David Mamet’s screenplay for ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ is the best screenwriting school you can ever get

Adapted by David Mamet from his 1984 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Broadway hit, Glengarry Glen Ross is an ideal example of a wonderful play turned into a competently made film. Directed by James Foley, much more than on action the film puts emphasis on conversation, on lines written with so much passion, humor and understanding of the world around us that it falls nothing short of genius. This is a film that abundantly rewards those who choose to surrender themselves to it. After seeing it a dozen times, we feel safe to say its charms don’t fade with age, not one bit. The film had a hard time securing financing, since its bold subject matter and rather abrasive language were too big of an obstacle for major studios. The difficult financial position meant actors had to work for salaries significantly smaller than what they were used to, but Mamet’s text was so appealing that huge Hollywood names stood in line to get a shot at the material. The highly inspired ensemble cast, with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Alec Baldwin giving some of the best performances of their careers, made sure Mamet’s ingeniously crafted lines wouldn’t fall flat. Pacino might be the only one who got an Academy Award nomination out of Foley’s film, but it would come as no surprise if this honor fell into the laps of his colleagues. So good is their work here that you can hardly imagine anyone else in their character’s shoes. Spatially unusually constricted, the film emanates a strong feeling of claustrophobia, further enhanced by Foley’s simple but skillful direction and DOP Juan Ruiz Anchía’s clever use of reduced color schemes. Glengarry‘s visual identity is almost just as memorable as the screenplay, arguably the best selling point of the film, and with the help of the mind-blowingly talented cast, it all comes down to a rather easily reached verdict. It’s one of the most memorable films of the nineties and a work of art we’ll never stop recommending.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read David Mamet’s screenplay for Glengarry Glen Ross [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
These precious commentaries were on the Pioneer Special Edition Laserdisc (a different commentary by Foley is on the DVD release; Jack Lemmon’s LD commentary doesn’t appear on any of the newer releases of the film). Well, once again, Cinephilia & Beyond and Film School Thru Commentaries comes to the rescue: you can listen to James Foley and Jack Lemmon’s long out-of-print commentaries for Pioneer’s Laserdisc release of Glengarry Glen Ross. [MP3-1, MP3-2].

 

Listening to this veteran player speak for an hour and a half on his craft makes you realise how fluffed-up and pretentious most ‘modern actor’ commentaries are by comparison. Lemmon views acting in a practical way and concedes that you need to have a love for it; he not only discusses Glengarry but finds parallels to several of his other films as well, along with several amusing anecdotes about the old studio system. Ever the consummate professional, he never ‘names names’ when he has anything remotely negative to say. To my knowledge this is only one of two audio commentaries recorded by Lemmon—if you like this actor you’re guaranteed to enjoy listening to him reminisce. —Herschel Gelman

 
This candid and compelling article by David Mamet, in which he compares his work experiences on two films—as director of the small independent House of Games and as screenwriter on the big-budget production of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables—was the cover story of the June 1987 American Film magazine. Here, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross offers his observations on Hollywood’s “Refreshing Frankness,” reveals his writing process, rails against money’s influence on the artistic process, admits his mistakes and explains why he works with friends. We found it a joy to re-read and hope you will, too.American Film Institute







 

“HOW MANY PASSES DOES IT TAKE TO CREATE PERFECT DIALOGUE?”

The Dramatist Poet: A David Mamet Interview by Fred Topel (interview first appeared in Screenwriter’s Monthly).

One of the most prolific and influential playwrights of the late-20th century, David Mamet’s work is famous for its lean, gritty and often profane language possessed of such a singular rhythm that his dialogue has been dubbed ‘Mamet speak.’ Known for his robust male characters, Mamet’s facility for creating highly-charged verbal encounters in a masculine environment repeatedly made his work the subject for discussion and controversy. Emerging from the Chicago theater scene, Mamet came to prominence with American Buffalo (1975) and A Life in the Theatre (1977) before making the transition to Hollywood with the scripts for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and Verdict (1982). Following awards for the powerful stage plays Edmund (1982) and Glengarry Glenn Ross (1984)—the latter of which was turned into a notable 1992 film directed by James Foley—Mamet made his directorial debut with the thriller House of Games (1987). Also that year, he wrote one of his most memorable screenplays, The Untouchables (1987), for director Brian De Palma, while penning his satirical denunciation of the movie business with the play Speed-the-Plow (1988). Mamet tackled sexual politics with the theatrical piece Oleanna (1992), while continuing to make his mark on film with Homicide (1991) and Wag the Dog (1998) before going on to direct The Spanish Prisoner (1998) State and Main (2000) and Heist (2001) to considerable critical acclaim.

Do actors usually get your dialogue or do you have to coach them?
No, they get it. I write it to be spoken, and I think that almost all actors appreciate that.

How many passes does it take to create perfect dialogue?
That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I know the answer. I do it fairly spontaneously, and then sometimes, for various reasons, it has to be recrafted. I used to be really good at that, but it gets more difficult as I get older just because my brain is failing. I have less brain cells because long before any of you guys were born, there was something called the ‘60s. That’s where the brain cells were.

What’s your writing regimen?
I think I’m going to just start writing and keep writing until they throw me in jail. Other than that, I set aside all day every day for writing and break it up with going home to see my family or having lunch or getting a haircut…

Is writing a screenplay or stage play easier?
It would seem that you could do almost anything on film, but that’s part of the wonderful fascination of filmmaking. You say, well, okay, you can do anything you want. Now, what are you going to do? So that’s the wonderful challenge of film. 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. The wisdom of how to understand those strictures fascinates me.

What are the strictures of playwriting?
Aristotle said it’s got to be about one thing. It’ll be 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 recognizes the situation, undergoes a transformation, the high becomes low, or in comedy, sometimes the low becomes high. That’s the stricture of playwriting.

How do you make a genre film your own?
Well, you can’t help but make a distinct movie. If you give yourself up to the form, it’s going to be distinctively your own because the form’s going to tell you what’s needed. That’s one of the great things I find about working in drama is you’re always learning from the form. You’re always getting humbled by it. It’s exactly like analyzing a dream. You’re trying to analyze your dreams. You say, ‘I know what that means; I know exactly what that means; why am I still unsettled?’ You say, ‘Let me look a little harder at this little thing over here. But that’s not important; that’s not important; that’s not important. The part where I kill the monster—that’s the important part, and I know that means my father this and da da da da da. But what about this little part over here about the bunny rabbit? Why is the bunny rabbit hopping across the thing? Oh, that’s not important; that’s not important.’ Making up a drama is almost exactly analogous to analyzing your dreams. That understanding that you cleanse just like the heroes cleanse not from your ability to manipulate the material but from your ability to understand the material. It’s really humbling, just like when you finally have to look at what that little bunny means. There’s a reason why your mind didn’t want to see that. There’s a reason why you say, ‘Oh, that’s just interstitial material. Fuck that. That’s nothing, right?’ Because that’s always where the truth lies, it’s going to tell you how to reformulate the puzzle.

How did you keep the exposition to a minimum?
That’s the fun of it. Anybody can write a script that has ‘Jim, how were things since you were elected governor of Minnesota? How’s your albino daughter?’ ‘As of course you know, Mr. Smith, your son has myopia. It’s amazing that, having that myopia, he was winning the national spelling bee.’ That’s easy; that’s not challenging. The trick is to take a story that might be complex and make it simple enough that people will want to catch up with it rather than stopping them and explaining to them why they should be interested because then they might understand, but they won’t care. What makes them interested is to make them catch up. What’s happening here? Who is this guy? What crime was committed? Who was taken? Why is she important? Why are all these government people running around? And how is he going to get her back? They want to see what he’s going to do next. That’s all that moviemaking comes down to—what happens next?

How do you not become lost in power?
That’s a very good question. I think the answer is that you have to have the specter in front of you all the time. You have to be able to learn, and I think I’m capable of doing this to a certain extent, and I would like to be able to do it to a greater extent, to say that you have to be able to take pride in mastering your own impulses, take pleasure in gratifying them. There are a lot of really great models, and the military is one of them. I think this is a very pro-military movie in many ways. It’s saying, Here are people who are capable of subordinating their financial needs and their physical needs to an extraordinary regiment, mental and physical regiment, in the cause of service. The question of the movie is, ‘To what extent is that person capable of abiding by precepts which he’s teaching other students, which he’s explained to others?’

Have you ever deviated from your own script?
I haven’t deviated from it. I’ve certainly changed it.

In what circumstances?
Well, if something’s not working, a lot of the times you say, ‘Well, let’s try something else.’ I mean, I’ve always got a typewriter in the trailer. Say, ‘You know, that scene isn’t working right. Give me a moment, I’ll write a new scene.’ You get inspired too. Oftentimes, you just get inspired. Stuff’s happening on the set. You say, ‘Oh my God, let’s do some more of that,’ or, ‘Now I understand what happens in scene 47. One of my favorite moments was doing State and Main with Alec Baldwin and Julia Stiles. They’re both drunk out of their minds, and he crashes the car. The car is upside down; they’re both drunk, and he crawls out of the car and looks around. He says, ‘Well, that happened.’ It was like an inspiration at four o’clock in the morning. He said something else, and I said, ‘Well, wait a second, say this.’ I was looking at what was happening on the set and said, ‘Wouldn’t that be funnier?’

Has an actor ever invented a brilliant line that you took credit for?
No, I would never take credit for something somebody else said.

But in a play, you wouldn’t change what’s written.
Well, of course, when it’s written. I mean, I just opened a play in San Francisco on Saturday, and I’m changing the play up until opening night, and that’s the first production. I’ll probably change some things as I work on the manuscript before it gets published. At a certain point you’ve got to stop.

What have been the greatest frustrations of letting other people direct your scripts?
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 did a script for someone else to direct, I got paid for it. I mean, that’s one of the things you get paid for.

When do you make yourself stop writing?
I’m pretty good. At a certain point you want to do something else. Past a certain point, you say it could be perhaps a little bit better with a lot more time, but I try to get it as perfect as I can given the fallibility of the fact I’m not going to live forever.

How do you approach something that’s your own as opposed to a for hire project?
I don’t think I approach them any differently. I put my name on it. That’s the best I know at this time.

Do you see a career plan?
I don’t know. I just make them up as I go along. Whatever anybody says, you’re always making it up as you go along. It’s like when you have babies; nobody gives you a how to book; nobody gives you a manual. It’s like any of the important things in life. Whether it’s your career, whether it’s marriage, whether it’s child rearing, you’re making it up as you go along. And you try to have certain precepts, and sometimes they even change.

Has directing become as natural as writing?
Well, I enjoy it. There are certain things I can do naturally, but the people a lot of us admire—I’m sure a lot of athletes that people admire—they’re working on their weaknesses all the time. That’s what I’m doing at least some of the time. So do you enjoy doing the thing that goes easy? Yeah, sure. But there’s also great enjoyment in doing the thing that comes with difficulty.

Directing is more of a challenge?
Well, certain aspects of the writing are easy. I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass. I work very, very hard on that, but I enjoy working on it because it has great rewards. And I love directing.

When you sit with your plot, do you start with character, theme or story elements?
I think when you’re working on the plot, you’re talking about what does the character want? All the plot is is the structure of the main character towards the achievement of one goal.

 
David Mamet: The Playwright Directs is a short television documentary produced in 1976 where Mamet tries to convey his rehearsal methods for a play. He uses two early short plays as examples, Dark Pony and Reunion. Mamet is such a no-nonsense individual who never minces words with his cast, that it’s fascinating to see him direct his actors in a fast-paced, hectic manner like a character out of one of his own plays. The end result is a lesson in how Mamet directs his actors and the importance of giving his characters a motivation and how that affects their actions in the drama.

 
David Mamet interviewed by Jeff Goldsmith, Creative Screenwriting.

MAMET’S THEATRICAL ROOTS

“You gotta put your ass on the line and use the audience. Period. The reason that theatre evolved that way was because the progress of the theatre on the stage aped and recapitulated the mechanism of human understanding, which is: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. And one learns to lead the audience ahead by giving them just enough information to make them interested, but not enough information so that they warrant surprise and punchline. Which is the way a joke is structured.”

MAMET ON DIRECTING

“Your chances of making a living or making a better living are increased by writing something that you would want to write badly enough that you would actually go out and raise the money to direct it. You’re much better to do that because otherwise you’re just going to waste twenty years waiting for the good will of your inferiors. If you really, really want to make a film—go film it for God’s sake, go steal a camera and get it done rather than trying to interest some second-class mind to help make your script a little bit worse.”

MAMET ON EXPOSITION

“The trick is—never write exposition. That’s absolutely the trick. Never write it. The audience needs to understand what the story is, and if the hero understands what he or she is after then the audience will follow it. The ancient joke about exposition used to be in radio writing when they’d say, ‘Come and sit down in that blue chair.’ So, that to me is the paradigm of why it’s an error to write exposition. Then exposition came out of television, ‘I’m good, Jim, I’m good. There’s no wonder why they call me the best orthopedic surgeon in town.’ Right? And now the exposition has migrated or metastasized into the fucking stage direction. ‘He comes into the room and you can just see he’s the kind of guy who fought in the Vietnam War.’ So the error of writing exposition exists absent even the most miniscule understanding of the dramatic process. You gotta take out the exposition. The audience doesn’t care. How do we know they don’t care? Anybody ever come into the living room and see a television drama that was halfway through? Did you have any difficulty understanding what was going on? No. The trick is to leave the exposition out and to always leave out the ‘obligatory scene.’ The obligatory scene is always the audition scene, so when you see the movie, not only is it the worst scene in the movie—it’s also the worst acted scene in the movie. Because the star has to do their worst, most expository acting to get the job. Leave out the exposition; we want to know what’s happening next. All our little friends…will say to you at one point, ‘You know, we want to know more about her.’ And that’s when you say, ‘Well, that’s what you paid me for—so that you would want to know more about her.’”

MAMET ON CON-ARTIST TALES

“In every generation the cunning rediscover that they can manipulate the trustful and they count this as the great, great wisdom of all time.”

PROFESSOR MAMET’S READING ASSIGNMENT

“I suggest that everyone get Francis Ferguson’s edition of Aristotle’s Poetics. Read it once—it’ll make the point—and then retire to your typewriters. [Screenwriting’s] all about working on it and working on it until it comes out even. There’s really no magic to it. There really isn’t. They say that Bach could improvise a toccata and I’m sure he could, but I don’t think anybody can improvise a screenplay. Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces is another great book where he goes through the “Hero’s Journey” and explains that all Heroes Journeys are alike whether it’s Jesus or Moses or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dumbo. Every Hero’s Journey is exactly alike because that’s the way that we understand our own Hero’s Journey—which is the story of our own life. We’re given a problem, we disregard the problem, it’s given to us again, and finally we’re called to an adventure and we find ourselves unprepared and we find ourselves in the belly of the beast like Jonah, who’s eventually spewed onto a foreign land in the second act and little friends come and help. It’s true. Whether it’s Mickey the Mouse or whether it’s John the Baptist or whether its Joshua—it’s the same thing according to Joseph Campbell. The little friends come and eventually the problems of the second act rectify themselves so that the third act is a reiteration of the first problem in a new form. Not how do I live with the fact that the taskmaster is killing the Jew, but how do I bring the Torah to the Jewish people? So the third act becomes the quest for the goal and eventually the hero achieves his or her goal and that’s the end of the movie that started since frame one.”

 
David Mamet papers now open for research.

Production still photographer: Andrew D. Schwartz © GGR, New Line Cinema, Zupnik Cinema Group II. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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