Mamet and Me: What I gained from David Mamet’s ‘On Directing Film’

My former professor would not be pleased if she turned over the pages of my copy of David Mamet’s On Directing Film (1991, Penguin, New York).

In a conversation, during a walk to the English Faculty on a fine autumn day in 2014 in my first semester at University of Oxford she made it crystal clear that she does not approve of note-writing inside books. I was honest, I said I couldn’t help underlining sentences of value and scribbling notes of my own for future reference. She was not amused then and I fear she would not be amused now.

Now, you may ask why would a mature English Literature student (who has taken an MA in Creative Writing, who went back to do an undergraduate, and who is now going to complete the undergraduate this autumn with extra Creative Writing modules) be reading books on film directing.

The simple answer is two-fold; I am passionate about audio and visual story telling. I know I will be a student all my life of these disciplines; to acquire and maintain the storytelling skills and hopefully, always be improving on them. As a writer and editor, I see myself as a person who not only originates a story but directs the story in words on the page and is in a constant process of refinement until the deadline (for publication, and I pray one-day production) when I can then let go of the work.

But, there are more reasons why I am reading and studying Mamet’s book and I look forward to undertaking his online Masterclass in Dramatic Writing (see below for details and links).  I always have my head in a book on a creative discipline such as writing, acting, directing and topics relating to lyrics and music because they are my interests, my passions and collectively they support and inspire story writing and story creation.

The longer reply is this. I love words; I love different modes of storytelling. I love books and magazines as much as the visual and verbal medium of storytelling.  Overall, I love seeing words come to life in all realms of the Arts. But, until 2012 when I was halfway through a one-year MA in Creative Writing, I had never gone beyond words on the page even though I wanted to very much; mostly because I had never had the confidence or sought out the opportunity with serious intent.  All I had ever done was take a theatre directing course at night school for one-year when I was twenty-five years old; which was fantastic by the way.

At that exciting and young time in my life, I had a day and night job; I know, the energy of youth and a creative person has no bounds. At night, I worked as an Arts Editor for a local newspaper and spent most evenings at the theatre, opera, ballet or at music gigs. That was in 1988, which seems like a long time ago (but I have to tell you creative people sustain into maturity that youthful, fantastic energy day and night.) Thinking now about that theatre directing course that I did at The City Literary Institute in Convent Garden, London, I see I must have had a real need to enter this realm of artistic work but alas at the time I did not make it happen. Instead, I switched my day-job from a career in marketing to broadcast journalism. I entered the world of serious nonfiction. A job that trained me for the first time how to be a journalist and a producer.

While you cannot turn back time, at any point in your life you can reclaim lost dreams or actualize new dreams. I guess that is what is going on in my life right now.

During the time when I was beginning work on my MA thesis in 2012, a screenwriting coach called Robert McKee from the USA who I was studying with in London for the second time told me to stop writing after my MA and to take up acting. I wanted to laugh at his preposterous suggestion but I held myself in check; my newly appointed mentor spoke with 100% seriousness. While, I saw myself as a studious, modest and relatively private person; totally unassuming and an introvert, McKee obviously thought otherwise. Or was there a higher purpose to his recommendation?

McKee was adamant. Later I understood, to act is to inhabit the character.  I know now, after studying the Method for a year and taking voice classes and improvisation workshops, what it feels like to inhabit the character. Being an actor affords you this wonderful privilege. I feel I am a more knowledgeable person and my writing has improved for this experience. I approach storytelling and story writing in a new way that brings me much more clarity and satisfaction. McKee was right. and, by the way, I loved acting. I loved what acting gave me as a human being and what I could give from myself to the audience.  It was an empowering and yet hugely humbling opportunity even if I feel strongly at the time I could not take up acting as a profession. At the time I had four young dependent children at home; as a lone-parent, I knew where my priorities had to stay for a while, at least.

There is no denying the benefit of acting classes or drama work. The truth is self-evident. Acting brings a story to life. Acting allows you to lift words off the page and breathe life into them. A person who takes up acting gains invaluable insight into what is vital, essential and relevant in character and story portrayal and development.

You can study acting classes without feeling any pressure to become an actor. The process of acting or drama or voice work is invaluable for a serious writer.

Subsequently, I invested nine-months writing a screenplay with a fellow actor who was keen to learn the craft of writing through practical application. During that time, I consumed books on the craft of screenwriting, and watched and attended, what seemed like an endless stream of enlightening and inspiring conversations and talks with actors and film and TV directors. Whenever time permitted I also took acting workshops led by directors and casting agents at The Actor’s Guide at the Spotlight offices off Leicester Square in London. The Actor’s Guild offers excellent courses for aspiring and experienced actors. The teachers – all working professionals working in film and TV or as agents or casting directors – are not only generous they are kind and inspiring.  I even flew to Los Angeles twice to learn from a master acting coach, the now 92-year-old Jack Waltzer (who works out of LA and Paris); this was a most enlightening and life-transforming experience.  Everything can be gained from training as an actor.  Not only will it improve your writing, it will entrust you with an assurance to share as well as enjoy yourself.

On reflection, I can honestly say these two years combined – the year I studied the Method and the following year when I invested in the physical act as well as the academic process of acting and screenwriting –  was the most exciting, rewarding and liberating years I have experienced – so far – in my life. Most of that time period I forgot I was a writer, so absorbed was I in the character I assumed for stage or to the camera in workshops or during the process of writing or helping other people to write or act.

Observing actors at work was an equally worthy investment of time as a writer. It is thrilling to be at a table-read of your own script; to be in a room with twenty actors who are breathing life into your story for the very first time. There is no better way to see what needs to be improved while you listen to actors read the work and from their constructive feedback.

While a writer working alone at home can read the work out loud to themselves or record it and listen back to the writing (which I do with some of my writing to ensure it is as coherent and compelling as possible for there are limits to what a writer can see and hear in their own work if the writer stays only on the page), I can tell you that when an actor portrays a character in action that you created from your imagination it is a life-affirming experience. It is also an opportunity for growth and development as a serious professional. Of course, for some, the ultimate aim is to sell the screenplay; to have a director take up the work; for a producer to find funding so the work can be prepared for screen or stage. I am still a writer-in-process; that aim is still out of reach because I have decided this. I admire any writer who jumps in and simply gets on with the task of taking words from a page to the stage or screen under their own steam.  I have the courage for this leap of faith but I am not ready to actualize my right in this department.

I am still a writer-in-process; that aim is still out of reach because I have decided this. I do not feel ready for this process and opportunity.  I admire any writer who jumps in and simply gets on with the task of taking words from a page to the stage or screen under their own steam.  I have the courage for this leap of faith but I am not ready – yet- to actualize my right in this department.

Overall, I feel a humble and earnest writer appreciates and is grateful at every stage of the process. I speak for myself here. I see a writer’s life as a journey. One has to start at the beginning and keep making progress in the process. One has to keep writing, keep practicing the craft. Keep going until one feels the work is ready then perhaps with the help of Above the work can be bought and produced for the reader, listener or viewer. It is as simple as that and one has to be patient in the act of their devotion and commitment to the short and long-term process and vision.

What I liked best about David Mamet’s book ‘On Directing Film’ which is based on a series of lectures he gave at the film school of Columbia Unversity in the fall of 1987 is this. At the time of these lectures, Mamet had just finished directing his second film and was in essence at the beginning of his directing career, yet the book contains classic insights and advice that spans the essential disciplines of screenwriting as well as acting and directing. Timeless insights and advice that I can only presume have sustained his prolific and esteemed career.

Here are five key points – that I found very useful as a ‘director’ of new fiction on the page and as an aspiring screenwriter – with quotes from Mamet’s book. These key points resonated with me in the midst of a novella-sized book of an abundance of invaluable information for professionals at all stages of their career which are included in essays and practical conversations between Mamet and the students; some of which are directors and actors.

I feel what Mamet says about screenwriting, acting and directing can be applied to all forms of story writing in all genres

  1. ‘What is story?’ Mamet asks. He replies: ‘The story is the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal.’; ‘The point, as Aristotle told us, is what happens to the hero.’ Mamet explains:  ‘A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and the meaningful.’ He says: ‘What remains? The story remains.’ He says the craft of writing is ‘based on logic. It consists of the assiduous application of several very basic questions: What does the hero want? What hinders him from getting it? What happens if he does not get it?
  2. ‘The audience requires not information but drama,’ writes Mamet. I highly recommend you read this line a few times. As an avid reader, (apparently, the average British person reads six books a year, and I think on average I consume 2-4 on a good week so I feel I can speak from personal experience on what I feel is the overuse of exposition in fiction) that I agree 100% with Mamet’s point here. When I read Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (July 2014) the penny dropped. Burton builds on drama progressively beat-by-beat, moment-by-moment with only a minimal use of relevant exposition. I feel Burton’s book is the cleanest story I have read so far; redundant words are rare in this novel. I read it in one sitting because I found the work to be masterful, enchanting and compelling. I am very interested to see how the TV adaptation will be handled.  Mamet stresses: ‘You tax the audience every time you don’t move on to the next essential step of the progression as quickly as possible.’ Burton didn’t lose me once; her storytelling method follows closely to what Mamet advocates throughout his book.
  3. Words that Mamet calls upon often are ‘specific’ and ‘skill’ and ‘technique’. He poses question after question;  he keeps you thinking; he challenges you to consider his point of view and his wisdom from years of experience.  He says: ‘It’s very, very important to be concise’; ‘We can ask what is the character doing, but better to ask what is the meaning of this scene?’ Mamet refers often to authorities on psychoanalysis; he seems determined to demonstrate the importance of understanding the deeper consciousness of the characters one is creating. He says: ‘Jung wrote that one can’t stand aloof from the images, the stories, of the person who’s being analyzed. One has to enter into them.’ He uses these types of references throughout the book. I think he does this to stress the importance of the writer taking control. When Mamet says: ‘Any good drama takes us deeper and deeper to a resolution’ I understand this need; it is my need as a reader, a viewer and also as a writer. I have this great need to be present in the story, to go as deep as I can into the thought process of the character. I want to become the character, as far as that is possible (acting as mentioned above, gives you this opportunity). Never once do I want to be out of the character’s head or story. I want this experience from all my reading or viewing experiences but of course, it is impossible to have it all the time; one has to be a certain caliber of a writer, director or actor to give this to the reader or audience. It’s all consuming; it is an ultimate goal – perhaps. Something to strive for. John Le Carre gave this to me in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965;) it was masterful. This was Le Carre’s third novel. When Le Carre talks about this novel, he said: I knew this novel would change my life. I understand he may have written it in six weeks or less. What a gift to us; and a gift to him.  This novel established him as a serious writer.
  4. Of course, one has to read Mamet’s book to appreciate and study the total content and of course to learn from David Mamet in person must be a privilege; to be directed by him, an honor. What I give here are a few precious thoughts that seem appropriate to share with a writer in the early stages of a piece of new work.  I recommend the book to writers because I gained so much from Mamet’s economic but precise, specific, practical and attainable advice and guidance.
  5. When Mamet ends his 107-page offering with the following words ‘Understand your specific task, work until it’s done, and then stop,’ I felt so enthused and clear about what I had to do when I returned to my own work. I was able to progress the next day’s writing with more clarity; the scenes carried less deadwood (redundant words), I felt more at one with each character, I felt I had a tighter grip on the story intention. Of course, I am in a process but re-reading the notes I made in the margins of Mamet’s book have clarified essential points that I must focus on as I continue in my own way.  I write cinematically; I imagine my story in my mind’s eye before I write; the work has to be vivid otherwise I don’t love it. And, I have to love a story to sustain the hours it takes to progress the story; then revise and edit.

On that note, I must return now to the page and get on with the work. It is 2 a.m. and the silence of the night – my favorite time to write – beckons.

I sign off now with a sincere thank you to David Mamet, for a most inspiring and helpful book. I benefit from it time and time again when I re-read this offering and my scribbles that increase with each read. For there is so much to gain, to learn and to document to augment the story origination and writing process.

Photograph Credit: David Mamet

Recommended Resources:

David Mamet on Directing Film:

David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing at:

David Mamet: Paris Review Interview

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton:

Robert McKee Story Seminar available worldwide:

The Actor’s Guild in London:

Open Classes at Central School of Speech and Drama in London for corporate and creative professionals: new Open Classes will be announced in the autumn.

Evening classes in acting – and much more – at Central School of Speech and Drama:

Jack Waltzer

The Cit Lit, Convent Garden, London

Note; most acting or drama schools offer evening and Open classes. Research online for options near to you. They can also recommend private teachers; post-graduate students who are available to teach or former students working in the industry.

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