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Writers given a telling-off!

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Village-Boi

Well-Known Member
#1
This post is a bit long and it's an old one. Still an interesting read today.

David Mamet wrote an impassioned memo to his writers on the now-cancelled show The Unit, laying out some principles of good dramatic writing. He wants three questions answered for every scene: “1) WHO WANTS WHAT? 2) WHAT HAPPENS IF [THEY] DON’T GET IT? 3) WHY NOW?” The memo also includes a few putdowns aimed at studio executives, and is a good read — and yes, he wrote it in ALL CAPS to stress the importance of what he was saying:

TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT

GREETINGS.

AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.

THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN *DRAMA* AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF *INFORMATION* INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.

OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HE/HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.

THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.

THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT *WILL* BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS *YOUR* JOB.

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

THIS NEED IS WHY THEY *CAME*. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET *WILL* LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO *FAILURE* – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS *OVER*. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE *NEXT* SCENE.

ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE *PLOT*.

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”

AND I RESPOND “*FIGURE IT OUT*” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE *ABOUT* HIM”.

WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE *WILL* BE OUT OF A JOB.

THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. *NOT* TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAMES”

WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO *REALIZE* THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

YES BUT, YES BUT YES *BUT* YOU REITERATE.

AND I RESPOND *FIGURE IT OUT*.

*HOW* DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? *THAT* IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO *DO* THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.

FIGURE IT OUT.

START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE *SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC*. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.

THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, *YOU* ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE - THEY WILL SHOOT.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

DO *NOT* WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR *AND* HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.

REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. *MOST* TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE *RADIO*. THE *CAMERA* CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. *LET* IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS *DOING* -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY *SEEING*.

IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF *SPEECH*. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO *START*.

I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE *SCENE* AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT *ESSENTIAL*? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?

ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.

IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.

LOVE, DAVE MAMET
SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05

(IT IS *NOT* YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO *ASK THE RIGHT Questions* OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)
 

Sola

Administrator
Staff member
#2
I love Mamet's book on directing, though half the stuff he expects are never done consciously by most people. He's brilliant and lucid in thought.
 

Village-Boi

Well-Known Member
#3
I love Mamet's book on directing, though half the stuff he expects are never done consciously by most people. He's brilliant and lucid in thought.
Very true. We can all learn something from him as well as others that have written on the subject.
I so believe reading a lot and practice is what makes us better writers.
 

takestyle

Well-Known Member
#4
I love Mamet's book on directing, though half the stuff he expects are never done consciously by most people. He's brilliant and lucid in thought.
Mamet's ideas on directing are absolute rubbish, forged in a mind of one who doesn't really understand cinema and maybe doesn't even respect it that much.

And the general flatness of most of his movies testifies to this.
 

Sola

Administrator
Staff member
#5
Mamet's ideas on directing are absolute rubbish...
I wouldn't call them rubbish, though they tend to be so academic and abstractive. You take what you can use and dump the rest. He's a born teacher like that. I think he over-analyses stuff sha and that's why he makes peripheral movies.
 

takestyle

Well-Known Member
#6
I wouldn't call them rubbish, though they tend to be so academic and abstractive. You take what you can use and dump the rest. He's a born teacher like that. I think he over-analyses stuff sha and that's why he makes peripheral movies.
I guess I'm sort of reactionary towards him because while I respect him as a writer, I once took his On Directing as a sacred text and attempted to apply his ideas to my own work... What a disaster that was!

Like you said, it's very abstract and academic, and while it's an engrossing read, I can barely think of a single thing he says that I would want to apply in a real-world setting (well... there's some stuff he says that makes sense; but those are things that other people have already said.)

I think that Mamet really is not into film... Coming from the theater where the playwright is king, he has a serious problem with the collaborative nature of film. And he definitely resents the attention lavished upon actors, and that's why he tries to suppress them to the role of mere mouthpieces for the genius of his words.
 

Village-Boi

Well-Known Member
#7
There are a million and one 'Gurus' out there, all with their own ideas (in our field) - screenwriting gurus, directing gurus; heck even runner and waka-pass gurus. Irrespective of the information they pass, we all as individuals have to find our own 'voice' - total cliche bollox - but true.

We may and should mix 'n' match things from different books, teachings and so on until we are comfortable doing things our own way. If we don't know the 'rules' then we can't break them!

Mamet's writing is very interesting to read - not that I'd live by it, hell NO, but nonetheless interesting just as is Vogler (I adore his stuff - rubbish claim as I've only read one of his books), Syd Field - (stopped reading him), McKee - (always good fun) and many others. We can pick up a thing or two from 'anyone' really.

I guess the ball is actually in 'our own court' as we just have to keep on practising in the field. Just had a 'meet-up for a drink' with a filmmaker I like and he told me that to be good and better as a filmmaker (any discipline - writing, directing, acting, camera-work and so on) - forget all what the books say and just get your hands dirty, it's the only way to really learn and improve. (i take that with a pinch of salt though but understand what he meant).

Anyway there still is some truth and interesting stuff in the article posted. Thanks for the responses guys.
 

Sola

Administrator
Staff member
#8
Just had a 'meet-up for a drink' with a filmmaker I like and he told me that to be good and better as a filmmaker (any discipline - writing, directing, acting, camera-work and so on) - forget all what the books say and just get your hands dirty, it's the only way to really learn and improve.
Believe me, he's telling you the truth. But like you said, know the rules (books) before breaking 'em.
 

Village-Boi

Well-Known Member
#9
Believe me, he's telling you the truth. But like you said, know the rules (books) before breaking 'em.
Oga Sola, yes it is true. I do understand exactly what he meant but mentioned I took it with a 'pinch of salt' mainly for the benefit of others reading this post because they too, just like us, HAVE to know what the books say first and not "forget ALL" but use what works for them.
On every shoot I do I find something that I could have done better especially now that I've switched to DSLRs that have crazy limitations... but hey, I'm still learning and loving it.
 
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