Over the course of his career, David Mamet has written 24 screenplays, ranging from “The Spanish Prisoner” to “Wag the Dog.” What is perhaps less well known is that he’s an essayist who has written for Harper’s and The Guardian in London. A collection of his essays, “Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business,” comes out Tuesday. In it, he offers a kind of sociological deconstruction of the business, lampooning everyone from Hollywood executives to the cavalcade of sycophants who show up at premieres and scream, “What visuals! What craft!” “The compliments,” Mamet explains, “all mean one thing: The script stinks.”
Here, Mamet discusses the ins and outs of the industry.
WWD: Reading the book, one might assume you enjoy theater more but that it simply doesn’t pay the rent.
David Mamet: No, not at all. The point of the book is simply that it’s a business. The movie industry is free-market capitalism and, as such, it gets rough around the edges. I’m trying to tell the truth about what I see.
WWD: Still, you argue that Hollywood puts out more and more “mush,” in the form of tent-pole films and sequels. So why exactly did you agree to write “Hannibal”?
D.M.: Because they paid me a s–tload of money. And, by the way, they didn’t make my script. They gave me the credit, but it wasn’t my script.
WWD: What happened?
D.M.: They didn’t like it. They being [producer] Dino De Laurentiis and [director] Ridley Scott. But the Writers Guild has this arcane, druidical way of determining who gets the credit. So sometimes someone gets credit for something they didn’t do.
WWD: At any rate, you seem to have come to the conclusion that blockbusters are not what the public really wants and that we’re due for a kind of market correction.
This story first appeared in the February 1, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
D.M.: Yes. One of the problems of success is an increase in bureaucracy. You start to accrete testing groups and screenings and marketing strategies. And as you become less nimble, someone else comes along and says, “Oh, there’s this vast market no one is thinking of.” Show business is always about novelty…whether that’s “Porky’s II,” or “Borat” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
WWD: What films have you liked recently?
D.M.: I don’t know if I went to the movies this year. Oh, I thought “Borat” was spectacular. I might have seen something else, I can’t remember. Oh, well.
WWD: At one point in the book, you suggest that filmmakers and movie producers may suffer from Asperger’s syndrome. To back this up, you point out that the disorder is most common in Ashkenazi Jews, whom you say are in abundance in Hollywood.
D.M.: There’s a lot of Jews in show business. I’m one of them, and it’s a heritage I’m proud of. But a lot of the behavior patterns we see, the behavior of the Talmudist — the great love of minutia, the ability to make obscure connections, the love of argument — these are real and can be traced back to Russia and Poland.
WWD: Do you have those tendencies?
D.M.: Sure. Of course.
WWD: And how about your family. Are they from Russia or Poland?
D.M.: Poland. They’re Ashkenazi Jews.
D.M.: I don’t have Asperger’s.
WWD: The last part of the book addresses the campaigns for the Oscars. Did you get swept up in the insanity of it? Have you gone?
D.M.: I did. I went a couple of times when I was younger and I got nominated.
WWD: Were you sad when you didn’t win?
D.M.: Sad? No. I was shocked. You go and you know you’re going to win and then they call this name, and strangely, it’s not yours. You just sit there thinking, “They called the wrong name.” Meanwhile, the guy next to you, in an ill-fitting tuxedo covered in dandruff, gets up and goes to accept “your” award. Then you think, “I don’t mind not winning, but how will I get to give my speech?”