When David Mamet's Redbelt was announced, the initial simple summary seemed bizarrely incongruous: A noted playwright and dramatist making a film about martial arts? But while Redbelt involves the worlds of Jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts, it's really just another way for playwright, screenwriter and director Mamet to look at the world. As martial arts instructor Mike Terry (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is taken from his noble (but underfunded) studio and plunged into the greed and glitz of Hollywood and commercial fighting.
As Mike tries to hang on to the things that matter to him in a world that dismisses honor as unprofitable, Mamet's script and direction create a film that somehow puts a philosophical twist on traditional fight films while also embodying everything we love about them. Cinematical spoke with Mamet and Ejiofor in Los Angeles.
Much as in Mamet's recent book of essays on the movie business, Bambi Vs. Godzilla, Redbelt examines the conflict of craft versus commerce; I ask Mamet if Redbelt was a way of looking at that concern in a dramatic way. "Well, everybody's gotta take their pigs to market. You know? You can be the best chair-maker in the world, but you gotta sell the chairs.
And all through history, even today, everyone's kvetching about the middleman; "That guy isn't doing anything, that guy doesn't do anything." Well, if that guy isn't doing anything, you could do it. You have a choice; you don't. Why? Because middlemen are necessary; commerce is necessary. It's not enough to just be great at your craft; one has to engage in commerce in the free market; and nobody likes the middle man because he doesn't partake of the purity of craft. But whether you're a fighter or a chair maker or an auto maker or a dry cleaner, you gotta get down to the market and get involved in commerce. And if you get involved in commerce, whether it's as a fighter or as a filmmaker, at some point you will be abused, disappointed, robbed, betrayed. Because there are such people in the world; that's just the way the world works."
But for all of its modern concerns, Mamet also offers to me how he also sees Redbelt -- with pure-but-poor Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry plunged into the world of Hollywood and big-ticket Ultimate Fighting -- as a classic heroic saga: "And so what happens with any hero's journey? You start off saying "I'm not going to live in the world; I'm going to live on the mountaintop, I'm going to live in my academy where everything is pure, and I can teach purity." Step two is "Alright, I'm going to engage in the world; how can I live in a world full of stupid, venal people?" And step three in the hero's journey is " ... And I'm one of them." And so that's what Mike Terry has to go through."
If it seems like Mike's journey through a dishonorable world sounds a little bleak at first approach, rest assured Mamet's not taking the easy way out and suggesting that people are intrinsically bad: "On the contrary; what I'm saying is that people are intrinsically human. And there's not one class of good human beings and one class of bad human beings; we all have the capacity for good and we all have the capacity for bad. And so what I've tried to do is adopt what people would call the tragic view of the universe, which is where we all have the capacity for good, sometimes, and we all fail sometimes, and there's the capacity for redemption, and the potential for grace, and we have to recognize that in ourselves and in others."
Ejiofor, long an admirer of Mamet, was working with the director for the first time; the British actor also plays an American in Redbelt. I ask which was harder for him to wrap his head around -- the American accent or the shape of Mamet's dialogue? "Well I was sort of familiar with both, in a way. When I started acting, I went through all of David's plays; I even put on a production of Duck Variations when I was in school; I'm a great lover of his plays -- as many people are -- all the way up into the present day; I could, verbatim, in school, do reams of Glengarry Glenn Ross. And that was sort of my introduction to David and his plays. The theater world was really ablaze with his work, and it was very exciting. So I felt very familiar with to rhythms of his writing. He often does use a very classical pattern. Pentameter, and all that. "
But if Ejiofor was familiar with Mamet's rhythms, he wasn't quite prepared for the challenges of Redbelt -- essentially playing a master fighter who's also mastered his emotions, a warrior who knows that battles are best avoided. Playing Mike, Ejiofor has to play not only hard-won nobility and rock-solid principles but also the physical strength and skill to back them up, if need be.
I asked Ejiofor if the challenge of playing Mike Terry -- who can break bones but will not break -- was an intimidating prospect when he first signed on. "You read the script, and you're like, "How do I find a way into this character? How do I feel at one with this person?" I was worried about it, in the sense that I was concerned that there wasn't going to be enough time -- that I wasn't going to be able to put the fight sequences together, that I wouldn't be able to convince in this role in a way that was kind of meaningful. But I had a great experience doing Kinky Boots, basically, and knowing that with the right amount of work and effort on any character in any sort of production, you can get to a point whereby there's a certain sense of connection. So that experience convinced me to throw myself into it, and see what came out the other side."
Ejiofor did take chances, occasionally challenging Mamet's choices -- and not always convincing him. In one of Redbelt's most charged scenes, Ejiofor's Mike teaches Emily Mortimer's Laura how she could have fought back against an attacker who held a knife to her neck and sexually assaulted her, with Mike holding a rubber knife to her throat as he instructs her in how she could have defended herself.
"I remember I said to David on the day that we were going to film that scene -- it involves a rubber knife -- and I had read it and he explained it and I was looking at Emily, thinking, to me, it was so violent. And I was worried about it. In my head, I've just never been in that kind of situation where you're violently holding someone. And if you're trying to teach someone something, and you held them, wouldn't they just freak out? So I said to David "Maybe we could do the scene the exact same way, but without the knife?" And David said, "Did Peter O'Toole, on the set of Lawrence of Arabia, walk up to David Lean and say "David, could we do the scene exactly as it is, but without the camel?" No, we're doing it with the knife. ..." And it works great; it's a really impassioned, powerful sequence. ..."
Redbelt opens today; for Cinematical's review, click here.