Patrick Stoner: As I was watching WAG THE DOG, enjoying Mamet's classic love of words, it hit me how few films these days really care about the words. They're mostly about action, sex and special effects, with the occasional art house character film.
Dustin Hoffman: It's interesting that you would say that. When we first sat around a table to read the script -- the first time the cast got together to go through it -- Barry [Levinson, the director] said, "Now, this is a dialogue-driven film. Get the feel of the words. Follow them." And Mamet, well, he's got this rhythm -- an almost musical way of writing dialogue that is so unique. So, that's what we did. We read the words and followed them, but do you know what Barry did that was so smart?
Stoner: No, what?
Hoffman: He shot the film in such a way that audiences won't notice that. You know, he would start a shot and then, sort of MOOOVE it right around the room [using his hands to simulate a camera tracking around a room]. One person will say something and the camera would glide to another one who will say something and on to another, and so on. So, you don't have the FEELING that people are just sitting around talking. He'll shoot from above, up close, far back, through windows, from below, whatever keeps the eye interested while the power and tempo of Mamet's writing keep driving things forward. We all got into the style. I did, and I was pleased to discover that Bobby did too.
Stoner: Now, THAT surprises me -- that De Niro could be happy with someone else's pace. I have to admit it. That surprises me.
Hoffman: It did me TOO. Oh, yes. It surprised me, but he got right into it. There was never any problem. We worked off of each other perfectly, matching our rhythm to the words and trusting Barry to make it interesting visually.
Stoner: So, Dustin says that you understood immediately that this was a film where the words come first.
Robert De Niro: Yeah, yeah, and it didn't leave much room for alternatives. It was the nature of the film. Usually, you can cover what you're saying, HOW you're saying it, this time or the next, in the editing process. You can piece it together after the fact so it flows, and so you get the best out of your character, but these shots -- the closeups, the master shots -- all had to match so precisely that you had to keep it the same every time.
Stoner: Now, I would expect that to bother you -- to limit your improvisational skills. I would have thought that you would have felt constrained.
De Niro: No, no, it's just a different way of working. Maybe if it hadn't been such a good script, or if the script hadn't needed to stay in that one piece to work... but that's OK. It's just another way of working, and the rhythm was in the script; I didn't have to look for it.
Hoffman: See, if you think about Bobby's earlier work [in TAXI DRIVER] ... "Are you looking at me? Are YOU looking at ME!?", there is a rhythm there. That's why it's so memorable. He knows the power of the words. When they work, it's magic.