Lots of young artists dream of careers on stage or in film. If they’re actors in New York City, most imagine classes and downtown showcases and (in their darkest hours) depressing “cattle calls” where they’re typed out based on their looks. If they’re writer-types, they likely picture themselves huddled at a coffee shop with a laptop, tapping out the next great screenplay, play or television spec script.
But it’s not that way for everyone. Take Clara Mamet. At just 19 years old, she has pretty much done the unthinkable: She’s written, directed and starred in her first feature film, Two-Bit Waltz, which will premiere in a special, private screening at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival on April 19 at Tribeca Cinemas.
Of course, with a name like Mamet … yes, she’s part of a theatrical family of the finest pedigree, but she isn’t coasting along on name and privilege, despite her background. Her father, of course, is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow). Her mother is celebrated stage and screen actress Rebecca Pidgeon (Oleanna, State and Main). And her half-sister is Zosia Mamet, who stars in the hit HBO series Girls. That’s a lot of dramatic baggage for anyone to tote around while trying to make it. But Mamet has already done just that as an actress in her own right: She co-stars on the ABC sitcom The Neighbors. And now, through pluck and talent, she’s made her first film.
“Two-Bit Waltz is about a girl named Maude whose grandmother dies, leaving her money through her will on the one condition that she go to school, which Maude doesn’t want to do,” Mamet explains. “So she’s in crisis, and she’s dealing with this huge question of what she wants to do for the rest of her life. It’s this very immediate choice.”
We talked with Clara Mamet about creative impulses, instinctive fears and what it takes to make an independent film happen these days — oh, and what it was like growing up in a highly artistic household.
So how much of the story in Two-Bit Waltz is autobiographical?
It is sort of autobiographical. Okay, yes, it’s very autobiographical. [Laughs] I mean, I don’t have as much angst as Maude has, and I didn’t try to kill myself. The Grandmother part is all fictional. But I did have to make a choice about whether to finish school — to go to college or pursue a career as an artist. So there was that. [Mamet chose to skip the four-year track.] But my family is my family like they are in the film. And my best friend is my best friend. That’s all true. I started working on this script when I was 17, so I figured I’d start with what I know. But then I tried to flip it all on its head and make it a little funnier.
What’s your workspace like?
Well, I work at home, which may or may not be a good thing. It can be distracting, but then it’s also helpful, because if you have an idea, you can sit and write it down immediately. That part’s wonderful. It’s weird, because you don’t really write on set when you’re filming, so most of your creative energy is confined to this space before the whole process starts.
How was the film developed? When did a producer get involved?
It went through so many drafts. I actually wanted to make a different movie that I’d written, and my agent said, “I have this young producer I’d like to introduce you to.” So I met this producer, Eric Fleischman, and he said, “I don’t want to make this movie, but I’d like to make another movie with you.” And I said, “Actually, I have another script.” And he said, “Great. The good news is we’re making a movie together.” And then we went through something like 20 drafts, many of which were rewrites for myself. I don’t like to show stuff to anyone if it’s not ready, so I kept working on it. At a certain point, Eric said, “Please stop rewriting the script!”
Did you always see yourself starring in it and directing it?
Well, I wanted to star in a movie. That’s how this all came about. Nobody would hire me for that, so I decided to do it myself. And now I just want to keep making them.
The movie stars your real-life mother, Rebecca Pidgeon, as your mom and William H. Macy, who’s acted in some of your father’s seminal plays, as your dad. What was it like working with them?
It’s funny, with my mom, it just felt normal directing her. She’s so easy. She’s one of those actresses who always knows her lines. And she’s a continuity genius [meaning she's able to match what she's done from shot to shot, making life easier for the editor]. She’s a team player and the only actress I could absolutely cast in the role. As for [Macy], someone suggested him, and I thought it was a long shot but would be awesome. So we sent him the script and he said yes, which was amazing.
How long did the shoot last? What was the mood like on set?
We did it in 15 days — three weeks of five-day shoots. And, oh my God, it was so much fun! It was largely U.S.C. alumnae. I think the oldest person on the crew was maybe 30. It was such a pleasure. Everyone just got on board. And directing was a lot less scary than I thought it would be. I mean, I didn’t say, “Action” because I was in every scene. But also, there was so much planning that went on for so long. Going into pre-production was terrifying, with mapping out the camera moves with the D.P. [Director of Photography] and making out a shot list and tech scout. And when you’re walking through everything beforehand you realize a doorway is too wide or too small or there’s a corner and you can’t move the camera around. The goal is to be as prepared as possible. And then, if something goes wrong, you just throw it out the window and figure it out on the spot. Oh, and it would be great if you can send everyone home by lunch.
Was there ever a moment where you thought it wasn’t going to happen after all?
Oh, yeah. I panicked every day for six months. Pre-production is all about problems. Every day, there are new problems you never even thought about even in an alternate universe. The smallest, random things come up. Weirdly, once you start shooting, everything gets calm. And it’s fun.
So what was it like growing up in a house with your father? How has he influenced your view of the arts?
Well, I watched a lot of great movies, and I got a lot of cool, firsthand experiences. I got to hang out on a lot of sets, which is magical as a kid. It was a good life. They’re good parents.
Million-dollar question: Did you show your father early drafts as you were developing the screenplay?
No, I didn’t show Dad the script. We have different styles. And of course, I respect him so much. It’s tricky. You fight about stuff like that. “You’re wrong!” “No, you’re wrong!” “Fine!” I think it’s better to do it yourself. He didn’t see it until picture lock [once the final cut was settled upon and no more changes would be made]. It was really scary the first time he saw it. But he always told me I was going to be a director. He knew, I guess. He’s been very supportive.
How do you feel with a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival coming up?
I hope that someone likes it. Nervous is the correct word. It’s a terrifying, wonderful thing. I found out it was accepted a few months ago, so there’s been time to process it. Beyond that, I hope it gets released and I hope I get to make more of them and just keep on trucking.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to make an independent film these days?
Just do it. Make it for no money and get friends to help be in it and don’t quit. It’s so easy to quit. It’s so scary how easy that is. It’s insane the amount of work that goes into a project before you start shooting. It’s so much work that you forget how much work that is. The end is lifetimes away. The enormity is frightening. So you have to start thinking about it in small parts. Think a day ahead, or it’s too overwhelming.
So what’s up next for you?
[Whispers] It’s a secret.
Find out more about how to make it in the big city with our Cool Job Q&As.