With its antic pacing, egalitarian view of human corruptibility and tender love story, State and Main fits into the tradition of Preston Sturges films like The Great McGinty, Hail the Conquering Hero and Sullivan's Travels. Mamet is an admirer of Sturges' ensemble approach to comedy, which yielded a unique gallery of oddballs, cranks and crooks. "Preston Sturges is a great influence on me," he remarks. "Billy Macy once said when I was thinking about making a movie about the nature of the universe, 'You stupid son of a gun, look at Preston Sturges - people want to laugh.' So, this is our Preston Sturges - not an homage, but more an attempt at reproducing the same style, that American gang comedy style."
State and Main's Hollywood gang is headed up by director Walt Price, played by William H. Macy. As he contends with the myriad complications that beset his production, Walt displays an adaptability that might make a chameleon jealous. Explains Macy, "Walt has one objective, and that is to get the shot in the can and it doesn't matter what it takes. There are times when everything is going wrong and people want to curse at him, but it doesn't matter. Walt just smiles at them to get the shot and will kill them later."
Of course, Walt can leave the killing to his producing partner, Marty Rosen, played by David Paymer. Paymer's Marty Rossen is a lawyer highly skilled in the art of strong-arming. "Marty and Walt are a team. They've worked together a while; they're almost like a married couple," Paymer believes. "The way they deal with actors is almost like good cop/bad cop."
Walt and Marty deploy the good cop/bad cop strategy on their leading lady, Claire Wellesley, portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker. Claire has announced that she won't remove her top, despite a contract that requires her to do so. "Marty rips into her, while I walk around with this look on my face like I can't control him," says Macy. "And all the while, I've been telling Marty to go get her."
Claire's recalcitrance threatens to cost Walt and Marty an extra $800,000, but Bob Barrenger, the libidinous heartthrob played by Alec Baldwin, could cost them the whole movie. Bob's fondness for underage girls has recently brought him close to jail, but that doesn't stop him from making the same mistake with local teenager Carla Taylor, played by Julia Stiles. Baldwin doesn't find it surprising that Bob should forget his close call so quickly. "In Bob's world, there are no great sins; everything seems to just get washed away. And Bob really thinks he's innocent; he doesn't believe that he is doing this in a manipulative way. He's looking for the intimacy that he's been denied in his star bubble."
Stiles notes that Carla is nobody's fool, and has done her research in order to present herself to Bob in the most appealing light. "She's very on top of what she is doing. She's read so much about Bob that by the time he arrives, she knows all the right things to say."
If anyone in State and Main could be described as innocent, that person is Philip Seymour Hoffman's Joe White, the writer of The Old Mill. A promising playwright making his first foray into film, the sensitive writer has no idea of the creative travails and compromises that await him. Joe has barely arrived in Vermont before Bob Barrenger has shredded the first scene to ribbons; next, Joe learns he has to write out the symbolic old mill of the title. As he struggles with these problems, Joe begins to question himself. The irony of The Old Mill's subtext - "the search for purity" -- does not escape the writer. "He wants to be honest and true, but he doesn't think he is," Hoffman observes. "He's trying to believe in the things he writes about. Then he's confronted with this very literal moral dilemma." As the only witness to Bob Barrenger's car accident, Joe must decide whether to risk his career by telling the truth about what he saw that night.
Joe stumbles, but like his Old Mill characters, he gets another chance to make things right. It's a concept that touches a common nerve, says Paymer. "We all wish we could do things again - have another take, so to speak."
Macy agrees, adding, "Everyone knows the right thing to do, there's some part of your body that knows instantly. It's funny, but you usually get to make the right choice the second time."
Mamet doesn't think second chances are only for the movies. "Everybody gets a second chance. It's the pinnacle of most religions that I'm familiar with."
With a film career than spans nearly 20 years, David Mamet had plenty of material to draw upon for State and Main. "I adapted a lot of my adventures in Hollywood to characters in the movie. Some of my adventures as a director were joined to the character of Walt Price, just as my adventures as a writer, to a certain extent, went into the Joe White character."
The Tony Award-winning actress Patti LuPone plays Mayor Bailey's acid-tongued wife, Sherry. LuPone, who has worked with Mamet since the 1970s, calls State and Main "an affectionate skewering of the movie business. We do this because we love the business, and to see it portrayed in this way is a loving tribute. Then to see the actors who signed on was incredible."
State and Main offers a juicily detailed look at a movie crew in action, replete with lucky pillows, put-upon crew members, and multiplying associate producer credits. Among the film's delights are its sly references to It's a Wonderful Life, arguably the ultimate movie about second chances. Waterford's mayor is named George Bailey; Pidgeon's Ann Black even envisions The Old Mill as a record of the town's "wonderful life."
All of the actors acknowledge pouncing at the opportunity to perform Mamet's work. "The thing about Mamet's material is that there are so many ways to play it," says Alec Baldwin, who starred in the film version of Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and the Mamet-scripted The Edge. "I'd always been angling to do something that he directed. So when the opportunity arose I was very grateful."
Macy has collaborated with Mamet for some 35 years. "Dave is a great storyteller and he tells big and brave stories. His writing is shockingly blunt and to the point, yet it contains poetry - it is poetry, it has meter." As an example, he cites American Buffalo, in which he originated the role of Bobby. "Any time I run into an actor who has played that role we start running the lines together. It's like singing a song - you just start humming the words."
Sarah Jessica Parker relished the different dimensions of Mamet's script. "His work is at once very complex and very simple and spare. Every word has meaning and a place. It's very challenging and fun."
Paymer praises Mamet's flexibility as a director. "He doesn't urge you to play what is already written, and they're his words. With a character like Marty, he'd say 'David Paymer, your job is to help these people make this movie. Your way of doing that might mean that you have to be cruel to be kind, but there's no calculated cruelty.' It's great direction; it prevents things from getting heavy-handed. It's wonderful to find avenues that aren't straight. I think that's what David the director is all about: finding the unobvious choice."
Several longtime Mamet colleagues star in State and Main, including LuPone, Macy, Charles Durning, Rebecca Pidgeon and Clark Gregg, who portrays avaricious Waterford politician Doug MacKenzie. Illusionist extraordinaire Ricky Jay, who plays Julia Stiles' on-screen father Jack Taylor, has acted in nearly all of Mamet's films. Jonathan Katz (of the animated TV series 'Dr. Katz'), appeared in The Spanish Prisoner and Things Change and co-wrote the story of House of Games; Katz has a droll turn in State and Main as studio honcho Howie Gold.
In casting, Mamet again cites the influence of Preston Sturges. "Sturges set a very good example; in addition to having magnificent screenplays and beautiful directing, he used the same rep company. That's something I've always wanted to do."
He was delighted with new colleagues Baldwin, Parker, Paymer, Hoffman and Stiles. "I had a chance to work with some really great actors. The movie was just a lot of fun to make because there were superb comics and all kinds of great gags."
State and Main reunites Mamet with many previous collaborators, producer Sarah Green (The Winslow Boy, The Spanish Prisoner), production designer Gemma Jackson (The Winslow Boy), editor Barbara Tulliver (all of Mamet's films), and costume designer Susan Lyall (The Spanish Prisoner). New to the Mamet crew were director of photography Oliver Stapleton (The Cider House Rules) and composer Theodore Shapiro (Girlfight).
Echoing the small community portrayed in the film, the State and Main production -- and its many high-profile stars -- caused quite a stir in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts where the filming took place. Local newspapers ran numerous updates during the 32-day shoot. Rebecca Pidgeon recalls, "I was sitting on the film set one day when a lot of kids were hanging around trying to get Bill Macy's autograph. And this old guy comes up to this other old guy and says, 'You're not watchin' the movie, are ya?' And the other guy says, 'Just to satisfy my curiosity.' Then they stood there for the rest of the day."