Iain Blair
Issue: June 1, 2008


HOLLYWOOD - Prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and two-time Oscar-nominee David Mamet has been a force in American theater and film for over three decades now. He's written the screenplays for such films as The Untouchables, The Verdict and Hoffa, and has written and directed many others, including Heist, State and Main and The Spanish Prisoner.

His new film, Redbelt from Sony Classics, marks his tenth film as writer/director and is set in the Los Angeles fight world. Starring Chewitel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Alicia Braga and Joe Mantegna, it tells the story of a Jiu-Jitsu teacher (Ejiofor) who has avoided the prize fighting circuit, choosing instead to pursue an honorable life by operating a self-defense studio with a samurai's code. But after an accident, and faced with debts, he has to step into the ring for the first time of his life.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Mamet, whose credits also include The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Edge, talks about making the film and his love of post. And in a sidebar, on page 28, we also talk to his longtime editor Barbara Tulliver.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
DAVID MAMET: "Sort of cross between a fight film and a samurai film. It's very much my homage to samurai films, and samurai films seen through the screen of the American B fight movie — for example, Jules Dassin's Night and the City, which is a perfect example. And it's very much an homage to Akira Kurosawa, and specifically to Seven Samurai."

POST: How tough was the shoot?
MAMET: "Every shoot's tough. Barbara Tulliver said this great thing to me once when I was bitching and saying, 'Just for once I'd like to make a movie with a lot of money!' And she said, 'No, we'd just make more expensive mistakes.' And that's so true, because  however much money and time you have, at the end of the day you always say, 'I need more, I shot the wrong thing, can I do it over?' But I love shooting. It's easier in a way than the writing.

"Stephen Frears said the greatest thing about directing: 'You're the chieftain of two completely different worlds — the imaginary world you're directing and the very real one of a set.'
"This was the first film we've done without film dailies. It was a little jolting but Barbara held my hand, and I knew the film was going to look very beautiful, since the DP was Robert Elswit [Oscar-winner for There Will Be Blood].

POST: Is it true the budget was under $10 million? It looks far more expensive.

MAMET: "Well, one of the deep, dark secrets of Hollywood is that any movie can be made for any price. You can make a $150 million movie for $5 million and vice versa and it won't look any different. It's just people running around doing shit and a guy exposing film in a camera. If we'd had $150 million we'd have gotten paid, but the film wouldn't have been as good."

POST: What about post? Do you like the process?

MAMET: "Yes. It's really the most important part of the whole process, and the only thing wrong with post is that you always say, 'Jesus Christ! What have I done!' But Barbara says every director in post says one of the same three things: 'I shot too little, I shot too much, I shot the wrong thing.'

"We were a little bit constrained making this film with time and budget, which was good. As someone said, what's the recipe for genius? It's a fairly good plan, a little inspiration and not enough time. So this was all carefully worked out. Some movies we get into the editing room and have this extraneous scene and say, 'Oh my God, where does it go?' But we didn't have that problem this time. We used every frame."

POST: Once again you worked with your longtime editor Barbara Tulliver. How does that relationship work?
MAMET: "I've done every film with her. She was the assistant on the first two and then moved up. She's basically my biggest collaborator and she makes it all look so simple and inevitable the way she cuts a scene. She comes on set sometimes and hangs out, and she'll start cutting while we shoot.
This is the second film I've done with the great Robert Elswit and he and Barbara would get together over the weekend and then tell me on Monday, 'We think that what we need is the following…' They did that on Heist and it became very important. The other thing Barbara does — though she didn't on this — is call me and say, 'Don't hate me but I think we should lose a scene.' Then she invariably names my favorite scene, and I freak out, 'The whole meaning of the movie's in that scene!' Of course, she's right, and that's exactly the reason to throw it out."

POST: Where did you do post?
MAMET: "We did the edit at Tribeca West in LA, and then did all the post on the Sony lot, which was great. But it was a long process."

POST: The film has a great, gritty look and a great color palette. How much did you tweak that in post?
MAMET: "Hardly at all. That's all the DP and [production designer] David Vasco. They created the great look of the Jiu-Jitsu studio in this abandoned building, and they had these wonderful blues and reds that kept appearing in scenes. And I didn't realize what they'd done until the end when we shot in this real boxing stadium, and the place had exactly the same blues and reds!"

POST: The visual effects shots are very subtle. How many total, and how did you go about dealing with them?
MAMET: "We had about 60. They were done by The Outfit, and it was mainly removal and enhancement of sets, taking away stuff that didn't fit or adding old-style signs. I'm quite involved in all that. I'll tell them what I think and vice versa."

POST: Did you do a DI?
MAMET: "Yes, at Efilm. Barbara was more involved in that than I was."

POST: How important is music and audio for you?
MAMET: "It's huge for me, half the film. And it's such a mystery. Whatever you think is going to work, in the end the film tells you what it needs. My wife wrote the Brazilian songs that the score is based on — so I had to use them [laughs]. I wanted to grab the audience by the throat for the opening sequence, and I was watching the opening sequence to some Kurosawa film where he used all this drumming, so we found something similar, and it's so effective. Gary Bourgeois and his team did the mix at Sony and he did a great job."

POST: Did you make the film you first envisioned?
MAMET: "To a certain extent, but it's just like writing. You always know exactly what you're going to do and it's always wrong. What happens in any dramatic writing is that the writer goes through the same process as the protagonist. It's the same thing. So I'm Chewitel's character, and everyone else."

POST: Are you still writing and directing The Unit for CBS?
MAMET: "It's off the air now, but if they bring it back I'll probably still write and direct. Doing TV is really challenging. Sidney Lumet was very helpful when I started out, and he gave me great advice when I asked him, 'How do you get good at directing?' He said, 'Do 250 live hour-long dramas on TV.' And it's true; it's great training."