David Mamet Looks Back at Writing ‘The Untouchables’ on Tax Day

David Mamet photo

There were more than enough film buffs who filed their tax returns, or applied for an extension, on April 15, 2010, in the nick of time to check out a special screening of Brian De Palma’s 1987 classic “The Untouchables” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. Following the story of how Elliot Ness and his select group of men who worked to bring down infamous crime boss Al Capone on tax evasion charges seemed like the perfect way to celebrate Tax Day. Finally seeing it on the big screen in glorious 70 mm was great after first watching it on VHS years ago.

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 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 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 the good guys, those who work for justice would be the ones left standing. Back then, I was starting to learn how unfair the world can be.

The Untouchables movie poster

Anyway, this evening had a special reason for us to come out other than seeing the film in 70 mm as David Mamet, who wrote the screenplay for “The Untouchables,” was also in attendance to engage in a Q&A. Instantly recognizable in his beret and those huge yellow glasses of his, Mamet had many stories to tell regarding the making of De Palma’s film, writing the script for it and his thoughts on writing and Hollywood in general.

The first question asked was how Mamet got hired to write the script, and he replied that he got 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 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 was, as he said, “a lot of money.” The way Mamet described it, writing for someone else is known as “whoring.”

Being one of America’s most acclaimed playwrights and having grown up in Chicago where “The Untouchables” takes place should have made Mamet the most obvious choice for this motion picture. Mamet talked about how he grew up there 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 several of his family members kept telling him stories about Capone from time to time.

For years, Chicago has been known to be a city engulfed by corruption, and Mamet did nothing to hide the fact it is full of crooks. He described it as a machine that is run downstate and 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 told him, “the girls get prettier.”

It seems 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 Mamet’s inspiration for “The Untouchables” came from all of Chicago, he said. He 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, and I wonder if there has been a movie since which is as superb in the way it brings Prohibition-era Chicago to life.

With De Palma directing “The Untouchables,” Mamet said he just hoped the director would stick to the script he wrote. Looking back, he said De Palma did actually stay true to his script to a certain extent, but that there were moments where he felt aliens had come down and sucked the brains out of those making the film. In terms of differences from his original script, Mamet said they took out the crawl he put at the end of what happened after the Prohibition Era ended and of how gangsters are still with us today. Mamet also said De Palma was the one who added the “cockamamie baby carriage” sequence.

During the making of “The Untouchables,” Mamet said he was never on the set. He was actually quite happy he wasn’t there which was surprising to here 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 a film set, Mamet said he feels better off staying out of the way.

One of the main sources behind the screenplay was Elliot Ness’ autobiography which Ness 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, Mamet described “The Untouchables” as a melodrama. Lest people see this as him looking down on the way De Palma shot this now classic movie, he was quick to quote from Stanislavski, “Tragedy is just heightened melodrama.” Looking at the movie as a melodramatic piece actually makes perfect sense as audiences got so swept up in the story to where it affected them more emotionally than they could have anticipated.

Other tidbits Mamet shared 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 Sean Connery’s Malone character of “here endeth the lesson” came from the book of common prayers. But the one which really stood out was what Mamet said 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 it was something he just came up with. The philosophy behind it was when you take something, burn it down to the ground and then build it back up again.

Many in the audience were also eager to hear Mamet talk about the art of writing, and he had much to say on the subject. As a dramatist, he said his job is to take out the narration and go with the plot and characters. Watching the plot for him is where the enjoyment comes from. The problem is actors and directors end up wanting to put all the 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 an actor to get the ball rolling. A play or a movie cannot start from an ongoing situation. Of course, writing a plot can 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 went very quickly. As for all the other plots he has worked on, they were nightmares.

In talking about some of his other projects, Mamet said the coffee’s for closers speech with Alec Baldwin from “Glengarry Glen Ross” 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 never got credit for it. Mamet said he had always wanted to write something anonymously, and “Ronin” became that something because he was not originally hired to write it. What happened was Robert De Niro pleaded with him to do a rewrite as he felt the script was not up to speed. Mamet said he eventually caved in and rewrote the whole script in a week.

In addition to being a writer, Mamet is also a director of film and stage. When asked about his approach to directing, he said he wants to know what the story is about and how each beat contributes to the action. 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.”

Mamet was up onstage for almost an hour at the Aero Theatre, and it still didn’t feel like he was there 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 which made us want to learn more. When it comes to “The Untouchables,” he gives all the credit for its success to De Palma as he made all the elements work perfectly. He said almost everything good that happens is an accident, so it’s safe to say “The Untouchables” is a glorious accident and one which invites repeat viewing.

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.” This 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 also said the lizards in Hollywood will be the last ones to die, and he believes their last words will be, “I want to know more…”

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