Written By April | May 2013 : Page 22
A Reasonable Doubt
A Reasonable Doubt
David Mamet stands alone again with HBO’s controversial Phil Spector.
Writers are asked, “How could you know so much about [fill in the profession]?” The answer, if the writing satisfies, is that one makes it up.And the job, my job, as a dramatist, was not to write accurately, but to write persuasively.
—David Mamet, The Secret Knowledge
It would seem to be an open-and-shut case, a whodunit without mystery: In 2003, a Sunset Strip night club hostess accepts an after-hours invitation to a notorious eccentric’s mansion. Two hours later, she’s dead from a gunshot wound. The barrel of the pistol had been in her mouth. The gun belongs to legendary music producer Phil Spector, a weapons collector with a reputation for abuses against women. Spector’s chauffeur tells the police that Spector said, “I think I killed somebody.” After two trials— the first jury deadlocked—Spector is convicted of manslaughter. Obviously guilty, it’s hardly the stuff of riveting drama.
But as is often the case, David Mamet took a contrary position.Standing outside the “collective wisdom,” he wrote and directed Phil Spector for HBO. Mamet’s perspective led to a Beauty and the Beast tale about defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden (portrayed by Helen Mirren) managing to overcome her prejudice. She gets beyond the beastly elements in Spector (Al Pacino), whose monstrous wigs and haunted mansion could have been designed for genre horror fiction. Ultimately, she journeys to a personal transformation.
Did Spector do it? Not the point of this tale. No surprise for a Mamet work, the dramatic result is generating controversy among the press and public.
Mamet needs no introduction to writers. The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, November, Race), screenwriter (The Verdict, The Untouchables, House of Games, Wag the Dog, Hoffa), author (Bambi vs. Godzilla, The Wicked Son), television producer/writer (The Unit), and theater impresario has invariably worked in the eye of the public’s hurricane.
His philosophical/political reversal from liberal to conservative received wide coverage by the media. (However, for the record it should be noted that the title to the controversial essay declaring Mamet’s newfound wisdom, “Why I am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” was inserted by the editor. Mamet’s original title was “Political Civility.”)
But his theories on the writer’s craft remain influential educational tools, separate from politics. His recent online essay “Truth and Melodrama and Phil Spector” is a case in point.
His 2010 confidential memo to the writing staff of The Unit, leaked online, roared through the literary blogosphere. Breaking down the essence of a good script, the memo contained quotable guidelines, such as:
“Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.”
“Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, in truth, you are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.”
“Any time any character is saying to another, ‘As you know,’ that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.”
“Do not write a crock of shit.” At the end of the memo, he signed off with, “Love, Dave Mamet”…
Richard Stayton: How did Phil Spector become a David Mamet project?
David Mamet: My agent, John Burnham, sends me, once a week or so, these great ideas. And he sent me a documentary by this guy Vikram Jayanti: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector. I said to my agent, “John, I don’t want to see a thing about Phil Spector, I know the whole story,” meaning that I’ve read some piece in some newspaper. So John said, “See it.” I’m watching it with my wife [actress/singer Rebecca Pidgeon], and it’s an interview all on Phil.And the first couple minutes, you’re thinking, This guy’s a creep, I don’t want to see this movie. And you start listening and he’s kind of fascinating, and you keep listening and say, “Oh, he’s kind of brilliant.” And then you start saying, “Well, maybe he didn’t do it.”
Did you then write it on spec, or did you pitch it somewhere?
I took it to Len Amato over at HBO [president of HBO Films].Len’s a guy from Chicago; he talks like home, from a place that’s got a real thick accent. “These, them, and those,” like I used to talk when I was a kid. He said, “What’s your idea?” I said, “I don’t have one. I just want to jump in and see where it takes me.” He said, “Well, as long as you don’t indict the victim.” I said, “I don’t know why I would, but that’s perfectly fair.” That was the take-off part for writing the script. A woman, Linda Kenney Baden [Helen Mirren], says from moment one—and this became the engine of the script—“I won’t indict the victim, I won’t indict the victim.” Jeffrey Tambor [playing defense attorney Bruce Cutler] says, “But isn’t [Spector] entitled to a defense? Don’t we have the presumption of innocence in this country?” And she says, “Yes, he’s entitled to a defense, but he’s a fucking creep.” She’s not even going to meet Him but does almost by accident. She sees—as I saw, as most people saw watching the documentary—he’s odd. But without the [murder] accusation, he’s not a fucking creep. So she says, “He is entitled to a defense, let me jump in. Although I think he did it, he’s still entitled to a defense.” She jumps in and finds that the physical evidence exculpates him. That it’s not beyond a reasonable doubt. Then she has to come up with an alternative to tell the jury to open their minds, because in the same way her mind had been clouded, so have theirs. Not to say he’s innocent but to say, “Yes, I see there is a doubt.” Of course it’s been eroded for decades, but if you take away the system of reasonable doubt, then that position by the state is equal to a guilty verdict. Do we want to give the state that power? And so little by little, she comes up with an alternative [version of events], which she believes is true.
It’s proving quite provocative. A group calling itself Friends of Lana Clarkson is claiming you’re indicting the victim. Simply mentioning this interview to colleagues, I’ve gotten in arguments about your “defense of Spector.”
Good. That’s what controversy used to be called, two people on different sides of one question. Controversy has gone out of contemporary fiction and drama. Now it’s, Let’s have a straw man. “I hate gays,” right? [Talking to] the young woman who’s coming out. That’s a fake controversy. “I hate blacks, I hate Jews.” And there’s your straw person. That’s not controversial; that’s formulaic. The question of two different arguable sides to an issue is forgotten, largely. And what we saw very strongly with Oleana [Mamet’s 1992 play about political correctness] was the fact that when there were two sides to an issue—and it wasn’t a straw man and a victim—it drove people fucking nuts. ’Cause they weren’t used to seeing it.
Bette Midler was initially cast as defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden but suffered an injury and had to drop out. How Did you then get Helen Mirren?
I don’t know. She’d been on vacation, had just finished about eight projects in a row, and had retired with her husband to take a year off. And so, after Bette, they said, “No, no, no, no, no. I wouldn’t even approach Helen Mirren.” So someone said, “Just give her the script.” She got it, read it, said, “I’ll be there next week.” It was one of my great compliments in life. A week into shooting, Al [Pacino] came up and said, “David, you know, it’s really Helen’s movie.” Well, I knew that. But for him to say it, it’s very genuine. Because of course she is the hero. She’s the only one with a problem that changes throughout the course of the thing; her solution brings us the end of the movie. Baden’s always said, “I believe in a reasonable doubt, I believe in a reasonable doubt, blah, blah, blah. But certainly reasonable doubt can’t obtain in a case as stark as this.” She’s meant to examine her own prejudice and come to a decision at the end of the movie where she realizes that the problem was in herself. That she wasn’t really capable, previously, to undergo the journey of looking at the depth of the worst case scenario of reasonable doubt and saying, “Nonetheless, he’s entitled to a defense.”
Critics will probably be pointing out that this film demonstrates David Mamet’s pro-gun position.
Well, I’m pro-Constitution. Also, I spent a couple of lifetimes in hotels over the past few months. You’re stuck in a hotel and you say, “Well, let me see what’s on the movie screen now and…” It’s incredibly hypocritical for lefties in Hollywood to talk about banning the guns. If they want to ban the guns, they should take all the gratuitous violence out of the movies. This film, Phil Spector, doesn’t have any gratuitous violence. In fact, it doesn’t have any violence. This is the opposite of using violence for creative interest. It’s a movie about violence, without any guns. So if one did the same about Columbine or about the Newtown massacre, would that be called pro-gun? Where in the world in this film are they going to take a stance that’s pro gun? A terrible event occurred, and a woman died. The movie’s about that. The question is who did it. Somebody said [Lana Clarkson] killed herself because she was a disappointed actress. If that were true, the streets would be running with blood. Every woman in here [a Brentwood restaurant] over the age of 10 is a disappointed actress. The question in the movie that finally comes up is, Did she kill herself? And the point where we stop asking what is reasonable and only say what is politically acceptable, we’re well on the way to fascism.The movie’s about Helen Mirren’s character. And it’s about a woman who died.
You probably should plan on some of those accusations flying in your direction.
I don’t care. I’ve inherited a lot of that immigrant blood from my grandparents. You’ve got to see what’s actually happening.Who’s getting hurt, who’s profiting. How I’m going to make a living. To get involved with the press, that way lies madness. You see guys at the Oscars apparently getting all Upset because they didn’t win some award. Who cares? You know, [who cares] after you get out of your teenage years.
I was very moved by the film’s climactic scene at the end of Spector’s trial rehearsal, when Spector refuses to cooperate with his legal team and is walking out and shaking hands and thanking his lawyers. It was a beautiful blend of the theatrical and the cinematic, with the waiting car headlights backlighting the scene and the trees framing him in silhouette. I don’t know why it’s so haunting.
I don’t know why either. I’m thinking about this thing and I’m thinking, Fuck, he’s got to be in a birch forest. So there’s two parts [to the scene]. He comes out of the trial [rehearsal space] and walks into the little room and there’s this huge scrim blown out from the back of the birch forest. You can barely make out the trees. So [the scene’s] in a commercial [advertising] house.
When you first sat down to write, you were facing an impossible story, with enough raw material for a book. All the evidence, information, the media coverage— how did you narrow it down to a teleplay?
[The writing process] is a mystery. I was talking to Helen, and she said, “Oh David, you’re such a good director, very gracious.” I said, “Thank you.” “Did you ever act?” I said, “Yeah, I used to act but I’m no good at it.” And she said, “Oh, it’s so easy.” So I said, “Yeah, for you it’s easy.” Because she’s got a talent for acting. The answer to your question, “How’d you come up with that?”: Every goddamn time you got to go through the [discovery] process.
The audience is not going to go through any process that the writer hasn’t gone through. It’s like you ask a woman how long you were in labor, the woman doesn’t know. It lasted forever—whether forever was 30 minutes or 36 hours—and then it was over.
Those Who Can, Do
So, as a craftsman, you wouldn’t know, for example, how many drafts you did of the Spector?
Writers ask me for advice. So I tell them, “If I give you advice, [then] A, you wouldn’t take it.Nor should you. B, you’d hate me. And C, if you did take it, it wouldn’t help you get your stuff out into the world.” Everybody knows Hemingway wrote standing up, right? What writer since Hemingway wrote standing up? None. So what good does it do the writer to know that Hemingway wrote standing up?
But many of your books seem to me to offer invaluable advice to writers. Even those for actors provide useful instructions for writing.
I’ve given up on education. I’m no good at it. Also, I don’t think it works. It doesn’t help anybody. People get hooked up and people talk about, for example the [acting instructor Sandy] Meisner Technique. I don’t know what that is.And he’s actually my teacher. I have no idea what the Meisner Technique is. Or the actor’s purview or any of that filth.When I think about acting, after looking carefully at it for literally 50 years, either you can do it or you can’t. If you can do it, you’re probably going to get better at it. The one thing I do know is you’ve got to do it all the time.
Do you conduct acting workshops anymore?
No, I’m done with that. You know, I’m trying to experiment with not writing. I’m taking a little rest. I was saying to my wife, “I’m kind of struggling with the idea of taking it easy.” I’ve never taken it easy because I love writing. I do it for a living, and I’m addicted to it, and it beats thinking. So to kind of go cold turkey is interesting, but that’s what I’m doing lately.
How does someone so prolific go cold turkey?
Napping? You’re quitting writing?
That’s something. How?
Well, I gave up poker about 20 years ago, or more. I used to play poker many hours every day. And one day I just woke up, I didn’t want to do it anymore.
Was it after a particularly bad hand?
No. I just didn’t feel like it. It was just gone.
And that’s what you feel like, now with writing?
I think so. Also, I realized there were four guys, I’m sure there were more, but four writers I know of—Hemingway and W. Somerset Maugham and Kipling and Theodore Dreiser—each wrote a novel where the protagonist was a painter. Because, obviously, their fantasy was those guys have it easy. A painter fucking paints, then doesn’t fucking paint, and he goes and gets drunk and he falls down.
I don’t know if it’s true of painters, but it’s the fantasy [life] of the writer.
Yet you’ve written an e-book that’s coming out soon.
It’s three novellas. Three war stories.I’m really proud of it. They’re stylistically very, very different. One of them is set in the Napoleonic wars in the British navy. And one of them is set in plains warfare, the Calvary in the American West. Then the third is set in the Israeli War of Independence. And they’re all, to a certain extent, kind of a pastiche of each period. They’re written as if they are from that period.
Before you quit writing, you’ll of course finish the piece you’re working on with Al Pacino. What is it about?
No, I don’t want to talk about it. I can’t talk about it.
What happens if you talk about something?
Oh, I can’t talk about that. The rabbi said, “Jews do not believe in superstition; on the other hand, it’s good to be careful.” My rabbi was talking about the Torah. Someone asked him if the things in the Bible are actually what happened.And he said, “No, it’s actually what always happens.” He’s wise, and he has wisdom from the covenant. He’s constantly talking, as rabbis are supposed to do, about the sources. About the Torah and the Talmud. All that stuff that is the Jewish tradition.Rather than talking about politics or talking about good causes or talking about New Age feelings or talking about being good to each other. Well, of course we want to be fucking good to each other.Right? The question is how and why don’t we? Which is what religion addresses.
Were you religious as a young man too?
No. I grew up.
The Verdict, Part II
Linda Kenney Baden, a former federal prosecutor turned private trial attorney, became recording industry producer Phil Spector’s lawyer in the 2007 murder case that is the focus of Phil Spector. Kenney Baden served as a consultant to David Mamet on the film. Julio Martinez spoke with her at this year’s Television Critic’s Association.
Julio Martinez: Phil Spector is an imagined, fictionalized dramatization. What struck you about him when you first met?
Linda Kenney Baden: Of course, I’d never met Phil Spector before I started on the case. But what struck me about him—and I made no bones about it—is how bright he is and how old and sick he was. Those were the two things that came across to me as a person. As a lawyer, you don’t really care about the person. You want to care about the facts, so you quickly move off that to the facts of the case and try to see whether there is a defensible case and whether your client can be defended and whether you’re then willing to do the defense.
In the film, Spector says your character probably had her first romance to a Phil Spector song. Did he actually say that to you?
Well, here’s the problem: David has tried to ask me so many things about what Phil told me; I can’t tell you whether he told me anything [due to client-attorney confidentiality]. So here David is dealing with, I guess I should say, my age. I’m actually a little bit younger than that. So no, it wasn’t a Phil Spector song.
Did you reach a point in the trial process where you started to realize in your own mind, “I’m convinced that he is innocent?”
I’ve always said to myself that I thought that the forensic evidence did not prove that he had committed this crime. And that’s what this movie explores. What is the concept of reasonable doubt in a jury trial? What does that mean, both for the lawyer and the jury? What type of journey should a jury take, given all the public opinion about somebody that may suggest that he certainly wasn’t the most liked person in the world? He would not win a popularity contest.
Did you ever question David Mamet’s presentation of you on film?
It’s funny: I have a problem separating myself in the film from Helen Mirren’s performance. She’s actually so passionate that I wanted to give her [contact] number if people ask me for a lawyer because she has all the passion of a fabulous lawyer. You know, the film was inspired by the documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, made by Vikram Jayanti. I know that David traveled a long journey in creating his film for HBO. When we began filming he told me, “It’s not my movie. It’s Linda Kenney Baden’s movie.” He was telling me it’s my journey that becomes the motivating force of the movie. I originally inherited a case I wasn’t supposed to do, and then Helen Mirren inherited a role she wasn’t supposed to do. I am totally caught up in the film and in David’s vision. And I adore watching Helen.
Mamet has admittedly created mythology in the chronicling of this very real murder case in which you played a very real part. Did you ever have a problem juxtaposing David Mamet’s storytelling with the well-documented facts of the case presented in and out of court?
This is the film David wanted to make, and he did it beautifully. I was happy to be an active part of his process. I am moved and flattered that he says it is Linda Kenney Baden’s movie. And actually, it is my story as Phil Spector’s lawyer in this murder trial that is the focus of the film. But this is definitely David Mamet’s film.
Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/A+Reasonable+Doubt/1377621/155580/article.html.