Pacino and Mirren ‘Phil’ in the blanks

Screenwriter David Mamet and actress Helen Mirren talk about making the HBO movie “Phil Spector” at the Television Critics Association press tour in California.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Screenwriter David Mamet and actress Helen Mirren talk about making the HBO movie “Phil Spector” at the Television Critics Association press tour in California.

PASADENA, Calif. — David Mamet says he was given one proviso by HBO when writing the script for “Phil Spector,” about the legendary record producer’s trial for murdering actress Lana Clarkson: “Don’t indict the victim.” The playwright, who also directed the two-hour film starring Al Pacino as the bewigged Spector and Helen Mirren as lawyer Linda Kenney Baden, premiering Sunday night at 9 p.m. on the pay cable network, says not only was it a proviso but also ultimately “the essence of the story.”

Mamet chose to go a different route with “Phil Spector” than most films depicting real-life events. Instead of following the facts meticulously, he used the trial as a jumping off point, with HBO executive Len Amato calling “Phil Spector” a “mythological take on the preparation for Spector’s first trial” with Mamet examining “the nature of celebrity, media, and justice” and Mirren calling it “a strange amalgamation of imagination and reality.”

Mamet, Baden, Mirren, and Pacino (who appeared via satellite from New York where he was starring in Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” on Broadway) met with reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour to discuss the film.


David Mamet on the genesis of the project: I didn’t know anything at all about the case. I knew the music, of course. And my agent, John Burnham, said, “You’ve got to see this documentary. It’s by this guy called Vikram Jayanti, and it’s called ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector.’” I said, “I don’t want to know anything about Phil Spector. I know all I need to know, which is that he was a freak, he killed some girl, he went away. Good. Good riddance.” So he said, “See the documentary.” So I see the documentary, and it’s a brilliant documentary. And you start out; in the first 10 seconds you’re saying, “Oh, this guy’s a freak. He’s small. He’s wizened. He talks funny. His arms are shaky. He’s obviously a freak.” Three minutes later you say, “Well, but he says some interesting things.” A half an hour [later], you’re saying, “How could I be so prejudiced? The guy’s kind of brilliant.” And at the end of the documentary, you’re saying, “Wait a second. I came to this with such prejudice. Maybe the guy’s not guilty.”

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Mirren on how “incredibly invaluable” it was to have Baden available to confer with: [It’s] just amazing to have someone available to you who’s lived those experiences, who knew the absolute intimate details of that world. But as I say, we’re not exactly replicating Linda’s experience, although, obviously, her influence, her understanding is very important in the piece.

Pacino on the luxury of having footage of Spector to watch to prepare for the role: I would sit for hours just looking at Phil talking about things. I think that you walk that line of trying not to do the exact mimic of the person, but rather to find — and the play, as David’s play helps you find — the internal subtext of a character. And what was so interesting to me was, as I kept watching Spector, I started waiting for that moment where I could start to feel him in some way inside. It’s a strange kind of mimicry. There are actors who are really gifted at capturing the tone of voice and the gestures really brilliantly. And I admire them greatly. And I try to do that a little bit. It helps you. It’s just that you eventually want to do both. You know, you want to get to the subtext and the inner and the outer.

Baden on whether she was ever convinced Spector was innocent: I’ve always said to myself that I thought that the forensic evidence did not prove that he had committed this crime. And I think that’s what this movie explores. Generally what is the concept of reasonable doubt in a jury trial? What does that mean, both for the lawyer, and what type of journey should a jury take, given all the public opinion about somebody that may suggest that he certainly wasn’t the most liked person in the world? He would not win a popularity contest.

Pacino on enjoying saying Mamet’s words: Well, it’s just a pleasure. And it’s what actors dream of, to have someone with such a command of what they’re doing and saying and giving actors what I believe is words that . . . make you actor-proof. So the actor, with Mamet’s words, as with Shakespeare’s words, it’s a gift. And it keeps on giving. And that’s been my experience with this great writer. So I feel very fortunate, and it’s great when you can find the right combination of his words and the character’s expression.

Interview was edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.