David Mamet

Suspicion 

NICK JAMES, 1998 

Why is David Mamet dabbling in Edwardiana? On the set of ‘The Winslow Boy’, the playwright and director talks about cricket, the Horse Guards and personal rectitude.

In his 1991 book On Directing Film, David Mamet says that, “the work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humour.” Sitting on a crate outside an Edwardian townhouse of imposing grandeur on the edge of Clapham Common, watching his crew prepare for the first shot of a cold spring day, Mamet seems as good as his word. Genial and courteous, he answers my questions and watches the proceedings with seemingly equal attention. There’s barely a trace of his trademark suspicion, though he does occasionally bark: “So what’s on your mind?”

Mamet’s answers come at you much like the dialogue of his groundbreaking plays American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross - short, telegrammatic, to the point. The interlocutor is not going to get any long-winded digressions in which the director muses about what he does for a living as if for the first time. Yet as extras in Edwardian costume arrive in twos and threes, watching this writer-director best known for dramatising urban America’s con artists and street hustlers orchestrate a British costume drama feels slightly grotesque. With his green quilt jacket, flat cap, sunglasses and grey-flecked beard, Mamet might be any American tourist fresh from a spree in Harrods. And to some extent that’s what he is, for in shooting a costume drama Mamet is visiting the one genre the UK industry would claim as its own. As producer Sarah Green concedes: “You have the talent that does this kind of drama all the time - we could never stretch the pound in Boston as we can here.”

With The Winslow Boy (1946) dramatist Terence Rattigan - whose work has only recently returned to favour after years of supposed class-bound irrelevance to the post-6os world - made a self-conscious attempt to revisit the Shavian “well-made play”. Ronnie Winslow, a 12-year-old naval cadet, is expelled from the prestigious Osborne Academy for allegedly stealing a postal order from a fellow pupil. He returns home in fear of his doting father, Arthur, but when Ronnie is compelled to tell all his father is convinced of his innocence and begins a wealth-devouring legal campaign to clear his son’s name, which has serious consequences for Ronnie’s grown-up brother and sister, Dickie and Catherine. At first sight it’s hard to imagine why Mamet should choose such an old theatrical war-horse, especially after the dazzling logic-play of his current release The Spanish Prisoner- but then Mamet is nothing if not a compulsive presenter of duplicitous enigmas. In his presence you want to question everyone’s motives - why is that woman painting out yellow smudges on the road? For a lifelong student of interpersonal power politics, Mamet is strangely unbothered by the nuances through which the British classify one another. “This would be an area of great ignorance of mine,” he cheerfully admits. “My main concern is another aspect of the story. When does a fight for justice become an arrogant pursuit of personal rectitude? Arthur is constantly asking himself that question. At what point does one give up the fight for an abstract principle?”

In a review of Mamet’s new novel The Old Religion in the London Review of Books, Michael Rogin identifies the writer’s work as being about the constant search for the pure victim of the confidence games he so often describes, which themselves derive from Mamet’s well-catalogued near-abusive childhood. But The Old Religion, Rogin claims, shows Mamet steering his identification with victimhood into a “cul de sac” figure and a religion his immigrant parents had left behind: “In The Old Religion [Mamet] has finally found his home, alone with the persecuted Jew.” To the extent that The Winslow Boy is about a child who becomes a national laughing stock, it fits the pattern of victimhood. But as Mamet explains, the play could also have been about religious persecution: “I’ve done some reading about the Edwardian period and the Archer case on which Rattigan’s play is based. He abstracted the actual case, which really hinged on the Catholic question. The kid was one of a small minority of Roman Catholics, which is why he was unjustly singled out. It’s at that point I believed in the movie. It’s pretty like An Enemy of the People, I think.”

“It’s a very dialectical piece,” he continues after the first run-through. “Any play happens to be set somewhere - you can set a play among petty criminals in Chicago, among royalty during the War of the Roses, but that’s not why we love those plays. It’s because of some internal struggle and you realise that the hero and heroine are just ourselves and that Edwardian England or the War of the Roses is basically just ‘once upon a time’.”

Once upon a time in this case is England in 1910. The shot being prepared is for a scene near the end of the screenplay, where Nigel Hawthorne as Arthur, having just found out he’s won the case, steps out of his house to address the press. Left pretty much to his own devices, cinematographer Benot Delhomme is perched at the business end of a crane set on a short straight track crossing the road towards a tall hedge. The shot starts in close on a man carrying a plank and follows him briefly as he walks quickly towards the hedge. As he and another member of the press set this plank on boxes to make a platform for a box camera, Delhomme’s own camera rises to take in the whole scene on the doorstep as Hawthorne’s stand-in steps forward to address the throng. Mamet watches another run-through on the video assist and seems mostly concerned with the rhythm of the movement. There’s no doubt he’s keeping faith with his shot list.

“Somebody once said, ‘the better the play, the worse the movie it’s going to make.’ So a lot of my work here has been lifting passages of narration that can be better explained through montage and by dramatising the purely narrative.” Mamet has written books on most aspects of his related crafts; just as he has his shot list, he also has his answer list, and in theory one ought to be left in no doubt about what he’s up to. But somehow, because this is David Mamet, doubt remains. You feel certain his interest in The Winslow Boy derives from a brilliant Mamet-like scene in which the famous barrister Sir Robert Morton cross-examines Ronnie at home in front of his family in a terrifying, accusatory manner. And yet, as we talk, the writer-director seems more delighted to be playing with Edwardian English and visiting tourist sites. “Because it’s a one-set play, a lot of stuff we learn over the telephone in the play has been filmed outside. We go up to the House of Commons, we go to the Inns of Court, Catherine’s fianc is a member of some regiment, we don’t know what, so we’re shooting the Horse Guards.”

The joke’s on us

Anyone who saw Mamet’s agonised performance on the South Bank Show in 1994, answering each of Melvyn Bragg’s often bland and puff-friendly questions with deep unease, will realise how ingrained is his lack of faith in the interview process. Suspicion is David Mamet’s mtier- a permanent state of mind for his most memorable characters from Teach in American Buffalo to Stanley Motss in Wag the Dog. But where Mamet is concerned, suspicion seems to be a two-way process. He operates across so many areas of media so prolifically and successfully, having written at least 22 stage plays and more than a dozen screenplays as well as two novels and several theory monographs, that the sincerity of his stake in his output is often questioned.

To take a recent example, Juliet Fleming - in a composite review in the Times Literary Supplement of Mamet’s acting-theory book True and False and the Mamet-scripted movies Wag the Dog and The Edge - argues that, “since Mamet is an extremely witty writer with some talent for self-directed humour, the reader of his non-dramatic writings is increasingly haunted by the possibility that they are an elaborate joke.” This is the other face of the serious moralist of lonely rectitude: the playful trickster who can give the eager secretary Susan Ricci in The Spanish Prisoner (played by his wife Rebecca Pidgeon) the deadpan excuse for being late for work, “My troika was pursued by wolves.”

Perhaps Mamet the costume-drama tourist is another such elaborate joke. My own suspicion is that despite the undoubted power and fluency of his writing and the admirable adult complexity and nuance of feeling of his films House of Games (1984), Homicide (1991) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Mamet is not an auteur director. I think this largely because no single image from any of his films is memorable for its own sake. Objects in scenes come readily to mind - the leaking water pistol that exposes the teaser con in House of Games; the broken holster that foretells the detective will lose his gun in Homicide; the gift book on tennis that places us comfortably in the realm of the ripping yarn in The Spanish Prisoner- yet the scenes themselves seem to revel in their visual ordinariness while the dialogue revels in portentousness. Mamet for me remains a playwright who happens to make films, many of which are about mistrusting what you see.

And Mamet himself is aware of this. On Directing Film is frank about his approach: “There are some directors who are visual masters - who bring to moviemaking a great visual acuity, a brilliant visual sense. I am not one of [them]… I happen to know a certain amount about the construction of a script… The question is, ‘where do I put the camera?’ That’s the simple question, and the answer is, ‘over there in that place in which it will capture the uninflected shot necessary to move the story along.’”

What Mamet is reaching for is the filmic eloquence of a Frank Capra. On Directing Film harks back constantly to the golden age of Hollywood and echoes the opinion of Graham Greene that the movies have been going steadily downhill since the introduction of sound. This suits Mamet’s need for isolation from the modern Hollywood culture in which he has been so successful. When I ask him about his theories, he gives this example: “One of the great pieces of film-making is in They Live by Night. Sylvia Sydney and Henry Fonda have gone to trial and you think they’re going to be convicted. Cut to a shot of a print shop, and the newspaper front page says, ‘Bonnie and Clyde Freed’. Then the camera pans over, and they’ve also set up ‘Bonnie and Clyde Convicted’. That’s genius film-making.”

With the beady-eyed, insouciant Hawthorne in position in place of the stand-in, Mamet is now ready for a take. “When I wave my cap, step forward,” Mamet tells the actor. “Action!” says the AD. Delhomme swoops upwards from ankle level. Mamet waves his cap frantically. Hawthorne ignores him genially. Everyone returns to their markers.

Whatever his gifts as a director, it’s for his dialogue that Mamet is still best known. So how will he cope with stilted, formal English? Will we feel the effort of moving from street to ballroom so evident in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence! “A couple of phrases I had to steer clear of- ‘oh rot’ and that kind of thing - but I found the dialogue plays pretty damn well as long as you take the view that the characters are real, fleshed-out characters rather than cardboard cut-outs. For example, Desmond has all these lines about his old cricket injury and sounds at first like an old Edwardian buffer. But Colin Stinton who’s playing the part thought the opposite was true. That here is a guy who’s played cricket for England; he may be getting a little aged, but he’s an athlete. So rather than being Colonel Blimp he threw all that stuff away. Which means that when at the end he proposes to Catherine it isn’t ridiculous.”

Mamet is clearly pleased at my interest in what he’s done with Rattigan’s text. He orders up a copy of the complete script, anxious to show me how well he’s able to write in the Edwardian register. This itself has a comic edge because Mamet can’t help talking about the characters in his own argot - it’s like the reverse of Baz Luhrmanris Romeo + Juliet. “I wrote the scenes for when Sir Robert finds out over the telephone that the case against Winslow cannot proceed. I wrote him a rousing speech to give to the House and a couple of interstitial scenes between him and his cronies in the dressing room, where we see another side of him. There’s this little guy saying, ‘Oh Bobby are you sure you wanna do this? Are you sure you wanna call in our markers?’ That was a lot of fun. Sir Robert is about to give up. He’s listening to this long speech from the First Lord of the Admiralty and one of his colleagues has a piece of sheet music about the Winslow case. It’s called ‘How Still We see Thee Lie’ and there’s a picture of Ronnie Winslow on the front and the lyrics go: ‘How dare you sully Nelson’s name? Who for this land did die. Oh naughty cadet, for shame, for shame. How still we see thee lie.’ Sir Robert gets very incensed and leaps to his feet and says, ‘Point of order’.”

The price of survival

Sir Robert’s speech is an accurate pastiche of Kipling, though Mamet has him repeat his own lawyer father’s mantra: “It’s only important to win.” A subsequent read-through of the script confirms that Mamet has taken great pains to keep Rattigan’s play as intact as possible, though the film is unlikely to be as briskly formal as Anthony Asquith’s 1950 adaptation. There is a happy conclusion, of course, though with undertones that the struggle has left only the boy himself fairly undamaged. As Mamet knows too well, children can survive a great deal. The adult Mamet has survived by cleaving to a rigorous concern in his work for moral dilemmas, the best of it taking us through the protagonist’s struggle and making us understand it. The price Mamet has paid is that people find it hard to love his serious work because it makes them uncomfortable. I wonder how much he yearns to make something as enduringly enjoyed as It’s a Wonderful Life?

But then he wouldn’t be Mamet, ever suspicious, always keeping the goal rigorously in mind. As now: “The trick is not to fall victim to location sickness ‘Oh isn’t that pretty? Let’s work that in!’ Like the actor saying, ‘I coincidentally know how to play the ukulele. Perhaps I could use the ukulele in this?’”

Originally published in Sight And Sound Magazine (Copyright British Film Institute). Used by permission.