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Q&A with film director David Mamet


David Mamet has made a career writing about masculine milieus. So it was probably inevitable that he'd eventually fix his gaze on mixed martial arts. Particularly since he is a devoted jiu-jitsu student. In anticipation of his latest film, Red Belt, Mamet discussed all things manly with You're obviously a big jiu-jitsu guy, but how big of a leap was it to go from being a practitioner to actually making a movie about the sport?

Mamet: Well, I got to live in the world. That's what got me enthralled. My teacher got his black belt from a Machado (brother), so I got my chance to train with these guys. Then, everyone in the academy has lunch together so I got to sit down with Machados, Rickson Gracie, (Ray) "Boom Boom" Mancini, cops, Navy Seals. I got interested in the inter-pollination between this and the world of guys who were professional fighters. Had this been the case with other projects? Had you worked in a Long Island boiler room (Glengarry Glen Ross) or worked as a con man (House of Games), knowing the culture so intimately?

Mamet: Actually I worked in a boiler room in Chicago! I was fortunate enough to have a rambling youth. In Chicago I was driving a cab and playing poker for about 12 hours a day with a bunch of crooks, and that became "American Buffalo." These secret worlds -- I don't know if it's a Chicago thing or a guy thing, or what -- but they really fascinate me. What is it about jiu-jitsu that has seduced you?

Mamet: From having been involved in other martial arts -- I wrestled in high school, I boxed, I did some kung fu -- it seems that jiu-jitsu is the most applicable to actual physical confrontation. And philosophically, it's the most appealing, especially as one gets older, because it's all about conservation of energy. To what extent are you a fan of professional MMA, the UFC and other organizations?

Mamet: I'm not immersed in that world. I enjoy the UFC a lot. What fascinated me was the difference between what happens in the academy and in the fight world as entertainment. The movie, to me, is sort of a cross-pollination between an American fight film and a (Akira) Kurosawa samurai film, but you could also say it's a parable about Hollywood. It's about the artist in the big, bad world. What about the whiff of corruption in the movie? Is that dramatic license or something you've sensed when you see the sport professionally?

Mamet: No, I don't sniff it out. It looks straight up and down to me. It's really a view of the world, not a view of MMA. One character says, "Any time you have two guys in the ring, it has to be fixed because there's money involved." I don't think that's true. But I do think any time you have two guys in the ring and there's money involved, there's a great temptation for the fight to be fixed. Mixed martial arts has obviously become increasingly international, and your cast is very diverse. Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Nigerian Brit, plays the lead. Alice Braga, a Brazilian, plays his wife. Was that intentional, to mirror MMA? Well I love the Brazilians. The way they roll is different from anyone else. It's just different. And they're extraordinarily philosophical. The essence of jiu-jitsu is philosophy. I knew I had to have Brazilians and I had to have actual Brazilians playing them.

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Mamet: I'll tell you about Chiwetel: we have the same agent. A couple of years ago, I didn't know his world. I ran into my agent eating dinner with Chiwetel and he says, "I want you to meet my client." He says this funny name, I didn't hear it in time, and says, "He's the greatest actor in the world." I look at this skinny kid and say, "Yeah." I've seen him in Dirty, Pretty Things. Great movie." Then my agent sends me Kinky Boots. I say, "Wait a second, if this is the same guy doing a drag queen in Kinky Boots, (who was a Nigerian doctor in Dirty, Pretty Things), he IS the greatest actor in the world!" Jay, Joe Mantegna, all the Mamet regulars had fun with this subculture?

Mamet: We just had a ball. Want to tick off some fighters you admire? Are you an Anderson Silva guy?

Mamet: You know, the younger guys, I admire any of these guys ... Randy Couture -- and I think he's a hell of an actor -- won the heavyweight title of the UFC with his arm broken. Your worst injury?

Mamet: You don't get injured that bad because the difference between the grappling forms and the striking forms is you get to tap out. Sure, but a guy gets you in a knee lock and you'll feel that.

Mamet: Oh, I've been bruised up a little. Hyperextended now and then. And, once in a while, you hear the birdies singing. If you had to rank, what's the testosterone quotient in an MMA gym compared to other subcultures you've visited?

Mamet: Oh, this is quiet. I would compare this to a yoga studio. It's taxing you physically but you're trying to teach yourself not to let it tax you physically. You speak in these epigrams in real life too!

Mamet: No, that's what they say in the studios. I was talking to Rickson and he said about jiu-jitsu: "Once you discover what the essence of jiu-jitsu is, you'd rather die than live a moment of your life without it."