The Director's Chair Interviews

Cons and Confusion with "The Spanish Prisoner's" David Mamet
by Anthony Kaufman

Click here for David Mamet films, books, and soundtracks


Admittedly, I think we were all a little bit nervous about interviewing David Mamet. Here is a man whose plays have won numerous awards, whose staccato language has defined a contemporary masculine world like no other, and whose books on directing and acting have influenced countless students of film and theater. (Not to mention the fact that he likes to shoot guns.) At this year's Sundance film festival, a round table of a few online journalists gathered together to talk to Mamet and his leading lady and wife, Rebecca Pigeon, about their latest film, "The Spanish Prisoner" (opening today) which returns Mamet to familiar territory of deception, manipulation and the "con game." I was among those tremulous journalists at the table and it wasn't until a few hours after the interview concluded that I realized that, through all Mamet's doublespeak and odd references and round about way of talking, I think he insulted me.

David Mamet: Why is this culture called online?

indieWIRE: It's easy and immediate.

Mamet: What is it like? It's like television that talks to each other?

iW: I wouldn't say like television. . . It's supposed to be interactive. (Pause) How have the festival screenings been?

Mamet: We showed it to an audience for the first time in Toronto. And they really loved the film and I was shocked and delighted. Then it went to Deauville. They dug the film too, but they didn't laugh quite so much, because I guess a lot of the humor was in the language.

iW: Was it French subtitled?

Mamet: Yes.

iW: Is that strange to think that your dialogue is being subtitled into French?

Mamet: It was nice. I was very flattered. We talk a lot about dialogue in movies. It occurred to me that, I think dialogue is important because I write dialogue, but on the other hand, we've all seen movies which we adore, in languages we don't understand. The films of Kurosawa. I'm sure there's all sorts of magnificent subtlety in the Japanese that we'll just never know, and yet. . .

iW: But in your films, do you think you concentrate more on dialogue than maybe other directors.

Mamet: I try to focus on plot. I write the dialogue as well as I can. Audiences are strange. I did a play called "Glengarry Glen Ross" and it was first done in England at the National Theater of Great Britain. It was a terrific production. People loved it over there, but there were no laughs. I thought, Jesus, I thought this play was funny. And then I took it back and played it in New York and people roared, cause again, "We're separated by a common language," as Winston Churchill said.

iW: I was wondering what you thought about the distinction between Hollywood and independent film. Do you think there's a lot of grey area. Do you think of "Wag the Dog" as an independent film? For "The Spanish Prisoner" the same question could be asked.

Mamet: That's a very good question I don't know the answer to. One thing I love about movies is that they change constantly. Everything is evolving and any organism is going to grow and die or grow and mature and then die. That's what organisms do. So an organism like independent film or an organism like Sundance, or an organism like 20th Century Fox, it's inevitable that that success is going to bare with the seeds of disillusion and a new thing will take its place. The other thing I like about movies is that its so young. . . The evolutions that film is going to go through in your folk's generation with computers, it's fascinating to see. And yet when you go back to it, what does it all come down to? It all comes down to some photosensitive material and somebody who's going to tell a story using those pictures.

When I write for others, part of the deal is you write for others. I always think it's like the interior decorator who says, "I spent all my time decorating this living room and how dare they move the piano." And I'm sure the interior decorator does feel that, just like I would feel how dare they not shot that scene. You got to take a deep breath and say, well that's the deal.

iW: How do you feel about being the person that these young directors are looking up to? They are reading the "On Directing" book, they're reading your works and trying to emulate you?

Mamet: I'm very flattered. (Long pause) Mark Twain said a boy starts imitating a man when he turns 12 and he never stops. So that's kind of how I feel about being a film director. I've been making movies for about 20 years, but I feel like a kid. There's so much to know and so many people started when they're younger. People say, I guess, that guy seems to be doing a pretty good job.

iW: I heard that one of the audience members asked you about the relationship between "The Spanish Prisoner" and "The Water Engine" which I think is very similar. Was it coincidental?

Mamet: I never thought of it. Obviously, there's some sort of connection.

iW: How much time passed between writing the two?

Mamet: I think I wrote "The Water Engine" around 1904. (Laughs) 22 or 23 years.

iW: Okay, I will draw the parallel. What do you find fascinating about a man being manipulated or being caught between two sides?

Mamet: Human nature is interesting, you know. A guy said, "Monkeys are the cwaziest (sic) people. It interests me how we all have a blindside, we can all be gotten around by someone unscrupulous or perceptive enough to do so. But the study of theater, you can say on one level, the study of semantics, which is how words influence thought and therefore action. . .

iW: And film has its own semantics. . .

Mamet: Yeah. Indeed it does.

iW: How do you think it differs?

Mamet: Films work as Eisenstein informed us through a juxtaposition of images. So the semantics of film are a visual level rather than verbal side. And we can see this very clearly, of course, in commercials which juxtapose images to give us an idea which any rational consideration would inform us is fantastically false. But yet, we accept it. Because our mind juxtaposes those images and sticks them together.

iW: There is something about the falsity of some of the worlds in the "The Spanish Prisoner" and how that false world corresponds to the false world of film? You have two kind of false worlds there. . .

Mamet: I think that's the answer to the question. The film is a fantasy. We enter a fantasy. And that's what Steve Martin offers the Campbell Scott character. If you look at the proposition, it's blatantly false. If the Steven Martin [character] said, "How about this? I'm going to suggest a scenario to you. You give me a camera worth 8 bucks. And in return, I will give you all of my friendship, I give you access to everything my wealth can do. And you can have my sister." Does that seem like a logical idea? But it's not presented logically. It's presented in such a way that Scott gets to form the ideas on his own and rather than the idea being presented in an attractive manner, instead its in an unattractive manner; Steve Martin keeps betraying him, keeps insulting him and has to come back and apologize.

iW: When you were designing the sets, was there a certain sense of artifice implanted there?

Mamet: Sets?

iW: Yes.

Mamet: The answer to the question is -- what is the set supposed to do? The answer is -- what is the scene about.

iW: But, for instance, the car dealership and the restaurant. They are sets that are not real. They are constructed to dupe us. Was there some intention to clue us into that?

Mamet: It's interesting you should pick those out, because coincidentally those two sets are real. The car dealership actually exists in New York. All you do is have Scott walk into a setting which he's not connected at all and allow the other person to encounter him in there. Through two guys holding up a menu and saying, "Good evening, welcome to the club" this guy creates his own fantasy, juxtaposes the images, just as Eisenstein told us, and in terms of the car dealership, the villain goes in, he's wearing a suit because he's wearing a suit and Campbell Scott can only assume as we can only assume that he's about to buy a $700,000 car. By the way, the guy who plays the car salesman is a very good actor who actually owns a car dealer.

iW: Do you find it more challenging to communicate images than to communicate words in your dialogue. Is it harder to think in those terms?

Mamet: Yeah, it is. It's challenging because that's what one wants to do. My idea is that the perfect film is a silent film, so we want to be able to tell a story in pictures. So it's not a language I grew up with as many people have and many people can. It's something I got to work at a little bit.

iW: A lot of people have claimed that your work is sexist. But I actually think the male characters are actually kind of weak, and that's not a masculine depiction, in fact, that they're actually vulnerable, do you agree with that?

Mamet: Who's claimed that my work is sexist?

iW: I wouldn't know any exact names, but I think. . .

Mamet: You know what, neither would I. Let me ask you a question. You've dedicated your life to an understanding of this medium?

iW: Yes.

Mamet: Do you think it's sexist?

iW: I just told you that I don't think so. But other people have said that. . .

Mamet: Who?

iW: Other audience members.

Mamet: Here's what I think. I think it's a terrible thing to say about anybody. A) I think that when you've been in the public eye long enough, certainly you're opening up yourself to a certain amount of gossip. I do it about politicians. I do it about other people. I'm probably going to rot in Hell. Because I do, it's probably only fitting or just that other people are going to gossip about me and what I would suggest is that I would certainly appreciate it if people exercised a certain amount of conscientious restraint, before they said something potentially harmful either that they didn't believe to be true or that they knew to be untrue. And as I say, if it's my lot in life to suffer a bunch of extraordinarily mild and not ill-meant conjecture, so be it. The suggestion that I'm sexist is, I think, is absolutely untrue and certainly something I hope to be untrue.

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