There were more than enough film buffs who filed their tax returns (or applied for an extension) on April 15th, 2010, just in the nick of time to check out a special screening of Brian De Palma’s 1987 classic “The Untouchables” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. Following the story of how Elliot Ness and his select group of men who worked to bring down infamous crime boss Al Capone on tax evasion charges seemed like the perfect way to celebrate Tax Day. Finally seeing it on the big screen in glorious 70 mm was great after first watching it on VHS years ago.
But this evening had a special reason for us to come out other than seeing the film in 70 mm; David Mamet, who wrote the screenplay for “The Untouchables,” was also in attendance to engage in a Q&A with the audience. Instantly recognizable in his beret and wearing those huge yellow glasses of his, Mamet had many stories to tell regarding the making of De Palma’s film, writing the script for it and his thoughts on writing and Hollywood in general.
The first question asked was how Mamet got involved in writing the script for this movie, and he replied that he ended up getting the job by default. Apparently the job was first given to the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein who had won a Pulitzer for “The Heidi Chronicles.” She must have done quite a bit of work on it because Mamet said the Writer’s Guild of America still wanted to give her a credit. But he never hid the fact that what attracted him to writing the script was “a lot of money.” The way Mamet described it, writing for someone else is known as “whoring.”
Being one of America’s most acclaimed playwrights and having grown up in Chicago where “The Untouchables” takes place should have made Mamet the most obvious choice for this motion picture. Mamet talked about how he grew up there with gangsters all around him and of how everyone lived and breathed the same air as them. As for the cops, he got to know them better while working as a cab driver. He also went on to say that several of his family members kept telling him stories about Capone from time to time.
For years Chicago has been known to be a city constantly engulfed by corruption, and Mamet did nothing to hide the fact that it is full of crooks. He described it as a machine that is run downstate and remarked that the mayors occasionally go to jail. He also remembered a saying once told to him when he asked someone in politics what the difference was in running for one office or the other. The politician told him “the girls get prettier.” In the end, it seems like many natives of this city have the same romantic view of Chicago as Mamet did and he said it best, “In Chicago we love our crooks!”
A lot of Mamet’s inspiration for “The Untouchables” came from all of Chicago, he said. He tried to include as many famous landmarks such as The Anchors Restaurant and The Lake. Much of downtown Chicago was used to great effect throughout, and I wonder if there has been a movie since that is as superb in the way it brings Prohibition era Chicago to life.
With De Palma directing “The Untouchables,” Mamet said he just hoped the director would stick to the script he wrote. Looking back, he said DePalma actually did stay true to his script to a certain extent, but that there were moments where he felt aliens had come down and sucked the brains out of those making the film. In terms of differences from his original script, Mamet said that they took out the crawl he put at the end of what happened after the Prohibition Era ended and of how gangsters are still with us today. Mamet also said that DePalma was the one who added that “cockamamie baby carriage” sequence.
During the making of “The Untouchables,” Mamet said he was never on the set. Surprisingly, he was actually quite happy of that fact as you’d figure any writer would want to be there even if it annoys the hell out of the director. But while most writers want the opportunity to be on a film set, Mamet said that he feels better off staying out of the way.
One of the main sources said to be behind the script of “The Untouchables” was Elliot Ness’ autobiography which he wrote with Oscar Fraley. When an audience member asked Mamet if he believed what Ness wrote about, Mamet replied quite simply, “I don’t believe anything anymore.”
At its essence, Mamet described “The Untouchables” as a melodrama. Lest people see that as him looking down on the way De Palma shot this now classic movie, he was quick to quote from Stanislavski, “Tragedy is just heightened melodrama.” Looking at the movie as a melodramatic piece actually makes perfect sense as audiences got so swept up in the story that it affected them more emotionally than they could have anticipated.
Other tidbits Mamet shared included that aside from Robert DeNiro’s method preparation in playing Al Capone, he ended up saying just what was in the script. The line uttered by Sean Connery’s Malone character of “here endeth the lesson” came from the book of common prayers. But the one that really stood out was what Mamet said Connery first told the producers when he came to make this movie: “Broccoli never paid me a dime to play James Bond!” As for “the Chicago way,” Mamet said that was something he just came up with. The philosophy behind it was that you take something, burn it down to the ground and then build it back up again. And that’s how you get Capone!
Many in the audience were also eager to hear Mamet talk about the art of writing, and he had much to say on the subject. As a dramatist, he said his job is to take out the narration and go with the plot and characters. Watching the plot for him is where the enjoyment comes from. The problem is that the actors and directors end up wanting to put all that narration back in. They want to spell out everything for the audience, but dramatists make you want to know more about what’s going on. The way Mamet sees it, you just need a plot and get an actor to start the ball rolling. A play or a movie cannot start from an ongoing situation. Of course, writing a plot can usually be very hard.
In terms of plots, he views “Wag The Dog” as his “Casablanca” in that it was the easiest plot for him to write. Once he was finished, Barry Levinson started shooting the movie a month later, and the shoot on that one went very quickly. As for all the other plots he has worked on, they were nightmares.
In talking about some of his other projects, Mamet said that the coffees for closers speech with Alec Baldwin from “Glengarry Glen Ross” might have come from sitting in an office where he once worked.
There was also some talk of how he wrote the script for “Ronin,” which was directed by the late John Frankenheimer, and never got credit for it. Mamet said he had always wanted to write something anonymously, and “Ronin” became that something because he was not originally hired to write it. What happened was that Robert De Niro pleaded with him to do a rewrite as he felt the script was not up to speed. Mamet said he eventually caved in and rewrote the whole script in a week.
In addition to being a writer, Mamet is also a director of film and stage. When asked about his approach to directing, he said that he wants to know what the story is about and how each beat contributes to the action. From there everything comes together along with some unforeseen difficulties. When asked if movies would ever become an art form again, Mamet said, “Movies were never an art form, they were entertainment. It just evolved into an art form from there, and it’s still evolving in different ways.”
Mamet was up onstage for almost an hour at the Aero Theater, and it still didn’t feel like he was up there long enough. This writer, who grew up a working class man and went to Kaminsky Park on a regular basis (yes, he is a Cubs fan) was full of anecdotal moments that made us want to learn more. When it comes to “The Untouchables,” he gives all the credit for its success to De Palma as he made all the elements work perfectly. He said that almost everything good that happens is an accident, so it’s safe to say that “The Untouchables” is a glorious accident and one that invites repeat viewing.
I personally want to thank David Mamet for saying something he once heard from a judge; that being quoted out of context is “the definition of a quote.” That makes writing articles like these so much easier! As for his line about critics being “illiterate swine taking the bread from my children,” I won’t take that one personally.
Oh yeah, he also said the lizards in Hollywood will be the last ones to die, and he believes that their last words will be, “I want to know more…”
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016