Even sitting at a banquette in one corner of the nearly empty Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, an old-style grill in Greenwich Village, with his orange Perspex-framed glasses lying on the table in front of him, David Mamet is at work.
We have met at the Knickerbocker because he is in New York with his producer to scout locations for a film he has written and will direct for HBO about Phil Spector, the legendary music producer. “We call it a red-booth restaurant in the movie. This is close. It’s oxblood,” he says, prodding our leather-lined booth. “We’ll have to dye it.”
Spector, to be played by Al Pacino with Bette Midler as his lawyer, Linda Kenney Baden, was jailed for murder in 2008 after being convicted of the killing of Lana Clarkson, an actress, at his California mansion. “I don’t think he’s guilty. I definitely think there is reasonable doubt,” Mamet says briskly when I ask what interested him about the case. “They should never have sent him away. Whether he did it or not, we’ll never know but if he’d just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him.”
The crisp certainty and rhetorical force makes Mamet sound like one of his characters. At the age of 63, with close-cropped gray hair and a beard, he is not only one of the most celebrated of American dramatists but one of the most prolific. From plays such as American Buffalo (1975), a Pinteresque drama about four petty thieves, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross (1982), an intense clash of competing property salesmen, to harrowing films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and the Oscar-nominated courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), to novels and essays, he rarely rests.
There are signs of the advancing years—he has a hearing aid in one ear—but he has the nervous energy and edge of a younger man. He has greeted me warmly but seems a little isolated as he sits before me, as if the ideas jostling in his head leave little room for other voices to penetrate. He is dressed in artisan filmmaker style—white trousers, a gray linen shirt and a waistcoat with pockets into which are tucked some notes and a glasses case.
He recounts the restaurant scene from the film, which involves Midler’s character. “Linda says, ‘You’ve known your husband a long time. You know he’s cheating on you.’ The woman says, ‘That’s preposterous,’ and Linda says, ‘That’s called giving him the benefit of the doubt.’ The woman walks away and then she says, ‘OK. But what are you going to do when he kills the next girl?’ ” Mamet chuckles. “It’s a pretty good scene.”
Confrontation is often present in Mamet’s work, in which characters with opposing views argue with often unbearable intensity, trying to settle their differences by pounding each other’s personalities. He thrives on provoking his audience and has now done so in real life by becoming a conservative and writing a book, The Secret Knowledge, that grinds into dust his erstwhile liberalism. Mamet’s Damascene conversion from one side of the bitterly divided American political culture to the other, which he first announced in a 2008 article for the Village Voice headlined “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” shocked his fellow writers and artists.
“I saw things that horrified me in my own behavior, positions I’d taken that were foolish and absurd,” he declares defiantly. I ask for an example. “Voting for big government. It has ruined our country as it ruined yours. As Churchill said, ‘We fought the war and now our country is giving away everything we fought and died for.’ California is broke, this country is broke, yet we keep on voting for it.”
This peroration, delivered in a husky voice with traces of his native Chicago, is interrupted by the waitress. Mamet switches seamlessly to ordering his food in Hollywood manner—he now lives in the Brentwood district of Los Angeles with his four children, the younger two with his second wife, the Anglo-American actress Rebecca Pidgeon. “Filet mignon rare, and no mashed potatoes please, and no sauce please. I’ll start off with the green salad with the balsamic vinegar on the side.”
I ask whether anything in particular prompted his change of heart and he cites the 2007-08 film and television writers’ strike and The Unit, a TV show that Mamet created and produced. “All of a sudden, the show was off the air and everyone was thrown out of work—the stagehands, the grips, the costume designers, all the people who worked 16 hours a day … I realized I had been screwed by unions as much as I’d been helped by them.”
The experience led him to start reading the work of free-market economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Adam Smith and philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Hobbes. He also talked to Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, two conservative writers at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “My dad was a labor lawyer and the ideas that I grew up with—bad management, bad capitalism, robber barons—when I applied this to my own life, I saw that we are all on both sides of the coin.”
Mamet’s book, with its dismissal of global warming, objections to state-supported spending programs and scathing hostility to liberals, often reads like someone who is grappling with these well-worn topics for the first time. Later in our conversation, I ask whether he had read any economics before and he says not—he typically gets absorbed in a collection of books relating to his current play for two years at a time before moving on. I wonder what might have happened if he had picked up John Maynard Keynes instead of Friedman.
The Secret Knowledge has had some hostile reviews, including one from John Lloyd in the FT, and Mamet stands accused of turning conservative as he has grown older and richer. When I mention this, he bristles. “People say, Oh, Dave just wrote this book because he made a couple of bucks or because he believes in the state of Israel and he cast his liberal beliefs aside, but what about the arguments?” Mamet, who attends synagogue regularly, cites the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah. “They say you can’t study Kabbalah until you are at least 40 years old. You know why? You have to have experienced at least one generation making the same mistakes as the previous one. Getting into my sixties, I have a certain amount of experience. I know very well what it is to be out of work and to be cheated by employers and I know what it is to be an employer.”
As we eat our salads—I have ordered beetroot salad with goat cheese, chives, and shallots—I take the opportunity of having this master craftsman in front of me to ask about writing. He commences by defining where others go wrong. “Anyone can write five people trapped in a snowstorm. The question is how you get them into the snowstorm. It’s hard to write a good play because it’s hard to structure a plot. If you can think of it off the top of your head, so can the audience. To think of a plot that is, as Aristotle says, surprising and yet inevitable, is a lot, lot, lot of work.”
So what is the basis of drama? Mamet gazes at me blankly as if the question is naive, then elucidates in one long sentence. “The basis of drama is … is the struggle of the hero towards a specific goal at the end of which he realizes that what kept him from it was, in the lesser drama, civilization and, in the great drama, the discovery of something that he did not set out to discover but which can be seen retrospectively as inevitable. The example Aristotle uses, of course, is Oedipus.”
We return to politics and I suggest that his intellectual journey from liberalism to neoconservatism has been traveled before by Jews such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. This triggers a long reflection on his own Zionism and how he thinks Israel has been betrayed by the American left.
“The speeches that Charles Lindbergh made and Oswald Mosley made in the 1930s are the same speeches that are being made today, only slightly more politely: ‘The Jews are bringing us to war. Perhaps we should give their state away.’ The liberals in my neighborhood wouldn’t give away Brentwood to the Palestinians but they want to give away Tel Aviv.”
But attitudes in Europe to the Middle East tend to be more skeptical about Israel than American ones, I interject. Does he believe that anyone who disputes Israel’s land claims and believes in reallocation of territory to the Palestinians is anti-Semitic?
Uncharacteristically, Mamet hesitates slightly as he starts to answer and I wonder if he will back down, or at least hedge his answer. “Well, at some level … listen …” He throws his head back and looks briefly at the ceiling before emitting a grunt of relief as he abandons caution.
“Yes!” he exclaims. “Of course! I mean you Brits … ” He smiles ruefully. “I love the British. Whatever education I have comes from reading your writers and yet, time and time again, for example reading Trollope, there is the stock Jew. Even in George Eliot, God bless her. And the authors of today … I’m not going to mention names because of your horrendous libel laws but there are famous dramatists and novelists over there whose works are full of anti-Semitic filth.
“There is a profound and ineradicable taint of anti-Semitism in the British … The paradigmatic Brit as far as the Middle East goes is [TE] Lawrence. That’s just the fact. Even before the oil was there, you loved the desert. It had all these wacky characters … But there is a Jewish state there ratified by the United Nations and you want to give it away to some people whose claim is rather dubious.”
The elision of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism strikes me as not only wrong but offensive, yet Mamet has delivered it almost amiably. He has a knack of combining character assassination with dry wit, as if only half-serious.
As the waitress brings Mamet’s steak and a hamburger for me, he exclaims with relish: “Yum, yum, yum.” Then he returns to safer ground. “The first time I met Tennessee Williams,” he recalls, “he showed up at a party in Chicago with two beautiful young boys who were obviously rough trade. He looked at them and then he looked at me and he said, ‘Expensive habit.’ So that’s kind of how I feel about liberalism. It’s a damned expensive habit.”
What does he think of Barack Obama? “The question is can he run on his record in 2012 and the answer is no, because it’s abysmal. He took a trillion dollars and where it went, nobody knows. He dismantled health care, he weakened America around the world, he sold out the state of Israel. All he’s got to run on is being a Democrat and indicting the other fellow.”
So who would he prefer as president? He replies that he is “not current” with the Republican contenders until I mention Sarah Palin. “I am crazy about her,” he answers immediately. “Would she make a good candidate for president? I don’t know but she seems to have succeeded at everything she put her hand to.”
Mamet compares Palin to a late friend in Cabot, Vt., where he owns a “little cabin in the woods … I like to hunt. I like to fish. Cross-country ski. It’s in the middle of absolute nowhere. A dirt-track road, a 200-year-old post-and-beam house. Gorgeous.” His friend, he continues, was “a hardworking guy, a man of honor who was looking out for the town’s interests. I thought of him when I saw Sarah Palin. She started with the PTA and then became the mayor and then governor [of Alaska]. I thought, well, OK. That’s someone who knows how to work.”
Why, if he so loves small-town America and its values, does he live in the liberal enclave of Los Angeles? “There is a lot of work. My wife works there,” he says and then he mentions his daughters. “They are very, very beautiful. It once occurred to me: being able to write is like being the pretty girl at the party. You can’t be diffident about it because that’s a lie but it’s nothing to be arrogant about.”
The waitress returns and Mamet asks if she has any fresh fruit. She offers us two plates of berries, bananas, and sliced apples. “Yum, yum,” he says appreciatively as the fruit arrives a few minutes later. We are discussing Hollywood and his liberal friends and colleagues. “It is very amusing to listen to some people of my acquaintance who not only own summer homes but transcontinental jets going on about greed and how greed is ruining our country,” Mamet says with a laugh. “You get rich through luck. You get rich through crime. You get rich through fulfilling the needs of another. You can be as greedy as you like. If you can’t do one of those three things, you ain’t going to get any money.”
We close with his Phil Spector film and, as Mamet describes a monologue from it, it is clear how much he identifies with the defiantly eccentric and isolated producer—and with Lawrence of Arabia. “He [the Spector character] talks a lot about Lawrence. He loved Lawrence. Either he loved him or I do, I can’t remember. He says in the film Lawrence wanted the one thing that he couldn’t have, which was privacy. He simply wanted to be by himself. Did that make him a monster?”
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.