(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2007)
In the mid-1970s, David Mamet became one of America’s most prominent playwrights, with the cracking, harsh dialogue in “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “American Buffalo.” In the late 1980s, he started writing screenplays and directing films. His acclaimed film work includes “House of Games” “Homicide,” and the more recent “State and Main.”
In his new book “Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business” (Pantheon, $22), Mamet hits the Hollywood film world head on, bashing sequels, the death of good screenplays and how Tinseltown is packed with legions of executives who dodge responsibility. Mamet loves Hollywood, but he gives his shots, mocking film schools, predicting the demise of movie studios and indicating that screenwriting is often a whore’s game, where the aspiring screenwriter will do “anything” to get his work produced. While exploring why Hollywood movies can be so bad, Mamet offers a primer in the classics-- going through his love love of film noir and dusting off the oldies that must be seen, like director William Wyler’s 1936 “Dodsworth” and the 1973 Robert Mitchum vehicle, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
Mamet, 59, was raised in Chicago and educated at Goddard College in Vermont. He is the author of more than 20 plays and 18 screenplays, and has written nonfiction books and novels. He lives in Vermont and Hollywood with the actress Rebecca Pidgeon and their two children. Mamet met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at an exclusive hotel in Manhattan.
Q. You’ve written a witty and at times scathing commentary on the Hollywood filmmaking system. What motivated you to do this?
A. I love Hollywood, I really do. I don’t think this book is a critique. It’s my attempt to make a unified field guide of what goes on in Hollywood. It’s an attempt, for want of a better word, to describe the Marxian dialectic between the workers and capital in the movie industry.
Q. Could you describe the Hollywood movie culture?
A. It’s a company town. The business just happens to be the entertainment industry. It’s no different than Detroit. Detroit’s auto industry got taken down by the Japanese automakers. The Japanese said, “Are they crazy? What are they doing with all that mid-level management, with this outdated infrastructure? We can do better.”
Q. But American movies having amazing box office grosses around the world. No one is going to take down Hollywood like Detroit.
A. No, but eventually the studios are going to fall apart. Someone with a better idea is going to come along and supplant the studios. It’s not going to be someone from another country. Whether the idea is organization of technology, it happens all the time, like YouTube, the Internet or the Weinstein brothers. Just like the Japanese, the Weinsteins looked at Hollywood. They’re great businessmen. “Why are American movies so bad?” they asked. “Because you have to spend too much money to promote them. All the studios are involved in the air war. How can I buy the opening weekend?” The Weinsteins looked at it and said, “To a certain extent, you need the promotion.” Then they said, “Wait a minute, why do I also have to spend $100 million to make the stupid movie?” If I have to promote the movies, to get the critics to see it, I can still make the movie cheaply.” Maybe you’ll even make a better movie cheaply. Or you can buy them for no money from Bulgaria.
Q. It appears that Hollywood is going through a period of bad movies. Do you agree?
A. They’re making some good movies and they are making some less good movies. I think “Crash” was spectacular. It came out of nowhere and they made it for no money. Are Hollywood movies worse? The answer is yeah. Then you have to ask, but then what? What are you going to about it? Nothing. What is happening to the studios is playing itself out.
In the 1950s, the studios were making 10 times the amount of films. The actual percentage of good films is probably the same. Nowadays, the absolute number of good films made is less because less films are made.
Q. One of your most interesting essays is about how screenplays have gotten so bad, with the studios looking for last year’s hit. What is the studio mindset?
A. It’s the bureaucratic mentality (of the executives). The entrepreneur says, “I’ve got an idea that nobody has seen before.” The bureaucrat says, “I’ve got to keep my head down. I’m not going to support anything that hasn’t been seen before That’s not what we do.” The bureaucrat sees their loyalty as correctly linked to the studio, not to the public that goes to the movies.
Q. You criticized test audiences that can change a film’s ending. Why?
A. The only thing wrong with this is they don’t work. There is no correlation between testing and movies grosses. You can’t quantify the audience’s reaction. It’s an interesting illusion. If they like x last year, they are going to like x+1 this year. A lot of people put a lot of time and money into trying to second guess The audience. You can’t do that. I’ve been in the entertainment business for 40 years. It’s all I think about everyday. What does the audience need? People are attracted to novelty. They want to go, “Ooh!” It’s like dating. You can’t know what people are going to fall in love with. When we go to the movies, we fall in love with an idea. It’s new and it hasn’t been seen before.
Q. How do you view graduate film schools?
A. Of course it’s a scam. It’s complete b.s. In general, I don’t know what they teach you. Here’s the thing—it doesn’t count ‘til the meter is running. The meter ain’t running until you are trying the please the audience. It’s not about regurgitating theory. You have to think, how I am I going to tell the story to an audience? As my great friend (film editor) Barbara Tulliver said about the movies, “There are no rules. And there is just one law: Don’t be boring.”