By Tim Pelan
Screenwriter David Mamet came up with a Stanislavski quote to describe The Untouchables: “Tragedy is just heightened melodrama.” Brian De Palma, director of The Untouchables, practically has “heightened melodrama” in his list of job requirements. De Palma and Mamet, Capone and Ness. A no-brainer, in retrospect. Yet both were just bodies for hire. The writing gig was first offered to the late Pulitzer-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Whatever the reason for her dismissal, the Chicago-born Mamet, who grew up with folk tales of Capone and his cronies, ended up taking the job for “a shitload of money,” off his own Pulitzer success with play Glengarry Glen Ross (The Writer’s Guild of America still wanted to give Wasserstein a credit however). As for “The Chicago way”? Just Mamet jazz, man. You take something, burn it down to the ground and then you build it back up again. And that’s how you get Capone! In 1984, producer Art Linson enthused with Paramount Studio’s president Ned Tanen about adapting The Untouchables television series into a film. Tanen envisioned a “big-scale movie about mythical American heroes.” Mamet saw it as a kind of Western, about “the old gunfighter and the young gunfighter… It occurred to me, what happens if this young innocent, who’s charged with defending the law but only understands that in an abstract way, meets an old disenchanted veteran, the caretaker of the law, soured at the end of his career because of the corruption in the city?” De Palma was approached, off the back of a couple of box office disappointments, after Mamet turned in his third draft. He also appreciated the Western angle, a kind of Magnificent Seven vibe. He considered The Untouchables to be “different from anything I’ve done in the past, because it’s a traditional Americana picture, like a John Ford picture.”
The film opens with its own “opening crawl” if you like, De Palma riffing on pal George Lucas. Before that some very film noir titles, with marching shadows cast across the credits by the letters of the title accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s “Strength of the Righteous” theme. Sycophantic gentlemen of the press wait in silence upon Capone (Robert De Niro), wrapped in hot towels for his morning shave in his opulent hotel suite—off to the left in an overhead descending crane shot, whilst text illuminates:
1930. Prohibition has transformed Chicago into a City at War. Rival gangs compete for control of the city’s billion dollar empire of illegal alcohol, enforcing their will with the hand grenade and tommy gun. It is the time of the Ganglords. It is the time of Al Capone.
Art director William A. Elliott and De Palma envisioned that Capone and his environs should be reminiscent of the court of Louis IV (“He’s the Sun King”), hence the sunburst motif in his suite’s inlaid wooden floor. Everyone waits for him to speak, or for a burst of anger, tamped down, when the barber pricks his skin after a question about illegality. He laughs it off instead. “Responding to the will of the people,” against the strictures of the Volstead Act (Prohibition of booze) is so much hyperbole to the suck-ups. “People are gonna drink,” he smirks… “all I do is act on that.” Like Donald Trump and his “build that wall” mania, Capone plays on people’s base desire, whilst he lives large in the pampered luxury of his own Trump Tower, the Lexington Hotel (I suppose the main difference between Capone and Trump is the former was an actual hard case, three people dying by his hand, or bat, and he has a working business brain, making actual money hand over fist). “My image of The Untouchables is that corruption looks great,” De Palma says in the DVD extras, “like Nazi Germany. It’s clean, it’s big, everything runs smoothly. The problem is all of the oppressed people are in some camp somewhere, and nobody ever sees them. So the world of (Capone’s) Chicago is a slick world, a world that’s run by big money and corruption. And it has to look fabulous.” Outside and in—De Niro even wore the same Sulka and Co. branded silk underwear as Capone.
In contrast, Kevin Costner’s white knight Treasury agent Elliot Ness, brought in from outside the corrupt city limits to tackle Capone head on, is introduced anonymously in his modest home, face not even revealed as he takes his morning coffee. His wife Catherine (the luminous Patricia Clarkson) sees him off to work after reading about a car bomb that kills a young innocent, caught up in Capone’s enforcer Frank Nitti’s crackdown on those who don’t buy their watered-down booze. Ness is revealed face on finally at the police headquarters, this time to a cynical press. Did this choir boy wear a hair shirt under his wardrobe?
Never has the old adage—when the legend becomes fact, print the legend—been more apt. Ness and Capone never met, and going to jail for income tax evasion is not very suspenseful. “So I made up a story about two of the good guys,” Mamet recalled. “Ness and Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery, playing a jaded beat cop), the idealist and the pragmatist.” The real squad comprised Ness and nine handpicked men. The film whittled the number down to a manageable four, the remainder comprised of Andy Garcia as cadet crack shot George Stone (real name Giuseppe Petri, kicking against inherent force racism), and Charles Martin Smith as the almost comic relief accountant Oscar Wallace, who unlocks the trick to bringing down Capone. De Palma and Linson originally wanted Garcia for the Nitti role, but he wisely pushed for his star making turn here (“You got him?” “Yeah, I got him.” We’ll get to that gem of a scene later.). Billy Drago, a one-time stuntman with stiletto bladed cheekbones and sly eyes did however make an indelible mark as Nitti, aided also by wardrobe. The natty killer always dresses in white suits, like “an angel of death.” As for Wallace, De Palma’s direction to Smith was, “I want the audience to be laughing with your character right up until ‘boom!’ (spoiler) you get it.”
The film looked opulent, but the budget was still tight, increased from $18m to $22.5m. and even then money was shaved. Stunning location photography by Stephen H. Burum in and around Chicago and Great Falls, Montana, doubling for the Canadian border, with incredible art direction by visual consultant Patrizia Von Brandenstein made every dime work on screen. Casting Ness was difficult, such a Dudley Do-right. But Kevin Costner had that Gary Cooper, straight arrow earnestness to him. Plus, he was relatively unknown at the time. Another star-making turn opposite Gene Hackman in No Way Out had yet to be released, but De Palma, who already liked him in Silverado, got to view it in advance, and approved. A second read of the script convinced Costner. “Ness has to ask for help. It’s the more modern notion that a smart man takes a step back sometimes—that to be a hero you don’t have to be Rambo.” De Palma was adamant he wanted De Niro for Capone, refusing to budge over the studio suggestion of Bob Hoskins. He threatened to quit, telling Tanen, “I believe if we stay with the cast we have (including Hoskins), shorten the schedule, and reduce the scale of the picture, that you will end up with a movie that at best will be suited for Masterpiece Theatre. It is not the movie I want to direct. It will not work and I cannot afford to make a movie that will not work.” De Palma got his way, and Hoskins was paid off with a rumoured $20,000.00. No hard feelings, he quipped to De Palma, “If you ever don’t want me to be in a movie, just give me a call.”
De Niro bulked up as well as plucking his hairline, taking to his Raging Bull pasta and ice cream diet, but didn’t have that film’s extended shut down leeway. He shot his scenes at the tail end of the 70-day shoot, although further prosthetic bulking was still required, ironically wearing a latex undersuit previously worn by Treat Williams in a TV movie about J. Edgar Hoover. “Capone wasn’t just pure evil,” De Niro told Newsweek. “He had to be a politician, an administrator, he had to have something going for him other than just fear. He must have a certain crazy charm.” A patron of the arts also, tearing up at the theatre to a performance of Ruggero Leoncavallo vesti la giubba whilst he receives news of Malone’s (imminent) demise. Crazy use of split diopter here by the way, as the camera zooms in past an extreme close-up profile of the performer to Capone in his private box.
Connery was also swayed by the script, and De Palma was determined to have him. “Because if I kill Sean Connery, no one will believe it.” Connery hadn’t been engaged by the director’s style previously (too emotionally detached, he believed), but loved the script. He took the gig for a rare reduced fee and percentage of the gross. “I think the emotional level of the film will surprise many people,” he prophesied, however he was apparently “appalled” at the level of blood in his death scene, wired up to multiple squibs, wincing for real as he takes Nitti’s Tommy gun hammer blows. Gross, indeed, he ruefully mused, having to attend hospital, temporarily blinded by the flying stage blood and debris.
Ness comes to Malone after a bad first day on the job, tipped off to a bum steer that makes him a clown to the press (this film has sometimes confused chronology—it’s obviously a night-time raid, Ness disconsolately reads the headline that (?) night, or pre-dawn on the Avenue Bridge in front of the Wrigley building, whilst Capone gloats over it with his morning breakfast, daylight outside). Burum had the modern fluorescent lights in the background switched off “and when we did that we couldn’t move the camera because you’d see the difference between the night sky and the flagged area.”
“The Chicago way” is first outlined to Ness by Malone (at Connery’s canny suggestion) in Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica at 3121 West Jackson Boulevard. Connery called the language “biblical” at times—“an eye for an eye.” A church appealed for confiding, confession—no eavesdropping on Capone’s streets. It was shot low angled, extreme close-up, the heavens of the church’s magnificent domed ceiling in matching depth of field focus through the diopter lens. “It reminded me of the painting in the Sistine chapel,” Burum recalled, “large foreground hands, life being sparked (‘Now, what are you prepared to do?’). An idea, an understanding between them given form”—“You want to get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way!”
Connery won an Oscar for this role, but has been gently chided throughout his career for his never wavering Scottishness, accents an unnecessary adjunct to the job. His Malone throws in a hint of an Irish brogue in his introduction, then settles into pure Sean Connery. Sarah Lamber questioned him on “how he gets away with it” for the June 1999 issue of Total Film:
“I think you have to march to your own drummer,” he considered. “I can be less Scottish sounding than I am, but there’s a certain music for me in words, which is one of the reasons I always work on a script with the director or writer in terms of speech patterns. Emotions are international anyway. I always felt that whenever I was attempting to go too far away from my speech pattern, I lost the picture of what I was trying to do, so I made an early decision not to do that.”
Principal photography began mid-August 1986. “I thought about these four unlikely little guys going up against the mythic monolith of Capone,” Von Brandenstein told Time magazine. “So I used architecture that showed mass and power: the Chicago Theatre for the Opera House, Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium building for Capone’s hotel, a spiffed-up Union Station for the Odessa Steps sequence. Fortunately, Paramount really let me run wild.”
Speaking of running wild, De Palma felt the story needed to breathe outside the city limits, hence the cooperative raid with Canadian Mounties. This excursion was always in the script, but in slightly different form: The Untouchables, disguised as fur trappers and pulled by large sled, together with the Mounties trek through thick snow to an ambush on the border. De Palma shoots them on the way there by what could be silver train or bus, but it is actually an aircraft. Wallace again bending Ness’ ear about tax returns, whilst the camera reverses out and away from the window, revealing the plane’s propellers—De Palma referencing Hitchcock again, his Foreign Correspondent. In the film, the weather is milder, the leaves just turning. A jumpy Mountie alerts the smugglers early, so our city slickers, now on horseback, ride hard from around a cabin, four abreast, bearing down towards the bridge where Capone’s men are trapped. Wallace hollers, exhilarated, Morricone’s “Victorious” soaring above it all. The aftermath, mopping up—Malone fires a burst in the air after his quarry. “Alright. Enough of this running shit!” That’s not in the script. Another Connery idea? Ness gradually hardens through the film, faced here with a villain’s refusal to lay down his gun, feeling the kill. They find a ledger with coded entries that can tie the shipments and payoffs to Capone, but the remaining guy won’t talk. When Malone blows the brains out of a slain bootlegger out on the porch, it’s enough (“Don’t let him clean himself until after he talks.”). The Mountie Captain states he does not approve of Ness’ methods, to which he replies (Malone’s double take is a peach) “Oh yeah? Well you’re not from Chicago.”
“After looking at a lot of the photographic style of the period, we decided that one of the key design elements of the picture would be repetitive images,” Burum told American Cinematographer. “In the works of fine art photographers like Bourke-White, there are pictures of many objects that are the same shape and tone and that go on forever. In the movie we did things with short lenses, like stack black Model A Fords in the repetitive images. In fact, we tried to have these images in most frames.
People’s conception of period usually extends to proper costuming. But it also should include movement. In a simpler time, there weren’t as many people and there was more space. So, we tried to represent that fact in the way we framed things. We have a lot of space around people and the shots aren’t so tight. We use shorter focal length lenses. You always have a feeling of the environment of the people.”
Primary colours were green, black and white, and of course, claret. Capone was a Neapolitan, and his domiciliary had a lurid, opulent Roman Emperor-esque quality to it. All other colours outside the luxury he glided through were kept bland, “as if the colours were all leeched out by the evil sucking life out of the city.” With that romantic good and evil quality De Palma saw in the film, I was reminded a little of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy and its vibrant colours, which came along four years later. It’s the scene after Nitti, disguised as a cop, has eliminated the team’s star witness and poor Oscar in the freight elevator (writing “Touchable” in improbably large letters across the walls in the accountant’s blood). Malone, seeking the book-keeper, who holds the key to Capone’s pay offs and income tax evasion, beats information out of his long-time colleague and corrupt chief in the night-time rain soaked alleyway where the real cop’s body was shot down, the wet ground like a pool of blood, reflecting red brick walls illuminated by the overhead light.
The mortally wounded Malone delivers the information about the book-keeper being spirited away on the night train and symbolically passes on his watch key and St Jude medal (patron saint of lost causes and policemen) to Ness. He and Stone then race to Union Station to stop the book-keeper and bring him back to testify in court against his boss. Mamet originally scripted a complex race against Chicago traffic, just missing the train until our heroes catch up at the next station, before boarding and blasting away. The scene ends with Stone taking out the hoodlum using the book-keeper as a shield with a head shot. This would have cost an estimated $200,000.00. There was no way the studio would stump up for this. Heck, they couldn’t even find two period trains in time. Linson recalled that De Palma simply shrugged and said, “OK guys, we’ve run out of money, so give me a staircase, a clock and a baby carriage.”
It was also too inconvenient for Mamet to rewrite a climactic scene—he was by now off directing his debut feature of his own script, House of Games. Besides, De Palma believed “Writers don’t have good visual ideas. It’s my job to give them ideas to work with.” So he thought back to an idea he’d had for earlier in the film, whereby Ness and his wife would be leaving hospital with their newborn. A thug takes a shot, and in the gunfight, the baby carriage bounces down the hospital steps, in a homage to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. To De Palma, it “emphasises the predicament of Ness as a man representing integrity, family. He has a dilemma, to decide whether he’s going to shoot the gangsters or save the baby, which makes a lot more tension within the scene.” He rejected it because he’d have shot his load too early—how do you top that? Why not resurrect it for the grander, easier to control, night shoot of the Union Station interior? Trouble was, he didn’t have time to write it. The shooting script simply states:
Ness and Stone go into action. This action will take place on the steps, to be outlined later.
The elaborate, tense, coruscating tour de force took six nights to shoot, all mapped out as ideas occurred to the director and his team. The scene lasts about nine minutes, the book-keeper and his minders not appearing until around the six-minute mark. Meanwhile, a nervous Ness has gone to the aid of a young mother struggling up the steps with a heavy case and baby carriage. His innate decency in leaving his post to help threatens to put the plan in jeopardy: his nudging of the carriage back down the steps creating a domino effect of catastrophe as shots ring out.
The tense build-up is caught in close-ups of his face anxiously checking the clock, then the mother, then the clock. Morricone’s score begins as a baby carriage sound morphing with traditional suspenseful brass and strings. Previously, the by-the-book lawman has always had the experienced Malone by his side. While he told Malone he wanted to “hurt Capone,” to take “the Chicago Way,” he wonders if he has it in him. As yet, he hasn’t fired first. When the broken-nosed thug from an earlier confrontation at Capone’s hotel makes him, Ness raises his concealed shotgun and draws first blood (one handed!). Virtually all sound except the gunshots drop out as the ballet of death plays out in glorious slo-mo, taking out hoodlums and innocent passers-by indiscriminately. The sailors, as well as providing a further nod to Battleship Potemkin, provide a “bulking out” obstacle, aiding the time taken for the gunfight to end and Ness to reach the baby carriage. Stone slides across the floor to arrest the carriage’s descent to the mother’s relief, meantime tossing Ness a fresh gun and drawing a steady bead on the hood using the book-keeper as a shield. Only now does Mamet’s script return:
Ness: You got him?
Stone: Yeah, I got him.
Ness: Take him.
That’s The Chicago Way. And that’s how you get Capone.
Ness gets his man to court, avenges Malone, throwing a gloating Nitti off the court house roof to his death (“Did he sound anything like that?”), and admits to the prosecutor that, “I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!” Yet he still walks away a white hat good guy to the audience, with a wry grin, not dwelling too much on “ethics.” An original idea, shot a couple of times, or at least rehearsed, was to have a bookending scene of journalists surrounding a now incarcerated Capone in his cell being shaved, still holding court. Instead, a reflective Ness considers the cost to good men, symbolically passes on Malone’s key to Stone, and leaves headquarters. Asked by the bothersome photojournalist what he’ll do now it seems Prohibition will be revoked, he replies. Costner thought, “that last line in the script, it’s a beauty.” Cue Morricone’s soaring score as the camera rises on a crane above the young gunfighter walking off down the street into the figurative sunset.
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
In the video above, Brian De Palma remembers The Untouchables. From directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s eponymous documentary De Palma.
“Three decades ago, on June 3, 1987, audiences learned about the ‘Chicago way’ via filmmaker Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Sandwiched between Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark The Godfather and The Godfather Part II and Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster classic, Goodfellas, De Palma’s The Untouchables focused on the team of federal agents (led by Eliot Ness) who were tasked with bringing infamous mobster Al Capone to justice in 1930s Chicago. Now, 30 years after the film’s release, stars Sean Connery (whose Untouchables performance won the legendary actor his only Oscar), Kevin Costner (who played Elliot Ness), and Robert De Niro (who starred as Capone) look back on making the beloved film.” —The stars of The Untouchables look back, 30 years later
On the eve of the opening of The Untouchables, those involved describe the dramatic re-creation of gangland Chicago in the 1920s. With Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, Brian De Palma and David Mamet.
A SHOT-BY-SHOT BREAKDOWN OF THE ‘UNION STATION’ SCENE
“In this exhaustive analysis of Brian De Palma’s American crime drama The Untouchables, Antonios Papatoniou breaks down the very bloody, very pivotal ‘Union Station’ scene shot by shot, noting every shot size, length, lens, and camera movement in order to take a closer look at how the use of POV adds depth and tension to an already intense scene. Perhaps one of the first things you might notice about this scene is that it pays a very obvious homage to the ‘Odessa Steps’ scene from Russian filmmaking legend Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. And because it’s such an obvious homage, it adds a new angle and dimension to analyzing the scene.” —V Renée, No Film School
“For the unforgettable final scene of Brian De Palma’s gangster epic, in which Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) brings Al Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice, Morricone presented nine possible options. As he remembers it, he hoped De Palma would choose any of them except the seventh—which, of course, is exactly the one the director wanted. ‘In the end, he was absolutely right,’ the composer says. Celebratory music is a rare mode for Morricone, who favors more hypnotic, moody creations. ‘But De Palma chose the piece that was most like [the ending]—it showed the triumph of the police over the bad guys.’” —Ennio Morricone shares stories from some of his most famous scores
Brian De Palma interview, Video magazine (June 1988).
SCORSESE ON STEADICAM SHOT IN ‘THE UNTOUCHABLES’
“Brian is a great director. Nobody can interpret things visually like he does: telling a story through a lens. Take the scene in The Untouchables where Charles Martin Smith is shot in the elevator. Look at that Steadicam shot; he’s not just moving the camera to show you that we can go longer because we have the Steadicam. Francis used to tell me, ‘Marty, we can start a shot and go up to the Empire State Building and come back down. Anybody can do it. You have to know how to move a camera a little bit, that’s all.’ A lot of people use the Steadicam and don’t know what they’re doing. What Brian does with it is tell the story, progressing the story within the shot. That’s just one example. Then in Carlito’s Way there’s a scene entering a night-club and the camera tracks up. It’s extraordinary, his visual interpretation. He deals with stories that enable him to do that sort of thing. So when you get a real De Palma picture like Raising Cain or Body Double, you’re getting something really unique. He’s provocative. He goes, ‘I’m going to do this again. Hitchcock did it—so what? Who cares? I’m doing it this way.’ Brian knows. We always talk about that together.” —Martin Scorsese, Projections 7
“IN CHICAGO, WE LOVE OUR CROOKS!”
Screenwriter must-read: David Mamet’s screenplay for The Untouchables [PDF1, PDF2]. (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.
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 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.”
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Photographed by Zade Rosenthal © Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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