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Interview with David Mamet

Phil Spector

HBO

The film, even though its called Phil Spector, isnt 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 cant malign the victim. And I said, Of course not. Its 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, its actually Helen Mirren, playing Linda Kenney Baden. She shows up and says Ill defend Phil Spector but I wont 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

Youve 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 its 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 hes obviously f***ing nuts. And also hes brilliant. So the question of the documentary is, can the viewer overcome his prejudicesbecause the guy is obviously a little bit wackyand say, Well wait a second, that doesnt mean hes guilty. It doesnt mean hes not guilty, but it doesnt mean hes 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, theres no way to know whether someones guilty or not. What we can determine is whether its proven or not. The accused does not have to assert his innocence. He is innocent. They have to prove hes guilty.

HBO

So you dont think its 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 doesnt mean no doubt; it means a reasonable doubt. And the distinction is not definedits left up to the jury to understand what that means. Its a great responsibility and its 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 Lindas role?

David Mamet

Linda was great. We talked to her the whole time. We talked to her husband who is one of the worlds 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 didnt 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. Theres something about their relationship that reminded me of Oleana, in that they seemed both symbiotic and also adversarial.

David Mamet

Well if youve got two characters in a play theyd better be adversarial. What youre 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 theyve gotta work it out.

HBO

What are the challenges when youve both written something and youre directing it?

"Your job as director is to make everybody happy. If you dont have a fun set you dont have a good movie."

David Mamet

Well directing is a kind of writing. I think the great directors Ive loved also wrote the screenplay. And when you get on the set, even if you wrote it or not, you say Well OK, Ive 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 dont actually do that. At least the good ones. Al or Helen would never ask me about their characters. Theyre 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 worlds 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 dont have a fun set you dont have a good movie. If youve got a lot of sturm and drang on the set, the dramas on the set. It doesnt 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? Whats 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 Im wrong? What do I do to get out of the day if Ive figured out the scene wrong? How much time do I have in the day, how many scenes do I need to shoot? Thats the hard, hard part of making a movie the pre-production.

You know my daughters directing her first film. Shes 18 and she wrote it and shes starring in it and shes pretty great. And she very graciously referred to herself as my apprentice. Shes much better at everything than I am. But she said, You know Dad, its 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, its pleasurable in the same way that doing crunches is pleasurable. Its pleasurable because of the result. Its 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, its because theyre so goddamned lazy they hate themselves. So when youre doing the planning, the questionjust like three more repsis: Its 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 childs play.

HBO

And what is it that drives you past almost right?

David Mamet

Well, you might say its pride. Its certainly a sense of responsibility. Here youve 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 wouldnt tell because Id think about it later and realize Id been lying.

Phil Spector

HBO Films