We've Got Hollywood Covered

David Mamet on ‘Phil Spector': It’s Not About Phil Spector

The writer-director-playwright calls his new HBO film "a fable" that focuses on Helen Mirren's lawyer character, not Al Pacino's Spector


Playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet tries to have it both ways with “Phil Spector,” his upcoming HBO film about the eccentric music legend who was convicted for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. 

The film uses the names of Spector, Clarkson and the legal team that defended the mercurial producer and makes use of official court transcripts for a couple of scenes. But a disclaimer at its beginning insists, “This is a work of fiction … It’s not ‘based on a true story,’” and Mamet called his work "a fable" in an interview with TheWrap this week.

Getty Images

Also read: Tales of the Real Phil Spector: Music, Guns – and Hot Dogs on Silver Platters

While a number of early reviews have been raves, particularly for Al Pacino’s fiery portrayal of Spector and Helen Mirren’s take on defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden, Mamet’s film has also been attacked by people who were close to the real events.

Spector’s wife, Rachelle Spector, told Entertainment Tonight that she objected to the film’s portrayal of her husband as “a foul-mouthed megalomaniac.” Clarkson’s former publicist, Edward Lozzi, picketed a recent Film Independent at LACMA screening in Los Angeles and said the film distorts the real story.

And in the Los Angeles Times, reporter Harriet Ryan, who covered the two Spector trials (the first ended in a hung jury, but a retrial convicted Spector of second-degree murder), said the film “supports its thesis by ignoring, misrepresenting and soft-pedaling the evidence.”

Mamet, though, calls the film “purposefully hypothetical,” and embraces the controversy.

You open the film with a disclaimer that says “this is a work of fiction.” But you’ve been criticized by a number of people for distorting the truth. Are they wrong to hold the film to a certain level of accuracy?
Well, the film is held to the highest level of accuracy. Anything which is a matter of record is completely accurate, and anything which is a matter of invention is completely made up.

If you look at the film, you’ll see that almost everything is hypothetical. There are a few things that are a matter of record, that take place in the court, or they quote actual court documents. And those are of course verbatim, because those are facts. But the rest of the film purposefully is hypothetical.

The actual courtroom scenes are minimal.
Yes. There are a couple of scenes that take place in the courtroom. But the rest of it, it’s not a documentary. It’s basically a fable. It’s the fable of the Minotaur, or the fable of beauty and the beast. It’s the attraction and repulsion between the young virgin, Helen Mirren, and the Minotaur, Phil Spector.

Fable or not, it’s named after a real person.
But it’s really not the story of Phil Spector. It’s the story of Linda Kenney Baden, played by Helen Mirren. She showed up, and she didn’t know if she could defend the guy. And she was brought face to face with her understanding of the jury system. What is reasonable doubt? And is she prepared to do those things which she’s getting paid to ask the jury to do, which is to set aside her prejudices, determine what the facts are and use all of her efforts to defend this guy against the omnipotence of the state?

Also read: HBO's 'Phil Spector' Issues an Odd Disclaimer: 'We're Not Based on a True Story'

The essence of your questions, I think, is that the film is controversial. And we are unused to seeing real controversy in mass entertainment. We are used to straw men standing in for controversy, where at the beginning we know exactly who’s right and who’s wrong and how it’s going to come out and who we should root for.

At the end of this film, the question of who you should root for is up in the air. That’s really, legitimately controversial.

Helen Mirren and Al PacinoWhat brought you to this story?
My agent and very good friend John Burnham at ICM said, “You’ve got to see this documentary, ‘The Agony and Ecstacy of Phil Spector.’ It’s really stunning.” In my prejudice I said, “Why would I want to see the documentary? I know everything about the guy. He’s a creep, he shot the girl, blah blah blah.”

He said, “Just see the documentary.” And so I saw it, and I was fascinated by the fellow — who, of course, is not of a piece. Which of us is?

But being fascinated by the documentary doesn’t automatically mean that you want to make your own movie about it.
You know, somebody told Coleridge, “You can’t write a sonnet about an ass,” and so he did. The idea is that you want to take what seems to the uneducated, in this case myself, a subject which would be anathema. It becomes challenging. Just like they did that wonderful musical over in England about Jerry Springer. Who would have thought?

So I sat down and I wrote it. The big question was, “What if?” And it occurred to me that that’s the exact same question that the defense attorneys have. The first question is, “What are the facts?” And the second question is, “How might the facts suggest reasonable doubt to a jury of 12 people?” Which is very, very different, of course — and this is the point of the film — from innocence.

Knowing what you know at this point, do you think he shot her?
I have no idea. And see, the point of the legal system is that nobody has any idea. That’s why the opposite of a guilty verdict is not “innocent,” it’s “not guilty.” In the wisdom of the American jurisprudence system, the onus is on the state. And if the state cannot prove its case, you’ve got to let the guy go free, whether or not, in the back of all our minds, we think that he actually did it.

Getty ImagesThe real Linda Kenney Baden is credited as a consultant. Did you speak to her during the writing process?
I spoke to her at length. Many things she could talk about, and we did. And anything that had to do with the attorney-client privilege, what Phil actually said or what they said to each other, she of course would never mention. (Baden, far right, with Mamet and Mirren.)

How much did you try to capture Spector’s real voice, his manner of speaking?
After my cowboy movie, somebody said — and it might have been me — that the cowboys all talked like me. Spector was a fascinating speaker, and like a lot of us autodidacts, he was very interesting to listen to, because his mind ranged wide and unfettered by any system. I thought, well, hell, I can write that. So I did.

The Helen Mirren role was originally going to be played by Bette Midler, who had to leave with back problems after two and a half weeks of shooting. Did you think the movie was doomed?
Well, it was rather a miracle that Helen jumped in. Because we had a hard out for Al, and if we lost Al we would have lost the locations and the sets, which were built to the locations. There would have been a very slim chance that we could still make the movie. But Helen read the script and said, “Yeah, I’ll be there Wednesday.” God bless her.

Did you change your approach as a director because the film was being made for television rather than movie screens?
No. I mean, what’s the difference? It’s just a movie, that’s all it is. There’s no difference.  And HBO left me alone, other than to say, “Off you go.”

You must be a fan of the network, considering that your daughter is a regular on “Girls.”
Yeah, sure, absolutely. My television only gets two channels: It gets HBO, and it gets Turner Classic Movies.

Speaking of controversial projects, “Girls” certainly falls into that category.
Well, you know what it is? It’s just great, that show. We all go along and say, “Well, that’s not too bad,” and, “That’s good.” And then you see something which is just yummy, and you go, “Oh, wow.” America seems to have clasped that show to its breast, which is just marvelous to see.

A few years ago, you wrote about turning away from liberalism and becoming more politically conservative. Did that hurt you in Hollywood?
Probably. I don’t know. I don’t think they ever liked me here anyway. But that’s OK, because I never go out.