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An Interview with David Mamet, Paris Review 2013

David Mamet

The inimitable playwright, screenwriter, director and essayist speaks to The Paris Review. Here’s Alec Baldwin’s “Coffee’s for closers” speech from Mamet’s towering film adaptation of his own award-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross to whet your appetite…

“David Alan Mamet grew up in a Jewish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, just a few blocks from Lake Michigan. His father was a labor lawyer, his mother a schoolteacher; both sides of the family came to Chicago in the 1920s, part of the city’s last wave of central European immigrants. Mamet was a child actor who attended public schools on the South Side until his parents’ divorce; later, as a teenager, he would spend several unhappy years living with his mother in Olympia Fields, a Chicago suburb on the edge of the prairie.

Like many Chicago writers, he claims to have been shaped by the city’s peculiar duality, “the admixture of the populist and the intellectual.” He would write later of perceiving the city “not as an adversary . . .[but] as an extension of our dreamlife.”

In 1964 he went off to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, where he was graduated with “no skills, nor demonstrable talents.” Over the next several years he pursued a series of odd jobs, including a stint in the merchant marines. With the expectation of becoming an actor, he joined a theater company at McGill University, before returning to Vermont for an instructor’s position at Marlboro College.

His first play was staged in 1970, almost by accident. He had won the job at Marlboro by advertising himself as the author of a play, though in fact there was nothing to which he could truthfully lay claim. Upon his arrival he learned that his “play” was scheduled to be performed, so he hastily set about writing Lakeboat, a one-act drama taken from his experiences in the merchant marines. Lakeboat was staged before the year ended; it would set the tone for his later work and eventually become a full-length feature, one that is still performed today.

He spent only one year at Marlboro before returning to Chicago, where he worked variously as a waiter, a cabdriver and a real-estate salesman. The following autumn, having abandoned acting, he went back to Goddard, which had offered to make him its artist-in-residence. There he formed an ensemble, the St. Nicholas Theater Company, which performed the plays he had written since Lakeboat. In 1973 he moved back to Chicago, bringing with him a batch of new plays and the means to have them performed.

He spent the next four years in Chicago, writing, directing, and teaching (at Pontiac State Prison and the University of Chicago). After a rough start his plays won the admiration of both critics and audiences. In 1974 he received the Joseph Jefferson Award (given each year to the best new local play) for Sexual Perversity in Chicago. More prizes followed—two Obies in 1976, and in the same year a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for American Buffalo, which had its Broadway debut in 1977 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. In all, nine of his plays—including A Life in the Theatre, The Water Engine, Prairie du Chien, and Lone Canoe—were produced between 1975 and 1978.

In the eighties, Mamet turned part of his attention to the movies, a genre that had attracted him since childhood. He wrote screenplays for six movies (two of which he directed himself) and received an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of The Verdict. He also published Writing in Restaurants and Some Freaks, both essay collections. New plays continued to appear almost annually, including the revised version of Lakeboat,Speed-the-Plow, Edmond, and Glengarry Glen Ross, which received both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.

Since 1991 Mamet has lived in New England. At forty-nine he is the author of twenty-two plays, twelve scripts and four collections of essays. His recent work includes the screenplay for Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, the novel The Village, and three plays: Oleanna,The Cryptogram, and Death Defying Acts.

 

INTERVIEWER

How was it that you were drawn to the theater?  

DAVID MAMET

Freud believed that our dreams sometimes recapitulate a speech, a comment we’ve heard or something that we’ve read. I always had compositions in my dreams. They would be a joke, a piece of a novel, a witticism or a piece of dialogue from a play, and I would dream them. I would actually express them line by line in the dream. Sometimes after waking up I would remember a snatch or two and write them down. There’s something in me that just wants to create dialogue.  

INTERVIEWER

Can you put a date to this?  

MAMET

It’s always been going on. It’s something my mother used to say when I was just a little kid: David, why must you dramatize everything? She said it to me as a criticism—why must you dramatize everything?  

INTERVIEWER

And did you have an answer for her?  

MAMET

No, but I found out (it took me forty years) that all rhetorical questions are accusations. They’re very sneaky accusations because they masquerade as a request for information. If one is not aware of the anger they provoke, one can feel not only accused but inadequate for being unable to respond to the question.  

INTERVIEWER

That happens in your plays a lot. There are a lot of rhetorical challenges.  

MAMET

Why must you always . . .  

INTERVIEWER

One of the things that interests me is how uncompromising you are, both with yourself and the audience. The Cryptogram, for example, forces the audience to solve this puzzle that also happens to be troubling the kid in the play. You, as the author, have put the audience and the kid in essentially the same place.  

MAMET

Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.  

INTERVIEWER

Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?  

MAMET

Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective. Well, well, if it isn’t my younger brother just returned from Australia . . . have a good break? The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play.

Now, there’s a certain amount of essential information, without which the play does not make sense . . .  

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Paris Review Interview – Umberto Eco and the Art of Fiction

The prodigious and playful professor gives a fascinating interview to the Paris Review. On everything from Jorges Luis Borges to James Bond. And all over calzone and scotch…

“I think that at a certain age, say fifteen or sixteen, poetry is like masturbation. But later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it. Thankfully I gave up rather quickly.”

The first time I called Umberto Eco, he was sitting at his desk in his seventeenth-century manor in the hills outside Urbino, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. He sang the virtues of hisbellissima swimming pool, but suspected I might have trouble negotiating the region’s tortuous mountain passes. So we agreed instead to meet at his apartment in Milan. I arrived there last August on ferragosto, the high point of summer and the day the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Milan’s gray buildings gleamed with heat, and a thin layer of dust had settled on the pavement. Hardly an engine could be heard. As I stepped into Eco’s building, I took a turn-of-the-century lift and heard the creaking of a door on the top floor. Eco’s imposing figure appeared behind the lift’s wrought-iron grating. “Ahhh,” he said with a slight scowl.

The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings—thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese . . . I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory, The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.

Eco began his career as a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics. Then, in 1980, at the age of forty-eight, he published a novel, The Name of the Rose. It became an international publishing sensation, selling more than ten million copies. The professor metamorphosed into a literary star. Chased by journalists, courted for his cultural commentaries, revered for his expansive erudition, Eco came to be considered the most important Italian writer alive. In the years since, he has continued to write fanciful essays, scholarly works, and four more best-selling novels, including Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004).

With Eco’s paunch leading the way, his feet shuffling along the floor, we walked into his living room. Through the windows, a medieval castle cut a gigantic silhouette against the Milanese sky. I had expected tapestries and Italian antiques, but instead found modern furnishings, several glass cases displaying seashells and rare comics, a lute, a collection of recorders, a collage of paintbrushes. “This one, you see, by Arman, is dedicated especially to me . . .”

I sat on a large white couch; Eco sank into a low armchair, cigar in hand. He used to smoke up to sixty cigarettes a day, he told me, but now he has only his unlit cigar. As I asked my first questions, Eco’s eyes narrowed to dark slits, suddenly opening up when his turn came to speak. “I developed a passion for the Middle Ages,” he said, “the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts.” In Italy, he is well known for his battute, his comedic sallies, which he drops at nearly every twist of his snaking sentences. His voice seemed to grow louder the longer he spoke. Soon he was outlining a series of points, as if speaking to a rapt classroom: “Number one: when I wrote The Name of the Rose I didn’t know, of course, since no one knows, what was written in the lost volume of Aristotle’sPoetics, the famous volume on comedy. But somehow, in the process of writing my novel, I discovered it. Number two: the detective novel asks the central question of philosophy—who dunnit?” When he deemed his interlocutor clever enough, he was quick to extend professorial appreciations: “Yes, good. But I would also add that . . .”

After our initial two-hour interview session, Mario Andreose, the literary director of Bompiani, Eco’s Italian publisher, arrived to take us to dinner. Renate Ramge, Eco’s wife of forty-five years, sat up front with Andreose, and Eco and I took the backseat. Eco, who just minutes before had brimmed with wit and vitality, now appeared sullen and aloof. But his mood lightened soon after we entered the restaurant and a plate of bread was placed before us. He glanced at the menu, dithered, and as the waiter arrived, hastily ordered a calzone and a glass of Scotch. “Yes, yes, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t . . .” A beaming reader approached the table, “Are you Umberto Eco?” The professore lifted an eyebrow, grinned, and shook hands. Then, at last, the conversation resumed, as Eco launched into excited riffs about Pope Benedict XVI, the fall of the Persian Empire, and the latest James Bond movie. “Did you know,” he said while planting a fork in his calzone, “that I once published a structural analysis of the archetypal Ian Fleming plot?”

INTERVIEWER

Where were you born?

UMBERTO ECO

In the town of Alessandria. It is known for its Borsalino hats.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of family did you come from?

ECO

My father was an accountant and his father was a typographer. My father was the eldest of thirteen children. I am the first son. My son is my first child. And his first child is a son. So if by chance someone discovers that the Eco family is descended from the emperor of Byzantium, my grandson is the dauphin!

My grandfather had a particularly important influence on my life, even though I didn’t visit him often, since he lived about three miles out of town and he died when I was six. He was remarkably curious about the world, and he read lots of books. The marvelous thing was that when he retired, he started to bind books. So he had a lot of unbound books lying here and there around his apartment—old, beautifully illustrated editions of popular nineteenth-century novels by Gautier and Dumas. Those were the first books I ever saw. When he died in 1938, many of the owners of the unbound books did not ask for them to be returned, and the family put them all in a big box. Quite by accident, this box landed in my parents’ cellar. I would be sent to the cellar from time to time, to pick up some coal or a bottle of wine, and one day I opened this box and found a treasure trove of books. From then on I visited the cellar rather frequently. It turned out my grandfather also collected a fabulous magazine, Giornale illustrato dei viaggi e delle avventure di terra e di mare—the illustrated journal of travels and adventures by land and by sea—devoted to strange and cruel stories set in exotic countries. It was my first great foray into the land of stories. Unfortunately, I lost all of these books and magazines, but over the decades I have gradually recovered copies of them from old bookstores and flea markets.

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Spike Lee Interview (NY Magazine)

US filmmaker Spike Lee interviewed by the NY Magazine here. Love him or loathe him (with Lee there seems to be very little wiggle room) he is always fascinating and challenging. And he is, undeniably, important.

Returning to Brooklyn—a very different Brooklyn—with Red Hook Summer, the outspoken filmmaker talks with Will Leitch about the timidity of Hollywood, reality-TV minstrelsy, and what it’s like to have inspired the president and the First Lady’s very first date.

When I was 13, I had a picture of you and Michael Jordan on my wall.
The poster where he was holding my head up?

That’s the one, from your Nike commercials with him. Five years after that, you were making Malcolm X. No offense, but I’m not sure you could get Malcolm X made today. Did you have more power then?
I do not think the word is power. I think that it is a different climate today. I do not think Oliver Stone gets JFK made today. Unless they can make JFK fly. If they can’t make Malcolm X fly, with tights and a cape, it’s not happening. It is a whole different ball game. There was a mind-set back then where studios were satisfied to get a mild hit and were happy about it; it helped them build their catalogues. But people want films to make a billion dollars now, and they will spend $300 million to make that billion. They are just playing for high stakes, and if it is not for high stakes, they figure it is not worth their while.

People keep talking about Red Hook Summer as a return to your roots. Do you feel that way?
I am glad you asked that, because I am going to try to shake the narrative as much as I can. This is not Spike going back to his roots. Red Hook Summer is another chapter in my chronicles of Brooklyn. I am a professor at NYU—I’ve been one the last fifteen years—and one of the courses they are teaching in cinema studies this summer is “Scorsese’s New York.” The postcard has a map of Manhattan and a dot where each Scorsese film took place. For me, it’s Brooklyn. She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, He Got Game, Clockers, Crooklyn, and Red Hook Summer.

The movie has a lot of Carmelo Anthony.
We actually painted the shrine to him on the courts for the movie. It’s still there.

There’s a perception that Carmelo isn’t ­really from New York, that he’s really from Baltimore. But the people of Red Hook don’t feel that way.
They claim him. They claimed him when he was at Syracuse. We claimed ­Michael Jordan—he was born in this neighborhood, Fort Greene.

But here is the genesis to the whole thing: When the Knicks traded for Carmelo, he got a deal with Boost Mobile, and they came to me to do a digital piece on Carmelo. So I said, “Let’s go to Red Hook.” Then, one Saturday morning, [co-screenwriter] James McBride and I were eating breakfast at Viand. Do you know where Viand is?

I do not.
It is the best coffee shop in New York. It is on 61st and Madison. One Saturday morning, James McBride and I were eating breakfast there. We both have kids, and we were talking about what kind of film our kids would see. One thing led to another. I talked about Red Hook, he grew up in Red Hook, his father and mother were preachers, you have the Carmelo thing, and that is how it all came together.

Besides writing and directing, I am producing this thing, too, so I know that time is money. The film was shot within a ten-block radius. We shot it in eighteen days, three six-day weeks. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in twelve days and two six-day weeks.

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