Take it from the Great Film Director Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet books - thescriptblog.com

I need one hit so I can get the money for three more flops. —SIDNEY LUMET, 1973

Sidney Lumet‘s name is not usually found in “top directors ever” lists, but he was very, very talented (and very, very productive). He passed away in 2011 after creating nothing less than 74 films and TV shows. Wow.

He made a particularly amazing string of films in the 70s: Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976), all impressive. 12 Angry Men (1957), his first theatrical movie, is a classic. Film lovers who don’t know him should get acquainted with the guy. There is so much to learn from him.

Most of what follows belongs to a great biography by Maura Spiegel named Sidney Lumet: A Life. A wonderful work worth many reads. Other material is from a film book that Lumet himself wrote about how movies are made: Making Movies. Another wonderful read.

Let’s visit a few interesting facts about Lumet and let’s share some of his film wisdom.

Sidney Lumet at work - Thescriptblog.com

In budget and ahead of time

Henry Fonda (the star and producer of 12 Angry Men) explained, “I hired Sidney because he had a reputation of being wonderful with actors. We got a bonus that nobody counted on. He also had incredible organization and awareness of the problem of shooting and not wasting time.” In hindsight, “not wasting time” seems like a wry understatement, given his reputation for speed. On the set of his final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, when Sidney was eighty-two years old, the joke, reported by Ethan Hawke, was that across town an identical film, with an identical crew, was being made, and the two were racing to see who would finish first. Sidney delivered 12 Angry Men right on budget, as he would with pretty much every film to follow, and he managed to complete the shooting two days ahead of schedule.

As for organization and efficiency, Sidney’s philosophy was that all the acting and setup work had happened in rehearsal, so the actual filming should take very little time. He was famous—some actors would say notorious—for doing no more than two or three takes.

How to block a scene

Rookie director Tom McCarthy asked Lumet for advice when preparing his first film, The Station Agent (2003) – McCarthy became an accomplished director with movies like the Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015). When the shooting of his first movie was about to start, he felt lost: He had no idea where to place the camera. The following was Lumet’s advice, in Ton McCarthy’s words:

I remember I was having a panic attack before The Station Agent and he said, “Look, if you know what a scene is about, it will block itself. You’ll KNOW where to put that camera.” He was right. I always find that when I don’t know what I’m doing with the camera, it’s because I don’t understand the scene. I haven’t been honest to the scene.

Actors

Sidney Lumet's best movies - thescriptblog.com

I became the kind of director who became whatever his actors need.… I think part of the job of directing is to not make the actors work your way, but for you to work as a director in any way that makes them comfortable.

In my view, you always cast the third act. You cast the final truth of the character.

Kurosawa and Truffaut

I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran (1985) in a particular way. His answer was that if he’d panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he’d panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport—neither of which belonged in a period movie. Only the person who’s made the movie knows what goes into the decisions that result in any piece of work. They can be anything from budget requirements to divine inspiration.

Truffaut has a moment in Day for Night (1973) that touches the heart of every director. He’s just finished an arduous day’s shooting. He’s walking off the set. The production team surrounds him, peppering him with questions for tomorrow’s work. He stops, looks to the heavens, and shouts, “Questions! Questions! So many questions that I don’t have time to think!”

Marlon Brando and Sidney Lumet on the set of The Fugitive Kind (1960) - thecsriptblog.com

Story

as in everything else in the picture, story is the first priority.

What’s the movie about?

Now comes the most important decision I have to make: What is this movie about? I’m not talking about plot.

But what is it about emotionally? What is the theme of the movie, the spine, the arc? What does the movie mean to me? Personalizing the movie is very important. I’m going to be working flat out for the next six, nine, twelve months. The picture had better have some meaning to me. Otherwise, the physical labor (very hard indeed) will become twice as exhausting. The word “meaning” can spread over a very wide range. (…) The question “What is this movie about?” will be asked over and over again throughout the book.

When I first meet with the scriptwriter, I never tell him anything, even if I feel there’s a lot to be done. Instead I ask him the same questions I’ve asked myself: What is this story about? What did you see? What was your intention? Ideally, if we do this well, what do you hope the audience will feel, think, sense? In what mood do you want them to leave the theater?

(…) that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story. After the first critical decision (“What’s this story about?”) comes the second most important decision: “Now that I know what it’s about, how shall I tell it?” And this decision will affect every department involved in the movie that is about to be made.

Once we’ve agreed on the all-important question “What’s this picture about?” we can start in on the details. First comes an examination of each scene—in sequence, of course. Does this scene contribute to the overall theme? How? Does it contribute to the story line? To character? Is the story line moving in an ever increasing arc of tension or drama?

Style

(…) that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story. After the first critical decision (“What’s this story about?”) comes the second most important decision: “Now that I know what it’s about, how shall I tell it?” And this decision will affect every department involved in the movie that is about to be made.

What happens next?

the question of “What happens next?” is one of the delights that’s carried over from childhood.

Color

I had been having great difficulty in finding out how to use color. I’d been brought up on black-and-white movies, and almost all the movies I had made until then were in black and white. The two color movies I had done, Stage Struck (1958) and The Group (1966), had left me dissatisfied. The color seemed fake. The color seemed to make the movies even more unreal. Why did black and white seem real and color false? Obviously, I was using it wrong or—much more serious—not using it at all.

Editing

SIDNEY LUMET checks shots during BYE, BYE BRAVERMAN, 1968

So many misconceptions exist about editing, particularly among critics. I’ve read that a certain picture was “beautifully edited.” There’s no way they could know how well or poorly it was edited. It might look badly edited, but because of how poorly it was shot, it may in fact be a miracle of editing that the story even makes sense. Conversely, the movie may look well edited, but who knows what was left on the cutting room floor. In my view, only three people know how good or bad the editing was: the editor, the director, and the cameraman. They’re the only ones who know everything that was shot in the first place.

A number of documentaries about Lumet can be found.

In 2011, the Criterion Collection produced this 22-minute piece about him, Lumet on Lumet:

In 1991, BBC Omnibus made this documentary about him (48 mins.):

Want to read about Lumet’s 20 best movies? Click here.

For the essential Lumet according to The Playlist, click here.

More about Making Movies? Check our posts Film Blocking, What is it?The 5 Best Books on Making Movies, by Darren Aronofsky,  First Assistant Directors: Who Are They?Foley Artists: Who Are They? and The World of Movie Posters, amongst many others!

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