So there's this Masterclass series thingy, and I'd previously watched, of course, the Aaron Sorkin one, which was pretty good when he talked into the camera, but totally worthless when he sat around in a faux writers’ room with a bunch of wannabes and made up West Wing episodes that had already been written and, mainly, and worst of all, totally transparently flirted with the hot female writers he embarrassingly obviously wanted to shag.
And but then… here comes the DAVID F*&^ING MAMET Masterclass. Oh, my God, what a hilarious and fun and brilliantly instructive ride.
Drama involves us in the quest of a human being, to achieve something. Whether it's Willie Lohman, or whether it's Dr. King, or whether it's Jesus, or whether it's Moses… they all become myths. We say yes, I understand how, at every step, this human being was trying to achieve something. And they underwent traumas that I cannot even begin to imagine. And they doubted themselves. And they all wanted to quit. Every hero, every heroine, wants to quit, wants to give it up, and say "I've had enough, I'm not equal to the task." Right, but nonetheless, they found strength somewhere, and they achieved a result which elevated them to the status of a God… Or killed them.
And, what happens when you get to a situation you can't think your way out of? That's great. 'Cause if you can't think your way out of it, the audience can't either. So that's the point where you've got to say, It's now time to sit down and drive myself crazy, trying to figure out how to get out of Buffalo.
A play needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So Jean-Luc Goddard said, "Yes, every movie has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end but not necessarily in that order." And that's why French movies are so effing boring. Because it says F-I-N at the end, right, which is French for, "You can go home now."
The hero journey, which is the paradigmatic story of all drama, because we're all the hero… So that's what all drama is, it's the hero journey. And if it's not the hero journey, it might be advertising, or it might be politics, or it might be hack work… so what the artist has, at least I do, is has to fight with all the time is, No, do better, nope just do better. Because the artist is the hero, just as the hero is the hero, just as the audience is the hero.
And the answer is: The writer had to think a little bit harder. 'Cause if you knew the answer before you started out, I swear to you, the audience knew it, too. You have to go through the process, and you have to find out the answer to the question, that you didn't know before you started. And that involves… as Hemingway said, "Writing is easy. All you gotta do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed." So when you're writing, or when I'm writing, there's two things you're going through, and you better be going through one of them. One of them is, "This'll kill him." And the other is: "This'll kill me."
Each scene is a simple attempt to solve the problem. The scene fails. It has to, or we wouldn't go on to the next scene. The next scene is more information which helps us solve the problem. But we get in more trouble. The third scene is more information, we get in even deeper. Now we're into the second act. The second act, they say, "It's hard to remember why you started out to drain the swamp when you're up to your ass in alligators." The second act, you don't even remember why you were born.
If you think you can cut, cut get outta there. The audience beat you there, anyway.
People talk about themes. I never got much of an education, other than washing windows and driving a cab, all that stuff which I was privileged to do. So I never learned about themes. I'm not quite sure I know what themes are. I know English departments care about themes. So I know it's possible to look at my work, anybody's work, and infer a theme. But it's not something which concerns me. I'm interested in telling a story. I mean, nobody ever left a great play, humming the theme.
The question is, What is character? And Aristotle says, Character is just habitual action. There is no more to a character, other than what we see them do. That's it. You can't characterize them, saying, She's the kind of woman who, in this situ who cares? Also, it's a lie. We know it's a lie, because you meet someone at a party, they say, Let me tell you a few things about myself. Whatever comes next is going to be a lie. They don't know anything about themselves! They might have a fiction. But they're speaking to manipulate us. Whether they know it or not. 'Cause all we know about a person in real life is what they do… That's all a character is on stage. What else would it be? It's what they do! We came to watch what that character does, we'll decide who that character is.
So that's the problem of the second act. It's the problem that's so insurmountable that the dramatist doesn't know how to fix it. So the dramatist is going to have to sit down, and think and think and think. And so what happens, curiously, is that the dramatist is in the same postion as Amy Adams. She doesn't know, and he doesn't know, and the audience doesn't know. So, the surprising solution, which tosses us into the third act, won't come until that problem is solved. However much you'd want to have a different problem, that's the problem you've got. As a lot of us say, you know, of the troubles which are true to life: Lord, any test you want except this. Anything else, just not this one. But of course that's always the test that we get.
We moved American Buffalo off off off off Broadway to New York… and [this director] said, Find the plot. If you find the plot, we'll put it on Broadway. Find the plot? Man, I'm so good, I don't need a plot! Right? But then the next stage is to say, Okay, I better find the plot. I'd better understand how to write a plot. And writing a plot's one of the hardest things I ever learned how to do. It's just hard. I mean, I can write an hour's worth of dialogue in 26 minutes. That's just a gift. But to craft a plot is actual work. And it feels dreadful. Except when you finish, you can be proud of yourself.
New York: the Bronx is up, the Battery's down. LA: the cultural capital of LA County.
Aristotle tells us that a play is nothing other than the structure of the incidents. That's all that a play is: what happened.
So, you see, the difficulties are what creates the journey. The difference between a vacation and an adventure is, on an adventure, you always wish you were at home.
See, here's the thing: the question is, if you took it out, not Would you miss it? But, if you took it out, Would the audience miss it? That's the only question. Because of course you're going to miss it, 'cause you wrote it. The audience goes, "Wait a second, wait a second! I understand the train's on fire, right, and I understand that we're being bombed by Soviet Russia, and I understand that the child's dying of leukemia and we have to get to the next station before bibbity bobbity boo… but where's the scene where she talks about her kitten? I miss that scene."
My wife always says she knows when something's going great when Monday and Wednesday I'm saying it's the best thing ever written and Tuesday and Thursday I'm saying I want to kill myself, I'm a no-good hack.
You gotta write it down. Write it down! Is there magic involved? Probably. There's no way that you can subvert the process. There are many ways that you can try. One is to stay in school. One is to get better or tricker software. Another is, what I've done my whole life, is to write lots and lots of outlines. But, finally, they say in the screenplay, the hardest two words to write are "Fade in." At some point, you're gonna say, Okay it's gonna be bad. You gotta stand being bad, if you wanna be a writer. Because if you don't, you're never gonna write anything good.
It's a schizophrenic practice, behing a dramatist. And you have to like doing it - even when you're miserable… When it's good, it's great, and when it's terrible, it's not so bad. I think the answer is: I'm not any less confused than you are; I'm not any less uncertain about my work or my worth than you are. I just got in the habit of doing it.
You know, it's an odd life, and it takes a lot of the ability to put up with uncertainty. It drives some people nuts: What do I do today? How do I start? The answer is: figure it out. Right, when you've got something that you really, really want to do, you'll figure it out. There are all these novels that used to be written, for a hundred years, about a young person who said, I'm gonna go to Paris to paint, and I'm just going to give it two years, and if at the end of those two years… well, you're already done. Right? Like, somebody who's got something to fall back on, will fall back on it. Of course they will.
I have self-doubt as a writer all the time. They say, Woe be unto you when all men praise you. You know, if you're praising yourself all the time, you're definitely doing something wrong. So as I said earlier, I go back and forth between, This is the greatest thing anybody ever wrote, and, Why was I born? I'm a complete fraud. And you go back and forth and back and forth and work it out. Art is going to cost you something. And it's going to cost you something you weren't prepared to pay.