Tuesday, June 20, 2017

David Mamet's Master Class is a good introduction to dramatic writing

(Note: This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)

A writer looking for guidance these days has no shortage of services and tutorials looking to take their money. It's why a perennial bit of advice from me is to do your homework on anything that's going to cost you money. Even if you have allocated $200 of disposable income that you can burn without feeling it, that doesn't mean you should be reckless in casting it away. You want to get the best value for your investment.

The MasterClass brand has demonstrated itself to be a reliable one. I've reviewed two other MasterClasses: "Dustin Hoffman Teaches Acting" (available here) and "Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting" (available here.) In both cases I came away impressed with the insight and the utility of the classes. Hoffman's videos - though aimed at actors - actually gave me a lot of valuable tips about directing and working with actors.

The talent that continues to be involved with this site is also impressive: Shonda Rhimes teaches writing for TV, Gordon Ramsay teaches cooking, Steve Martin teaches comedy, Hans Zimmer teaches film scoring, Reba McEntire teaches country music, Werner Herzog teaches filmmaking, Kevin Spacey teaches acting, Serena Williams teaches tennis, Usher teaches performance, and there are still many more to come.

Which brings me to David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing . Fair or not, it's difficult to watch this and NOT compare it to the two prior classes I've taken. If I'm being honest, that did leave me with some disappointment.

The good news? That's the only metric by which this class falls short. I'll get into more specifics why later.

David Mamet has written 36 plays, 29 screenplays, and 17 books. He has directed 11 films, including House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, and State & Main. His credentials aren't really up for debate and any chance to pick the brain of someone so prolific is bound to be a worthwhile one. No one running any of these MasterClasses are the kind of person who NEEDS to do this sort of project to stay afloat.

As with every other class, there are multiple elements: the video instruction, the interactive assignments, the community and the office hours, where you can send video questions to Mr. Mamet. My review is based mostly on the videos. I also have to admit as with all of these classes, I had to binge the videos over the course of a week. The recommended structure is provided and the class has been crafted to be done over six weeks.

For $90 you get what works out to about six hours of videos. Spread them over six weeks and you can call that an investment of $15 a week. Considering that's what it would cost for a ticket to hear Mamet speak for an hour or so, it's not too bad.

Let's talk about the course work itself. It struck me as being very Screenwriting 101, even more than Sorkin's. Mamet leans a lot on Aristotle's Poetics, so much so that if this was an actual college course, you'd almost certainly find that among your required textbooks. I personally didn't come away from this class with too many new insights into the process, but I've worked in Hollywood for well over a decade and I took Screenwriting 101 and Advanced Screenwriting in college. This isn't a class targeted at me, so I forced myself to look at it through the eyes of a 21 year-old Bitter.

Straight-up, this is at least as good as the first Screenwriting class I took in college. Frankly, there are a lot of basic principles of writng and drama that were better expressed here than by my instructor. Mamet starts off by talking about his theory of Drama and how it has rules. "We're given a premise. The hero wants something... Everything in our life is drama... we structure everything in our lives into cause and effect." And he goes into some detail about this, particularly when dealing structure and how each scene must be necessary or else it should go. He's also very adamant that "What the purpose of drama is not is to make people better... to teach. It is not the purpose of drama to be cautionary tales."

One bit of advice he gives that I don't believe I've heard before is that the story should challenge the writer, to the point where they may not know the resolution. "If you can't think your way out of it, the audience can't either," he says. So push yourself into the story crevices that seem impossible at first, just to see if you can worm your way out of it.

Plenty of his advice does tread well-worn ground. "If you think you can cut something, cut it," is pretty basic, though he owns up to the fact that this is a lesson his editor reteaches him every time when she makes a cut work by removing what is inevitably his favorite scene. It's painful, but as he says, there's "one rule: Don't be boring." He rails against the inclusion of what he calls "obligatory scenes," which are scenes that seem to be there only because we've been taught they belong. (i.e. the inevitable moment where characters stand around a room and explain what they have to do to save the world.)

I'm gonna quote from his workbook because the lesson is expressed more succinctly here:

A scene must contain an attempt by the hero to achieve a goal. That goal has to be part of a firm structure of his or her journey from point A to point B. You must be able to answer three questions about every scene of every play or film you write:

• Who wants what from whom?
• What happens if he or she doesn't get it?
• Why now?

Another quote I wrote down and underlined has to do with forcing a change in the character - "To manipulate the character is to manipulate the audience and I never manipulate the audience." I'd love the chance to press him on that further because I think some of my favorite films have expertly manipulated the audience. However, I presume his intent is to deride unfairly cheating to manipulate the audience and with that, we are in lockstep.

The assignments tend to be fairly standard Screenwriting 101 material. A typical one might be: "Take a character from a film, play, or television show, and deconstruct him or her. Do not compile a list of traits. Rather, identify individual actions that make up the character. What is their objective? Think about what he or she does to achieve that objective and how that informs his or her character."

In later chapters, Mamet discusses some of the process behind his works like American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna.  There are also some solid discussions of dialogue and exposition. Again as an introduction to dramatic writing, this is as good as any college lecture course you could take.

So where does it fall short? Unlike the Hoffman and Sorkin courses, these videos are entirely lecture-based. Mamet doesn't interact with anyone else, and a genuine highlight of both the earlier videos I viewed was seeing these men have to act as mentors. A sizable percentage of Hoffman's videos were acting workshops with two students and it really helped drive home his philosophy by seeing it put into practice.

Sorkin went so far as to assemble writing students for a mock writers room and then also gave critiques of their original works. Both situations forced him to reveal something about his process and his philosophy that didn't automatically come across in the lecture videos. I realize that by its nature, Mamet's process tends to be less collaborative than Hoffman or Sorkin's but I definitely missed that extra element that would have broken up 24 lecture videos.

Sorkin and Mamet also cover some similar grounds, so if you've already taken Sorkin's class, be prepared that Mamet's is intended for the same level of screenwriter. Obviously different teachers will have different philosophies, but it probably would be a bit like taking Screenwriting 101 twice from different instructors. College-age me would have eaten both of these classes up, and so I imagine it comes down to preference. If you're more into Mamet and really want to take a look under the hood, maybe you'd favor this over Sorkin's, despite my own critiques.

That's the biggest "buyer beware" here - be honest with yourself about how trained you are as a writer and what you're looking for to get to the next level. There's value here for the right audience. $90 is a decent amount of money, but not outrageously so when compared to a lot of other screenwriting resources.

You can access every MasterClass at www.masterclass.com.

Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting

Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing


  1. Thanks for the review. When you think about how much one pays for a college course today at a reputable university, $90 seems like chump change. Sounds like this, or Sorkin's would be money well spent for those of us amateurs who want to move forward and have never taken a college course.

  2. Excellent review! I've just purchased the unlimited Masterclass access pass so your reviews will help me choose which classes to investigate.

  3. Did you find this course to be specific to Playwriting? Or is it interchangeable with Screenwriting?

  4. It's specifically "Dramatic Writing" so the vast majority of what he talks about applies to screenwriting as well as playwriting.