David Mamet. Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
The author David Mamet claims that good dramatic storyline in movies are being overtaken by movies with just a premise and assorted attention grabbing scenes, such as explosions, stunts, shootouts, gags, etc. Studios today make movies for targeted audiences. Mamet sees this as an example of basic economics where any industry, including movies, that becomes more monopolistic are no longer driven by competition to keep their quality high.
Movies that shoot mostly during nighttime have problems with staff fatigue. Crews don’t complain. Star actors, who are pampered, do complain. This represents the two tiers of movies: Stars, directors, producers, and screenwriters are above the line. Crew are below the line. A director is referred to by “sir” even though crew members assign “sir” as meaning “asshole”.
All films earn money, according to Mamet, even though technically nearly all claim net losses. The money is distributed to down. Guilds and unions give workers some strength.
Mamet states that film business decisions involve intuition and/or courage. Studio executives gamble with other people’s money, make money and then invest that money into a new film, and then continue gambling until they create a film that loses money and get fired.
Otto Preminger needed 10,000 extras in Jerusalem while filming “Exodus” but could not pay for them So, he put up posters reading “Be an extra in a movie, ten shekels” and charged the extras.
Preminger also filmed in Seattle yet had to have equipment brought from Los Angeles to Seattle. Rules with Teamsters required Teamsters to be paid higher wages as set by Los Angeles wage rates. Preminger instead had the equipment sent by rail and paid the lower Seattle wage rates.
Mamet states that Ashkenazi Jews have composed a large proportion of leading studio executive positions throughout the industry’s history. This includes names such as Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, and Joseph Schenek.
Movies require managers who can work under chaos.
Some producers raise money for movies they produce. Some are shtadlans, who communicate between the studio (which has all the power) and those making the film.
Movies often reflect what is happening to our society. They often reassure the public that their problems can be solved. Unfortunately, much of these reassurances are useless. Yet people become addicted to these movies, and the idea that more spending on problems can solve anything, as with spending more on movies can create blockbusters.
It takes comedy to entertain an audience to appreciate viewing something they should learn but resist discovering. “Fahrenheit 9/11” is an example of this.
Mamet notes the irony of several films with the theme that a Caucasian person teacher other races about their culture. Among these are “The Jazz Singer” where a white person teaches jazz to Blacks, “Schindler’s List” where a white man saves Jews, and “Dances with Wolves” where a white man teaches buffalo hunting to Native Americans.
In movies, the background and foreground often can not simultaneously be in focus. Some smart animators have begun making distorted backgrounds so the animated film will appear more like a movie.
There is no formula for predicting which movies will be successful. Studios hire numerous experts and analysts who often are wrong. Even audience research is often wrong. This is because market research audiences try to be objective when real audiences are often subject to discussions from previous viewers and their opinions which skews their preconceived notions of the movies. Harry Cohn may have had the best known prediction system which he used which involved “the feeling in his ass”.
Most film schools, undergraduate and graduate and seminars on filmmaking seldom lead people into positions where they make films, according to Mamet. He claims screenwriting books and the MFA in Screenwriting appeal to the gullible. It is access to money that determines which movies are made. He claims graduate film schools primarily prepare students to follow formulas so they learn to become subservient to studio management.
The secret to movies, according to George Stevens, “cinema, as its most effective, is one scene effectively superseded by the next.”
Screenwriters should know about aesthetics, which involves the unification of time, place, and action. The screenplay must be a story audience can and wish to see. It must consist only of a hero solving a problem. The solution must face increasingly difficult challenges. Mamet notes that studios often change scripts to fit this formula.
Humans have drama in their lives and love analyzing drama. There are few rules for writing drama, except drama is difficult for writing as a craft. Humans love drama in their lives and in their films while relaxing.
The wisdom of filmmaking is as follows: Use a star people will pay to see. Show only the story in a film and nothing else. Remember the audience, and which movies they will pay to see, and decide which kind of movies will be financial successes.
Most good scripts being with an easily understood story and properly continues to a probably but startling end. An incident in the story stimulates reactions.
A good script presents what occurs. A bad scripts fails to see there is action in the dialogue and fails to have action shown.
A movie’s editing should present the story and cut out the extraneous.
A good screenwriter can properly create, without sentimentality, characters of the opposite sex who have messages to present. Good writers know the similarities between men and women. A good writer observes and writes the truth. A good writer need not have lived the life of whom the writer describes, but knows how to present how the characters really are.
A problem with many screenplays is they are written to satisfy studio executives rather than to appeal to audiences.
A writer has to live the process of the story’s lead character. The conclusion of each scene must find the protagonist unable to obtain the story’s main goal. This makes audiences wonder how the main character will cope and identify with the struggle. Any scene other than this is irrelevant and ruins the movie.
Mamet claims film supervision of children and animals is lacking.
Good logical gags can make audiences wonder or laugh.
Filmmakers need to be prepared to improvise when circumstances require it. Steven Speilberg couldn’t get the mechanical shake in “Jaws” to function properly so he had to revise the movie by leaving the shark out of several scenes and instead filmed shark attacks without showing the shark. This actually was heralded by many as being more scary than if the shark were shown/
Sometimes film footage shot even before the director yells “action” may later accidentally prove to be useful.
The first films in history were short scenes, such as people kissing and a train coming towards the audience. The earliest movies were then lengthened so exhibits could charge more money. This required that structured stores be presented.
When there is a movie where audiences are expected to attend in order to see a star actor, see that the best lines go to that star and not to supporting actors.’
Mamet suggest that many movies can be improved by removing the first ten minutes of exposition and starting with the action. He also agrees with the “less is more” axiom of showing only what is needed to move a story forward.
Billy Wilder said of audiences “individually, they’re idiots. Collectively, they’re a genius.”
“Violating the aesthetic distance”, which is a cheap film trick that should not be used, is when the audience is excited by something that detracts from the plot. Some examples of this are scenes when showing “555-xxxx”phone numbers that are not needed in a story, as audiences know these numbers don’t exist. Another example is showing an actor can perform a skill such as playing a piano when the audience has already accepted that the character can do this. It takes away from the viewer’s joy of viewing the fantasy.
Mamet notes many recent comedies have relied more on the melodramatic and become compilations of funny scenes as opposed to earlier comedies that relied more on plots.
Murder in film can have psychological appear to audiences that are thrilled by killing. Police drama can have psychological appear on issues with superiority.
Stanislavsky believes drama related to melodrama as does tragedy to comedy. Tragedy is enhanced comedy.
Film noir unites violence with irony.
American war films filmed during World War II often featured conflicts between individuals within military units. British war films had themes of united units of soldiers.
A visual depiction that tells part of a story is better than using dialogue.
Great actors give performances that make audiences grin or smile sadly.
Mamet recommends directors look at actors’ works rather than their auditions when selecting actors. Doing well at auditions is not necessarily related to acting skills. In addition, the process of listening to numerous people audition dulls the senses and makes it possible to pay little attention to good performances, especially when the mindset is there may be a better presentation yet to arrive.
The mission of critics is to attract readers to buy the publications publishing their criticism. The advertising of movies in these publications can bias as well as increase coverage of these movies.
Many screenwriters wish to direct, in part, in order to retain control over revisions to their scripts.
The last two minutes of a movie can be the most critical. A movie that turns a movie around in the time is often successful. A move that can make a turn-around in its final ten ten seconds can be even more successful.