Well, you can’t accuse David Mamet of slacking off. That “Redbelt,” his new martial arts film, hits the screen May 2, while “November,” a hilarious political broadside, plays to packed houses on Broadway highlights the man’s amazing productivity. In the theatre, Mamet has created, of course, his own dramatic idiom, a tough-guy vernacular of fractured speech and pauses which masks male insecurity, while skewering venality and the decline of values. With his 1988 “House of Games” he annexed a second career directing films, often centered on con men and tricksters. The hyper-busy Mamet has also written numerous screenplays. Add to that essays, novels and non-fiction books, the TV series, “The Unit.” Plus he’s got a family and a life.
With “Redbelt,” his tenth film, Mamet explores new movie turf: the world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts. The story revolves around Jiu-jitsu trainer Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has avoided the prize-fighting circuit in the belief that competition weakens the fighter. But an accident one night between an off-duty police officer (Max Martini) and a distraught lawyer (Emily Mortimer) unleashes a chain of events that pull Mike into the ring.
This tale of an American Samurai taps into Mamet’s past as a high school wrestler and boxer; and his current involvement — and by all accounts skill; he’s a purple belt — in mixed martial arts, which he’s studied in L.A. for six years with black belt Renato Magno. Given Mamet’s dark view of human affairs, his involvement in self-defense seems a logical avocation. “Redbelt,” though, is less about martial arts, Mamet insists, than the Jiu-jitsu principle that understanding will defeat strength. Even so, the film’s macho codes of honor — a character commits suicide to protect the name of Mike’s Jiu-jitsu academy — may resonante more with men than women. In fact, the female characters — never Mamet’s strong suit — feel almost irrelevant in this testosterone-fueled world of “ground and pound” and throws landing with a sickening thud, as guys on mats do their thing. For other viewers, though, Mike Terry may evoke the indie filmmaker prevailing over Hollywood muscle through talent and guile.
Recently Mamet and entourage — including Emily Mortimer, Ricky Jay, and wife-of-17-years Rebecca Pidgeon — blew into New York’s Regency on a junket. Security at that hotel would not have wanted to tangle with the film’s fight personnel, among them Heavyweight champ Randy Couture (with an actual cauliflower ear), or one Boom Boom Mancini (whose knockout killed a real-life opponent). Or Mamet, for that matter. At 60 the ripped writer looks closer to 40, and wore his trademark humongous glasses, a porkpie hat, and breezed through in a rough-tough manner. Sony Pictures Classics open the film in limited release beginning Friday, May 2.
indieWIRE: Your credits fill five pages in the press kit. How do you manage to do so much?
David Mamet: Did you ever work on a farm? They work all day and they go to bed at night and get up early. And they do it all day every day. I don’t work as hard as a farmer, but it’s kind of the same idea. You do it all day every day for a lot of years, [and ]you get a lot of work accomplished. [For the record, Rebecca Pidgeon’s answer to the same question: “He has a great gift from God.”]
iW: Are you a fan of any particular work in your canon?
DM: No, it’s all kind of the morass of the continuous present.
iW: What was the germ for the story in “Redbelt?”
DM: I’ve been training in Jiu-jitsu for about six years and I’m very fortunate to live in that world. All the fighters hang out and have lunch together just about every day and trade stories. And I’ve always been fascinated how in the world of Jiu-jitsu in L.A. everybody in the fight world — cops, special forces, bouncers, stuntmen — connected across different lines. So the movie sort of suggested itself.
iW: Why Jiu-jitsu?
DM: Ed O’Neill, a good friend, said if you have to move to L.A. I want you to meet these guys I’m training with, the Gracies. So I started training with one of their clan, a cousin, at his academy. It happened the first day I was in L.A. and I’m still there.
iW: Does Brazilian Jiu-jitsu have a philosophical component?
DM: I think that any physical discipline you give yourself over to — whether it’s boxing or rowing — you’re going to extrapolate a philosophy from, whether you verbalize it or not. Like yoga, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu has a great component of discernible philosophy.
iW: How does what you learn in Jiu-jitsu carry over into your life?
DM: I hope this is a good example. Randy Couture is a spectacular athlete. If somebody said, what would happen if you were put up against him, I’d say, I could fight him. This doesn’t mean that I could prevail against him. But a lesson of Jiu-jitsu is that faced with something that looks like an impossibility you have two choices: If I have to fight I’ll use whatever skills I have. Or, you can say, I’m certainly going to get beaten. If you have to fight anyway, what’s the point of going in with the second attitude? So it teaches you to use your physical training to learn how to conquer your own fear.
Other things I’ve learned from Jiu-jitsu: a man distracted is a man defeated. Don’t get tired, let the other man get tired. There’s no situation you can’t escape from. There’s no situation you can’t turn to your advantage. Those are great lessons to go through life with. Instead of worry and self doubt.
iW: You talk about the senseis almost as if they were rabbis. You’ve also written about being Jewish. Is there a connection?
DM: Curiously, my rabbi also studies Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. There’s a wonderful Hasidic tradition: if someone wants to study with the rabbi he says, okay, but you can’t ask questions. Which is a marvelous way to learn. You gotta keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and figure it out for yourself. The same thing is true working on a physical discipline. Bruce Lee said, ‘Don’t perform the move, express the move.’ You try to get more and more simple.
iW: Does your own involvement with Jiu-jitsu make this a more personal film for you?
DM: They’re all personal because I imagine them or participate in them. My mind is such a hodgepodge that the two [the personal and work] kind of mix up anyway.
iW: Couple of questions about casting. Since he had no martial arts background, why did you cast Chiwetel Ejiofor?
DD: He’s a great great actor, who’s very physical. The character’s not actually competing as a martial artist. But he has to know enough to perform certain moves. And Chiwetel started training in Jiu-jitsu.
iW: Tim Allen is mostly known for comedy. How did you think of him for the straight part of the movie star?
DM: Tim read the script and liked it. I had no hesitation casting a comic actor. I did a movie with Steve Martin where he played a murderer and a con man, in the “The Spanish Prisoner.” Jackie Gleason played straight parts. So did Don Rickles and Jerry Lewis.
iW: I just saw “November,” and it makes me wonder, Did the same person create that play and this film? Is there a common thread in your work?
DM: The common thread is I wrote them. I have the best job in the world. I get up every morning and try something new. Maybe that’s a Chicago attitude, or a 2nd generation immigrant’s. The best thing is you succeed; the worst thing that could happen is you learn something and you try something else.
iW: What’s the difference between writing a movie and writing a play?
DM: You do a play and you write for actors. When you do a movie you write for the camera.
iW: What particular challenge did you face in filming a story about mixed martial arts?
DM: Jiu-jitsu is completely different from the striking forms and the way you film it has to be very different. A striking form is very filmable. The people come together, they go apart. The audience can follow it. I saw that punch land over there. But most of Jiu-jitsu happens in a way that if you don’t know what you’re looking at you can’t understand it. Because the guys are tied up. Renato Magno [Mamet’s teacher] choreographed and produced the film’s six fights.
iW: Would you say “Redbelt” is principally a guy movie?
DM: One of the great gratifying things about the film, self serving as it sounds, is that women seem to really like the movie. And I think it has to do with the whole idea of empowerment. Because what Jiu-jitsu is saying to the woman is, If you take upon yourself the idea that you’ve lost the fight, or you can’t win, your life is over. Why do that?
iW: There are a number of different story lines in the film. Do you sometimes lose track yourself when you’re writing your stories?
DM: Sure, all the time. That’s why you gotta keep writing it over and over again. Until the story emerges. And sometimes you start out telling one story and it just doesn’t work, and sometimes the story itself wants to tell you, Nope, that’s not what we want to be about. So you gotta do both things: bring enough force to bear to make it be the story you think. And bring enough intelligence to bear to realize sometimes it don’t [sic] want to be that story, it wants to be a different story.
iW: What are your future plans?
DM: I’m doing a muscial version of “Oklahoma.” No, seriously, I have a new play in L.A., a one-acter called “Keep your Pantheon” about the worst actors in ancient Rome.
iW: Why do you wear those particular glasses?
DM: These? I bought them years ago. The British Health system used to give them away to all the Brits for five cents. I like them because they’re very big.