David Mamet Makes a Play For Hollywood

Broadway playwright David Mamet goes Hollywood with his first film script

American playwright David Mamet, London, November 9th 1988. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

David Mamet first came to the attention of critics and theatergoers when his play Duck Variations opened in Chicago in 1971. He was twenty-three years old then and has been on quite a roll ever since: he's written and had produced some twenty plays, including Sexual Perversity in Chicago, A Life in the Theater, The Woods and The Water Engine. He won the Obie Award for Best New Playwright in 1976 and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award the following year for American Buffalo, which was directed by Ulu Grosbard and starred John Savage, Robert Duvall and Kenneth McMillan. Because of his eerie sense of realism and incredible ear for dialogue, Mamet was hailed as "the Great White Hope of the American stage." Folks just kind of sat back and waited for him to get it all together and write the big one.

Theater aficionados will have to hold their breath awhile longer. David Mamet has — you guessed it — gone to Hollywood and written a screenplay. Well, not Hollywood, actually, but a ways up the coast in Santa Barbara, where the cameras are already rolling on his script for The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange and directed by Bob Rafelson (The King of Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces).

Mamet's version will be the fourth conversion of the James M. Cain novel to the screen. There was an obscure French production in the Thirties, Luchino Visconti's Obsessione a few years later and, of course, the 1946 release starring John Garfield and Lana Turner that caused a good deal of controversy. As one critic said at the time:" ....it is based on adultery, not even slightly apologized for, and murder, which even though paid for in the denouement, is so blatantly presented in detail and planning that it is an open invitation to try your hand at the game yourself."

According to Mamet there were problems getting the book to work as a movie, problems finally solved after seven months of collaboration among him, Rafelson and Nicholson, whom Mamet credits with important contributions. "The movie is frankly sexual," says Mamet. "The sadomasochistic elements were not really brought out in the Garfield-Turner version. One thing this movie is about is how people let their sexuality, their desire for fulfillment of some kind, betray them through unfortunate actions."

Mamet is reluctant to be specific about Postman and the problems he had writing it, explaining. "It's like when you read the critics — assholes that they are — and they review a comedy and give away the jokes. What's an audience supposed to do? It ruins it for them."

He shrugs off the whispers floating up and down the Great White Way about him selling out and going Hollywood. "I've always wanted to write movies," he says. "No one would hire me because they were all scared of New York writers. The perfunctory phrase they use to disqualify New York writers is, 'He can't make the transition.'" Mamet's dark eyes dance behind his little round glasses. "As if having a little acuity and diligence somehow should disqualify you from being able to write a screenplay. Such bullshit."

The dining room of the El Encanto in Santa Barbara feels more like a fraternity house at Dartmouth than a hotel. The place has been taken over by the Postman's cast and crew and it's jumping. Excited, Mamet orders a Bloody Mary. "I think screenwriting is most definitely an art form; a different art form form the theater, but an art form. And you can be just as corrupted in the theater as in movies." He smiles. "My experience in the theater is that most of the commercial people are idiots and thieves and I can't imagine in the motion picture world, where the stakes are so much higher in terms of financial rewards, that human nature will be on vacation. That's why I feel so fortunate to be working with Bob Rafelson. Some American movies have been art, and Rafelson has made a couple of those films."

How Mamet came to write The Postman Always Rings Twice is itself a touch Hollywood-esque. About a year ago Mamet and his wife, actress Lindsay Crouse (Slap Shot, Between the Lines), were going or vacation, and Mamet needed some books to read on the beach. At the time he was very much interested in opera, and his brother-in-law, author Timothy Crouse (The Boys on the Bus), suggested he read Serenade, James M. Cain's novel about an opera singer. Mamet trundled to his neighborhood bookstore and picked up Serenade and five other Cain novels, including The Postman Always Rings Twice. He read them all in one night.

"They were marvelous," recalls Mamet. "So unlike anything I had ever read. Cain is such a good writer. It's like he learned to write by reading [Aristotle's] Poetics. I was struck by his honesty, his frankness about his problems, his personal perceptions of the world. Basically, he wrote the same book eight times, and it was always a wonderful book. And always had the same elements: opera singing, illicit love, incest, insurance companies and people working in restaurants."

When they returned to their home in New York, Lindsay was called for an audition; it turned out Bob Rafelson was casting his version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. As Lindsay ran out the door, Mamet playfully instructed her to tell Rafelson — who had called ten years earlier in the middle of the night to say he had just read one of Mamet's plays and thought he was a great writer — that Rafelson had made a mistake in not asking Mamet to write the screenplay.

A half-hour later Rafelson was on the horn to Mamet, asking him to come round for a chat. Thus began a relationship that Mamet describes simply as "rather wonderful." He plunged into the writing. He and Rafelson talked on the phone every day, and Mamet frequently flew out to Hollywood, where they spent weeks at a time writing Postman, seeing other films and reading scripts. "Bob very flatteringly made me a silent, aesthetic partner," says Mamet. "He consulted me about casting, sets, costumes. He taught me about movies."

Mamet's strength is dialogue. In fact, every day he writes random bits, which he then files away in cabinets that have begun to take over his apartment. But what was an asset in the theater turned out to be somewhat of a liability in film. "In a play," Mamet explains, "the only way you have to convey the action of the plot is through the action of the characters, what they say to each other. With a movie, the action has to be advanced narratively. To advance it through the dialogue is just boring; it is not the proper exploitation of the form. It has to be advanced, showing the audience what's happening, narrating to them the state of mind of the protagonist, which," Mamet says, "is the worst kind of playwriting.

"From what I can see in the writing and directing, film is getting things structured so that it succeeds in spite of itself," Mamet continues. "You're taking the element of luck out. You also are taking out the elements of feeling and sensitivity, so you're relying absolutely on the structure of the script. The script makes the audience ask what happens next and makes the audience care about the answer to that question. Rafelson was teasing me about structure, and what I was doing was adding to the project, I think, a vision of the characters; my construction of their actions, my construction of what they wanted."

Mamet sips his Bloody Mary. He is intense and talks like a machine gun. He was born in Chicago thirty-two years ago, and by his early teens was busing tables at Chicago's improvisational company, Second City. He attended Goddard College in Vermont, where he tried acting. But, he says, "I was too intellectual!." So he founded the St. Nicholas Theater Company, and moved it to Chicago with him three years later.

"The thing that really interested me was the withholding of information," Mamet says about screenwriting. "At what point do you give the audience information about the characters? And by withholding that information, how do you create suspense so that it is possible, in most instances, to have revelations on the part of the protagonist that are in consonance with the revelations of the audience? How do you make that happen for the protagonist at the same time you make it happen for the audience, so you're neither telling the audience something it already knows nor telling the audience something it can't appreciate.

"Films are a symbolic medium. Movies succeed when they are symbolic, when we can make the jump between cuts. It was such a thrill to have a good scene that's five minutes long and get it down to a minute and a half and make it a better scene." Mamet rubs his slight beard and rolls his eyes. "I don't know how many drafts I did. A million, I think."

Hollywood's seduction of David Mamet has begun in earnest. In the past months he has been deluged with screenwriting offers and is already talking about directing. Will he forsake the stage for the screen? New York's Upper West Side for Beverly Hills? "I don't think so," says Mamet thoughtfully. "Theater can offer a lot of things that movies can't. It's more immediate; you get to see the fruits of your labor. If you direct a play, you can come in the morning and improvise with the actors and do great things. You can't do that in the movies." Mamet drains his glass. "I want to buy a farm. Everyone in the theater wants to buy a farm, like every gas attendant wants his own station."

Mamet smiles and asks, ever heard the joke about Saint Theresa? One day God summoned Saint Theresa and sent her to earth for three days to walk among mortals. The first day, Saint Theresa called God in utter despair. "God," she said, "I'm in New York and there is no beauty, no love, no religion, no kindred spirit. It's an awful world, God, I want to come home." No, God said to Saint Theresa, continue your sojourn on earth. On the second day, Saint Theresa called God. "God," said Saint Theresa, "I'm in Chicago and it's worse than New York. There is no humanity and there is so much suffering of the human soul. I must come back to heaven immediately." No, God said to Theresa, continue your sojourn on earth. On the third day, Saint Theresa called again. "God, darling, it's Terry. I'm in L.A."

Mamet starts laughing. "I don't think I could really live here."