Screenwriting can be a very tough racket. Aside from the myriad complications in finding a story and producing a rough draft, the long road of revising and honing a script can be a very lonely one, indeed. Fortunately for director Clara Mamet, whose excellent debut film Two Bit Waltz is out now, she had a bit of an inside track on getting good guidance on her writing. Her mother is actress Rebecca Pidgeon, and her father is writer David Mamet.
Wisely, she took advantage of the pair. “We saw various early drafts,” remembers Pidgeon. “She shows us writing along the way. She was working on something really far out there, and then she changed her mind and decided to take inspiration just from our family. Not that that’s exactly what we’re like!”
That was important feedback for the young filmmaker as she began to shape the world she was creating. Viewers will notice a certain kinship to Wes Anderson, but Mamet swears she didn’t have him in mind from the beginning. “It’s interesting,” she says, “when I started making this movie, I didn’t know that this is what it would turn into. I mean, I guess you have that with any movie. But I didn’t really have Wes Anderson in mind, although I do get that a lot. What I do really like about him is the wideness of his shots, which I use as well. That has definitely made an impression on me.”
“And of course my dad’s films have influenced me, too,” she continues, “just in terms of the structure. Structurally his films are all so sound. I’d like to adopt that myself. At some point. I think my biggest problem is that I don’t write any outlines. I just start writing, and it gets a bit messy. And then I have to be like ‘Whoa, what was this about, again?’ And I kind of dial it back in a little bit.”
Mamet also used that time with her mother for more than just advice. “We’d go for walks,” Pidgeon recalls, “and she’d kind of audition me on the fly. She’d say ‘Say this line…’ And I’d say it, and she’d say, ‘Well, how would you do this?’ And I’d say, ‘Are you auditioning me right now? I’m your mother. Stop that. Cut it out.’” And she eventually got the role, in the film as well as in real life.
“And she got to dress me up,” she continues, “which was something she wanted to do all her life. She’d come into the closet when she was little and say ‘Mommy, put this on!’ And she’d give me some sort of gold lame helmet with fishnets and high heels. Always stuff that I couldn’t really wear out for dinner. But in this movie she said, ‘All right. You’re wearing all of this stuff.’”
Still, it didn’t feel strange to Pidgeon. She was able to separate out Clara her director from Clara her daughter. Most of the time. “It was quite natural, “ she maintains, “because she’s an artist, and she has a vision. She really had a quiet authority on that set that everybody was really grateful for. You immediately got the sense that she knew what she was doing. So it was quite interesting for me just to say, ‘Oh, here’s this fantastic, professional young woman, who’s got very useful things to tell me in this scene.’ She’s very simple, and direct. She’s been brought up in our family, so she knows what our process is, as actors and directors. So she just slipped right into that.”
“But you know,” she continues with a smile, “I am her Mom as well, so sometimes there was eye rolling, if I forgot a line or something. A small sigh, and an eye roll, and ‘Let’s take it again, so Mom can get her lines right…’”
But maybe that’s just payback? Was there some eye rolling on Pidgeon’s part, say, when Mamet was in her teen years? “Probably, yeah,” she says with a chuckle.
“It was awesome,” Mamet says. “Totally awesome to boss her around. And she just had to take it, or I would have fired her.”
Pidgeon is also a singer/songwriter of no small acclaim, although she’s arguably better known as an actress in the U.S. But her twin careers have developed on an interesting path in relation to each other. “They sort of started at the same time,” she says. “I was at drama school in London, and I was also making a record with my musical partner, and we started to build up as a band at the same time that my acting career was building. Then there was this sort of break where I got married and transferred everything over to the States and started to work with my husband, Dave. And I began to pursue a career as a solo musician on a much smaller level. And then we had our family, and both things got put a little bit on the back burner. But the acting, I think, was always a little more visible—at least, in this country.”
Once again, her acting and music are moving forward together. “I’ve got this new record out called Bad Poetry, done on my own,” she explains. “The last couple of records, I’ve kind of taken a departure and gone down an edgier musical path. Hearkening back to my early love of punk, a little bit like that.”
She’s experimented with many different processes for songwriting, but collaborating is one of her favorites. “I like to co-write,” she says. “That’s a lovely journey to take. And it gets you out of your own head. It’s more painful and lonely, writing on your own. Although, it can bring great joy too, once you crack the code. But sitting there struggling with yourself is sometimes not much fun.”
I asked her if her songwriting and acting informed each other, or whether they felt like two segregated forms of expression for her. “That’s a good question,” she says, pausing. “I used to think that performing songs was more about presenting a true part of yourself, but now I’m enjoying performing them by experimenting a little bit with character. And I find it’s closer to acting, actually, than I had thought initially. I suppose it does inform my acting. I don’t really know how, but I’m sure it must. It’s a completely different arena, a different journey. Because you’re not leaning back on a text.”
Speaking of leaning back (and, come to think of it, of trust and vulnerability), there’s a scene in Two Bit Waltz where Pidgeon is hanging upside down from a tree in a full-on white Victorian dress. But it’s all movie magic, I was disappointed to learn. “That was a hard part to do actually,” Mamet says. “She’s not actually hanging from the tree. We had to CGI out a ladder. And we had to strap her legs down. But she was a good sport.”
So does Mamet have the CGI bug now? Will her next film be a sci-fi epic? “Kind of, actually,” she answers cryptically. “It’s funny that you say that. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be a trilogy.”
I can’t really tell if she’s joking. Who knows, maybe we will get that “far out there” story Pidgeon teased. But after Two Bit Waltz, viewers will be ready to go wherever Clara Mamet wants to take them.
Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard
Linklater a New York Times
Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative
Producer for a major regional film festival; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter