Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits David Mamet’s 2004 thriller, Spartan.
David Mamet‘s filmography is extensive and far from straightforward. He wrote memorable 80s films like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) and The Untouchables (1987), he wrote and directed smart thrillers with dialogue that sings including House of Games (1987), Homicide (1991), and Oleanna (1994), and just a small sampling of his eclectic career includes About Last Night (1986), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), The Edge (1997), Ronin (1998), Hannibal (2001), Redbelt (2008), and more. Like I said, eclectic.
One of his many greats is 2004’s Spartan, a thriller about a special operator called in for special jobs. This time it’s a missing teen, the daughter of a very important individual, that sees our hero taking point on a rescue mission. Of course, nothing is quite as it seems, and that makes for a terrifically twisty tale that constantly keeps viewers on their toes.
The film’s DVD release features a commentary track from lead Val Kilmer, so obviously we decided to give it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Spartan.
Commentator: Val Kilmer (actor)
1. He introduces Tia Texada, who plays Jackie Black, as “no relation to Jack Black, but she’s very funny too.”
2. The opening forest scene was filmed outside of Boston while much of the rest was shot on the West Coast.
3. Kilmer had called producer Art Linson to ask for help on a different film in preproduction hell. Linson offered no assistance there and instead pitched the actor on starring in David Mamet’s Spartan.
4. The actor was immediately interested in the character of “Scott,” and he had fun riffing with Mamet as to what it means to be a man of action. The end result wasn’t always the obvious, but Kilmer loved getting lost in the details of the very real kinds of people his character was based on.
5. He praises Mamet’s dialogue as a pleasure for actors, saying that it has a “precision that requires the kind of concentration where there’s a very particular rhythm, like poetry.” Then he adds, “that’s why it’s so frustrating when he cuts all the good stuff, messes up his own rhythm.”
6. His work on Heat (1995) helped prepare him for many of this film’s physical challenges from fighting styles to tactical action. He credits Michael Mann’s thoroughness, detailed preparation, and access to professional advisors on that earlier film.
7. Spartan is one of Kilmer’s favorite scripts he’s ever read and helped bring to life. He loves that the plot is simple but the story is complicated. “There were several parts that I just could not get the details of because of David’s writing style, and there’s several areas where there could be several versions of the truth.” Even though he knew the ending in advance, he loved the fluid feeling of the mystery as they progressed on it each day.
8. Kilmer says Mamet is prone to lying when he doesn’t know the answer. “He just vamps better than anybody.” He goes on… “I’m pretty convinced he takes a lot of ideas from his children. He’s a thief.”
9. There’s a fake “In Memoriam” plaque at 16:55, and it actually features cast member names.
10. They didn’t do formal rehearsals, but Mamet had his principals walk through the basics of their character presentation.
11. “It’s a very strange thing, a movie script. It isn’t the film, it’s an indication, it’s an idea.” He talks about that information working to create a picture and how the best writers can do it with limited text.
12. More on Mamet… “He’s cruel. He hates actors, having failed in the profession himself. There were a lot of tears on the set. It was tough, because you’re playing a tough guy, but he would break you down in front of everybody. I hate him. The other thing is the hair, his hairdo, what is that?”
13. Kilmer is a big fan of the fight scenes in The Bourne Identity (2002). Of course, he also says that Steven Seagal was the first to “film things in real time, you can’t actually see the move but you get the effect.”
14. More on Mamet… “David’s compulsion is to cut the fat, always get more lean, right down to the essence. Plus, he makes a tremendous amount of mistakes, he cuts all the good stuff. I hope to god the DVD puts some of the scenes back in that he destroyed.”
15. “The role was quite taxing,” he says, adding that the best ways he found to come down from its pressures was watching comedies and hanging out with his wild kids.
16. More on Mamet… “He actually had to confess publicly that I was funnier, because everyone knew it and the only way to really survive my comedic genius was to admit it. And that way he could seem like he was still on good terms with his crew, who hated him, and he knew it.”
17. He’s proud of the film because he thinks it’s the least amount of cussing ever in a Mamet movie. “I mean, to rely on profanity is embarrassing really.”
18. “Everyone’s heard it said a lot, but films do have a life of their own.” To that end, Mamet rewrote quite a few scenes during production based on conversations, new ideas, and other input while they were filming.
19. The shop owner who Scott shoots during the robbery is played by Mamet’s rabbi. He’s Irish. I’m unsure if this is a bit.
20. They had a newsletter on set called “The Spartan Times,” run by Mamet’s assistant, designed to make the director look good in front of the crew. One conversation that made the newsletter saw Kilmer telling William Macy that he loves the man’s work, to which Macy replied that he likes Kilmer’s too. “‘Like? I said I loved your work, hello?’ He never came back with the love.” Anyway, Kilmer’s delivery through this whole commentary is dry as the Salton Sea, and we shouldn’t take any of it seriously.
21. Kilmer recalls a scene on Heat with Robert De Niro smashing a guy’s head into a table. They did the take dozens of times until De Niro suggested they try one without the violence, “and the air was just electric, it was wonderful.” He adds that it’s interesting to take out things you think are crucial and critical as it can help you understand your writing in a new way. His example in Mamet’s writing is that we assume Laura Newton is the American president’s daughter, but the film itself never actually specifies that, “and it adds this very strange surrealism.”
22. Mamet’s daughter Clara cameos as the young girl at the feed store. “David actually played a major character in this film, but he was cut out, it just wasn’t good enough.”
23. Scott originally died at 1:01:59, but Kilmer told Mamet that wouldn’t work as there’s no more story if his character is dead and that he should instead rewrite the scene. Not true, obviously, but worth it for the following… “I didn’t watch my buddies die face down in the mud at Khe Sanh to be blown away by some sniper on a fishing boat off Cape Cod, buddy. Now you get your Corolla [sic] out, and you start tapping those keys.”
24. Kilmer loves doing comedies but says he “was moved very quickly away” from the genre as an actor, and after turning down so many he’s no longer even offered them. Happily, he got his wish for another one with the still hilarious and perfect Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the following year.
25. The scene where Scott and Jones (Kick Gurry) are walking down the Middle Eastern street was written the night before and filmed on a hurriedly dressed street in Los Angeles.
26. Kilmer takes credit for the line “You wanna gossip or you wanna shoot somebody?” but quickly retracts it. “No I’m just kidding. David wrote it all, he’s great, Pulitzer Prize winner. I think it’s great winning a Pulitzer Prize, but wearing the t-shirt that Pulitzers give you everyday I thought was a bit much, Mr. Mamet, but I guess after it’s been a while since you had any success at all, you’re reliving those glory days a little sooner than you otherwise might have.”
27. “These are times to really be careful about what to accept as the truth, and what you see on television, which, it doesn’t influence our culture, it is our culture in the United States.” He praises the film for telling an entertaining story about the need to ask questions in pursuit of truth.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Hi, my name is Val Kilmer, and that’s all I have to say.”
“I love Warner Bros.”
“If you’re listening to this and watching the film for the first time, you’re really strange.”
“What I find amazing is his courage, though, I mean to still wear a beret in 2004, you gotta have guts.”
“I love Bill Macy.”
“Oh they cut the Turkish bathhouse scene! No, I’m kidding.”
Spartan is an exquisitely crafted thriller, sparse in action but heavy on precise dialogue and narrative surprises. Kilmer’s commentary is a dry delight offering details on the production in between ribbing Mamet with made-up accusations and insults. It’s funny stuff even if it does make it difficult on occasion to tell if he’s being serious or not about other things. The track is also enough to make you wish Kilmer had recorded more commentaries — I’m only aware of this one and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — before his illness made that impossible. Consider it a must-listen for fans of the film and/or actor.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.