HBO Films

Phil Spector

Interview with David Mamet

HBO

The film, even though it’s called ‘Phil Spector,’ isn’t a biopic. How did you approach writing this, and how did you decide what aspect of his life to focus on?

David Mamet

I went to Len Amato [President of HBO Films] and said, “This guy is fascinating. We should do a movie about the trial.” He agreed but said, “One thing, we can’t malign the victim.” And I said, Of course not. It’s always a good idea if you can put the writer of the project in the same place as the protagonist. So the protagonist of the film is not Al Pacino playing Phil, it’s actually Helen Mirren, playing Linda Kenney Baden. She shows up and says “I’ll defend Phil Spector but I won’t indict the victim.” Her search for a way out of this dilemma that is consonant with her morality is the story of the film.

HBO

You’ve talked about the story as a myth. What myth was it you saw in his story, or the narrative?

David Mamet

Well, it seems to be the myth of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Or the myth of the minotaur. At the end of the play Linda comes to the realization that it’s the myth of the minotaur. This guy lives in his castle in the middle of nowhere. Why does the monster live in the castle? Why does the minotaur live in the cave? To keep himself from doing harm. But he got out. The minotaur left the castle. Phil Spector had been in that castle sober for 10 years. And one night he goes out and gets drunk and guess what happens to him? Everything.

HBO

What drew you to the character?

David Mamet

Well he’s obviously f***ing nuts. And also he’s brilliant. So the question of the documentary is, can the viewer overcome his prejudices—because the guy is obviously a little bit wacky—and say, “Well wait a second, that doesn’t mean he’s guilty.” It doesn’t mean he’s not guilty, but it doesn’t mean he’s guilty. So what does the guy actually have to say for himself?

HBO

Did you have an opinion on whether he was guilty?

David Mamet

Nope. You see the thing is in America, there’s no way to know whether someone’s guilty or not. What we can determine is whether it’s proven or not. The accused does not have to assert his innocence. He is innocent. They have to prove he’s guilty.

HBO

So you don’t think it’s ever possible to know for sure, one way or another.

David Mamet

Well what the jury decides, especially in capital cases, is whether the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It doesn’t mean no doubt; it means a reasonable doubt. And the distinction is not defined—it’s left up to the jury to understand what that means. It’s a great responsibility and it’s probably one of the diminishingly few times in our modern world where the state still gets the hell out of the way and we all realize that the government is the people.

HBO

When Phil and Linda first meet, he talks about famous people being ruined by tragic accidents, most notably Ted Kennedy. Is that based on any research? Is that invention?

David Mamet

People always say, “Where did you get your ideas?” and the horrifying fact is I think of them.

HBO

And what was Linda’s role?

David Mamet

Linda was great. We talked to her the whole time. We talked to her husband who is one of the world’s greatest forensic pathologists. We talked a lot about the case. But at the end of the day, you have to throw everything out and write the damn thing. John Singer Sargent painted a lot of portraits and he talked to the sitter about what they were gonna wear, but then he went and painted them. He didn’t do a lot of research on what the dresses meant.

HBO

There are a number of great scenes between Linda and Phil, as the crux of the drama. There’s something about their relationship that reminded me of ‘Oleana,’ in that they seemed both symbiotic and also adversarial.

David Mamet

Well if you’ve got two characters in a play they’d better be adversarial. What you’re looking at is a straight-down-the-middle two-hander. One person wants something from the other. The other person wants something antithetical from the first person and they’ve gotta work it out.

HBO

What are the challenges when you’ve both written something and you’re directing it?

"Your job as director is to make everybody happy. If you don’t have a fun set you don’t have a good movie."
David Mamet

Well directing is a kind of writing. I think the great directors I’ve loved also wrote the screenplay. And when you get on the set, even if you wrote it or not, you say “Well OK, I’ve got this crock of sh*t. What can I do?”

HBO

Did you have any conversation with Al and Helen about their characters or concerns they had?

David Mamet

No, people don’t actually do that. At least the good ones. Al or Helen would never ask me about their characters. They’re actors. They know what the script is. And the idea that a director is going to get something better out of them by boring them to death is f***ing crazy.

HBO

So you just let them go.

David Mamet

Of course. I mean, why rent the world’s greatest race horse and tie a f***ing cinder block to them?

HBO

So what do you see as your job as director?

David Mamet

Your job as director is to make everybody happy. If you don’t have a fun set you don’t have a good movie. If you’ve got a lot of sturm and drang on the set, the drama’s on the set. It doesn’t get into the movie. The job as a director happens before you get to the set— Hitchcock was famous for falling asleep during a take. And he did very well.

HBO

So the work happens beforehand?

David Mamet

All of directing is planning. Where does the camera go? What’s the nature of the shot? Where does the camera move? Where do the people stand? What are the costumes? How is it gonna cut? What happens if I’m wrong? What do I do to get out of the day if I’ve figured out the scene wrong? How much time do I have in the day, how many scenes do I need to shoot? That’s the hard, hard part of making a movie— the pre-production.

You know my daughter’s directing her first film. She’s 18 and she wrote it and she’s starring in it and she’s pretty great. And she very graciously referred to herself as my apprentice. She’s much better at everything than I am. But she said, “You know Dad, it’s true what you told me. When you go onto the set you better be bored.”

HBO

Do you find that process, the preparation process, pleasurable?

David Mamet

Well, it’s pleasurable in the same way that doing crunches is pleasurable. It’s pleasurable because of the result. It’s like you always have to do three more reps.

Everybody in the arts is a lazy motherf***er no matter how hard they work. If they work hard, it’s because they’re so goddamned lazy they hate themselves. So when you’re doing the planning, the question—just like three more reps—is: “It’s not good enough. Am I willing to accept almost right?” Or, “Can I think harder, can I work harder?” Somebody said, and I think it was Manet, “Almost right is child’s play.”

HBO

And what is it that drives you past “almost right”?

David Mamet

Well, you might say it’s pride. It’s certainly a sense of responsibility. Here you’ve got the greatest job in the world and a 100 people relying on you on the set and 100 million people are going to see it, it might be good to do a good job.

HBO

Do you prefer writing to directing?

David Mamet

I have no idea. And if I did I wouldn’t tell because I’d think about it later and realize I’d been lying.