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Calling the Shots

When a discussion of great playwrights is underway, it seems only a few have earned the honor to be recognized by only one name. There's Sophocles, Shakespeare, Beckett—writers whose style and voice have become synonymous with their names. But if you consider great playwrights of the last century, even Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams generally have to be specified by their full monikers. There is one major exception: an artist whose name is so revered he need only be referred to by his last name. He is of course David Mamet. And anyone who knows or values the written word is aware of his impact on the entertainment medium in the last 30 years.

Mamet established himself in the 1970s as a unique voice in American theatre, with plays such as The Duck Variations, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and American Buffalo—all of which played Off-Broadway in 1976. He quickly became known for his sparse, clipped dialogue—dubbed "Mametspeak"—and his strong characterizations. By the 1980s he had become a sought-after screenwriter, penning acclaimed scripts such as The Untouchables and the Oscar-nominated The Verdict. At the same time, he was writing and directing for the stage, turning out such memorable works as Speed-the-Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. He also made his debut as a film director with a small, gritty film about con men called House of Games that put longtime collaborator Joe Mantegna front and center on-screen for the first time. In recent years, he has continued to work as a playwright, essayist, script doctor, and director, and his name on a project can carry more excitement and anticipation than those of some box-office stars. Those who doubted his versatility have been silenced in recent years with his flawless adaptation of Terrence Rattigan's sensitive period drama The Winslow Boy—which, for the record, was a G-rated film—and the hilarious ensemble comedy State and Main. But his new film, Spartan, starring Val Kilmer and Derek Luke as military operatives investigating a high-profile kidnapping, is a textbook example of Mamet doing what he does best. The twisty thriller features crackling dialogue, seedy characters, and genuine surprises at the most unexpected moments.

The film also features what has become a Mamet trademark: tough-talking male figures with machismo to spare who use words as part of their arsenal. Early in his career, some critics were quick to label Mamet's work misogynistic, most likely because of some of the blunt male characters found in his plays. But talk to anyone who works with Mamet, and you'll quickly discover he has another reputation to live up to—as one of the nicest people in the business. "He's such a gentleman, and so kind," Spartan star William H. Macy, who co-founded two theatre companies (including the still-active Atlantic Theatre Company in New York) with Mamet and has appeared in six of his films, once said. "He was the first person that ever described acting as a noble profession." Tia Texada, who stars in Spartan as the only female member of a secretive special operations force, admitted to initially being in awe of Mamet. "Everyone wants to be on a David Mamet set," she enthuses. "He knew every single background artist's name. He'd go up and introduce himself to everyone, and then he'd remember their name hours later. He has so much respect for everyone."

Ask Mamet himself about his reputation as Mr. Nice Guy, and he seems genuinely surprised. "Well, my wife thinks I'm a nice person," he says with a laugh, referring to his spouse of 13 years, actor Rebecca Pidgeon. "I asked her the other day, I said, 'Here you are, you're so gorgeous, you're so talented, why in the world would you marry a guy like me?' And she said, 'I don't know, you seem like a nice enough guy.'"

It's difficult for some to balance the concept that the author famous for his caustic dialogue and characters who indulge in expletive-filled rants is in real life a thoughtful and soft-spoken type. For those unable to separate a writer from his creations, it might come as a shock to learn that, during the course of the interview, he said "fuck" only once.

Acting Out

Likely due in equal parts to his reputation as a writer and as a generous filmmaker, actors line up to work with Mamet. Over the years, he has built something of a repertory company of actors such as Mantegna and Macy who appear again and again in his work. Mamet credits this idea to his early days. "When I was writing for theatre companies, I would think about who was involved, who was going to play the lead," he explains. "I write the best I can and reach out to my friends if I can." With his verbose dialogue, it's no wonder he has come to rely on actors he knows can pull it off. Which begs the question: Has he ever given a line reading to an actor? "Yeah, one time," Mamet admits. "It didn't work."

According to Mamet, the respect between himself and actors is mutual. He notes that performers rarely alter his dialogue. "They don't do that to me. One reason is because the dialogue is good and the other reason is the actor is good," he says. He has dabbled in acting, most notably in the 1987 thriller Black Widow, but remains his own worst critic. "I was a terrible, terrible actor," he says bluntly, adding that he has no intention of getting in front of the camera again. "I'm sufficiently bad and sufficiently honest to say that I'm not going to let my ego get in the way and piss on a noble profession. I've always had respect for actors. I've always loved being around actors."

Texada points out that actors are equally captivated by Mamet. Kilmer, who has famously butted heads with directors in the past, was fascinated by his director. Texada recalls, "My first day I was doing a scene with Val and we were talking about how much we loved him. And Val says, 'Let's go follow him.' And we did. We just followed him around the set. Finally, David turns around and goes, 'What are you two doing?' And Val goes, 'I just like you so much, I just want to follow you.'"

The good news for actors looking to break into Mamet's inner circle is that he is always open to new faces. For Spartan, Mamet worked closely with casting director Cassandra Kulukundis (Magnolia, Shattered Glass, Ghostworld); he trusted her to cast some roles based only on audition tapes he viewed. "She pulls people out of the woodwork and is such a vehement supporter of the people she loves," says Mamet. "There was an actor named Kick Gurry, and I saw about 10 seconds of him and said, 'OK, give him the part.' She wanted to know if I wanted to meet him, but I said it was OK, she could give it to him. She laughed and told me that Kick had come into her office and insisted on doing the scene again and again. He said, 'I'm going to sit here and not leave until I give the take that's going to make him say I've got the part.' And he did."

Write of Way

Asked about his writing regimen, Mamet thinks for a moment. "I think I'm just going to keep writing until they throw me in jail," he says in a serious tone. "Other than that, I kind of set aside all day, every day, for writing, and break it up with going home to see my family and having lunch." As to the age-old question of where writers get their ideas, Mamet admits his sessions are fairly spontaneous. "No matter what anybody says, you're always making it up as you go along," he observes. "It's like when you have babies—nobody ever gave you a how-to book, nobody gave you a manual. It's like any of the important things in life, whether it's your career or your marriage or child-rearing, you're making it up as you go along."

The plot for Spartan is so intricately designed, with red herrings at every bend, it's hard to believe the author didn't require a map to keep track of all the false turns. "I just started writing it and kept writing it and it evolved," explains Mamet. "It's like fill-in-the-crossword-puzzle. You know that word has got to be 'abracadabra' because there's no other word it can be. Until you get halfway through and you see a word down at the middle has a P in the middle of 'abracadabra' and there is no P. So, therefore, one of them has to be wrong. They can't both be right. And the same thing is true about the structuring of drama. You go along and do the best you can and say, 'I know this has got to happen at the end of the second act.' Until you spend two years and it doesn't work, something's wrong. Either the first or the third act is wrong, or the second act's wrong— how am I going to fix it? So the structure is the whole thing."

As in other Mamet-directed films, such as The Spanish Prisoner or House of Games, Mamet walks a precarious line between fooling his audience and confusing them. With all the double-crosses taking place, the plots tend to move quickly, and the director respects his audience enough to keep up. "The trick is to take a story that might be kind of complex and make it simple enough that people will want to catch up with it, rather than stopping and explaining to them why they should be interested," Mamet reasons. "Because then they might understand, but they won't care. What makes them interested is to make them catch up, to say, 'What's happening here? Who is this guy, what crime was committed, who was taken, why is she important?' So they want to see what he's going to do next, which is all that moviemaking comes down to—what happens next?"

Strictural Integrity

When not directing his own scripts, Mamet continues to turn out high-profile projects for other directors. "I don't think I approach it any differently," he says of being a writer-for-hire. Asked what the biggest disappointment of watching someone else direct his scripts can be, he states, "Well, the greatest frustrations have been having the scripts directed other than the ways in which I thought they would have gone. But when I do a script for someone else to direct, I get paid for it. That's one of the things you get paid for." Not that he is unhappy with most of his screen adaptations. For example, he is quick to point out he wouldn't alter a frame of Glengarry, directed by James Foley. "I wouldn't change that, I loved that," he enthuses.

Mamet is the rare writer who seems to move effortlessly between the mediums of film and theatre. And while most people would assume film is a more freeing experience because one isn't confined to a single stage, Mamet reasons that they both have their restrictions. In the case of film, the lack of boundaries can be intimidating. "It would seem you could do almost anything on film, but that's part of the wonderful fascination of filmmaking," he notes. "You think, 'OK, you can do anything you want. Now, what am I going to do?' Theoretically, I can do anything I want, limited only by my ability to express it in terms of the shot list. So that's a fascinating challenge. So I don't find it any more freeing or any more constrictive than writing plays. They each have their own strictures, and the wisdom of how to understand those strictures fascinates me."

As for the limitations of playwriting, Mamet defers to another great mind. "Aristotle said it's got to be about one thing, one character doing one thing in the space of three days in one place such that every aspect of the play is a journey of the character toward recognition of the situation. And at the end of recognizing the situation he or she understands, recognizes the situation, undergoes a transformation where a high becomes low or in comedy the low becomes high. That's the strictures of playwriting."

Greek Comedy

Just as in his creations, Mamet continues to surprise. Most Pulitzer Prize winners who can randomly call upon the teachings of Greek philosophers probably make you think of a button-downed intellectual. Johnny Messner, an actor who appears in Spartan and who formerly studied at the Atlantic Theatre Company, says Mamet is not at all what people would expect. "I think people might think he's a little stiff or rigid," says Messner. "He's so the opposite of that. He's one of the funniest people I've ever met. He has great stories that he'll tell right before a take, and only when I was doing the scene did I realize the story he was talking about had everything to do with the scene I was in. It was so genius." Texada concurs, "I thought he would be very serious, just because his words are so bold and profound. And he has a very intense look. But underneath it all he's able to laugh at himself and have a definite humor about everything. He would play jokes on us with the crew constantly."

As Spartan opens in theatres this weekend, Mamet is already busy with another unique project that returns him to the stage. He has tackled no less than Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, updating the 16th century classic with a new text he also directed. The play opened Feb. 28 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, his first new theatrical work since Boston Marriage in 1999. It is a challenging production, full of as many questions as answers. At one point, Faustus asks, "What is my charge but to tempt fate? Do I vex you? Do I confound you?"

In his work, Mamet continues to vex, to confound, and the audience who goes along for the ride is all the better for it. BSW

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