l TEACH: Fucking day. . .
Fucking weather. . .
DON: You think it '5 going to rain." TEACH: Yeah. I do. Later. DON: Yeah?
TEA CH: Well. look at it.
It occurred to me. that any conversation with David Mantel might be spare hut penetrating. What I wasn '! expecting was a con versation about the weather which made the ahoi'efrom American Buffalo sound like a discussion on Proust. It went something like this:
MAMET: How‘s the weather over there?
ME: The weather‘s beautiful.
M I3: (Ha/ﬂing) Is it rainy“? I heard something about New York being very wet . . .
MAME'I': I‘m not in New York. I‘m in
ME: In Boston.
MA MET: In Boston.
ME: Ah. Right.
MA MET: It‘s quite nice up here I()().
Actually it went on longer than that. But not that much longer. Mamet got bored with that topic too.
ME: It‘s like spring.
MAMET: Uhuh. Well. listen. I‘m going to go to school and pick up my daughter that‘s what I‘m going to do.
What Mamet has. even in a telephone conversation like this. is charisma. Photographs portray him all bullet-head haircut. cigar. and dark glasses. and in conversation there is something about the pauses. as frequent as in his stage directions. that makes the interviewer want to start again. to ask anything other than the question which has just met with such a worrying silence. It is only afterwards that you realise that this intriguing playwright has in fact taken all the questions seriously and answered them all - precisely.
I asked him first about manipulation. The Shawl. published in 1985 and newly televised as a BBC
. Play on One under Bill Bryden.
takes as its theme. the ability ofan ordinary man to create an influential and powerful persona as a medium. The sinister John. played by Nigel Hawthorne. brilliantly side-stepping Yes. Prime Minister typecasting. gets into deep waters by revealing the secrets of his craft to a ruthless young man who sees a way to extract money from the medium's client. Using ingenious powers of persuasion and suggestion. John comes close to doing exactly this. Mamet has always been interested in ‘magic and the allied arts‘ but he denies that a medium has any greater opportunity to manipulate than anyone else. ‘I think that anyone who has the capacity to awaken the idea that they are magic has the power to manipulate. Stockbrokers do it to us. evangelists do it. mediums do it.
politicians do it. Many people do it
‘ when they say “My power is beyond
your understanding. put your faith in | me as a charismatic recipient. a
i godhead. and I will make you free“.‘
For David Mamet. the spare. sharp dialogue. enigma and brilliant. twisting plots usually found in his scripts. are all in a day‘s work — as Stephanie Billen found out. interviewing him as his play The Shawl appears on BBC TV and with his second film, Things Change due on our
screens soon .
(‘lever as the seams always seem to be. in The Shawl and especially in House o/‘(iamesu where a conman exploits the obsessive streak in a famous psychiatrist. Mamet defines the technique succinctly as simply 'telling people what they want to hear. Obviously the more charismatic you are. the easier it is to do it.‘
Interestingly. his latest film. Things ( ‘hange. places a fundamentally honest and straighforward guy in a position where he must deceive. Gino (Don Ameche) is a poor but honest shoeshiner who is approached by the Mafia to confess to a murder committed by a look-alike Mafia chief. Following a prison sentence of perhaps three years he is told he will achieve his dream — to own a boat. Accepting this preposterous idea. Gino spends his last weekend before the court case in the company of Jerry (Joe Mantegna). a low-level mobster. who decides to take him on a last fling to Lake Tahoe.
Geno is assumed to be ‘the guy behind the guy behind the guy‘ and fawned upon by hotels and Mafia-men alike. In a dangerous encounter with the head of the Lake Tahoe mob. the shoe-shiner gets by with a mixture ofsimple comments. dewy-eyed friendliness and. above all. well-timed silence — all ofwhich is interpreted as the enigmatic secretiveness of a man who has everything to hide. Silence. Mamet concedes. can be as misleading as the most calculating langugage. ‘A lot of mediums work like that. and that‘s
the way psychoanalysis works.‘
Perhaps because of the integrity of the central character. the film comes across as far less menacing than. say. House o/‘(iames or (,ilengarry. (ilenross. where the comedy arises out of man‘s nastiness. if not inhumanity. to man. Mamet himself has described the film as ‘a fable that‘s a lot gentler than my other work.‘ 011 reflection he suggests that its tone is a product of two minds. ‘It is very gentle. I wrote it in conjunction with a friend of mine. Shel Silverstein. and I think it reﬂects our conjoined mentality.‘ Was S gentler in some ways'.’ ‘I think so. Or perhaps we‘re just gentler together.‘
Either way. Things (.‘hange has a joyous feel which may also have had something to do with the atmosphere on set. Mamet reputedly greeted actors with ‘I li. Thank you for being in my movie.‘ Don Ameche has remarked that ‘everybody will do 200% for David. He is open to anyone with a good suggestion‘ and descriptions of his constant mingling with cast and extras. halfjoking with them. half meticulously planning the next shot. seem to tally with actor Ricky Jay‘s comments. "The feeling on the set is different from anything else I‘ve ever seen. There‘s no screaming and no yelling.‘ Jay. who plays Mr Silver. a Mafia associate. is not alone in having worked extensively with Mamet in the past. Virtually all the cast have strong Mamet connections. even referring to themselves as ‘the Mamet Family".
Under Mamet‘s direction. extras and bit parts were created out ofsuch unlikely acting stock as Mamet‘s nanny (a showgirl in the film). the owner of l larry‘s Hardware Store in Cabot. Vermont (playing another Mafia underling) and miscellaneous gamblers — "They‘re not actors. they‘re guys from my poker game in Vermont.‘ Lead actors. Joe Mantegna and Mike Nussbaum ((‘hicago boss Mr (ireen). agree that the theatre company atmosphere helps everyone.
Directing is a relatively new departure for Mamet. since House of (iames. in which his wife. Lindsay (‘rouse. played the psychiatrist. Of the separate disciplines ofwriting for film and theatre. he says ‘I prefer them both. I‘m very grateful to have the opportunity to write for both of them. They are as different as sculpting and painting.‘
Away from the film set. Mamet is prolific. attempting to write every day. sometimes in the confines of an electricity-less cabin in Vermont. He is currently working on two more plays. one of which may find its way onto the BBC. He makes his working patterns sound almost humdrum. ‘I never thought there was much magic about it. I try to get a day‘s work done.‘ Treating it like an ordinary job‘.’ ‘Sure. ()n the other hand. after twenty years. it is an ordinary job.‘
Much of his work contains almost ritualistic repetitions between characters — in .S'peed-lhe-Plow. for example. the sycophantic Hollywood moguls indulge in ridiculous thank-you sessions. Could the predictable nature of some of these exchanges be seen as characters protecting themselves with social rituals‘.’ ‘Sometimes yes. sometimes no. But I personally have always been fascinated by repetition.‘ Mamet answers. disarmingly. ‘. . . By making a piece out of the least possible elements.‘ I groped a little further and decided to throw in that favourite 20th Century angst. non-communication. Were characters communicating very little with a lot ofwords on occasions? ‘No. I think they are always enmmunicating quite a good deal with very few words.‘ Pause. ‘That‘s what I think.‘
British Telecom had done its job efficiently. and even my tape recorder had risen to a challenge. but at this point — and we were seconds away from the weather digression. which was to finish the discussion for good — I began to have my doubts about how well we were communicating with each other. I wish I had at least concluded with a dignified ‘Bye. Thanks for being in my interview.‘ Instead I let him apologise for his ‘peripatetic life-style‘ and our difficulties in tracking him down. Then he went to pick up his daughter and I sat down to make a piece out ofthe least possible elements.
The Shaw! is on BBC] on Tue 14 Mar, 9.30pm. Things Change opens in ( 'entral Scotland in mid-April. Speed -the- Plow is in repertoire at the i’v’ational Theatre. London (01 928 2252).
10 The List 10— 23 March 1989