jiu Jitsu started in Japan, although it was refined by the Brazilians. The Samurai films of Kurasawa were all about a person defending his honor and discovering the honorable thing to do. Very central to Jiu Jitsu is to treat everybody with respect, to treat yourself with respect, not to put yourself in a position of confrontation, to avoid confrontation as much as you can, and if you’re involved in a confrontation, to settle it in the least violent way possible.”

And with no bloodshed.

“One of the things about Jiu Jitsu, there isn’t any blood. You want to solve the confrontation in the easiest way possible. Rather than attempting to make the other guy submit, you should obtain a position where you can control him without using your strength.”

In his own life how honorable is he?

“By honor you mean morality, which has to do with abiding by a code of morals, and a code of morals is never simple to abide by. That’s why in every great hero story, the hero is presented with a challenge, whether it’s Moses who the Jewish people are always betraying, or Jesus who was betrayed by his disciples, or Martin Luther King who was assassinated or Jack Kennedy. The hero can exist up on the mountain top, but once he comes down the struggle becomes very difficult. It’s easier for him to maintain his or her connection to God; it’s difficult when he is living among his people. That’s when the soul of man gets tried , and that’s what the movie is about.”

But doesn’t moral purity approach extremism? Isn’t it the antithesis of being human?

“There is wonderful book that answers that question. The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, which breaks down the hero journeys. And every hero’s journey is the same. Unfortunately one can be inhuman and spiritual at the same time, so in order to raise one’s spirituality you have to ask yourself, Why does God want us to be spiritual? And the answer: to be a better human. But you can only be a better human by dealing with other human beings. So real morality involves not simply purifying yourself in order to have a relationship with God but purifying yourself in order to have a relationship with human beings, and that’s difficult for everybody.”

In the movie Hollywood symbolizes greed and corruption. Isn’t that like biting the hand that feeds him?

“Look, as I’ve said before in any hero story, the hero has to deal with the day to day vagaries of life which is not easy. Here’s a guy who says, ‘Never get yourself off balance. Never get into a position you don’t know how to get out of.’ He believes there’s nothing that can get him off balance.  But the gods, as always, are listening, and the gods say, ‘How about this? How about a movie star who says, ‘How would you like to be rich and famous? I’ll make your wife rich and famous. All you’ve got to do is…’  So if you’re living in Hollywood, who’s going to get you off balance? You know it’s going to be a movie star and a producer. There’s a very famous talent agency in this town — I won’t say who — and they have a special speech that goes like this: I want to be in the David Mamet business. Tell me your wildest dreams. I’m going to make that a reality within eighteen months. So you say, ‘Wow that’s great. Someone has finally recognized my inner excellence. Let me betray everything I believe in, please, so everybody can be gotten to.’ It’s not that we’re venal. It’s just that we’re human.”

Speaking of which, how did someone like Tim Allen, a fugitive from Disney films, get involved?

“Actually his agent had read the script, and he called up and said, ‘Tim would like to play the part of the action movie star. Would you mind if he came over and talked to you?’ I said, ‘I’ll be honored.’ And he did. And he did the movie.”

What about Chiwetel?

“We have the same agent, and my agent said you’ve got to cast Chiwetel, he’s the greatest actor in the world. He sent me Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots, and I said if this is the same guy who played in those two movies he is the greatest actor in the world, and then we got lucky.”

And the game with three marbles, featured in the movie. Is that real or something he thought up?

“I made it up, but it’s real now.”

His play on Broadway, November, a lampoon of George W. Bush, was panned by most of the critics, who thought it too soft. What is his response?

“They can kiss my ass.”

(The play’s director is Joe Mantella, who won Tony awards for directing Wicked, Take Me Out, and the 2005 revival of Glen Gary Glenross.

Was he sending him a cryptic message in his Village Voice manifesto when he writes, “Take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.

“The director, generally, does not cause strife, but his or her presence impels the actors to direct (and manufacture) claims designed to appeal to Authority — that is, to set aside the original goal (staging a play for the audience) and indulge in politics, the purpose of which may be to gain status and influence outside the ostensible goal of the endeavor.”

By his own admission Mamet prefers to direct his plays.

As he once told me, “I always directed my plays until I came to New York in the mid-70’s when I was told that other people have to direct your plays. We had some fairly good experiences, but after a while I realized I was missing out on the fun, so I went back to directing.”

But not his latest,.

If he’s not directing movies, he’s writing plays, and involving himself in the political process. How does he find the time to do it all?

“I like working,” he answers. “I love what I do. I get up every morning, and almost every morning I’m really excited to get to work. I love it.”

Does he take notes, record conversations?

“You know Freud said something really interesting. He was talking to a young doctor, and the young doctor asked, ‘What’s the best way to keep track of your patients,’ and Freud said, ‘Don’t make notes.’ Isn’t that great! Pay attention. Remember. Because you’ll remember the important things.”

Has he ever considered adapting one of his film scripts to the stage?

“No, but Michael Attenborough, who runs the Almeida Theatre in London, has asked me if I would consider having House of Games done as an opera. That’s a bizarre idea; so I think they may do it.”

How much of a burden is it being called America’s greatest living playwright?

“There may be one or two many words in that sentence,” he blithely responds.

Since 1991 his wife Rebecca has been in almost all of his films. Is that the best of all possible worlds?

“Absolutely. It’s wonderful working with her because she’s a great actress and a wonderful human being and a lot of fun, which she is in everything we do together. She’s just fun to work with.”

Do they take their work home with them?

“Never. Part of the trick in the theatre and especially in the movies is to finish your work before you go home. If something is not working and you have unresolved feelings at the end of the day, you’ve done something wrong, so you need to fix it. You don’t have to take your work home with you.”

Judaism is central to his life but not necessarily to his work. His only ostensible Jewish character is the cop in Homicide, although he returned to his roots with his much acclaimed play The Old Neighborhood about a Jewish family.

I knew Rebecca had converted to Judaism when she married him, but was surprised that she had been Bat Mitzvahed.

Her answer: “Judaism is a religion about action rather than belief. It’s not about what you believe — you can’t help what you believe. You can have all sorts of wacky and wild thoughts and you can’t control them. You can accept that they’re there. With Judaism what’s important is how you act on them. And because my husband is Jewish, I wanted to have coherence in our family. We happen to have a great rabbi whom I adore — who’s very inspiring for us — and it’s a good way of life for us.”

Mamet certainly lives a Jewish life.

Not only does he study the Torah, he has learned to read it in Hebrew.

“I always read the Bible,” he told me. “I used to read it in English. Now I’m learning to read The Torah in Hebrew. I can get through it with the help of a dictionary.” 

Has it influenced his writing?

“It hasn’t yet, but it will because the language is so magnificent, so magnificently simple, so blunt and simple and straightforward.”

How important are awards?

“Well, awards are very very difficult. Virginia Woolf wrote a great, great book called Three Guineas, which is advice to actors, and she says don’t go there. You don’t want to take that award, you don’t want to take that honorary degree because it’s going to be difficult for you. That’s great advice. It’s like, give me chastity, but not quite yet.”

He has some charming anecdotes about two of his most  famous plays, and what inspired them?

“Oleana came out of the years I spent working in fairly high-ticket universities as an adjunct professor, a visiting lecturer, or something like that. As I’ve said in a lot of my essays, it was like being in a petting zoo — they would bring me to the university, and the students would get to pet me and feed me peanuts.

“I was really stunned by the state of higher learning. I was given an office almost on the grounds of Harvard University. I always refer to it as the epicenter of world ignorance. I was amazed at what went on there.”

“American Buffalo began when I had a theatre company with Bill Macy twenty five years ago. I was driving a cab to make some money. Bill was working as a bartender. We were both very poor, working on our theatre company at night. Neither of us had any money. I went over to his apartment one night and opened the refrigerator looking for something to eat. There was a slab of American cheese that looked like building material, and I cut a very thick piece because I was hungry. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Help yourself!’ I was so hurt by his attitude that I started writing this play with its 15-minute monologue about a character (Peach) who wanted to take a piece of toast off a friend’s plate, and the friend said, ‘Help yourself.’ and he’s furious. So out of that came American Buffalo because Macy told me to go to hell.”


“Well it’s interesting — I’m currently working with Martin Scorcese and I‘ve done a film with Woody Allen and now this one with Mamet, three of the great writer-directors of our time, and what’s interesting about them is how very little they impose on you as directors. They leave the acting up to the actors. You sort of think what’s going to happen when you enter into their world, you’re going to be told exactly what to do; for once you’re going to be given the most amazing clue as to how to find the part, but the great thing about them is they trust actors to do their job.  And you trust them implicitly. They’re so in touch with the universe; there’s this sort of alchemy that happens where much less conversation gets the results they need. They’re all three extremely confident and easy in their world of making movies, and you kind of pick up on that. It was wonderful working with David. He’s the most affable, lovable character, full of stories. I loved being around him”

Was there a reverence for his dialogue? 

“Oh, absolutely. I was very aware that above all you have to revere the dialogue in this Mamet world. Just trust it, don’t try to put any spin on it, just say the words. But I was also in a position of playing a character who’s on the edge of sanity, who’s desperate, and who has a huge emotional whirl going on inside her. So I wasn’t going to let my reverence for the dialogue get in the way of feeling the emotion, so I was both aware of the importance of the words but also wanting to be true to what this woman was feeling.”

What was your first meeting with David like?

“I met him in L.A. in his casting director’s place. We just chatted about the way he told the story  — it seemed phenomenally complex and interesting how he used the themes of honor and what it is to be a good person in the context of a sports movie. We talked a little bit of my character, and I compared her to Portia in The Merchant of Venice, which I had played, one of my only other times on stage, disastrously I might add. I was terrible as Portia, and I told him the story of how bad I was the first night — I hadn’t concentrated at all during the rehearsals because I had fallen in love with the guy playing Lorenzo  — I just hadn’t paid attention, and then on the first night I realized I didn’t know what I was doing. I started saying my lines and I didn’t know what I say saying. Then during the interval I thought, ‘Oh God I’ve got to pull myself together. I am just terrified, I’ve got to be confident.’ I was so busy trying to be confident that I completely forgot that this 20 ft. fiberglass pillar was coming through from the ceiling, and I collided with it and broke my nose, and it knocked me unconscious and I landed on my back, and the next thing I knew I was backstage and someone was slapping me saying, ‘You can go back,’ and I did, and I was actually much better for being knocked out. What I loved about my character, and I think it’s true of Portia as well, is that someone can be very strong and fight for what she believes in and at the same time go through complete mental hell. I don’t think you get to see that in women characters in movies. I love that she’s weak and screwed up and desperate but at the same time she’s strong, brave, and cool — so we talked about that.”


“I was a huge fan of David Mamet’s work and have been since I started in the theatre, for so many years,I’ve been in awe of his plays and then his screenplays and the films that he’s directed; so I was just excited to read the script when it was sent to me. I just thought it was a great narrative, just a terrific story; so I was excited to get onboard. And then it was just a question of the Ju jitsu itself and trying to get up to speed with that. I had some great people to work with from the Gracie family. I was at the Roger Gracie Academy in London. and then with John and Jean Jacques Machado and Rebato Magno in L.A., a really great group of people to work with, some of the best practitioners on Jiu jitsu”.


“I think the comparison is fair. Mamet writes in a dialogue, a rhythm that’s oftentimes iambic pentameter like Shakespeare so that’s useful. One of the keys to classical text is you try to embrace the rhythm of it, but you also try to recreate the speech as naturalistically as possible, and in some ways that’s the same way you approach Mamet’s work. There is a very strong rhythm to it. You want to always keep that, but you don’t want to enforce it in a way that it sounds unnatural. It’s a similar muscle that you would use for both texts. That’s why  people have the same relationship to a speech out of Glengarry Glen Ross as they do to a Hamlet speech. People know them word by word. I saw Glengarry Glen Ross recently when Jonathan Pryce did it in London, and there were sequences in that which were almost like a sing-a-long, audience members were reciting the words along with the actors because it’s all in a rhythm and it sort of gets in your head and it becomes exciting. It builds in the same way and has the classic element of impending downfall of Shakespeare. I agree his writing, his dramatization, his narrative, his characters are larger than life and they feel epic.”


“There was a bit of a hysterical reaction in England but then I read the article and of course that was not what he was saying. He was addressing in a fairly light hearted way certain aspects of his own understanding of the political system, which seemed interesting, well written, personal, and fair enough.”

(Ejiofor had flown in from London having just won the Olivier as best actor for his performance as Othello.)