There were more than enough film buffs who made 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 DePalma’s 1987 crime-drama 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 the infamous crime boss Al Capone on tax evasion charges seemed like the perfect way for me to celebrate Tax Day and its most welcome ending. Finally seeing it on the big screen in glorious 70 mm (despite the occasional glaring scratch in the print) was great after being introduced to it all those years ago on VHS.
But I do have to admit though that this movie really screwed me up for a time after I first saw it. It was one of the few times my parents let me watch an R rated movie with them when they rented it on video. Having seen it being reviewed on so many different shows like At The Movies, Sneak Previews, and of course Siskel & Ebert (which had both hosts clashing over it passionately) had me excited about watching it eventually, and this was back in the day when I rarely (if ever) went out to the movies. But it was one of the first times where I realized that the good guys didn’t always make it to the finish line. To see them get killed off in a most gruesome way was painful for a 12 year old to take in as I always believed (with a few exceptions) that the good guys, those who work for justice, would be the ones left standing. Back then, I had yet to learn how unfair the world could be.
Anyway, 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 those huge yellow glasses he’s always seen wearing, Mamet had many a story to tell regarding the making of DePalma’s film, writing the script for it, and his thoughts on writing and Hollywood in general.
The first question was of course 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 that 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 for this film was “a lot of money.” The way Mamet sees it, writing for someone else is known as “whoring.”
Being one of America’s most acclaimed playwrights even back then, and that he grew up in Chicago where The Untouchables tales place should have made David Mamet the most obvious choice for this long gestating project. Mamet talked about how he grew up in Chicago 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 and years, Chicago has been known to be constantly engulfed by corruption, and Mamet did nothing to hide the fact that it is a city “full of crooks.” Mamet described it a machine that is run downstate, and he remarked 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 simply said that “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 his inspiration for The Untouchables came from all of Chicago he said. Mamet 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 the movie, and I wonder if there has been a movie since that is as superb in the way it captures the Chicago of the Prohibition era.
With Brian DePalma directing The Untouchables, Mamet said he just hoped that he would stick to the script he wrote. Looking back at it, he said that DePalma actually did stay true to it to a certain extent, but that there were moments where he felt aliens had come down from above and sucked the brains out of those involved in making the film. In terms of differences from his original script, he said that they took out the crawl he put at the ending of what happened after the end of the Prohibition Era, and of how gangsters are still with us to this very day. Mamet also said that DePalma was the one who added that “cockamamie baby carriage.”
During the making of The Untouchables, Mamet said that 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 set when the film is being made, 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 of the same name 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, David Mamet described The Untouchables as being a melodrama. Lest people see that is him looking down on the way DePalma shot this now classic crime drama, he was quick to quote from Stanislavski:
“Tragedy is just heightened melodrama.”
Looking at The Untouchables as a melodramatic piece actually makes perfect sense, and people in the end got so swept up in the story just as they should have. Audiences came to this 1987 movie for action, and they came out of having sucked so many different emotions.
Other tidbits that Mamet shared about the making of The Untouchables 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 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 Sean 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 indeed had much to say about it. As a dramatist, he said that his job is to take out the narration and to 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 the other projects he has worked on, Mamet said that the coffees for closers speech with Alec Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross (which was actually written for the movie of the play) 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 of why he never got any credit for it. Mamet said that he had always wanted to write something anonymously, and Ronin became that something because he was not originally signed on to write it. What happened was that Robert DeNiro pleaded with him to do a rewrite on the script as he felt it was not quite up to speed. Mamet said he eventually caved in and rewrote the whole script in a week.
In addition to being a writer, David 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 of how each beat contributes to the action of it. 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.”
David Mamet was up onstage for close to an hour at the Aero Theater, and it still didn’t feel like he was on for 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 (no pun intended) made us want to learn more. When it comes to The Untouchables, he gives all the credit for the win to Brian DePalma 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 was a very accident prone movie, and that was just as well.
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 said that 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…”