Rome Film Fest: David Mamet Pokes Fun at Improvisation and Gluten (But Avoids Politics)

David Mamet - Getty - H - 2016
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Despite indulging in his signature political incorrectness, the topic of Donald Trump was off limits for the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

Wrapping up just two-and-a-half weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the Rome Film Fest has put politics front and center this year, from a retrospective on American politics to the topic of the election coming up repeatedly throughout public conversations. That wasn’t the case, however, with one of Hollywood’s few public conservatives: playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet.

While it seemed like everything but the Venice Film Festival (Mamet explained he didn’t want to jinx his future chances for attending) was on the table for discussion, politics were definitely off limits. Indeed, the Wag the Dog writer was one of the few "Close Encounter" guests that declined to meet with press before the event. Mamet, who attended a fundraiser for Ted Cruz, and previously supported Carly Fiorina, did not venture near the topic of the upcoming election.

And despite multiple opportunities, Mamet consistently danced around the topic of Donald Trump, even when talking about political correctness. “I really got interested in the whole idea of telling the truth. My whole profession has been about pissing people off,” he said. “There’s a lot of reaction in my country and the West about people saying things that are politically inconvenient, which is new speak for ‘true.’”

In response to a question from festival director Antonio Monda on how often he allows for improvisation, Mamet sneered. “Listen, I’ve been here in Italy for a couple days having the time of my life. You guys take food seriously. All we care about in the United States is, is there any gluten in it? I mean if you take out the gluten and put in cilantro, people in California will eat cat shit,” he said, without commenting on his daughter Zosia, who is a prominent supporter of a gluten-free diet.

“But if you’re a great chef, you don’t want to say to the waiters, ‘Here, I’ve devoted my life to this but if you want to mess it around a little before you put it on the table, go ahead.’ Does that answer your question?” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had an actor say, ‘I know you said A, do you mind if I say B?’ Never,” he continued. “Because you know that’s what I do for a living, you know, and I’m pretty good at it. I can’t act and they can’t write.”

Over the course of an hour, Mamet brought up numerous insider stories that often fell on deaf ears. At one point, a colorful story of meeting Paul Newman was met with only a few laughs: “So we’re sitting in Sidney [Lumet]’s porch having a cup of coffee, and Paul Newman comes in, big smile, about 10 o’clock in the morning, and he says, ‘I just got laid.’ I’m thinking ... Paul Newman.”

Mamet, almost exasperated, gave up on the Italian crowd. “Perhaps it doesn’t translate,” he said of the Newman story. “I’m going home anyway. They gave me my return ticket. It doesn’t matter how we did,” he joked.

The prolific writer also discussed a first-time meeting with Sean Connery for The Untouchables. “And the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I never made a penny out of James Bond.’ So I thought OK, that’s my kind of guy,” said Mamet. “I’m sure he thought that he wasn’t adequately compensated because A, Which of us does? And B, he made the Broccoli family about $40 billion.”

Mamet discussed his love for working for Funny or Die (he gets $5,000 a video). He spoke about a misunderstanding with one of his Funny or Die collaborators, Kristen Bell, whom he first directed in Spartan. After a prop meeting he explained, “I walked her to the car, and she looked so sad. And I realized, she thinks I’m walking to her car so I can hit on her, because I just cast her in the movie. And I’m thinking, 'I’m married to an actress, I’ve got bunches of children, oh my god, the poor baby, what a disgusting ….'”

In another prop story, Mamet spoke about Danny DeVito and switchblades during his 2001 film Heist: “So he says, ‘Oh my god, help me with this. I don’t know how to work this switchblade.’ So I said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, you don’t know how to work a switchblade, and my people don’t know how to work an adding machine,’” said Mamet, adding that DeVito pretended to cry before chuckling at the gag. The mafia-themed bit earned only a few laughs from the Roman audience. 

Mamet told another Heist gag that was pulled on him. “Gene Hackman is kind of difficult to get along with, which I respect because so am I, only if everything is not going exactly my way,” said Mamet. “So Gene Hackman comes up to me one day and he has this big coffee table book and says, ‘Dave, we’ve had our differences, but I found this book and I wanted you to have it.’ And it’s this big coffee table book and on the cover are pictures of Moses and Albert Einstein, and it’s called The Wisdom of Great Jewish Men. And I say, ‘I’m so touched, Gene.’ I open it up ... the f—ing book is blank.”