It has been more than a decade since David Mamet has brought a new play to Broadway. So it's appropriate that November, starring Nathan Lane, Laurie Metcalf and Dylan Baker, comes as presidential politics are really heating up.
The new show, about an incumbent president on the eve of the election, is his eighth Broadway production. Mamet's plays, known for their pungent dialogue, include Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow, and he has also written and directed movies such as House of Games, as well as creating and writing a popular television show, The Unit.
His first musical, A Waitress in Yellowstone, was to have debuted in Los Angeles in spring, but has been delayed due to scheduling conflicts, with no new premiere date set. Mamet's new movie, Redbelt, about a mixed-martial arts instructor who joins the film industry, opens in the spring. Recently Mamet, 60, spoke about his work.
Your dramatic plays are often funny. Is November one of the first times you wanted to do a topically pointed comedy?
I don't know how pointed it is. It's not about our current president. It's about the office of the president. It's an imaginary president at a very different point in his career. He's a guy who's served out his first term and is up for re-election in several days. And he's going to lose worse than anyone ever because he's screwed up everything he's touched. It's my kind of vision of being backstage at the Oval Office. It touches on all the stuff that takes up our time every day, gay rights, war, abortion, illegal immigration and malfeasance.
Do you find any difference between writing comedy and drama?
It's all the same thing. It's just telling a story.
You've written a musical. Was this something you've always wanted to do?
I write music all the time. My wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) is a wonderful singer and songwriter, and I've been writing lyrics for a lot of her songs for a number of years, and music for a couple of them. Then I wrote some music for a couple of movies I did. I like writing songs.
Are there lyricists you admire?
Sure. Ira Gershwin. Johnny Mercer. W.S. Gilbert. They don't get any better than that.
How hard is plot for you?
I once worked for a summer laying sod. This is the only thing I've ever done that was harder than that. You've got to get over your own cleverness. You have to become extraordinary analytical, and throw out all the stuff you love to get there. Sometimes it doesn't make sense. You stare at that sheet of paper for years and know there's something hiding in there.
When you begin writing, do you have an idea where it's going to go?
You've got to get in there and start mucking around. After a while the material is going to correct you. You have to listen to it, and extract the play that is hiding in your subconscious. If it can't trick you, it can't trick the audience. You have to follow your unconscious thoughts so that eventually you're encased in a structure that, as Aristotle says, is surprising and inevitable.
Are you ruthless with your own rewriting?
Oh yes. I don't care. I do it for a living. If something doesn't work, I'm going to throw it out. What pleasure is there in saying I'm right and the audience is wrong?
Do you think that theater is sometimes too theoretical?
It can be. I always thought you've got to be up against a paying audience. If you're up against a subscription audience it's not quite the real thing. If you're getting funded by the not-for-profit theater, it's a little bit different. The essence of theatrical interchange is a free-market transaction, with no middleman. The theater is the perfect paradigm of a free-market economy. What happens is you have to be very nimble, because if the audience, the consumer, isn't buying it, you've got to figure out why.
Do you find a difference between working on Broadway vs. in Hollywood?
The main difference is that in New York they treat the writer like a human being, and in Hollywood they treat him like a discarded, diseased whore. Other than that, it's very similar.
Does the writer on television have more power? The old saw is that TV is a writer's medium, and movies a director's one.
I think there's some truth to that. But they still don't treat the writers right. The whole idea is, "We'll give you a whole bunch of money to write this television show. Then if you don't mind, take off your hat - I want to defecate onto your head and rub it into your hair. And set your pants on fire." It's really clear. That's the wonderful thing about Hollywood. There's nothing hidden. There's nothing surprising about it. You can have some fun, make a couple of bucks in the best-case scenario.
You have a lot of projects going. Do you work on several things at once?
Sometimes I do. I have a great job. I get up in the morning and get to follow my instincts.