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Advice for television writers, from playwright David Mamet

December 6, 2010 | 11:32 am

Mamet Surviving as a television writer in Hollywood has never been easy, and in recent weeks, the profession has appeared especially hazardous. Recent cancellations include CBS' "Medium," TNT's "Dark Blue" and AMC's "Rubicon." Earlier this month, it was reported that the entire writing staff behind the AMC series "Walking Dead" was axed -- a sign that writers behind hit shows aren't immune to the cost-cutting caprices of TV executives.

For the despondent TV writer who might be experiencing a little downtime at the moment, David Mamet has some words of advice to improve the level of your craft. Earlier this year, a memo that the playwright penned to the writing staff of CBS' "The Unit" started circulating online. (The series, on which Mamet was listed as a creator, writer and executive producer, was itself canceled in 2009.) In his signature pugnacious way, Mamet offers his strategy for creating compelling television drama.

Sections of the memo contain profanity -- not a surprise coming from Mamet. (You can read the full text here.)  Below are some brief, family-friendly excerpts from the memo that will give you an idea of what the playwright believes makes good TV writing. The caps are all Mamet's -- just think of him as shouting at you, "Glengarry Glen Ross"-style.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER [sic] DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

Mamet says that the writer is ultimately responsible for creating a good scene -- and shouldn't rely on actors and/or the director:

THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.

THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT *WILL* BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

In this passage, Mamet exhorts writers to think visually.

REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. MOST TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE RADIO. THE CAMERA CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. LET IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY SEEING.

IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

The playwright ends his memo with "LOVE, DAVE MAMET."

RECENT AND RELATED:

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Theater review: David Mamet's 'Race' on Broadway

Theater review: 'Oleanna' at the Mark Taper Forum

-- David Ng

Photos: David Mamet. Credit: Andrew H. Walker / Getty Images

 


 
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