David Mamet, the great writer of stage plays, screenplays and prose, wrote an excellent treatise on filmmaking called “On Directing Film.” His advice focuses on the craft of directing, however there is much to learn for screenwriters. Below are some of our favorite bits and quotes:
1. On Economy
My experience as a director, and as a dramatist, is this: the piece is moving in proportion to how much the author can leave out.
A good writer gets better by learning to remove the ornamental, the descriptive… What remains? The story remains. What is the story? The story is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of her one goal.
How do we keep the audience’s attention? Certainly not by giving them more information but, on the contrary, by withholding information—by withholding all information except that information in the absence of which would make the progress of the story incomprehensible.
2. On Character and Desire
The making of a story… consists of the assiduous application of several very basic questions: What does the hero want? What hinders him from getting it? What happens if he does not get it? That’s what keeps the audience in their seats… The story can only be interesting because we find the progress of the protagonist interesting. As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.
Good stories have problems that are rooted in character. Our hero, Dumbo, has big ears. That’s his situation. His real problem is not his ears, it’s how he feels about his ears. But, he wants to not have big ears, and what he wants isn’t necessarily what he needs.
3. The Cut and the Beat
If you listen to the way people tell stories, you will hear that they tell them cinematically. They jump from one thing to the next, and the story is moved along by the juxtaposition of images—which is to say, by the cut.
People say, “I’m standing on the corner. It’s a foggy day. A bunch of people are running around crazy. Might have been the full moon. All of a sudden, a car comes up and the guy next to me says…”
If you think about it, that’s a shot list: (1) a guy standing on the corner; (2) shot of fog; (3) a full moon shining above; (4) a man says, “I think people get wacky this time of year”; (5) a car approaching.
What, you wonder, is going to happen next?
First the shot: it’s the juxtaposition of the shots that moves the film forward. The shots make up the scene. The scene is a formal essay. What is this particular scene about? What this particular scene is about is called the beat.
Get into a scene late, get out early. The dramatist’s task is not to create confrontation or chaos but, rather, to create order. Start with the disordering event, and let the beat be about the attempt to restore order.
David Mamet quotes:
“Let the cut tell the story. Otherwise you have not got dramatic action, you’ve got narration.” – David Mamet
“In the editing room, on is constantly thinking: “I wish I had a shot of…” – David Mamet
“Almost all movie scripts contain material that cannot be filmed.” – David Mamet
“If you find that a point cannot be made without narration, it is virtually certain that the point is unimportant to the story (which is to say, to the audience).” – David Mamet
“The audience requires not information but drama.” – David Mamet
“The work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script.” – David Mamet
“I don’t have any experience with film schools. I suspect that they’re useless, because I’ve had experience with drama schools, and have found them to be useless.” – David Mamet
“The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious. If you follow the rules ploddingly, they will allow your unconscious to be free.” – David Mamet
“The conscious mind is going to suggest the obvious, the cliché, because these things have offered the security of having succeeded in the past.” – David Mamet
“The images in a dream are vastly varied and magnificently interesting.” – David Mamet
“The terror and beauty of the dream come from the connection of previously unrelated mundanities of life.” – David Mamet
“The great movie can be as free of being a record of the progress of the protagonist as is a dream.” – David Mamet
“The dream and the film are the juxtaposition of images in order to answer a question.” – David Mamet
“It is the objective of the protagonist that keeps us in our seats.” – David Mamet
“There is no such thing as character other than the habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago.” – David Mamet
“Make the audience wonder what’s going on by putting them in the same position as the protagonist.” – David Mamet
“As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.” – David Mamet
“You can’t rely on the acting to tell the story.” – David Mamet
“Always do things the least interesting way, the most blunt way, and you make a better movie. This is my experience.” – David Mamet
“Hitchcock denigrated American films, saying they were all ‘pictures of people talking’ – as, indeed, most of them are.” – David Mamet
“What we’re trying to do is find two or more shots the juxtaposition of which will give us the idea.” – David Mamet
“This is an interesting idea. Let’s say it in shots.” – David Mamet
“The MacGuffin is that thing which is most important to us – that most essential thing. The audience will supply it, each member for himself.” – David Mamet
“My greatest fear is that the audience will beat me to the punch line.” – David Mamet
What did we miss? Any favorite Mamet wisdom to share? let us know in the comments below, and on Twitter. We’ll reply right away.