Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business

Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business

3.8 7
by David Mamet

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In Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet, the award-winning playwright and screenwriter, gives us an exhilaratingly subversive inside look at Hollywood from the perspective of a filmmaker who has always played the game his own way.

Who really reads the scripts at the film studios? How is a screenplay like a personals ad? Whose opinion matters when revising a

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In Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet, the award-winning playwright and screenwriter, gives us an exhilaratingly subversive inside look at Hollywood from the perspective of a filmmaker who has always played the game his own way.

Who really reads the scripts at the film studios? How is a screenplay like a personals ad? Whose opinion matters when revising a screenplay? Why are there so many producers listed in movie credits? And what the hell do those producers do, anyway? Refreshingly unafraid to offend, Mamet provides hilarious, surprising, and bracingly forthright answers to these and other questions about virtually every aspect of filmmaking, from concept to script to screen.

He covers topics ranging from “How Scripts Got So Bad” to the oxymoron of “Manners in Hollywood.” He takes us step-by-step through some of his favorite movie stunts and directorial tricks, and demonstrates that it is craft and crew, not stars and producers, that make great films. He tells us who his favorite actors and what his favorite movies are, who he thinks is the most perfect actor to grace the screen, and who he thinks should never have appeared there.

Demigods and sacred cows of the movie business–beware! But for the rest of us, Mamet speaking truth to Hollywood makes for searingly enjoyable reading.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
… most of this sharp, savvy book is amusing and reassuring. Somebody with a keen knowledge of gamesmanship knows exactly how Hollywood’s games are played. And refuses to play by the rules.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Mamet's a veteran screenwriter and director (currently producing The Unit for CBS), but that doesn't mean he has any great love for the industry-his Hollywood is the stereotypically corrupt and cutthroat world where screenwriters willingly change their stories to accommodate every stupid suggestion from producers, who are blatantly lining their own pockets, while stars bicker over who has the bigger trailer. But his stories are entertaining even when they're unsurprising, and though loosely organized, a few broad themes emerge. He expounds at length, for example, upon his well-known penchant for straightforward storytelling, where drama boils down to "the creation and deferment of hope," and every scene should be able to answer three questions: "Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don't get it? Why now?" At other times, he's happy simply to explain why he thinks Laurence Olivier was a terrible film actor or to test out a theory that the early film industry owes its development to Eastern European Jews with Asperger's syndrome. As usual with Mamet, each word is precisely chosen for maximum effect, and nearly all hit their mark. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Famed playwright, screenwriter, and director Mamet (On Directing Film) takes a not-very-detached look at the industry to which he has contributed (e.g., Oleanna, The Spanish Prisoner, Wag the Dog, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross). Although critically well received for the most part, Mamet's movies have tended to be too arcane for the general film-going public. Here, he provides practical tips drawn from his own experiences on such topics as acting and screenwriting and the "three questions" a writer must answer ("Who wants what from whom?"; "What happens if they don't get it?"; and "Why now?"). But this is not a how-to book for hopeful screenwriters or other Hollywood wannabes; instead, it is a somewhat scattershot look at all aspects of cinema that personally interest Mamet—and not necessarily in a good way. As such, it makes for quite a readable trip through his wit and wisdom, which can be considerable. However, whether he considers himself Bambi or Godzilla in the Hollywood jungle is an open question. Recommended for general collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/06.]
Kirkus Reviews
The playwright/screenwriter/director/essayist (The Wicked Son, Oct. 2006, etc.) presents lessons on the movie industry, seasoned with realism. Most of multi-hyphenate Mamet's previous sallies on the business of filmmaking conveyed the impression that he thought the whole thing was not much more than a lark, a mechanical process easily mastered. Initially, this collection of stark essaylets expresses a similar point of view. "Moviemaking," the author writes, "is an appallingly simple process. One needs a camera, film, and an idea (optional)." Subsequent pieces, however, give voice to a far deeper love of the form. In between lofting daggers at industry fools, he celebrates the joys of Preston Sturges and does his best to provide the reader with easily reducible lessons on the intricacies of film and its history. (One interesting digression examines the question of why all of Hollywood's founding fathers hailed from within 200 miles of Warsaw.) Among the pithy advice proffered to students of the craft are "burn the first reel," "if you think that perhaps you should cut, cut," "nothing with a quill pen in it ever made a nickel" and "do not shoot the pretty girl's close-up last." Mamet does an estimable job of marrying his expected cynicism with a less predictable but no less vehement defense of film as art. That's not to say he's lost his bite: "Critics are a plague," he contends, and "everybody on the production end always assumes the writer is stealing their money."A sleek and hardboiled seminar on cinema's glorious highs and hellish lows.
From the Publisher
“Sharp, savvy. . . . Icily hilarious. . . . Mr. Mamet writes with insight, idiosyncrasy and a Godzillian imperviousness to opposition.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times“Winningly pugnacious. . . . [Bambi vs. Godzilla] is funny and angry and intemperate and passionate enough to tell the truth about movies.” —San Francisco Chronicle“This is a book infused with love – the sweet, helpless love Mamet has for film, and the communal process that makes it.” —Los Angeles Times“Playful . . . deft. . . . Mamet the dramatist has developed a career as a prolific philosophical essayist.” —Chicago Sun-Times

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.89(w) x 8.51(h) x 1.12(d)

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Hard Work

Billy Wilder said it: you know you’re done directing when your legs go. So I reflect at the end of a rather challenging shoot.

The shoot included about five weeks of nights, and I have only myself to blame, as I wrote the damn thing.

Directing a film, especially during night shooting, has to do, in the main, with the management of fatigue. The body doesn’t want to get up, having had so little sleep; the body doesn’t want to shut down and go to sleep at ten o’clock in the morning.

So one spends a portion of each day looking forward to the advent of one’s little friends: caffeine, alcohol, the occasional sleeping pill.

The sleeping pill is occasional rather than regular, as one does not wish to leave the shoot addicted. So one recalls Nietzsche: “The thought of suicide is a great comforter. Many a man has spent a sleepless night with it.”

One also gets through the day or night through a sense of responsibility to, and through a terror of failing, the workers around one.

For folks on a movie set work their butts off.

Does no one complain? No one on the crew.

The star actor may complain and often does. He is pampered, indulged, and encouraged (indeed paid) to cultivate his lack of impulse control. When the star throws a fit, the crew, ever well-mannered, reacts as does the good parent in the supermarket when the child of another, in the next aisle over, melts down.

The crew turns impassive, and the director, myself, views their extraordinary self-control, and thinks, “Thank you, Lord, for the lesson.”

The director, the star players, the producer, and the writer are above the line; everyone else is below.

There is a two-tier system in the movies, just as there is in the military. Those above the line are deemed to contribute to the fundability or the potential income of the film by orders of magnitude greater than the “workers”—that is, the craftspersons—on the set, in the office, or in the labs.

On the set, the male director is traditionally addressed as “sir.” This can be an expression of respect. It can also be a linguistic nicety—a film worker once explained to me he’d been taught early on that “sir” means “asshole.” And, indeed, the opportunities for tolerated execrable behavior on the set abound.

I was speaking, some films back, with the prop master about bad behavior. He told me he’d been on a film with an ill-behaved star who, to lighten the mood or in a transport of jollity, took to dancing in combat boots on the roof of a brand-new Mercedes. “He did about ten thousand dollars’ worth of damage,” he said, “and this kind of hurt, as I’d given up my day off, unpaid, to go searching for a prop.”

There exists in some stars not only a belligerence but also a litigious bent. I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the prop master is giving up his day off to ensure that the wallet or knife or briefcase or wristwatch is perfect on Monday.

This is not a picayune instance but, in my experience, the industry norm. While the star is late coming out of the trailer, while the producer is screaming obscenities on the cell phone at his assistant regarding, most likely, a botched lunch reservation, the folks on the set are doing their utmost to make a perfect movie.

I do not believe I overstate the case.

Nevil Shute wrote a rather odd book called Round the Bend.

Its hero is an Indonesian aircraft mechanic. He is so dedicated to both his job and the ideal of aircraft maintenance that a cult springs up around him. He is taken as an example as a teacher and then as the avatar of a new religion. In the practice of machine maintenance, he has found (and Shute closes with the notion that he may have become) God.

Some business people feel that they can craft a perfect (that is, financially successful) film in general, absent reverence, skill, or humility, and inspired and supported but by the love of gold.

But the worker is actually involved, as Leo the Lion says, in ars gratia artis and takes pride in working toward perfection through the accomplishment of small and specific tasks perfectly. Like Shute’s hero.

Is the actor’s hair the correct length? (The two scenes are viewed by the audience seconds apart but were shot months apart. If the hair does not match, the audience will be jolted out of the story.) Are the villain’s eyes shadowed perfectly? Does the knife show just the right amount of wear?

I recall the homily of old, that thousands worked over years to build the cathedrals, and no one put his name on a single one of them.

We, of course, enjoy films because of the work of the identifiable, the actors, but could not enjoy them but for the work of the anonymous, the crew.

The crew is working in the service of an ideal. Faced, as they often are, with intransigence, malfeasance, bad manners, and just plain stupidity on the part of the above-the-line, they react with impassivity.

This might be taken for stolidity by the unobservant or self-involved. It is, in effect, pity.

I was taught early on that the dark secret of the movie business is this: All films make money. Their income, indeed, flows from on high, and the closer one is to the height of land, the more one gets. The farther from the source, the poorer. This is the meaning of the term of art “net profits,” which may be loosely translated as “ha, ha.”*

And just as there is gold in them thar hills (proximity to the source of the income stream), there is gold in the reduction of hard costs. This reduction includes legitimate business oversight, and may even extend, I have been told, to actual malversation of funds.

Also, we know of Pharaoh that he taxed the Israelites with harsh and unremitting labor, having them make bricks to build his palaces. He then decreed that they must gather their own straw. As did the Reagan administration when it killed the American labor movement.

The guilds and unions in the American film industry retain some strength and have the clout (at least in theory) to protect their workers against the depredations of management in that constant calculus of terror: Management: Submit or I will make all films in Hungary. Labor: Submit or we shall strike.

For any business folk in any business would be glad to take the workers’ work for nothing—they, in fact, consider it their right. They would, in American films, as in hard industry, be right chuffed to see the workers race each other to the bottom, and then, having impoverished them, take the work out of the country. (As, in fact, the studios do now, shooting, I believe, the majority of American films elsewhere.)

The unions, in addition to protecting their membership against the money, must also protect them against their own love of the job. For in the practice of the movie crafts, we see the rampant American love of workmanship—and just as the true actor loves to act, the true carpenter or seamstress loves that perfect corner.

The American icon, for me, is Rosie the Riveter. Norman Rockwell’s wartime masterpiece shows a young aircraft worker in her coveralls eating lunch. Her scuffed penny loafers rest on a copy of Mein Kampf.

Rosie the Riveter beat Hitler. Or, to be a little less high-flown—and in deference to the British, who were, as everyone knows, also involved in that late unpleasantness—there is a true and admirable American instinct of “getting it right.”

As I was musing on the same, pondering the star, paid twenty million dollars and ruining the roof of a car, and the prop master, paid twenty thousand and giving up his one day off for the beauty of the thing, I believe I actually began to understand Marx’s theory of surplus value: Q. Whom is the film “by”? Spend a day on the set and you learn. It is by everyone who worked on it.

*Q. From whence does the money originally come? A. We recall the ancient Jewish wisdom, “If you look hard enough, everything’s treif.”

Excerpted from Bambi vs. Godzilla by David Mamet Copyright © 2007 by David Mamet. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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What People are saying about this

Bambi vs. Godzilla is far and away the best commentary on how movies are made thus far written by an American . . . Citing everyone from Aristotle to Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, Mamet demonstrates what works and what doesn’t in a movie narrative, while noting what does not work, as we have been witnessing for the last decade or so: statistically, in 1958, Hollywood turned out 2,000 films which listed in their credits 230 producers, while in 2003 Hollywood produced 240 films with 1,200 producers listed. Happily, Mamet keeps on in theater and film pretty much on his own terms, and now, with Bambi vs. Godzilla, like his great predecessor George Bernard Shaw, he can illuminate as a critic-practitioner the not-always-friendly Darwinian world he has been obliged to flourish in.”
—Gore Vidal

“No other director has written about the movies with such a fearless mixture of amusement, anger, frustration, and rueful love.”
—Roger Ebert

“What fun to dive into this book of Mamet musings and words of wisdom! But be warned: Like munching popcorn (or Raisinets) at the movies, once you get started it’s hard to stop.”
—Leonard Maltin

“David Mamet is supremely talented. He is a gifted writer and observer of society and its characters. I’m sure he will be able to find work somewhere, somehow, just no longer in the movie business.”
—Steve Martin

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Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Godzilla is beast
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bambi would get his ass served to him on a platter with a penis on top
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Areyou guys are christans this book is violent! PLEASE DONT READ THESE KINDS OF BOOKS!
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