In Remembrance of Director Sidney Lumet

ARTICLE BY PHILIP BERK FROM A 2007 HFPA INTERVIEW “Of all the directors I’ve worked with, the one I enjoyed working with the most was Sidney Lumet. He tells you what to do, where to go, how to go, how far to go. For instance, with Dog Day Afternoon, he set the bank robbery in such a way you knew exactly what you were doing. All you had to do was go there and rob a bank.” – Al Pacino

The name Sidney Lumet conjures memories of the Golden Age of Hollywood. You immediately think of Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, Rashomon, The Fugitive Kind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Hill (Connery’s favorite,) The Group (Lumet’s least favorite,) The Sea Gull, The Verdict, and Running on Empty in a career that spans 50 years. So when you have an opportunity to meet him for the first time, you expect someone frail, hearing impaired, forgetful. What a surprise when a robust, handsome, broadly smiling individual walks in the room. Known for his speed and ingenuity, Lumet was the go-to guy if there was a film that needed a tight budget. So, what does he think of that reputation? “It’s there and it’s true. I come from the theatre, and I come from television, and there you make the dramatic selection in advance. Now there’s no superiority to the way I work. Somebody who I consider a great American director is William Wyler. Willie would expose 1,200,000 feet on a movie. I don’t know if you know how much that is. It’s insane! I mean, I expose 125,000 feet, and Willie would expose over a million. George Stevens would expose over a million because from their training. Wyler was an editor when he began, and he didn’t know it till he saw it. He sure knew when he saw, though. So as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t really matter what method you use, except if you like to work with, or have to work with low budgets as I do. It helps to make the dramatic selections in advance; I get rid of an awful lot of choices.”

He’s been able to overcome ageism in Hollywood. If either Wyler or Stevens were alive they’d have a hard time finding work. “I’ll tell you an absolutely true story. Right after my first picture, 12 Angry Men, I was the new genius in town. We were nominated, this job offer and that job offer, and I received a script that was very good but it was literally World War 3. It was armies and airplanes and God knows what. I didn’t want to do it, but the head of the studio that was doing it asked me to come and see him – I’d never met a head of a studio before – and I thought what the hell, I’ll go and meet him. And so, I went, and we chatted. It was very nice, and then he said to me, ‘What do you think of the script?’ I told him, and then I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to ask you something. All you know about my work is 12 guys in a room. What makes you think I can do World War 3?’ and he said to me, ‘I’ll tell you what we’re looking for Sidney, we’re looking for a young Lewis Milestone.” Milestone, of course, had made All Quiet on the Western Front 30 years earlier. I was a great admirer of his. He was in his early sixties and couldn’t get a job, and he was in such a state of despair that he had developed shingles, where the skin just peels away. And thank God I had the guts to say, ‘Well what’s the matter with the old Lewis Milestone?” So, my awareness of age as a problem started very early.” [At the time Milestone was relegated to directing the TV series Have Gun Will Travel. It took Sinatra and the Rat Pack to give him a second career with Ocean’s 11.] Over 50 years he must have seen changes in Hollywood.

How does the current Hollywood compare to the Hollywood of the 50s? “There are enormous differences. The basic thing stays the same: make money or else. But there are enormous differences in the financing now. It used to be that financing was entirely the studio’s bailiwick. They didn’t want partners, they didn’t want any help. Now they look for partners in everything. I guess that’s because the pictures that really make them their money – those so-called tent pole pictures, the summer pictures, have gotten so expensive. The actors are expensive. For a picture to cost over $130 million now is quite common, so they have to hedge their bets.” And from the director’s standpoint? “From my end, it’s not different, no. There used to be this thing among directors or any creative people, ‘Oh, God, will they ever get off my back!’ But private financing is just as impossible except now you get five bosses instead of one.”

Besides directing, he’s written a number of the scripts he’s directed, and in fact he won an award from the Writers Guild. He has a lot to say about that. “The stories about how writers were held in contempt during my “hot” periods is quite true. In fact, I don’t think I ever received a script which didn’t say at the end of it, ‘We understand this needs some work, and you can put on any writer you choose,’ a rather contemptuous way of treating anybody. I was always bothered by that because then, what the hell did you buy in the first place if you’re going to bring in a director and let him assign anyone he likes to rewrite it.”

He pioneered the concept of rehearsals for film. Could he imagine making a film without a rehearsal period? “It would be almost impossible for me not to do so. I don’t think I’d know what I was doing. There are so many things I get out of it, particularly if the characters are complicated. On most pieces I rehearse two weeks, but when I did Long Day’s Journey into Night, I rehearsed four weeks, like in the theatre, and the rehearsals were very thorough – we didn’t just sit around the table and bullshit – we got up on our feet, the actors learned their lines, it was like a theatre rehearsal. Generally, before I start shooting, we have what’s called a run-through. I’ll run the entire picture straight through without stopping.” He once said that if you’re any good, your limitations will turn out to be your strengths. What were those limitations? And are they now strengths? 

“I’m not a good comedy director at all. I’m so envious of people who have a natural talent for comedy. I’ve learned a little bit how to do it sheerly technically because I’ve done enough of them. And I’ve ruined enough of them; so that I learned. But the problem is that I have no natural talent for it. I give you an example of what I mean. I think people who are naturally funny and can create comedy have a different pair of glasses on. They see the world differently. For a long time one of my good friends was Neil Simon, who may be one of the genuinely funny people in the world. We were walking down the street and we stopped at the corner for a red light, and a little lady tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Excuse me, which way is Fifth Avenue?’ and he said, ‘That way,” and he put his finger right up her nose. That’s Neil. That’s the way he lives. He’s always getting his finger up somebody’s nose, and it’s funny. It’s a natural part of the way he lives; so, he has a right to say it’s reality, but it’s not my reality.”

Any way you look at his career, Lumet is a master, having directed no less than eighteen Oscar nominated performances! How does he do it? “Oh, that’s complicated. There’s a lot of good feeling in the rehearsals. I don’t work with lunatics and we know who the lunatics are … we talk among ourselves. Basically, what happens at rehearsals, they learn to trust me, and I learn to trust them, and that mutual trust gives us a real connection. But you must remember, actors are very afraid. I’m good at getting rid of their fear.” What does he think of watching movies on an iPod? “It horrifies me. When we get down to that, we’ve lost the visual way of telling a story because you can’t see anything. That chariot race in Ben Hur. That ten-minute sequence may be the greatest ever made.”

Orson Welles once said everyone thinks Hollywood moguls are only interested in making money, but what they really want is to win awards. Any comment? “Well I’ll tell you my first film 12 Angry Men, which opened doors to me, was a failure in the United States. It owed its success completely to Europe. We went to Berlin, where we took the Golden Bear. And we did marvelous business in France and England and in Germany. So, I guess Orson was right. But I can’t tell you how large a part luck plays. Before that I had worked on live television. I had done a number of scripts by Reginald Rose who wrote 12 Angry Men, but I had not done the television version. Somebody else had. At the time I was running a workshop for actors down in Greenwich Village, and because there was nobody to direct scenes I started to direct, and one of the things we did at the end of the year was put on a full-length production of a new play. Two of the members of the workshop were in the Broadway play Mr. Roberts, which Henry Fonda was starring in. They invited Hank down to come and see it; so when Reggie Rose and Henry Fonda got together to produce 12 Angry Men, Fonda said to Rose, ‘Who would you like to direct?’ and Reggie said, ‘I’ve been working with Sidney Lumet in live television, and I love him, and I’d like to use him even though he’s never done a picture.’ And Fonda said, ‘Yeah, I saw something of his last year. It was very good. Okay.’ And it was that simple. I didn’t have to meet anybody. I didn’t have to talk my way into it. I didn’t have to be charming to anybody. I received the script and the offer at the same time. Now that’s sheer luck.”

How important is a title? “I don’t think they’re important at all. If the picture’s successful, it was a wonderful title. If the picture flopped it was a bad title. When we were doing Dog Day Afternoon, we all thought it was such a bad title. We had a contest. $5,000.  Employees at Warner Bros. come up with a title. $5,000 reward. Nothing. Nothing came up good. We said, the hell with this, let’s stay with Dog Day Afternoon. The only bad title I can remember was Sydney Pollack’s Yakuza. I think that was a dumb title. It sounded like a bath.”

Was it always his dream to make films?  “No, in fact, quite the reverse. I started as a child actor, and I was on Broadway. That was in the 30s, and we were snobs. We were theater snobs. Movies, you went there to make money. It had nothing to do with art. The theater was art.”

Talking to him it’s obvious why people like Al Pacino and Sean Connery love working with him. He’s the gentlest, most positive person I can remember interviewing. Is the secret of his success positive reinforcement? “I never even think of myself as successful. How many movies have I made?” 46, he is told. “I’m surprised. All I do is work and then hope it’s good. Fred Astaire once said something very terrific. He said, ‘I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my work very seriously,’ and I think that says it perfectly.”