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With The Spanish Prisoner, his fourth feature as a director, David Mamet returns to the themes of duplicity and delusion that have run through his film work since House of Games. Likening film narrative and cinephilia to a confidence game, Mamet has made his strongest and most entertaining film yet, a work in which the writer/director’s stylized jabs at filmic realism work in concert with a tale in which nothing is what it seems. Ray Pride talks with Mamet about scams, stories, and self-discipline.

David Mamet. Photos: James Bridges.

Partaking of the gloss of a Hitchcock picture like North by Northwest and the labyrinthine narrative twists of The Usual Suspects, David Mamet takes his fascination with the grift, the con and the human capacity for self-delusion to new heights in The Spanish Prisoner, his light yet coldly precise thriller. Campbell Scott stars as Joe Ross, a mathematician who’s invented something called "The Process," a kind of algorithm that could shake the financial markets and make a pretty penny for his employers. Joe doesn’t think he’s getting his fair share of the potential proceeds. Enter suave and mysterious Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), who proceeds to turn Joe’s world upside down. Mamet regular – and expert on cons and magic – Ricky Jay is on hand as a confidant of Jimmy’s, and Mamet’s wife, the actress Rebecca Pidgeon, plays a secretary who may or may not be working a scam of her own.

Among his own cons, David Mamet has cultivated a reputation as a tough interview, known for batting away questions with sage quotations from esteemed forebears and brooking little discussion of the easily-parodied, hard-to-duplicate cadences of his best work for stage and film. A 1997 Men’s Journal article written by a Mamet friend of two decades contains only about a half-dozen words of direct quotation. Yet after the American premiere of The Spanish Prisoner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Mamet was voluble, chatty even. In an October interview with the online magazine Salon, Mamet fretted that the greatest vexation of being interviewed was a danger of "warp[ing] the process toward some inappropriate, ulterior ends... To try to defend one’s self. To try to explain one’s personal life. To do anything other than explain why the public might enjoy the film." Fittingly, he held to his reputation at a Sundance screening where he greeted the audience and said, "I’ll be glad to try to avoid a couple of your questions!"

Along with his new movie, Mamet has just published two books of essays, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor and Three Uses of the Knife, has a play on Broadway, The Old Neighborhood, and penned an Oscar-nominated script for Wag the Dog. With his newest movie, the 50-year-old Chicago native has entered the realm of the true independent filmmaker, with Jean Doumanian, Woody Allen’s producer, functioning, in Mamet’s words, as his "Mama Warbucks." At a Toronto Film Festival press conference, Mamet said, laughing, "The old joke has it that the perfect date is one who makes love until 2:00 A.M. and then turns into a pizza. The perfect producer is one who gives you the money and says, ‘See you at the opening,’ and that is exactly what happened here."

 

Filmmaker: What was the germ of making this movie – putting your fascinations into the form of a light thriller?

David Mamet: I was in Florida, and I witnessed a motor yacht with a helicopter on top. It was the kind of lifestyle I couldn’t imagine, and then I proceeded to imagine it.

Filmmaker: Were there particular predecessors you looked to? Or was it a general style or genre?

Mamet: It wasn’t so much a style, but as you say, it was the genre, which is fairly strict – the genre of the light thriller. It’s like paint by numbers – you fill it in. I found the thriller form really demanding and gratifying. Of course, I realized if I was going to do that [genre], I would have to look at Hitchcock, the master. And I’ve wanted to work with Campbell Scott since I saw Longtime Companion. I wanted to do this story in the Hitchcock-Donen, clean-cut, patrician, Leyendecker, Arrow-shirt kind of mold, and he was right for it. Somebody said this wonderful thing about genre – it might have been Jules Dassin: "A gangster film, your only choice is whether the hero dies at the bottom of the church steps or the top of the church steps." I thought that was pretty good.

Filmmaker: Well, a lot of people who make genre films say that it frees you up for your own concerns. You provide some kind of thrill every 15 minutes, and in the meantime you can follow another path alongside that familiar one.

Mamet: Yeah, I do think that’s true. The same as with the essay form. The essay form is so strict, it allows you to be outrageous as well. I love that.

Filmmaker: Do you presume that audiences, as they watch, will forget all the plants, the props and little details that later produce plot points?

Mamet: The magical technique or theory of anticipation is that the trick has to happen before you are aware the trick is taking place. That’s when the [con in this film] happens – before you are aware it is taking place. I think that precept may also take place in the plant-ing of information. It should take place before you are aware it’s significant or sufficiently far away from the event that you’ve forgotten about it.

Filmmaker: The con here is more intricate than any you’ve portrayed before, but it’s based on a traditional scam?

Mamet: Yeah. The Spanish Prisoner con is still being done today. It’s a fairly long con and involves getting a substantial amount of money off a person and putting the person ‘on the send.’ Making a connection with the guy and sending him off to get some money and come back. That’s the long con. Of course, I’ve seen a lot of the short con. In New York, a short con takes place on a street corner – someone’s trying to sell you a stolen watch or a set of stamps or get you to lend you money to X, Y or Z. I think everybody’s fascinated with cons. There’s something fascinating about people not being who they are, and our capacity to use our intelligence to try to anticipate where they’re going, and then failing and being tricked. That’s like magic. Most people like magic.

Filmmaker: Joe Ross has a hell of a lot at stake when he allows the switch to take place. How conscious were you of building up to that point, where we would continue to believe that a man of his intelligence and experience would allow himself to be taken?

Mamet: Well, writing a movie like this is exactly the same as if I were developing a con, because I am developing a con. The filmmaker has to get something from the audience – their belief, their credulity – which they wouldn’t [give] if they were thinking about it. You don’t do a magic trick by telling a person what you’re going to do and then doing it. You do a magic trick by letting the person anticipate where you’re going, and while they’re doing that, you pull your rabbit out.

Filmmaker: How do you walk the line between a story that’s too complex for an audience and one that’s too simple to be convincing?

Mamet: That’s really the question. The answer is that’s the craft of doing it. That is the trick. There’s a great con that happened to my friend, the actor Mike Nussbaum. He was walking down the street one day in New York – he’s a white guy. This African-American kid comes up, says, "Mike, Mike, how are you?" Mike says, "I’m, I’m fine." Kid says, "Don’t you know me?" Mike says, "I, I, no." Kid says, "Who’s your best black friend in New York?" He said who it was. "I’m blah-blah’s son!" Mike says, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, of course." The kid gets into, "Jesus Christ, somebody just stole my wallet, can you lend me 50 bucks, blah, blah, blah." Mike said, and I think he’s right, that it’s a brilliant confidence game because it plays on the distraction caused by letting him create the idea in his mind – "Isn’t it because you don’t like African Americans that you don’t know who I am?" In fact, Mike’d never seen the kid in his life. The kid just used that phrase, "Who’s your best black friend in New York," to get the money. The idea is so distracting – Can I have forgotten the son of my best friend? Oh my God, am I that stupid? Whoever thought that up was a very smart individual.

Filmmaker: Social unease substituting for narrative suspense.

Mamet: Exactly so, exactly so. Like the pickpocket. You can’t steal a guy’s wallet – the guy’s thinking about his wallet. The pickpocket steals your wallet by getting you to think of something else.

Filmmaker: Why is Steve Martin’s Jimmy such a good con man?

Steve Martin in The Spainish Prisoner.
Mamet: Well, first off, he’s a terrific actor, Steve. What Jimmy keeps doing is pushing the other guy away. Rather than saying, "Come over here, let me take advantage of you," he keeps, in effect, whacking the guy in the face and treating him like a pile of shit which makes the guy hate him. Then it allows Steve to apologize time and again – "Oh my God, I’m so sorry, you’re the real gentleman, it’s not me. Although I’m the richest man in the world, blah-blah, you, the working man, you have such good manners." So like in any confidence game, it works not because the victim gives confidence to the thief – it works because the thief gives his confidence.

Filmmaker: At times it seems like sexual seduction. Someone finds themselves reluctantly in a relationship and instead of addressing it, starts treating the other person abusively. Then the more the other person pushes, the more the first person comes toward them.

Mamet: Yeah, that’s right.

Filmmaker: So what’s the weakness, what’s the need?

Mamet: It’s always some need or other. It’s always said, you can’t cheat an honest man. It varies from con to con. It’s the same thing in abusive relationships. The person who’s being abused is offered something. Perhaps it’s not something they might be conscious of. All confidence games play on or exploit a desire of the victim’s ego. The Campbell Scott character – his greed is played upon in the sense that he is not getting what he deserves, which is a common human button. He wants to be well thought of. He feels he’s not getting what he deserves from his employers. So he’s offered this perfect world where everything is simple. There’s this beautiful, imaginary woman waiting for him because Jimmy gave him this two-dollar camera. Somehow the other guy has perceived his excellence. That’s where the con starts. Anybody can be conned, and I think we all are in one way or another all the time. There’s a wonderful book called Swindling and Selling that I read after I made this movie. [The author] says that most American selling is really no different from the confidence game.

Filmmaker: How do you divide your day between all your different writing pursuits? Are there different trails of inspiration for a play, a film, an essay?

Mamet: Yeah. You write it down. You work on one, you have to finish it. Finish that, work on another one.

Filmmaker: There’s such a prodigious amount of material out there right now with your name on it.

Mamet: Well, yeah, I tend to write a lot. And also just by accident these last six months a lot of stuff has been produced. Those essays I’ve been working on for a long time. I work on a lot of things. Usually one thing demands to be finished. What sequence they came in, that’s lost to the misty morass of time.

Filmmaker: Do you still use a typewriter?

Mamet: Yeah. First I write in longhand.

Filmmaker: Is that by habit?

Mamet: I type much faster than I can think, so that’s why I write it out in longhand first. See, I get scared a lot. So I like having my various drafts around me, my notes up on the wall. They all exist there. They comfort me. Perhaps I’m not the undisciplined, lazy sot that I know myself to be. But also perhaps the presence of all these notes might indicate the future culmination of the project. At some point I might be able to wend my way down through it all and come up with a pristine draft. I have no doubt [that using a computer would affect my style]. Just the scrolling. You do something ten hours a day. Over the years you get used to the sound, the rhythm of the keys, the rhythm of the line, and all of a sudden there is no sound of the keys, there’s no resistance or rhythm of the line.

Filmmaker: You’ve also written that directing is a lot simpler than people think it to be. How do you work with actors, particularly in trying to keep to the cadences that you indicate so stringently on the page?

Mamet: As Sophocles said, stand there and say that. I’ve worked with so many of the same people over the years. We go over the lines a little bit, then a little bit more on the set, then a little more while we’re setting the lights. I just tell ’em, say the words best they can. [Long pause.] No, I try to write dialogue so that it’s easy to say, natural to say. I hope that the dialogue is easy to say and easy to film, but there are exigencies in filming any conversation scene, particularly in masters.

Filmmaker: Do you know what stories are going to become plays or films?

Mamet: No idea. It’s like, some days you get up and take a shower. You get up this morning, I want to take a bath today. Why does that seem like a better idea?

Filmmaker: So should we trust appearances? Or assume no one is who they seem to be?

Mamet: There’s the old poker adage: Trust everybody, but cut the cards.



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