Director Sidney Lumet
Movie director Sidney Lumet died this past Saturday. It is a huge loss for the film industry and for those of us who care about good films. In addition to being a great director, and specifically a great New York director, Lumet was also incredibly generous when it came to speaking about his work.
I saw Mr. Lumet speak on a number of occasions, beginning when I was in graduate school at NYU. The last time I saw him speak was many years later, in 2007, at an event sponsored by the American Museum of the Moving Image. It was the night before what was to be his last film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” opened.
I remember Lumet saying that he liked to make movies about people trying to do things for the first time. While Lumet’s films are certainly quite varied, this simple explanation could sum up some of his best work. “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) is the true story of two bank robbers going through their first hold up who become trapped in a hostage-taking situation that turns into a media event. It stars Al Pacino and John Cazale and features some of the actors’ best work. Cazale died at a young age and made only five feature films, leaving behind a short but powerful legacy of which this Lumet directed film is an integral part.
Lumet’s first feature film, “Twelve Angry Men” (1957), is about a group of jurors, perhaps first time jurors, trying to decide a case in which 11 want to vote “guilty” and one juror is holding out for a “not guilty” verdict. The film features a cast never to be equaled: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley and others. I once heard Lumet speak about having only a limited amount of time in which to shoot “Twelve Angry Men.” He said that once they had the lighting right for a certain chair in the jury room they shot all of the scenes involving that chair and then moved on.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is about first time jewel thieves. A pair of brothers (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) come up with a plot to rob their parents’ jewelry store. They reason it will be a victimless crime. They will get money for the stolen jewels and their parents will be compensated by their insurance. Then everything that can possibly go wrong, does.
Ethan Hawke spoke that night in 2007. He said that when they were shooting “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” he felt as if there was another cast and crew shooting the same movie in another part of town and that they were having a race to see who would finish first. His story highlights Lumet’s fast shooting style.
Years before, at another event with Lumet, I heard the director speak about his reputation for shooting fast. He explained that it was not about his wanting to shoot fast, but that he could shoot quickly because he was well prepared. Lumet talked about having a two-week rehearsal period built into all of his shooting schedules. He described meeting with the actors in a rehearsal room and having them read through the script while somebody with a stopwatch timed them. Lumet said if it was a scene in which the actors had to be walking, he would have them walk around and around the rehearsal room while they did the scene. He claimed that, with this “rehearsal hall” method, he could even gauge the length of car chase scenes. Lumet said the advantage of this was that he could limit how long the film would be. He could wind up with a two hour and 20 minute film that needed to be cut to two hours. Lumet talked about directors who would shoot a four hour film then have to cut it in half, which, Lumet rightly claimed, hurt the film’s story. He also said that if the actors were well rehearsed that gave them greater freedom to improvise. Any new lines with which they came up could be incorporated into the script at the rehearsal stage.
On the many times I saw Lumet, he said so many candid and interesting things about making movies. I have memories, notes, video taped TV interviews and DVDs of his films with his commentary tracks, all of which I continue to enjoy and learn from.
As Lumet left the event that night, four years ago, I caught up with him. I asked if he would sign my copy of his book, “Making Movies.” He replied with a smile, “Well, if it’s my book…” and then graciously stopped and signed it.