David Mamet On Playwriting

December 14, 2011

Adapted from: Paris Review, The Art of Theater, No. 11

Interviewed by John Lahr

Freud believed that our dreams sometimes recapitulate a speech, a comment we’ve heard or something that we’ve read. I always had compositions in my dreams. They would be a joke, a piece of a novel, a witticism or a piece of dialogue from a play, and I would dream them. I would actually express them line by line in the dream. Sometimes after waking up I would remember a snatch or two and write them down. There’s something in me that just wants to create dialogue.

My mother used to say when I was just a little kid: David, why must you dramatize everything? She said it to me as a criticism . . . . I found out (it took me forty years) that all rhetorical questions are accusations. They’re very sneaky accusations because they masquerade as a request for information. If one is not aware of the anger they provoke, one can feel not only accused but inadequate for being unable to respond to the question.

It’s action . . . That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do.

I never try to make it hard for the audience . . . Vakhtangov, who was a disciple of Stanislavsky, was asked at one point why his films were so successful, and he said, Because I never for one moment forget about the audience. I try to adopt that as an absolute tenet. I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist.

Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early . . . . You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, What the hell are they talking about? And you listen heavily.

I was a nonstudent. No interest . . . . Later on I realized that I enjoy accomplishing tasks. I get a big kick out of it because I never did it as a kid.

Being in Chicago was great . . . . We looked at New York as two things: one was, of course, the Big Apple and the other was the world’s biggest hick town. Because much of what we saw happening in New York was the equivalent of the Royal Nonesuch—you know, a bunch of people crawling around, barking, and calling it theater. But the version in Chicago was people went to the theater just like they went to the ballgame: they wanted to see a show. If it was a drama, it had to be dramatic, and if it was a comedy, it had to funny—period.

(I) was trying to figure out what the hell the mechanism of the play (The Cryptogram) was. And I had all this stuff about the kid not going to sleep, and it finally occurred to me, about the billionth draft, well, it’s about why can’t the kid sleep? It’s not that the kid can’t sleep, but why can’t the kid sleep? So the kid can’t sleep because he knows, subconsciously, that something’s unbalanced in the household. But then why is nobody paying attention to him? I thought, Aha! Well, this is perhaps the question of the play.

I’m not trying to persuade (the audience) of anything; it’s much more basic than that, it’s much more concrete . . . . Obviously, the point of the play is doing it for the audience—like the cook who wants to make that perfect soufflé, that perfect mousse, that perfect carbonara. Of course he isn’t going to do it if he doesn’t think someone’s going to eat it, but the point is to cook it perfectly, not to affect the eaters in a certain way. The thing exists of itself.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people such as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the first installment of a three-part post adapted from the David Mamet interview in Paris Review.)


Wendy Wasserstein On Playwriting III

December 7, 2011

Adapted from: The Art of Theater No. 13

The Paris Review, Interviewed by Laurie Winer

I always finish a draft before I show it to anybody. I’ll rewrite a scene thirty-seven times before I show it to anyone . . . . I enjoy the process of polishing until finally I set a deadline and meet it. I finished both Heidi and The Rosensweigs by my birthday . . . . I said to myself, I will put this in the mail . . . today; I’m so sick of it.

I was home and . . . the press agent for The Heidi Chronicles, called up and said, You won the Pulitzer. I said, That’s not funny. He said, No, no, I’m serious. You won the Pulitzer Prize. I kept saying, You’re the queen of Romania . . . . He told me to call my mother, so I did, because I thought, This woman’s going to hear my name on the radio and think I died or something. I called her. She asked me, Is that as good as a Tony? . . . .  Then I went to the theater. Edward Albee was there. He told me to go on stage and take a bow . . . . He said that I never knew when it was going to happen again. So I did it.

 Winning the Pulitzer was never a goal of mine but it meant a great deal to me in terms of self-esteem. Getting the Tony was quite different because I knew that for the sake of the play and its commercial life that it was very important. I remember sitting in the audience with André Bishop thinking, Should I go up with the scarf, without the scarf? . . . . I was the first woman to win the Tony for best play alone, and I felt the need to dignify the occasion in some way.

I am most interested in how people talk. If I went to a movie studio and said I wanted to do a movie about three sisters over forty with a romantic lead who is fifty-four, they’d ask me to rewrite it for Geena Davis, and then they’d probably hire Beth Henley to make them all Southern.

There is a part of me that thinks that playwrights deserve as much recognition as novelists or screenwriters. I also know that if you want people to come to your plays, it helps to go on David Letterman’s show. One creates a persona. I’m actually a shy person. Michael Kinsley is also a shy person, and there he is on TV every night. I was talking to him about this, that fame is not about getting a restaurant reservation. It’s about walking up Madison Avenue on the way to your therapist, and you’re thinking, My God, I’m worthless, what am I doing with my life? . . . . Then some woman comes up to you and says . . . . I can’t tell you how much you mean to me.

 I like to think that those are the people who I write for—the matinee ladies at The Sisters Rosensweig. I guess it is something of a release from being alone and working. It’s odd for me to have chosen this profession because I’m not very good at being alone and I’m not very good at sitting still. But at the same time, I find my work very comforting.

What I hate about myself and would like to change is that . . . . I’m too vulnerable and always have been. I don’t look vulnerable . . . . I admire aggressiveness in women. I try to be accommodating and entertaining, and some say that’s what’s wrong with my plays. But I think there are very good things about being a woman that have not been taught to men— not bullshit manners but true graciousness. I think there is real anger in life to be expressed, there is great injustice, but I also think there is dignity. That is interesting, and part of the plays I want to write.

I grew up reading the Arts and Leisure section, thinking that I would be like Celeste Holm in All About Eve and that it would be the husband who was the playwright and I would be the well-educated person who loved the theater. In those four years all of that changed—a transitional generation. The fact that I am the playwright has to do with that time.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button. (This is the last installment of a three-part post adapted from the Wendy Wasserstein interview in Paris Review.)


From Here To Eternity

September 28, 2009

Classic Scenes from Classic Films

Kerr-Lancaster-Kiss

If I were asked to pick a perfect movie I’d quickly name From Here to Eternity, starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The 1953 drama was adapted from the best selling novel by James Jones, screenplay by Daniel Taradash, and directed by Fred Zinnemann. I consider this film cinema gold from start to finish, but for the sake of brevity I’ll focus only on the relationship between the Lancaster and Kerr characters. Sergeant Warden and Karen Holmes’ love affair is the spine of the story and is introduced and developed by screenwriter Taradash in two perfect scenes, both of which come in the first twenty minutes of the film. Neither of them involve sand, sea or sex — at least not graphic sex.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about vintage movies is familiar with the erotic scene of Sergeant Warden and Karen kissing on the beach, the one with the wave breaking over their bodies. It’s an iconic film image, and the video is very popular on YouTube, even with people who have never seen the movie. Unlike couples in most movies, this wet duo enmeshed in a torrid embrace did not meet “cute.” You might even say they met “ugly,” or at least not very “pretty.” For me, their first scene together, which comes about ten minutes after the opening credits, is sexier than the beach scene by at least a factor of ten. No blatant fireworks, but there are sparks, a subtle display of sexual tension, mixed with an interesting undercurrent of dislike, even distrust. In that short scene there is strong attraction but also implicit conflict between the characters, and conflict, as we know, is the lifeblood of drama. For me, at least in dramatic terms, conflict is sexy. The smoldering and somewhat sarcastic banter between Karen and Warden in the scene foreshadows adultery to come. Karen, we quickly learn, is married to Warden’s commanding officer.

I’ve transcribed the two scenes by using a combination of Daniel Taradash’s second draft script, which I found on the Internet, and the movie. Both scenes as shot differ somewhat from the script, and I’ll point out how the first one is changed after we read it. In that first scene we discover Sergeant Warden in front of the company supply room talking to Leva, the supply clerk (as played by Mickey Shaughnessy in a great character rendering). They watch as Karen arrives in the area looking for her husband.

LONG SHOT KAREN HOLMES FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S ANGLE as she walks toward them. She is at a considerable distance. Karen is about thirty. She wears a sweater and skirt. She is aware the men are studying her.

MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN AND LEVA watching Karen.

LEVA : Shooish! — her and them sweaters.

LONG SHOT KAREN FROM WARDEN AND LEVA’S POV as she continues toward them. Warden’s and Lava’s voices, loud at first, get softer and softer the nearer Karen gets to camera. At end of the shot, as she is only a few yards away, they are practically whispering.

WARDEN’S VOICE: I’ll bet she’s colder than an iceberg . . .

LEVA’S VOICE: Not her, Top, she knows the score like I been tellin you.

WARDEN’S VOICE: (sarcastic) Is that right?

LEVA’S VOICE: Listen, not around here, but I was back at Fort Bliss with Holmes. I heard plenty about this lady then. Plenty.

WARDEN’S VOICE: You did, huh?

LEVA’S VOICE: Okay, not me — but I know some of them she played ‘round with, so don’t tell me.

WARDEN’S VOICE: I ain’t tellin you. You’re tellin me.

Karen stops a few paces from camera.

KAREN: Good morning, Sergeant.

WARDEN: Morning, ma’am.

MEDIUM SHOT. Lava watches, listens avidly but discreetly in background. During the dialogue, Karen seems irritated by Warden, who looks at her coolly, appraisingly, physically.

KAREN: I’m looking for my husband.

WARDEN: Captain Holmes just went in town, ma’am. On business.

KAREN: Oh. He was to have left some things for me; do you know anything about them?

WARDEN: No I don’t, ma’am. Anything I can do for you?

KAREN: No, thanks.

WARDEN: I’d be glad to help. Ma’am.

She makes a slight move to go, then pauses.

KAREN: My husband’s been telling me a lot about you, Sergeant. He says you’re very efficient.

WARDEN: Yes, ma’am.

KAREN: What is it that makes you so efficient, Sergeant?

WARDEN: I was born smart, ma’am.

Karen laughs suddenly, quietly.

KAREN: I love that. Well goodbye, Sergeant.

Karen turns and walks back toward her car. Warden and Leva watch her. When she is out of earshot Leva speaks.

LEVA: Man, she sure is one, ain’t she?

WARDEN: One what?

LEVA: One woman.

WARDEN: (unconvincingly): I’ve seen better.

As performed, the first scene in the movie between Karen and Warden differs only slightly from the Daniel Taradash second draft script. Most of the tweaks involve a word change here and there, changes that perfectly sharpen and clarify the dialogue between the characters. The first scene is an excellent example of what experts agree are the three things an effective dramatic scene should do: Advance the story, develop (deepen) character, and establish (and/or deepen) conflict. I would add a fourth thing. A good scene should also “entertain.” The entertaining aspect may be the result of the quality of the writing or the performances or, as in this case, a combination of both. In From Here To Eternity I believe we’ve given all four elements in just about every scene throughout the movie — and that, in my opinion, is what makes it a great film.

SceneKerr-Lancaster two between Sergeant Warden and Karen also has several departures from the draft script. These changes are more extensive. In fact, several lines of dialogue are cut from the end of the second draft version. I’ll talk a bit more about that after we’ve read the scene as filmed, which comes at about the twenty minute point in the movie:

EXT. BACK PORCH OF HOLMES’ HOUSE. DAY. MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT WARDEN standing outside in the rain. He wears a GI rain hat and coat. He pauses, then knocks briskly on the door of the screened porch. Karen opens the kitchen door onto the porch. She is in shorts and a blouse.

KAREN: Well, if it isn’t Sergeant Warden. You better step inside or you’ll get wet.

INT. PORCH OFF KITCHEN – DAY MEDIUM SHOT She opens the screen door and he steps onto the porch. He removes his rain hat, shaking off the raindrops.

WARDEN: I am wet.

KAREN: If you’re looking for the captain, he isn’t here.

WARDEN: (taking the long chance) And if I’m not looking for him?

KAREN: (unsmiling) He still isn’t here.

WARDEN: (quickly) Well, I’m looking for him. Do you know where he is?

KAREN: I haven’t the slightest idea. Perhaps he’s in town on business. That’s the way you put it the other day, isn’t it?

WARDEN: (fishes in his pocket, brings out papers) I got some papers it’s important for him to sign.

KAREN: (turns) I’ll try phoning him at the Club. Maybe he’s there.

WARDEN: Don’t do that. I never like to disturb a man when he’s drinking. I could use a drink my self. Aren’t you going to ask me in?

Karen finally smiles, faintly. She goes into the kitchen, leaving the door open. Warden follows her.

INT. KITCHEN HOLMES HOUSE – DAY MEDIUM SHOT The kitchen is small and undistinguished.

KAREN: (gestures): The liquor’s there, Sergeant — in the cabinet.

Warden takes a whisky bottle from the cabinet and pours a straight, stiff drink, puts the bottle on the table. He puts the papers down and drinks. Karen leans against the sink counter.

KAREN: You’re taking an awful chance, you know. My maid is liable to be home any time.

WARDEN: No she won’t. Thursday’s her day off.

KAREN: You think of everything, don’t you, Sergeant?

WARDEN: I try. In my position you have to.

KAREN: (goes to table and picks up the papers) Are these really important?

WARDEN: Yes. But not important they get signed today. Tomorrow’s okay.

Karen suddenly, deliberately, rips the papers in half, then crumbles and throws them into the wastebasket.

WARDEN: I got copies at the office, so it won’t be much work to fix them up.

Warden’s control has begun to affect Karen’s now. She is losing her poise.

KAREN: That’s what I like about you, Sergeant. You have confidence. It’s also what I dislike about you.

WARDEN: It’s not confidence, ma’am. It’s honesty. I just hate to see a beautiful woman goin all to waste.

He moves close to Karen, is on the verge of embracing her. Greatly tempted but greatly disturbed, she turns away. During her monologue she pours herself a drink. Her tone is no longer brittle. It is bitter.

KAREN: Waste, did you say, Sergeant? Now that’s a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You’re probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance — what about the house without a child? There’s one sort for you. Then there’s another. (Karen takes a drink) You’re doing fine, Sergeant. My husband’s off somewhere, it’s raining outside, and we’re both drinking now. But you’ve probably got one thing wrong. The lady herself. The lady’s not what she seems. She’s a washout, if you know what I mean. And I’m sure you know what I mean.

WARDEN: You gonna cry?

KAREN: (turning away): Not if I can help it.

Warden takes a drink and puts the glass down on the table, hard enough for her to hear.

KAREN (turning back to him): What are you doing?

WARDEN I’m leaving. Isn’t that what you want?

KAREN (slowly) I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.

They stare squarely at each other, both puzzled and a little afraid of their emotions. This is something neither had counted on. He goes to her and they kiss. Music up. The camera pulls back and out the window, into the rain.

FADE OUT

Now that’s one sexy scene, the sexiest in the movie, in my opinion. It’s much more erotic than that sea-soaked episode on the beach, the one that everyone remembers. Toggling back and forth between the second draft script and my tape of the movie was a revelation. I came to appreciate even more the writing skills involved, but also the contributions to the project that Kerr and Lancaster make — how subtly the nuance of facial expression, gesture, and body language communicate and reinforce emotions only hinted at on the page.

And remember that section of dialogue KerrLancaster2I mentioned that was cut from the second scene — removed either by the screenwriter in a later draft, or perhaps by the director as he shot the movie? In the Daniel Taradash second draft there was no kiss. In its place there is the following exchange, which comes after Karen says, “I don’t know, Sergeant. I don’t know.”

WARDEN: I know a beach near Diamond Head. Nobody ever goes there. The cars on the highway pass above and they never know it’s there. You feel like you used to feel when you were a kid, hiding by yourself in a cave, watching the others hunting you.

Karen turns, goes to the sink, puts the whisky bottle back in the cabinet.

KAREN: Maybe . . . why not?

WARDEN: How about Payday?

KAREN: You don’t have to spend money on me, Sergeant.

WARDEN: I just like to have some on me when I take out a woman. Can you get away?

KAREN: Maybe.

Warden grins. He goes to the door to the porch, pauses there.

WARDEN: I’ll be in Kuhio Park. Say, nine o’clock. Payday.

Karen leans back against the sink, watches him go out to the porch. A moment later the sound of the door is heard as he leaves. She turns on the faucet, starts to rinse the glasses they have used. Suddenly she turns the faucet on full force, watches it pound into the sink.

FADE OUT.

What is wrong with this second draft version of the scene? A more apt question is, What’s right with it? Take the blatant symbolism of the faucet water pounding into the sink, that’s downright corny. And the dialogue is too explicit, from Warden’s crude planning of their first “date” and it’s useless (to the audience) details. It’s all pure exposition that lacks even a suggestion of emotional nuance. Nothing is left for us to think about. Worse still, we feel nothing. We have been talked down to, led by the hand (nose) so that every thing is made perfectly (awfully) clear. Basically, we are disrespected and our intelligence is demeaned. We are insulted by being given TOO MUCH DIRECT INFORMATION.

You don’t have to be a professional screenwriter to figure out which of the two versions of that second scene between Karen and Sergeant Warden is best. It’s simple. The cuts and word changes made by the screenwriter and/or the director, enables us to connect to the story in a personal way. The same is true for the complete film. Throughout we are shown, not just told. We are allowed to feel our way into figuring it out for ourselves. The filmmakers permit us to collaborate in the creative process, and that’s what makes these two scenes — and the rest of the movie, all of which is treated with the same artful craft — so powerful. As I say, it’s a perfect film.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

If you have a classic scene from a classic movie that you’d like to share with the world, write it up (500-1,000 words) and send it along to jimscartoons@aol.com. I’d like to consider it for publication on the blog. Failing that, I’d at least like to know what you think of my choice in this case, pro or con.