On Directing Film by David Mamet

On Directing Film by David Mamet

A review by Shawn Duenas

“Always do things in the least interesting way, and you make a better movie.” pg 20

A hand grabs a book off of the shelf. It’s opened wide. A young man’s eyes scan the pages. A hand turns the pages, we’re halfway through. The young man’s eyes are fighting falling asleep. The last page of the book is turned. Finally, the book is closed. The man stares calmly at the wall. “Why ‘da f*** am I taking advice on directing film from a screenwriter who’s directed nothing memorable and believes the quote above?”

David Mamet’s thesis about film can be summed up in the following quotes.

[A movie] “is a succession of images juxtaposed so that the contrast between these images move the story forward in the mind of the audience.” pg 2

“The dream and the film are the juxtaposition of images in order to answer a question.” pg 7

“The job of the film director is to tell the story through the juxtaposition of uninflected images…” pg 60

He comes to this conclusion from his screenwriting background, having won screenwriting awards (primarily for Glenngary Glen Ross which was based on his experience working in a similar real estate agency) but having no recognition for the two films he had directed before deciding to write this book.

Chapter One is an easy read and goes to support the often cited claim that it’s a fast read (it’s 107 pages on 5.1″ x 7.75″ paper, 0.2″ leading).

Chapter Two (the bulk of the book, 48 of the 107 pages) attempts to explain the question “Where Do I Put the Camera?” It was a tedious chapter to read, and goes to support my argument that it wasn’t an easy read to follow. It was written in the form of a faux conversation between him as a visiting professor and his students (based on his semester teaching at Columbia University in the fall of 1987). It’s tedious be it builds on itself as it progresses and if you skipped the previous page, you’re struggling to catch up. But that’s not to say everything he writes is important. It’s mostly to say that it is written like a lengthy meandering math proof without knowing what we’re trying to prove.

Imagine sitting in on an architecture class and the professor keeps asking the class what might be the best way to construct a bridge. The class answers with their best guess and he tells everyone they’re wrong. He then gives them what he feels is the right answer in an effort to explain his thesis. And gives no insight into actually executing the vision.

Does he answers the chapter’s question of Where do I put the camera? No and I think that’s on purpose. Instead he spends the whole chapter attempting to WRITE a scene with his students, NOT DIRECT one that was already written. It’s a series of ask-the-student-what-they-might-do then tell them that’s probably not good. Instead consider my story idea. Yeah, this is definitely good. Maybe. Let’s go with it anyway.

I think he doesn’t answer the question directly until the next chapter (at least 48 pages later) because he’s using the question as the hook to keep the audience interested. Unfortunately, it just frustrates me because he instead focuses on writing a script.

Sprinkled throughout are some helpful reminders on writing a scene and what makes a scene work. Here are the few clear and useful words in the chapter:

” ‘what does the protagonist want?’ Because the scene ends when the protagonist gets it.” pg 10

“It’s impossible to make a character interesting in general.” pg 11

“The story can only be interesting because we find the progress of the protagonist interesting.” pg 12

“The truth is, you never have to establish the character. In the first place, there is no such thing as character other than habitual action, as Mr. Aristotle told us two thousand years ago.” pg 13

“The character is just habitual action.” pg 13

“Now, don’t you go ‘establishing’ things. Make the audience wonder what’s going on by putting them in the same position as the protagonist.” pg 14

“The moment the protagonist…stops trying to get something and starts trying to influence someone, the audience will go to sleep.” pg 14

“How do we keep their attention? Certainly not by giving them more information but, on the contrary, by withholding information–by withholding all information except that information the absence of which would make the progress of the story incomprehensible.” pg 20

Definitely good reminders of how to write well. But he interjects his words of wisdom in the middle of the larger framework of writing a scene. And in writing a scene he introduces the idea of


But he doesn’t really explain that either. Instead he just starts to use the concept and hopes we figure it out. For example, he’s writing a scene where the super-objective is for a student to win the respect of the instructor. Inside the scene are several beats that start of with: earliness, to prepare (which is better than waiting, grooming, studying), homage (which is better than greeting and any other beat we’ve done already), and others. It’s hard to follow which beat they’re working toward on any given page because he’s constantly soliciting the students for answers and slowly coming to the conclusion that the students’ answers are bad and declaring his as better. Then forces the students to work toward his beat choice.

In this chapter he never gets around to explaining what a beat is, what makes one better, or how to go about finding or creating a beat. He does go into writing the beat into a scene. For example, for earliness, he avoids using the cliche clock but does go for: a hand grabs the door handle and it doesn’t open. I’m still not clear as to why he made his choices and why they’re objectively better.

Anyway, I skipped to the end and had no idea where they had concluded the scene nor did I care.

Chapter 3 (pg 57-66) was informative and gave us the following useful quotes since it’s written in a more traditional prose manner.

“…the bad author…has to take up the slack by making each subsequent event more diverting than the last; to trick the audience into paying attention.” pg 62

Aren’t we all tricking the audience into paying attention? Your ploy of positing a question and not answering it ever, is a trick and a form of disrespect to your audience.

“The structure of any dramatic form should be syllogism—which is a logical construct of this form: If A, then B. A play or movie proceeds from a statement: ‘if A’ (in which condition of unrest is created or posited), to a conclusion: “then B” (at which time entropy will once again rear its corrective head, and a condition of rest will have been once again achieved).” pg 63

Which relates to how you know a scene has ended because you’ve answered the question you set up at the beginning of it.

“To get into the scene late and to get out early is to demonstrate respect for your audience.” pg 63

Something he forgets about in his writing style for chapters 2 and 4.

“The film business is caught in a spiral of degeneracy because it’s run by people who have no compass. And the only thing you can do in the face of this downward force is tell the truth. Anytime anyone tells the truth, that’s a counterforce.” pg 65

Finally, we’ve arrived at the most cliche outsider hateful perspective of the work of others. He doesn’t even choose to say that many or most people have no compass. He seems to think he’s better than everyone and that the esoteric “truth” cliche is worth standing behind.

Chapter 4. The Task of the Director (What to Tell the Actors and Where to Put the Camera) pg 67-78

“To give direction to an actor you do the same thing you do when you give direction for a cameraman. You refer to the objective of the scene.” pg 68

“Acting should be a performance of the simple physical action.” pg 68

“The more the actor tries to make each physical action carry the meaning of the ‘scene’ or ‘play’, the more that actor is ruining your movie.” pg 68

“Actors will ask a lot of questions. ‘What am I thinking here?’ ‘What is my motivation?’ ‘Where did I just come from?’ The answer to all of these questions is it doesn’t matter.” pg 71

George Lucas must be really proud of this guy. Now there’s some merit to this claim to avoid overacting or and unnecessarily stylistic camerawork. But this alienate him from actors and inspires wooden dry performances.

“The purpose of rehearsal is to tell the actors exactly the actions called for, beat by beat.” pg 71

This only goes to show you how much he doesn’t know and how reading this book gets you no closer to directing a cinematic classic like Spielberg.

Chapter 5. Pig The Movie (pg 79 – 102)

We’re back to the student-professor dialogue. Dear God. I stopped reading at this point.

Chapter 6. Conclusion (pg 103-107)

I think it’s mostly inspiration (just go out and make movies, there’s nothing magical about it) and rephrasing (with less clarity) what he had written earlier.


And now you’ve read the book. Seriously, I gave you all of the quotes I highlighted and found useful from the book and juxtaposed next to each other, it’s very clear what his argument is. Now it’s up to you to look up what this guy has DIRECTED and you tell me if you want to learn from a loser?

At best he’s absolutely right. Perhaps maybe this is what Spielberg and Scorsese do. But at worst, he’s giving you the mindset of a proven loser.

Not only is this guy an actor’s nightmare, but he’s an audience’s nightmare. Here fights against nuanced performances and against interesting visual or situations to keep me interested! He seems to think they’re mutually exclusive to making a good story.

He seems to have taken the fact that he was on set in the director’s chair twice as proof that he can direct. I think not.

My rating of the book: 2/5 for the quotes above.

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