Woke up this morning to the news that one of my all-time favorite film directors, Sidney Lumet, passed away. In his 50+ year career, he helmed some of our greatest cinematic works including Serpico, 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express, The Verdict, Running on Empty, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Fail-Safe (my favorite).
I really don’t think I can add much about Lumet’s life and career that hasn’t already been said, but in addition to being a filmmaking giant, he also wrote what I consider to be the best book about directing–1995’s Making Movies. If you want to be a filmmaker and can only read one book on the subject, this is it. Lumet takes you on a practical, hands-on journey through every aspect of the filmmaking process using his own work to illustrate his points—it’s an invaluable resource. So thought it might be fitting on this occasion to share some excerpts from his book below.
ON PREPARATION VS. SPONTANEITY:
It is in the preparation. Do mountains of preparation kill spontaneity? Absolutely not. I’ve found that it’s just the opposite. When you know what you’re doing, you feel much freer to improvise.
On my second picture, Stage Struck, a scene between Henry Fonda and Christopher Plummer took place in Central Park. I had shot most of the scene by lunchtime…During lunch, snow started to fall. When we came back the park was already covered in white. The snow was so beautiful, I wanted to redo the whole scene. Franz Planner, the cameraman, said it was impossible because we’d be out of light by four o’clock. I quickly restaged the scene, giving Plummer a new entrance so that I could see the snow-covered park; then I placed them on a bench, shot a master and two close-ups…Because the actors were prepared, because the crew knew what it was doing, we just swung with the weather and got a better scene.
Except in two cases, every writer I’ve worked with has wanted to work with me again. I think one of the reasons is I love dialogue. Dialogue is not uncinematic. So many movies of the thirties and forties that we adore are constant streams of dialogue. Of course we remember James Cagney squashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face. But does that evoke more affectionate memory than “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid?”…
The point is that there’s no war between the visual and the aural. Why not the best of both? I’ll go further. I love long speeches. One of the reasons the studio resisted doing Network was that Paddy Chayefsky had written at least four four-to-six page monologue scenes for Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch. And to top it off, he’d given a very long speech to Ned Beatty as the head of the world’s largest corporation, trying to get Howard Beale on his side. But the scenes were visually arresting and brilliantly acted…Is there anything more moving than Henry Fonda’s last speech in The Grapes of Wrath? For sheer lyric beauty, how about Marlon Brando’s speech in The Fugitive Kind? And Albert Finney’s summing up of the case in Murder on the Orient Express lasted two reels (about seventeen minutes).
ON DECIDING THE “STYLE” FOR A MOVIE:
Sometimes it’s through a process of elimination: Well, it’s not this…it’s not that…This was true of Prince of the City, for example. As I’ve said, the what of this picture was: In a world of secrets, nothing is what it seems…that theme eliminated certain stylistic choices. Even though it was a true story, it was not going to be a naturalistic film. By naturalistic, I mean as true to documentary filmmaking as one can get in a scripted movie. This was not a conventionally structured story…In fact, its ambiguity on every level was one of the most exciting things about it. I didn’t know how I felt about the leading character: was he a hero or a villain? I never did find out until I saw the completed picture…It wasn’t a fictional story, and yet its moral issues were of a size that few real-life incidents attain. I wasn’t sure whether we were in drama or tragedy territory…Tragedy, when it works, leaves no room for tears. Tears would have been too easy in that movie. The classic definition of tragedy still works: pit and terror or awe, arriving at catharsis. That sense of awe requires a certain distance. It’s hard to be in awe of someone you know well. The first thing affected was casting. If the leading role…had been played by DeNiro or Pacino, all ambivalence would disappear. By their nature, stars invite your faculty of identification…A major star would defeat the picture with just the advertising. I chose a superb but not very well known actor, Treat Williams…Then, I went further. I cast as many new faces as possible. If the actor had done lots of movies, I didn’t use them…This helped enormously in two areas: first, in distancing the audience by not giving them actors with whom they had associations; and second, in giving the picture a disguised “naturalism,” which would slowly be eroded as the picture wore on.
The most moving example of how much of themselves actors pour into a character happened on Network. William Holden was a wonderful actor. He was also very experienced. He’d done sixty or seventy movies by the time we worked together, maybe more. I noticed that during the rehearsal of one particular scene with Faye Dunaway, he looked everywhere but directly into her eyes. He looked at her eyebrows, her hair, her lips, but not her eyes. I didn’t say anything. The scene was a confession by his character that he was hopelessly in love with her, that they came from different worlds, that he was achingly vulnerable to her and therefore needed her help and support. On the day of shooting we did a take. After the take, I said, “Let’s go again, and Bill, on this take, would you try something for me? Lock into her eyes and never break away from them.” He did. Emotion came pouring out of him. It’s one of his best scenes in the movie. Whatever he’d been avoiding could no longer be denied. The rehearsal period had helped me recognize this emotional reticence in him.
Of course, I never asked him what he had been avoiding. The actor has a right to his privacy; I never violate his private sources knowingly. Some directors do. There’s no right or wrong here. But I had learned my lesson many years earlier…I needed tears from an actor on a particular line. She couldn’t do it. Finally, I told her that no matter what I did during the next take, she should keep going and say the line. We rolled the camera. Just before she reached the line, I hauled off and slapped her. Her eyes widened. She looked stunned. Tears welled up, overflowed, she said the line, and we had a terrific take. When I called, “Cut, print!” She threw her arms around me, kissed me, and told me I was brilliant. But I was sick with self-loathing…and knew that I would never do anything like that again. If we can’t get it by craftsmanship, to hell with it. We’ll find something else that’ll work as well.
ON CAMERAS, THE CHOICE OF LENSES, AND SHOOTING 12 ANGRY MEN WITH CAMERMAN BORIS KAUFMAN:
It never occurred to me that shooting an entire picture in one room was a problem. In fact, I felt I could turn it into an advantage. One of the most important dramatic elements for me was the sense of entrapment those men must have felt in that room….As the picture unfolded, I wanted the room to seem smaller and smaller. That meant I could slowly shift to longer lenses as the picture continued…In addition, I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, and then, by lowering the camera, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, but the ceilings as well…On the final shot, an exterior that showed the jurors leaving the courtroom, I used a wide-angle lens, wider than any lens that had been used in the entire picture. I also raised the camera to the highest above-eye-level position. The intention was to literally give us all air, to let us finally breathe, after two increasingly confined hours.
ON ART AND COSTUME DESIGN:
A great deal of art direction and costume design affects performance. When Kate Hepburn walked onto the set of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, she smiled and said, “It’s bone-chillingly marvelous. Which is my chair? Each person develops a fondness for her own chair.” She was right. I said, “the rocker’s yours.” We had anticipated such a question. Already in place beside her rocker were the women’s magazines of the period and the knitting that her character barely touched…Papers on a desk were specific to that person and profession. When an actor opened a folder in a conference room scene, papers in the folder were about the subject to be discussed. These things help the actor’s concentration immeasurably. They put him into a real world…
Nothing helps actors more than the clothes they wear…On Family Business, Sean Connery came into rehearsal after having been with Ann (Roth) for a clothes fitting. He looked happy. I asked him how it had gone. “She’s bloody marvelous,” he said. “She’s given me the whole bloody character now.” That’s the greatest compliment an actor can give.
ON THE SET:
One of the most difficult acting scenes I’ve ever encountered was on Dog Day Afternoon. About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Pacing makes two phone calls: one to his male “wife” and lover, who’s at a barbershop across the street, and the second to his “real” wife, in her home.
I knew Al would build up the fullest head of steam if we could do it in one take. The scene took place at night. The character had been in the bank for twelve hours. He had to seem spent, exhausted. When we’re that tired, emotions flow more easily. And that’s what I wanted.
There was an immediate problem. The camera holds only a thousand feet of film. That’s a bit over eleven minutes. The two phone calls ran almost fifteen minutes. I solved it by putting two cameras next to each other, the lenses as close together as physically possible…When camera 1 had used about 850 feet, we would roll camera 2 while camera 1 was still running. I knew there would be an intercut of the wife somewhere in the final film, which would allow me to cut to the film in camera 2. But Al would have acted out the two phone calls continuously, just as it happened in real life.
I wanted Al’s concentration at its peak. I cleared the set and then, about five feet behind the camera, put up black flats so that even the rest of the physical set was blocked out. The propman had rigged the phones so the off-camera actors could speak into the phones across the street and Al would really hear them on his phone…
I knew a second take would mean a serious interruption for Al. We’d have to reload one of the cameras…The whole process, done at top speed, takes two or three minutes, enough time for Al to cool off. So we put up a black tent to block off both cameras and the men operating them…And I had the second assistant cameraman…hold an extra film magazine in his lap, in case we needed it.
We rolled…The take ended. It was wonderful. But something told me to go again…I called out gently, “Al, back to the top. I want to go again.” He looked at me as if I’d gone mad. He’d gone full out and was exhausted. He said, “What?! You’re kidding.” I said, “Al, we have to. Roll camera.”
…By the end of the second take, Al didn’t know where he was anymore. He finished his lines and, in sheer exhaustion, looked about helplessly. Then, by accident, he looked directly at me. Tears were rolling down my face because he’d moved me so. His eyes locked into mine and he burst into tears…I called, “Cut! Print!” and leapt into the air. That take is some of the best film acting I’ve ever seen.
ON WHAT FILMMAKING ULTIMATELY MEANS TO HIM:
My job is to care about and be responsible for every frame of every movie I make. I know that all over the world there are young people borrowing from relatives and saving their allowances to buy their first cameras and put together their first student movies, some of them dreaming of becoming famous and making a fortune. But a few are dreaming of finding out what matters to them, of saying to themselves and to anyone who will listen, “I care.” A few of them want to make good movies.
RIP, Mr. Lumet.