“On Directing Film” by David Mamet (Book) (part one)
This is the first book in a long time that I found myself rereading immediately. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to it. It promptly changed the way I think when I write, especially his emphasis on the use of “uninflected images” juxtaposed against one another to tell a story. It’s really a book about writing screenplays, or at least it sits in the middle ground between a script and a shot list.
Telling stories “in the cut” doesn’t simply mean from scene to scene (i.e., allowing the audience to infer the bulk of the action, which happens between scenes), but also from image to image within the scene.
Once I gather my thoughts on this book, I’ll write something more extensive on its effect on my writing — which has already been profound — but for now, here are some choice quotes that I’ll be chewing on for a while.
But first, allow me a quick digression. Mamet emphasizes the refinement of a finite toolbox of techniques, questions, and considerations to use during writing. Above all, he hammers home the necessity of simplicity in storytelling: “The purpose of drama is to entertain.”
Digressing further, I can’t help but recall this nugget from a David Foster Wallace interview, which I used to obsess over as a sad, young literary man:
I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering.
That said, I think Mamet is right in a hierarchical type of way. Wallace’s philosophical contention is solid guidance, but of second-order importance. After all, you have to get people to watch/read/listen to the thing you’re doing before you can work any magic.
But stepping back to my previous digression, which is Mamet’s emphasis on simple tools for the job.
As a much younger writer, my unconscious thinking was that the purpose of drama and literature was to dazzle with wit and intelligence and originality, which, having already quoted David Foster Wallace, should come as no heart-stopping shock.
My conscious opinion was that one should create something that breaks the mold and furthers the art. (I was also big into Alain Robbe-Grillet.)
These days, I realize that things that totally break the mold go unnoticed, thus not furthering the art. Actually, in many cases, “breaking the mold” is not an accurate description — it’s more like ignoring the mold. Ignorance may play a part in it.
My opinion now is that great pieces of dramatic and literary art that seem to break the mold do so in only superficial ways (especially in film; theater is another beast that will require more thought than I’ve set aside for the day). Even David Foster Wallace, who seemed to eschew structure entirely, was actually a master at scene structure and the slow reveal of information.
Which, anyway, calls to mind a quote I read years ago that I had to track down again. From an L.A. Times interview with Jeffrey Eugenides:
JC: People are starting to notice that a generation of writers, which includes you and Jonathan Franzen, are wrestling with the question of how you create a novel after postmodernism.
JE: Schoenberg said it’s still possible to write music in C major, and that’s coming from Mister Experimental himself. That strikes a chord in me; I think with the novel, at a certain point you realize it’s still possible to write in C major and have some kind of narrative content. And meaningful characters that readers can, you know it’s an old-fashioned term, but people can fall in love with the characters and become caught up in their lives. If you don’t have that, you cease to have the kind of novel that can be compelling.
Anyway, on to the promised Mamet quotes. I’ll do a deeper dive on this book in the coming weeks.
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.
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.
Let the cut tell the story. Otherwise, you have not got dramatic action, you’ve got narration
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).