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On Directing Film

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According to David Mamet, a film director must, above all things, think visually. Most of this instructive and funny book is written in dialogue form and based on film classes Mamet taught at Columbia University. He encourages his students to tell their stories not with words, but through the juxtaposition of uninflected images. The best films, Mamet argues, are composed of simple shots. The great filmmaker understands that the burden of cinematic storytelling lies less in the individual shot than in the collective meaning that shots convey when they are edited together. Mamet borrows many of his ideas about directing, writing, and acting from Russian masters such as Konstantin Stanislavsky, Sergei M. Eisenstein, and Vsevelod Pudovkin, but he presents his material in so delightful and lively a fashion that he revitalizes it for the contemporary reader.

107 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1991

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About the author

David Mamet

244 books657 followers
David Alan Mamet is an American author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and film director. His works are known for their clever, terse, sometimes vulgar dialogue and arcane stylized phrasing, as well as for his exploration of masculinity.

As a playwright, he received Tony nominations for Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988). As a screenwriter, he received Oscar nominations for The Verdict (1982) and Wag the Dog (1997).

Mamet's recent books include The Old Religion (1997), a novel about the lynching of Leo Frank; Five Cities of Refuge: Weekly Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (2004), a Torah commentary, with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner; The Wicked Son (2006), a study of Jewish self-hatred and antisemitism; and Bambi vs. Godzilla, an acerbic commentary on the movie business.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 272 reviews
Profile Image for David.
28 reviews2 followers
December 16, 2013
"People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people's lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn't work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn't. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story." (p.65)

I don't know what planet this guy is living on, but it's definitely not Earth. I like Mamet, and I like his film House of Games but I disagree with almost everything he says in this book, especially his disdain for any film that doesn't fit his rather narrow, simplistic idea of what a film should be. He believes that films should be as straightforward and simple as possible and anything outside of that is an exercise in narcissism which audiences will reject immediately. He also makes sweeping, patently false generalizations of Hollywood ("Contemporary American films are almost universally sloppy, trivial, and obscene."). Let me save you the time in reading this: His advice on directing is essentially, "Do as little as possible and don't listen to what anybody else tells you."
Profile Image for William Torgerson.
Author 4 books41 followers
March 19, 2014
Coming from the perspective of writer first, I found a lot in here to think about when it comes to the craft of writing fiction.

The second chapter show you how you could just a small idea for a story you want to build (the student wants to impress the professor) and build the story via shots and beats just from that small idea. If you're without an idea for a short film, I think you could play along with Mamet in this chapter and end up with a solid idea.

Here's some of my fav lines I typed up:

Tell the story to a guy in a bar. That’s the shot list.

p. 14 Make the audience wonder what’s going on by putting them in the same position as the protagonist

p. 15 If it’s not essential, you throw it out.

p. 25 Tell the story in cuts. We’re going to adopt this as our motto.

Mamet is totally focused on the objective and super objective of the protagonist.

p. 36 We’d like our movies to be greatly expressive of our fantasy life

p. 37 It’s going to make our task a lot easier if we always know both where we’re going and when we’re finished

p. 45 What’s going to happen is exactly this process of wondering and revising--to work every time either to create or to discern a through line.

What music is playing? What do the costumes look like? ...somebody makes these decisions, and that person is called the director.

So our beats are to show up early, to prepare, to pay homage, to present the case. What were the shots for to show up early?

p. 52 Here is a tool-choose your shots, beats, scenes, objectives, and always refer to them by the names you choose.

p. 64 A lot of times in movies you want to get out of the scene before the problem is over and have it answered in the next scene.

Create some questions right away: will she call? (LOTBS as a stage play and an indie film I can shoot)

p. 68 Just as the shot doesn’t have to be inflected, the acting doesn’t have to be inflected, nor should it be…. This is the greatest lesson anyone can ever teach you about acting. (perform as simply and calmly as possible)

a take to try: as simply as you can

Go for this, the essential nature of film “is that it is made of disparate shots, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera there and photograph, as silmply as possible, taht object.

p. 77 Directing is just a technical skill. Make your shot list.

Note to self: make the shot list of what I want. Get those. Then go back and get some of this coverage if I want.

p. 107 “It’s only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you’re done, then you can go home.”
Profile Image for Sherif Nagib.
91 reviews370 followers
March 18, 2017
A "meh!" book at best. So redundant that he could've summed it up in a single article, and even then I would've hesitated to share it.
Profile Image for Diz.
1,562 reviews87 followers
December 29, 2018
This book presents some interesting ideas on building scenes through shots. However, there are a lot of things to dislike about this book. First of all, two chapters are presented as classroom discussions. He basically shoots down most of the students ideas and forces them to accept his perspective on movies. The results are two very boring scenarios.

Second, he has a very negative opinion of actors and producers. If any of his students adopt his views, they will find it very difficult to work with others in the film industry.

Finally, I think it would be uncomfortable to be a woman in his classes. He often sprinkles comments about sex and prostitutes in his lectures to illustrate his points. His worldview seems very male-centric and doesn’t seem to leave any space for women directors.
Profile Image for Rein.
Author 59 books305 followers
April 10, 2013
It is an apology for handicraft. The basic ideas are all sound, and Mamet's recommendation for telling the story in a sequence of moments that speak for themselves is quite correct. I also enjoyed the analyses he develops in discussion with students - very informative and useful. However, his foaming anger against artistic film seems partially motivated by envy. In a crucial footnote, he bemoans that the Great actors winning prizes are not of the type he favours himself. Might be the same with directors. When he compared Werner Herzog with Frank Capra (the latter being the good director in his view, and Herzog just a self-indulging narcissist), I didn't believe my eyes. Take no risks, says Mamet, if you want to make a good film. And he is right. When you want to make a great film, however, you can't avoid these risks, and chances are that you'll fail - but you will have tried.
Profile Image for DJ Yossarian.
86 reviews14 followers
April 22, 2019
I didn't think it was possible to read a 107 page book and think, "This could have been much, much shorter," but there you have it. There are some good insights here, but they are overshadowed by Mamet's rants about Nearly Everyone Who Is Not David Mamet, and his interactions with the students in these dialogues shut down, rather than encourage, exploration and creativity.
Profile Image for Brianna Silva.
Author 4 books110 followers
February 22, 2021
I actually despised this book.

Now, that's not to say that it's useless. The main thrust of what Mamet is saying is quite good; that is, know what the purpose is of a scene or shot, do that, and cut whatever is superfluous.

But many of the ways Mamet applies this basic principle I do not agree with. I think that the main difference between him and I is that he perceives film as "design", not "art"; that is, that one should approach film like one approaches making a chair or a house, not like one approaches making a painting or sculpture.

Personally I find this view to be incredibly narrow. Film is nothing but a medium, and a whole host of things can be done with that medium.

In many cases, it does make sense to approach a movie like a chair or a house. But there are cases when film can be art, too; or, perhaps most commonly, a hybrid of art and design.

Many of my favorite movies are like this. They are design, and they are art. The shots are not "uninflected", to use Mamet's favorite word, but they are still intentional, used to evoke emotion or deepen the storytelling on a subconscious level. They are not superfluous.

It isn't the mere fact that I disagree with Mamet that causes me to despise his over-hyped book, though. It is his arrogant, know-it-all attitude permeating every page that annoys me endlessly.

Mamet preaches what I would say are pretty basic storytelling principles, and not even universal ones, but presents them as if they are the words of mastery. He seems to claim that this is basically all you need to know to tell a visual story.

But uh, I think what he presents is just the beginning of what one can learn, and even then, a reasonable person can disagree with a number of his assertions. So it's really not all that.

At least Mamet seems to have some shred of self-awareness. This gem of a quote (found in the middle of a bizarre rant against producers) is too good not to share:

"I have a great deal of pride and, I suppose, a large admixture of arrogant pride."

You don't say, Mamet. You don't say.
Profile Image for Toby Buchan.
7 reviews
March 11, 2021
Chapter 1: Storytelling

"It's uninportant that the audience should guess why it's important to the story. It's important simply to tell the story. Let the audience be surprised."

"The movie, finally, is much closer than the play to simple story telling. If you listen to the way people tell stories, you will hear that they tell them cinematically. They jump from one thing to the next, and the story is moved along by a juxtaposition of images -- which is to say, by the cut."

"If you find that a point cannot be made without narration, it is virtually certain that the point is unimportant to the story (which is to say, the audience): the audience requires no information but drama."

"The work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script. The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on the set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humour. The film is directed in the making of the shotlist. The work on set is simply to record what has been chosen to be recorded. It is the plan that makes the movie."

"The purpose of technique is to free the unconscious... Only the mind that has been taken off itself and put on a task is allowed true creativity."

Chapter 2: "Where do you put the Camera?"

"The stroy can only be interesting because we find the progress of the protagonist interesting. It is the objective of the protagonist that keeps us in our seats."

"... There is no such thing as character other than habitual action, as Mr Aristotle told us two thousand years ago... "Character" is is exactly what the person literally does in the pursuit of the superobjective, the objective of the scene. The rest doesn't count."

"As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something. As long as the protagonist are clearly going out to get something, the audience will wonder whether or not he's going to succeed."

"Whether it's a scene or a shot, if it's not essential throw it out."

"[The audience] are collectively much smarter than you and me and have already gotten up to the punchline. How do we keep their attention? Certainly not by giving them more information -- by withholding all informaation except that information the absence of which would make the progress of the story incomprehensible."

"The steadicam is no more capable of aiding in the creation of a good movie than the computer is in the writing of a good novel -- both are labour-saving devices, which simplify and so make more attractive the mindless aspects of a creative endeavour."

"... We choose the way that is closer to the objective, discarding that which is merely cute or interesting; and certainly discarding that which has 'a deep personal meaning' for us."

"Why play the same beat twice? Get on with it. Everybody always says the way to make any movie better is by burning the first reel, and its true."

"We don't have to worry about creating a problem. We make a better movie if we worry about restoring order. Because if we worry about creating problems, our protagonist's going to do things that are interesting. We don't want him to do that. We want him to do things that are logical."

"Not 'how might anyone pay homage?' but 'what does the idea of homage mean to me?' That's what makes art different from decoration."

"The boat has to look like a boat; the sail doesn't have to look like a boat... Make the beats serve the scene, and the scene will be done; make the scenes, in the same way, the building blocks of the film, and the film will be done. Don't make the beat do the service of the whole, don't try to reiterate the play in the scene."

"In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim says of fairy tales the same thing Alfred Hitchcock said about thrillers: that the less the hero of the play is inflected, identified, and characterised, the more we will endow him with our own internal meaning - the nore we will identify with him - which is to say the more we will be assured that we are that hero."

"What you're talking about is what the illetierate call the 'the back story'. You don't need it. Remember that the model of drama is the dirty joke. This joke begins: 'A travelling salesman stops at a farmer's door' -- it does not begin: 'Who would think that the two most disparate of occupations of agriculture and salesmanship would one day be indissolubly united in our oral literatur? Agriculture, that most solitary of pursuits, engendering the qualities of self-reliance and reflection; and salesmanship, in which...' Does the protagonist have to explain why he wants a retraction? To whom is he going to explain it? To the audience? Does that help him get it? No... The guy says to the girl, 'that's a lovely dress' -- he does not say, 'I haven't been laid in six weeks.' "

"The audience will accept anything they have not been given a reason to disbelieve."

"Everytime you make a choice as a director, it must be based on whether the thing in question is essential to telling the story."

"The audience is only going to look at the most overriding thing in the frame."

Chapter 3: Countercultural Architecture and Dramatic Structure

"You'd better do your planning up front, when you have the time. It's like working with glue. When its sets, you've used up your time. When it's almost set, you then have to make quick decisions under pressure. When you design a chair correctly, you can put all the time into designing it correctly and assemble it at your leisure."

"The job of the film director is to tell the story through the juxtaposition of uninflected images -- because that is the essetial nature of the medium. It operates best through that juxtaposition, because that's the nature of human perception; to percieve two events, determine a progression, and want to know what happens next."

"If you understand the scene, you understand the play or movie. When the problem posited b yhte scene is over, the scene is over. A lot of times in movies you want to get out of the scene before the problem is over and have it answered in teh next scene... So the audience will follow you... To get into the scene late and to get out early is to demonstrate respect for your audience."

Chapter 4: The Task of the Director

"If you don't know what you want, how do you know when you're done?"

"Just as the shot doesn't have to be inflected, the acting doesn't have to be inflected, nor should it be....This is the greatest lesson anyone can ever teach you about acting. Perform the physical motions of the script as simply as possible. Do not 'help the play along.'
He doesn't have to sit down respectfully. He doesn't have to turn the door respectfully. The script is doing that work. The more the actor tries to make each physical action carry the meaning of the scene... the more that actor is ruining your movie. The nail doesn't have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail."

"It's not the actor's job to be emotional -- it is the actor's job to be direct."

"The purpose of dialogue is not to carry information about the 'character'. The only reason people speak is to get what they want. In the film or on the street, people who describe themselves to you are lying."

"If you're telling the story with pictures, then the dialogue is the sprinkles on top of the icecream cone... The story is being carried by the shots. Basically, the perfect moviedoesn't have any dialogue. So you should always be striving to make a silent movie."

"Let each shot stand by itself. The answer to the question 'where do you put the camera?' is the question 'what is the shot of?'"

"Directing is just technical skill. Make your shotlist."

Chapter 5: Pig -- The Movie

"If we suggest the idea, we cna shoot it better than we can show it."

"[When justifying a character's actions don't] split your focus...Two reasons are equal to no reasons -- it's like saying 'I was late because the bus drivers are on strike and my aunt fell down the stairs'"

"We can identify with the pursuit of a goal. It's much easier to identify with that than with 'character traits.'"

"As leadbelly says about the blues, he says in the first verse use a knife to cut bread, and in the second verse use a knife to shave, and in the third verse use it to kill your unfaithful girlfriend. It's the same knife, but the stakes change, which is exactly the way a play or movie is structured. You don't want to use the knife in the first verse to cut bread and in the second verse use it to cut cheese. We already know it can cut bread. What else can it do?"

Chapter 6: Conclusion

"Anything that is not based on things within your control is nor real technique."

"Your choice of shots is all you have. You can't make it more interesting when you get to the editing room, and you also can't rely on actors to pick up the slack."

If you are correct int he small things, the smallest of which in this case is the single uninflected shot, then you will be correct in the larger things."

"The more time you have invested, and the more of yourself you have invested in the plan, the more secure you will feel in the face of terror, lonliness, or the unfeeling or ignoratn comments of those from whom you are asking a whole bunch of money or indulgence."

"It is the prusuit of an ideal which is important. This pursuit will lead to a greater possibility of the unconscious asserting itself, whwich is to say, the greater possibility of beauty in your work."

"Understand your specific task,, work until it is done, and then stop."
Profile Image for Hessam Ghaeminejad.
134 reviews13 followers
August 9, 2019
سه ستاره برای خود کتاب و استاد ممت؛ اما امان از ترجمه‌ی بد لذت کتاب رو به شدت ضایع کرد
Profile Image for Tim.
38 reviews3 followers
July 8, 2010
As short as it is, still seems padded and repetitive -- really the sweepings from a stint teaching at film school. Enough funny direct Mamet-isms to make it worthwhile, and a useful no-bullshit and absolutist summary of the Eisenstein/Bresson approach. The steadicam, and all it represents -- following the action around -- is mentioned a few times as a symbol of all that's wrong with American filmmaking today, because movies are made out of shots, and shots are of simple clear actions that don't try to tell the story -- the story only emerges in the totality of the work. A sail doesn't have to look like a boat, a nail doesn't look like a house, and an actor doesn't have to express anything or do any work to see that the story gets told: they just do simple actions and the film is assembled from them. "A guy says 'that's a lovely dress'. He doesn't say 'I haven't been laid in six weeks.'"

That's all it amounts to, good advice really, but that's pretty much the entire content, so you can skip it now if you like! It's entertaining, though.
152 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2018
Mamet has a limited understanding of cinematic language, modeled exclusively on Eisenstein. This coupled with his overconfident, authoritarian style makes this manual somewhat ridiculous.
Profile Image for A.
298 reviews20 followers
February 8, 2020
I haven’t hated a book like this since I was knee-deep in Rushdie, lmao. Three things:

1. Mamet hates “modern art.” He believes that he understands the only successful way to tell stories for the only reason there is, which is, simply, “because”. Of course, this very “basic” way to tell a story is the hero’s journey, Freytag’s phallic pyramid. There is no reason to include anything not pertinent to advancing the plot. This isn’t wisdom, it’s sophistry! Stripping away context from why we do something is never more intelligent than the reverse; just because we’ve done something for thousands of years (and is that really the only way we’ve told stories, anyhow?) doesn’t mean it’s the only workable way to do it, because the only basic factor of human existence — and I mean the *only* one — is that we change things. Mamet’s principle can be tested by a very simple phenomenon: the rewatch. Very few works of art tempt me to revisit them through the actual workings of the plot, but I do tend to revisit specific scenes or characters or themes or moods or arrangements of images because they resonate with me and I can always find something deeper upon a closer look. My favorite film, Caravaggio, barely concerns itself with ordered events at all, and yet we (or I) still come to be invested in him as the film progresses. The picaresque, the pastiche — these structures draw me in, and yet they are, according to Mamet, “bad art.” Another way to poke holes in his hero’s journey is to examine the Brechtian drama, which may follow the rules of inevitability/exigency of plot but absolutely does not encourage the audience to identify with the characters because it wants you to know you are watching a play. In Mamet’s eyes, identification with the protagonist is king, but even if this were as important as he thinks (it’s not) not everyone would be able to do it. This brings me to…

2. Acting. Mamet thinks that good acting is simply doing what it says on the page without embellishment, and that anyone who goes beyond this fails; that failure is “great acting,” he says, because we identify with the *actor* rather than the character. So what? Coming back to identification, there is actually no way to make a “universally relatable” character. Someone will always be shut out. Mamet frequently uses fun little examples of “the guy getting the girl” to illustrate how plot should go, and this is no accident, because in his delusion that art can and should always be relatable he has fooled himself into thinking that his perspective is no perspective at all. (Aside: what the fuck was that slavery metaphor?) Let’s use the example of Dunkirk. The film was, by all accounts, excellently crafted, with an underlying sense of suspense and a plot that raced undistractedly toward its endpoint, and every actor did what was required and no more. I was bored to tears! Why? There was no reason for me to be invested in anything that was happening in the first place, since it isn’t a story that appeals to me, and the actors didn’t have anything further to offer, so I ended up feeling as though I was watching my brother play a video game. I always prefer a film with a bad plot and watchable actors to a film with a good plot and actors who simply stand there, cow-eyed and pretty, because plots and premises aren’t fucking universal! Why on earth would Shakespeare have written all those meandering soliloquies if there was really nothing more to acting than “walking down the hall quickly?” Why would people listen to podcasts if we didn’t like to see and hear people perform? *This* brings me to…

3. Screenwriting. Mamet says that a screenplay should be a shot list, no more, no less, and that dialogue should be the sprinkles on the cake. This may work for some, even many, films, but for others it’s patently false! The screenplay for Jennifer’s Body is very different than the movie structure-wise, but most of those bon mots made it into the film because they’re fucking fun. People *like* to hear the old repartee. Sure, dialogue may not be as long-lasting — most of Shakespeare’s jokes don’t land anymore, whereas we can still get invested in his characters — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile! Also, going back to point 2, I happen to be of the opinion that actors deserve to have some idea of what the movie is about. That may just be me!

It’s not bad to learn the basic rules of film grammar, of course; they do work more often than not and going into any field without knowing how things are done is always a terrible idea. What’s poisonous is the fact that this macho bullshit is taught as if it’s the only way to make successful art and straying beyond its confines is bound to result in failure. Why do reactionaries always act as though they’re speaking truth to power? Everyone learns Freytag’s pyramid in sixth grade at the latest! Art has themes and context whether you think it does or not! Stop fondling yourself and just make your little movie!!! Shut the fuck up!!!!

(Also the way he kept bringing up stories told at bars as the best/most pared-down way of telling a successful story… as if everyone who’s ever been forced to listen to some male relation at a family function talk about something that’s happened to them hasn’t been confronted with the excruciating fact that simply not all stories are interesting!!)
Profile Image for Justin.
122 reviews16 followers
June 19, 2008
Mamet's book on acting, True and False , was a rather audacious protest against typical trends of theater "acting" wherein Mamet verbally reamed the kind of performers who create "characters" and strive to make "interesting" choices. Stanslavski is worthless to Mamet, as are, likewise, method actors (I wonder how he feels about Daniel-Day Lewis!) Acting, argues Mamet, is about understanding what the objective of the play's text is and executing the obtainment of that objective, thereby communicating the play to the audience in the most uninflected way possible. The job of the actor is to speak of clear voice, be physically fit, and to communicate the play as it is written. Nothing more, nothing less. He scoffs hilariously at accents, mugging, and everything else that many, if not most, actors gravitate towards not only on the stage but in their day-to-day lives. As a person who loves acting but can't tolerate most "actors," Mamet's book was a revelation to me, and helped me to feel okay again about my decision to dodge acting as a career choice.

His book on filmmaking, aptly titled On Directing Film, is similarly brief and readable, but lacks True and False's sense of wisdom and authority. Taking a literally conversational style, in which he transcribes reflective dialogue with his students, Mamet seems to be working through his own theories about film directing on the spot. Again he is all about objective, decrying filmmakers who struggle to concoct elaborate, beautiful images instead of just looking at the film's story, and communicating that story in the most uninflected way possible. "If you find that a point cannot be made without narration," he writes, "it is virtually certain that the point is unimportant... A movie script should be a juxtaposition of uninflected shots that tell the story."

I like this point, but I also like movies like My Dinner With Andre and Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, where meandering dialogue and unfocused narration are sort of the point, telling messy stories that don't really go anywhere and don't need to. I also think Mamet's films, unlike his plays, are mostly mediocre, though understanding his outlook on directing helps me appreciate works like his confusing, amateurish-feeling Red Belt at least a little more. Though, that still doesn't make them any more fun to watch. His style of stripping the film of all narrative does have the effect of producing plots that have an element of mystery--you get only the barest essentials of character introductions and scenarios, leaving you confused but intrigued. Trouble is, his attempts to bring it around always seem to result in heavy-handed last-minute plot twists that don't even make much sense since you don't know enough about the situation to understand their import.

On Directing Film is certainly worth reading, if only for help in scrutinizing your own work, but it isn't nearly as comprehensive as True and False, which I felt addressed every important element of the acting process, from rehearsing to auditioning, deconstructed it, and then presented a new and incredibly practical way of doing it. Directing covers territory Mamet is much less familiar with, and it shows. For one, he completely avoids how dialogue might be used in a way that would be consistent with his methods, sticking entirely with how to string images together that will tell the story. But he uses dialogue all the time, and it would have been helpful to hear how he implements his own dialogue in an "uninflected" way. He also has nothing to say about the editing process outside of the idea that you can't fix your movie in the editing room (which many people who have edited film might disagree with), and his advice for actually shooting your film (as in, where to point the camera) is just to point the thing and shoot so as to capture the simplest, most uninflected image. He actually says at one point, "I'm going to put the camera somewhere. Is one place better than another? No? Then I'll let my subconscious pick one, and put the camera there."

I guess it's liberating to just not worry about creating pretty shots and just shoot the movie, but I also believe in the visual power of film, and I don't think you can obtain that (generally speaking) without putting thought into your shots, working with a skilled cinematographer and developing a finely honed visual schematic. An example that occurs immediately to me is Gus Van Sant's Gerry, a meandering film with almost no dialogue that simply follows Matt Damon and Casey Affleck around as they get lost in the desert. It's absolutely riveting though, largely because its visuals are so beautiful and eerie. It has these long, crazy, completely show-offy tracking shots that probably weren't essential but also are one of the main proponents behind the film's slow-building tension and terror.

I'm glad On Directing Film made me think, but I wouldn't define it as a seminal text, but then Mamet has plenty of those already; he doesn't need another.
Profile Image for Tom Stamper.
584 reviews26 followers
July 18, 2021
The book is a transcription of lectures Mamet gave film students in the late 1980s. They do two exercises. The Man who has to sell the pig. The student who wants to impress the professor. He leads them through making dramatic decisions and in each case shows why some decisions are better than others and how good decisions lead to a better story by the end. In both cases the protagonist has a problem that he has to solve. The problems become interesting when you make the audience identify with the protagonist. You do this not by being interesting, but by being real. I think he is tapping into the same vein of thought that led Hemingway to write such pithy short stories.

When I studied acting in college there was a curiosity as to why David Mamet wrote no stage directions into his plays. People enter and exit just like Shakespeare. Mamet’s plays are words. He let stage directors decide how to put action to those words. And maybe this is why he has such specific ideas of film direction. Knowing playwriting so well he understands the differences between the mediums and thus tries to avoid words to solve the through-line of his movies. I would guess this is why he lets others direct his stage plays into film. Words are easy for Mamet. Having the constraint of few words makes the medium more interesting because Mamet has to find art outside of his wheelhouse.

A good succinct version of his approach can be found on the Internet. It’s Mamet’s memo to the writers of The Unit, a network television show that he ran for a few seasons. With much humor and candor, he explains what a challenge screenwriting is and how the writers have to avoid decisions that are non-dramatic. Why would a great playwright want to run a network television show? He wanted to see what he could do within the constraints of the form. Whether we think he created art seems unimportant to Mamet.

Don’t let actors try to be interesting. The more unemotional they are, the more the audience can identify with them. If your protagonist is quirky, it might be funny for a few minutes but you will eventually grow bored of him. Let the sidekick be quirky in small doses. He applauds old time character actors like Edward Arnold and Thelma Ritter that played every scene straight rather than try to be interesting playing comedy or drama. Although he doesn’t call him out, I can guess he would have fired James Dean in about 5 minutes into rehearsal. Isn’t magician, Ricky Jay, good in every Mamet movie? I can’t think of any reason other than his honest performance.

Like many, I had wondered what changed Mamet when he wrote The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. How could the most heralded playwright of the last forty some years be a conservative? His subject matter of con men and shyster salesman are an indictment of capitalism, right? It turns out those characters were interesting to Mamet because they were desperate and desperate men are more interesting to watch than contented men. It’s human nature that’s corrupt and thus the systems are all as corrupt as his protagonists. When you add his belief that drama itself is better within constraints, you understand this his approach has always been conservative. He considered himself a liberal because he was an artist, but once he started reading authors like Thomas Sowell, he reconciled that society has the same constraints.. Anything goes feels good to the novice, but it doesn’t work in art nor does it work in civilization.

I think this is a 5-star book because Mamet puts into words things that other directors do instinctually but can't explain. His explanation also resonates as to why classic movies where people did less acting are more interesting than most of what was made 10 years ago. Very few people could take this book and make a Mamet like movie, but any scribe benefits from an approach to writing that trains the avoidance of easy choices that are a temptation to make.

Mamet Ideas I wanted to remember:

Actors think they are performing a story arc when in fact the film creates the performance.

Humphrey Bogart nodding to the orchestra to play Le Marseilles in Casablanca was a great moment because of the editing within the context of the scene, not because of his performance.

“The good actor performs his tasks as simply and as unemotionally as possible.”

“Dumbo is an example of the perfect movie. Cartoons are very good to watch—are much better to watch, for people who want to direct, than movies.”

“The task of the artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the simple technique perfectly.”
Profile Image for Chun Ying.
69 reviews24 followers
July 27, 2020
While David Mamet is not necessarily the greatest filmmaker out there nor the best human being alive, and while the contents of this book are seemingly basic and redundant for anyone who's been to a film school, to be extremely honest, I'm glad I picked it up while roaming about in Eslite. It couldn't have been timelier that this book came to me at this hour, when I am struggling to understand the difference between being a writer and a director and how to, after having understood the difference, translate them into actual executive considerations.

Mamet gives unequivocal answers to filmmaking, which makes him an easy target to attack since he talks about films as if there are no other ways of making them. And those answers are glaringly flawed: his stance that "simple and stupid" shots are the best shots, his reverence of plot and scorn for the prose/poetry of films, his minimalization of actors' own art during the filmmaking process (reducing them to mere tools, almost dehumanizingly so), his framing of the audience as if they are all of one monolithic psyche, as if maintaining their interest is films' only job, his over-emphasis on montage as if shooting long shots with a Steadicam is the sin of the sins, etc.

It goes without saying that there is an avalanche of examples that go against his arguments, but it is exactly his emphasis on story-telling as a craft instead of a way to make personal statements that makes this book most helpful to me at this stage of my life.

I am about to make a short film and throughout all my creative endeavors I have been grappling with one question: how do I erase myself from the stories and let the characters speak for themselves? How do I stop narrating and actually tell a story? I was desperately looking for someone exactly like Mamet to shout at my face: "YOU CALL THAT A STORY? AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A STORY-TELLER?" And Mamet did exactly that, despite he did so with an extremely narrow view of film as a medium. But as of now, I actually NEED that narrowness, I need it because I live in a time where people are kind enough to never undermine whatever works you produce as long as they are intimate and true to you. But I don't just want to make a film that I enjoy making, but a film that people enjoy watching, not the mention that the latter often makes up the former. At this level, Mamet gives me a full swing with no hesitance, he's the "needle in the hay". And I wish that I would live to produce something that proves many of his views wrong, as many great movies did. But for now, I'll just let him spit in my face.
Profile Image for Christopher McQuain.
237 reviews15 followers
September 9, 2016
I knew it before I ever read the book, but David Mamet is MUCH more worthwhile in practice (I very much admire HOUSE OF GAMES and HEIST) than when he's theorizing, explaining art and the world to us and offering commentary.

If anyone was surprised by his big public coming out as a Glenn Beck-worshiping political conservative, they never read between the lines of the extreme, simplistic narrowness (very erudite and well-informed narrowness, but narrowness nonetheless) he offered up in essay-books like these. Solid proof that "bright" is much like "cool"; in and of itself, it's very often not nearly enough.
Profile Image for Lauren.
69 reviews
November 13, 2010
Mamet writes a short, to the point, book, not unlike the filmmaking approach he advocates. I wish I had read this prior to starting my Masters in film as it would have been quite beneficial. I learned more from this book than I have in film school thus far and will likely read it several more times. If you're interested in filmmaking as a craft, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Profile Image for Nora.
14 reviews
July 15, 2022
Questionable takes on the importance of acting & different styles of it but gives a simplified, structural outlook on writing and directing that I needed to hear. So wonderful to have reminders that my future career is not always just talent, money, and luck!
Profile Image for Ian.
135 reviews2 followers
November 10, 2021
I think if there is one word I would use to describe this it would be 'reductionist'. He abstracts and reduces everything into simple cynical package.
For example, people are reduced to 'What they want'- as if you can strip a person down to this.
Theres also an arrogant air to the writing, he speaks as if his opinions are facts. Furthermore I disagree with almost everything he says and some of it is self evidently false, For example he says "theres no such thing as character"..really? (This ridiculous statement somehow becomes fact because Aristotle said it). Also he claims, the only reason people speak is to get what they want. Its notable that Mamet is a better writer than he is a director. And you can kind of see why. He says writers should remove unfilmable character descriptions from scripts. You may not be able to film them but they may be useful for the actors.
He dogmatically sticks to the formula that you should 'tell it in the cut', why not just in a shot? Infact he generally speaks like there's a mathematical process by which you arrive at the shortlist.
The unfortunate thing is, he's quite an influential in American writing. You see Mamet in almost every modern 'hardboiled' TV show. Where every ‘non character’ is simply a degree on the sociopathic spectrum, trying to "get what they want".
I think reacting against cheesy innocence we arrive at black cynicism, missing the grey where humanity really lives.

Half of this book is just a discussion about a scene in which student walks into a classroom. Really that's it. That's how interesting the scene is and the discussion isn't much better. Is this, attention to detail? I would say it's all trees no forest. What it really is, is bullshit.
Profile Image for Chao Wang.
9 reviews1 follower
September 15, 2018
The title is a misnomer. He should've called it On How David Mamet Directs Film, because that's what it really is. He makes the claim that the bulk of a movie is made before a director even steps on set, and then his or her job is simply to stay awake while the actors do their thing. He takes a very reductive, mechanistic approach to film directing which is ideal for his dense and highly literary screenplays, but most directors don't apply that way of thinking to their own work, and thank God for that.

Overall, the book provides a glimpse into the mind of an idiosyncratic writer/director. All of his armchair theorizing is amusing to read if you're into that sort of thing, but for a much more informative, practical, brass-tacks introduction to film-making, I recommend picking up Sidney Lumet's Making Movies instead.
Profile Image for James.
80 reviews1 follower
September 5, 2017
David Mamet has strong opinions about a lot of things. That's fine. I just don't need to read a book that is constantly telling me that I'm crazy and/or pretentious for enjoying the films of anyone who doesn't follow a strictly Aristotelian model.

I have found interesting nuggets in many of Mr. Mamet's books, plays and films. In fact, I use "Three Uses of the Knife" in one of my script analysis classes. But this one only frustrated me. He's just such a damn jerk about everything.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,353 reviews452 followers
July 30, 2018
While I cannot get enough of reading works by favorite performers and creators, I found this to be geared more for a serious student of the craft of directing. Mamet does inform that this rather slim volume is based on lectures and conversations to students in an advanced film studies course at Columbia, but for the lay person, there was rather too much technical content to make it fully engaging or even revealing about Mamet as a person.
77 reviews33 followers
December 29, 2017
As with most of Mamet's pedagogical writing, this is two-thirds important theoretical insight and actionable methodology plus a third histrionic whinging at the aesthetic excesses of modernity and Hollywood's heretical philistinism. But even when he's a pompous douchebag, Mamet is, admittedly, an eloquent and entertaining douchebag.
Profile Image for Joshua Joyce.
Author 2 books4 followers
May 29, 2021
A very practical and insightful read. Mamet takes ethereal and floaty concepts about writing and telling a story and breaks them down into bite sized, practical tools to comprehend and practice the work yourself.
Profile Image for Bahareh Mahooti.
97 reviews14 followers
June 18, 2021
I like the way he shows us how a plot grows and turns into a cinematic images. He’s good.
Profile Image for Marc Hampson.
30 reviews4 followers
March 9, 2017
"If a person's objective is truly - and you don't have to do it humbly, because you'll get humble soon enough - to understand the nature of the medium, that objective will be communicated to the audience."

This book is a brilliant study in taking the role of the director and bringing an idea to life through communicating a series of images - the shot list. It's a book on Directing, but I would just as much recommend it to any screenwriter as well.

Mamet works hard to stay away from discussing angles & visual style as he thinks you should (at least in your initial planning) as these are not his strong suits (to which he admits) but instead demands that shots should communicate through staging, action and juxtaposition. Information should not be read or told but questioned, answered and experienced.

His points are further stressed through demonstration in workshop format between students and himself in two of the longest chapters near the beginning and end of the book that I quite enjoyed.

A strong theme running throughout the book is putting in the hard work will help you to know the job as it focuses heavily on workshopping down to communicating the information in the shot to it's core which in turn cuts away the fluff making it easier to communicate (in theory) what's happening in said shot with the sets, props, actors, etc.

The book's back cover purports that this book looks at every aspect of directing - "from script to cutting room floor" - that's simply not true if you simply learning about film and are just getting into the art form.

However if this is a chapter slightly further along on your journey I would HIGLY RECOMMEND this as an advanced masterclass. Not too advanced to understand for anyone by any means - but maybe too advanced to fully absorb... But what do I know. Read it anyways :)
24 reviews
November 8, 2020
The problem with this book is not that it is wrong, about 75% of it is correct about the craft of directing, but that it implies (I think it even says) that there is nothing else to learn. That the content of this book is the essential technique on directing. And frankly, it's really talking about the craft of writing and how that translates to directing rather than directing itself.

If you were in a pottery class and the teacher taught you how to make a bowl and said, "And that's it." would they be a great teacher? No.

David Mamet at this point in his life, after his second film, had discovered what makes bad films nauseating (Big Studio and Art Film alike) and it was not following the simple principle of knowing what the scene is about, and choosing shots based on the simplest way to convey the idea. He is right. But that is not the highest technique you can master, that is the bare minimum requirement for making a film, just like making a vague bowl shape is kinda the bare minimum for doing pottery. It's after that point, fulfilling the bare minimum of your craft, that you must get creative, and you must take a risk by stepping into the unknown.

To roughly quote a quote from memory from Your Screenplay Sucks by William M. Akers:

"There ain't a sucker alive knows what's gonna hit."
Profile Image for Claire.
938 reviews8 followers
May 3, 2011
Thought-provoking but also a little annoying. Mamet's metaphors don't really work for me - I'm not buying the comparisons of crafting a film to crafting shoes, homes, or chairs. He makes some really great points about simplicity, planning, and montage, but his tangential rants, while entertaining (he REALLY hates performance art) weaken his points. Also, this is very Western philosophy / dude-centric / arrogant professor-style and that bugged me. I know that's vague, but the lack of even theoretical females was so noticeable that I had to check the copyright date. 1991??? Really? But for someone like me who knows very little about film direction, this is an interesting little intro.
126 reviews
February 27, 2022
This has not aged well. The one solid nugget I took away from this was a reminder of sorts to get your mind thinking visually (i.e. trying to communicate ideas without dialogue) but for the most part it's the transcripts of conversations Mamet has with some film students and it becomes obvious pretty soon that no one is a bigger fan of Mamet than Mamet and there isn't a lot of useful or interesting information to be had here.
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