David Mamet on writing for television

Not long ago, as sometimes happens, a memo emerged from Hollywood: a memo that had been sent from David Mamet, legendary playwright, screenwriter and co-creator of The Unit, to the other writers on that show. Like most of these memos, it’s says as much about its writer as its subject. Unlike most of these memos, it’s actually useful. Here are the top five points:

1. 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.

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

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. 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).

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Truth and fiction

It’s not just Austrian actors who’ve had trouble with knives this week. Just in case we were in danger of placing too much trust in politicians, the Home Office has been accused of unnecessary creativity in its trumpeting of success against knife crime. Thankfully Chris Dillow has written this gleeful deconstruction of some of the ways in which crime statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to. 

There’s a general assumption that people who work with numbers are sensible, rational and factual, while people who work with words and pictures are emotional, irrational and unpredictable. But in reality the logic of a story — or a scene — has to be worked through as thoroughly as any mathematical equation. In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla David Mamet sums up this challenge brilliantly:

The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal, so that he … is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants. […] To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?

2. What happens if they don’t get it?

3. Why now?

This process has to fit both strands of the double helix that makes up the DNA of drama: character and plot. As with statistics, you can try to massage one strand or another to fit the answer that you want; unlike statistics, you’re very unlikely to get away with it. This is because (a) we’ve all seen a vast number of stories, and (b) most people have near perfect pitch for emotional truth, which is why we find ourselves yelling at the screen: “She’d never do that!” or “Those two would never fall in love!”. As Billy Wilder said of the audience, “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together — that is critical genius”. 

This stringent working through of a scene to find its emotional truth is as true of the wildest fantasy as it is of so-called realism, which is one reason why most superhero movies are so unsatisfying. It’s also the real secret behind Disney’s success: they have always understood that the desires and motivations of a candlestick have to be just as well developed as those of a mermaid. Ultimately, every scene in every film is there to make a case: why the audience should care what happens next. This case has to be argued as convincingly and truthfully as possible, or the audience is gone. 

Or, to put it another way: Facts are easy. Truth is hard.

Acting and Reality

Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is one of the great screwball comedies, full of smart one-liners, snappy put-downs and mistaken identities. But one moment that particularly stands out is when Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is briefing the police to look out for his ex-wife’s fiancee Bruce Baldwin. “He looks like the actor Ralph Bellamy,” he says. This is, of course, hardly surprising — because Baldwin is played by the actor Ralph Bellamy. 

While they certainly play with the unspoken rules of film-viewing, such in-jokes are generally in comedies, where we’re less required to believe what we’re watching. There’s not a lot of post-modern cheekiness in There Will Be Blood. But they do raise the issue of reality in performance; and of whether too much reality can actually break the spell. David Mamet, in Bambi vs Godzilla, discusses the role of musicians in the movies. In the old days, he points out, when a character in a film played the piano, you showed him sitting at the piano; then his face, looking soulful as he played; then perhaps some hands at the keyboard. What you very rarely saw was any concrete proof that the actor was actually playing the piano, because he very rarely could. Today, on the other hand, a great deal is made of showing the actor actually playing the instrument, or singing his own songs. But does this really add to the credibility of the character? Mamet argues that it doesn’t; that it more often breaks the movie’s spell by making us think “oh, look, XYZ can play the piano”. It is, in other words, an act of vanity on behalf of the actor that actually undermines the story that it’s trying to tell. 

Another example of this in contemporary Hollywood is the insistence that an actor “did all his own stunts”. Now: is this to the benefit of the movie, or the benefit of the actor? If the former, all well and good, but it’s hard not to think that it’s more often the latter. Think of the opening shot of Mission: Impossible 2, which goes to enormous lengths to prove that “Ethan Hunt” is really hanging off a cliff face in the Outback, but in doing so serves only as an advertisement for Tom Cruise. More complicated, because so artistically well intentioned, are the ordeals that Christian Bale endured for Werner Herzog in making Rescue Dawn. In this film, which feels like an almost-sequel to his breakthrough picture Empire of the Sun, Bale plays a German-American pilot shot down over Laos and then tortured and imprisoned in terrible surroundings. In classic Herzog style, as much of the story as possible was filmed for real, with the actors scarily underweight and Bale tucking into writhing maggots with apparent hunger. But does this add to the credibility of the story, or have the oppposite effect? In an Indiana Jones movie, we can laugh and squirm when actors eat chilled monkey brains, knowing that they’re a Hollywood prop, and it doesn’t break the story. But Herzog’s determination to prove the reality of what Bale is doing has the opposite effect: “Wow!” we think, “Christian Bale is eating maggots!”. Movies, to misquote T.S.Eliot, cannot bear very much reality.