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David Mamet
Director of The Winslow Boy

If you know anything about American Theater at all, you know the name David Mamet. From groundbreaking plays such as American Buffalo and Sexual Perversity in Chicago, to more mainstream screenplays for The Untouchables and Wag the Dog, Mamet is among the best we've got.

For every version of "Our Town" that finds its way into a rep company here in the states, there is probably a version of Terrence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy" doing the same for stages in the United Kingdom. David Mamet's adaptation may not rise above the art-circuit here, but it's a damned fine piece of film work, with tremendous performances led by Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife), Jeremy Northam and Academy Award nominee Nigel Hawthorne.

The true story, detailed below, was as controversial in its day (1910) as anything in the tabloids today. In a world before radio and television existed, where airplane flight was a dangerous experiment and movies were a novelty, the papers were full of tales of The Winslow Boy and his court battle (indeed it was debated on the floor of Parliament) to "let right be done."

If you don't know the name David Mamet, oh boy do I have a lot of work ahead of me. While American Buffalo, perhaps his most famous play, didn't translate well to the big screen (IMO) other written work has done gangbusters: Glengarry Glen Ross top among them. Mamet's screenplays include The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Untouchables, The Edge and Wag the Dog, and his plays put him in the top ranks of American writers. True, aims a lot more mainstream, but Mamet doesn't do a lot of interviews and I wasn't about to turn down the chance.

CrankyCritic: What attracted you to The Winslow Boy?
David Mamet: I saw it once on-stage about 20 years ago and when I saw it I said "get out of here. I want to do that play some time". I always wanted to do this, just to do the interrogation scene between the lawyer and the little kid. I tried for many years to stage it on-stage but it was difficult to get a good enough cast together for the six months or so it would have been necessary to pay off the capital investment, which is very difficult. So one-day it occurred to me, duh, maybe it's easier to get them together for six weeks and make a movie.

CrankyCritic: In making it a movie, you had to do an edit. Presumably on-stage you would have done the entire play.
David Mamet: Well, I probably would have cut it off a little bit just because; they used to say in the Yiddish theater "fartaytsht un farbesert" which translates as "as translated and improved by..." [laughs all around]

CrankyCritic: And it gets a [G] rating. The name Mamet and a [G] rating don't necessarily come in the same breath.
David Mamet: It was [G] to begin with. That's the nature of the material. People used to say family entertainment, God forbid anyone should accuse me of making a family entertainment. It's this entertainment about a family.

CrankyCritic: The piece itself seems of a different time and a different world.
David Mamet: I hope so. I certainly hope so. Like my wife always says; I say "I'm working on this thing", she says "Do I get to wear really frilly dresses" [laughs] I like the idea of Once Upon A Time. I like the idea of genre because as an audience member it allows me to enter more fully into the story. There are a lot of contemporary movies where they are showing you, where they are narrating what you should be thinking; you see the kind of car he's driving, the kind of watch the wearing as if this is the way to understand the character. I don't care about that. I want the youthful maiden and the white horse and I want to be able to "Once upon a time..." That means now you can suspend judgment. It means I'm going to tell you a fairy tale. So this is very much once upon a time.

CrankyCritic: Did you to make any effort to play up some of the parallels to modern times? The media circus aspect of the trial?
David Mamet: No, not all. It's all in the play. This was based on actual case which was one of those cause celebres. A little kid, a Catholic cadet at the naval academy, was accused of stealing a money order and kicked out of school without a hearing because he was Catholic. The case was originally given to the Commandant of the Academy and the Commandant said to his Adjutant "who are the kids that could have taken it?" And he was told a list blah blah blah and George Archer-Shee. And he said Archer-Shee? That Catholic kid. Of course, it's him. That's why Sir Edward Carson, (the man who prosecuted and sent Oscar Wilde to prison) the fellow who was kind of a conservative, took the case, Because he was so enraged that this poor kid had been persecuted for religious reasons. It became a cause celebre in England.

CrankyCritic: For a lot of people, they see costumes and classic texts and they think Masterpiece Theater. Why is this on film?
David Mamet: Because it's not Masterpiece Theater. It's not a movie about the costumes. It's a movie about a family that's in a lot of trouble trying to stick up for the rights of one of its members and it happens to take place once upon a time. Once upon a time could just as easily be Star Wars or Star Trek 'cuz it's once upon a time in Space. That's why we love westerns. The best stories are simple stories, like when we were kids and we'd go on a camping trip and we'd close our eyes and imagine. The best thing that a costume drama can do is enable us to imagine, which I hope this one will do, because the story is very strong and the acting is superb.

CrankyCritic: "David Mamet" has a rep, built over many years of writing. Is there tremendous pressure when you come out with a new work?
David Mamet: Nah, I don't care. I'd like to be loved all the time, who wouldn't? But somebody said to Ethel Merman, it was opening night and an ingenue said "There are all those critics out there. Aren't you frightened?" Merman said "Honey, if they could do it better they'd be up here."

CrankyCritic: The difference between filmmaking and playwriting is?
David Mamet: Film-making is very much a performance where you're the ringmaster. You get to show off how well-prepared you are, how well you can stick to the plan and also how well you can improvise when you're working against a ticking clock and you have to make everything come in on time. Something's always going wrong. It's film camp. Play-writing is sitting down with a piece of paper and concentrating your thoughts. That can be a lot of fun, too.

CrankyCritic: Does it bother you that people come into a David Mamet work, with an expectation of attitude or language?
David Mamet: I suppose. It occurred to me one day that if Johannes Gutenberg was asked to do interviews, they'd say to him "Say something in moveable type." [laughs] Somebody said to me once "I'd like to write like you". I said "Why would you want to do that? I write like me, but I have no choice." I really don't know anything about the creative process. I always think of it like beavers. Beavers cut down trees for two reasons. One, their teeth itch and Two, they can't stand the sound of running water. They don't cut down trees because they have a kind of vision of a geodesic dam.

CrankyCritic: Do you sit yourself down, as on schedule, to write 3 4 hours a day?
David Mamet: I probably do. But I delude myself into thinking I'm a just a will o' the wisp and I can pick up my notebook and go out and go where ever the wind blows me

CrankyCritic: At what age did the writing become a continual activity. A mandate?
David Mamet: about 19 or 20. I was writing review sketches, I was influenced by Pinter and also I grew up in Chicago hanging out backstage at Second City which was an improvisational theater. At 13 or 14 I would go there every night and I would watch David Steinberg and Robert Klein and Peter Boyle and watch them improvise. Watch them perform. That's when I first started writing.

CrankyCritic: Were your parents supportive?
David Mamet: They might have been had they known where I was. [Laughs]

CrankyCritic: Can we talk about television for a bit?
David Mamet: Oh yeah, I wrote a lot of television. But I never could get arrested in television. I wrote a lot of stuff.

CrankyCritic: Was it the language?
David Mamet: No, not at all. A guy called me up from NBC (I had just written a couple of episodes of Hill Street Blues, about the only television I got on the air) and he said "We love Dennis Franz on Hill Street Blues. How would you like to write a spin-off for him?" I said I'd love to. In the meantime he does something called Beverly Hills Buntz and that didn't work out that well. So I write this spin off for him, and I really liked it and handed it in. They didn't call for a number of weeks. I said what's the matter? You don't like the script? She said No, we love the script. We just don't think Dennis Franz can carry a television show. [Franz now carries NYPD Blue, for those of you that don't watch teevee] That's one of my favorite stories.

CrankyCritic: You told us that you saw The Winslow Boy on-stage twenty years ago. As you started to make the film, did the play strike you differently, with a pair of decades of experience under your belt?
David Mamet: I don't know. I think it's a great play. Many things are going to come in and come out of fashion - there was something on the radio the other day about Hemingway's 100th birthday, some "blah blah blah... the works of Ernest Hemingway... Was he just a self-promoting, posturing fool?" and I'm thinking WHAT??? Are you kidding? Things come in and out of fashion but there's something rather important about this story. One of the tests of Shakespeare's greatness is that people can do such rotten productions of his plays but there's something timeless in the human interactions that he's captured. I think there's something really timeless in the plight of this family, really touching about their devotion to each other. I find it very moving. The way that Terrence Rattigan wrote it; you know as I think about it I think it's a great denigration to say he was a great craftsman. It's like saying someone has natural rhythm

CrankyCritic: Or that it's a "well made play"?
David Mamet: Yeah. A well made play. He's just a terrific playwright. A superb playwright and his plays have the power to move us time after time.

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