Sidney Lumet: Excerpts from Making Movies

It’s Sidney Lumet’s birthday. Here are many excerpts from his classic and invaluable film-making handbook Making Movies:

In Murder on the Orient Express, I wanted Ingrid Bergman to play the Russian Princess Dragomiroff. She wanted to play the retarded Swedish maid. I wanted Ingrid Bergman. I let her play the maid. She won an Academy Award. I bring this up because self-knowledge is so important in so many ways to an actor.

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, Pacino makes two phone calls: one to his “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 12 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 only holds 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 was physically possible. Naturally, both lenses were the same … When camera 1 had used about 850 feet, we would roll camera 2 while camera 1 was still running. I knew that 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 phones across the street and Al would really hear them on his phone.

One more thing occurred to me. One of the best ways of accumulating emotion is to go as rapidly as possible from one take to the next. The actor begins the second take on the emotional level he reached at the end of the first take. Sometimes I don’t even cut the camera. I’ll say quietly, “Don’t cut the camera — everybody back to their opening positions and we’re going again. OK from the top: Action!” By the way, I always call “Action” in the mood of the scene. If it’s a gentle moment, I’ll say “Action” just loud enough for the actors to hear me. If it’s a scene that requires a lot of energy, I’ll bark out, “Action!” like a drill sergeant. It’s like a conductor giving the upbeat.

I knew a second take would mean a serious interruption for Al. We’d have to reload one of the cameras. Reloading a magazine of film can be quite disruptive …The whole process, done at top speed, takes two or three minutes, enough time for Al to cool off. So I put up a black tent to block off both cameras and the men operating them. We cut two holes for the lenses. And I had the second assistant cameramen (there are three men on a camera crew: operator, focus puller, and second assistant) hold an extra film magazine in his lap, in case we needed it.

We rolled.

As camera 1 reached 850 feet, we rolled camera 2. The take ended. It was wonderful. But something told me to go again. Camera 2 had used only about 200 feet.

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.”

We rolled camera 2. It had about 800 feet left. Meanwhile, behind the camera tent, out of Al’s sight, we reloaded camera 1. By the time camera 2 had used 700 feet (close to eight minutes into the take), we started the reloaded camera 1.

By the end of the second take, Al didn’t know where he was anymore. He finished his lines, and, in sheer exhaustion, looked around 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, then slumped over the desk he’d been sitting at.

I called, “Cut! Print!” and leapt into the air.

That take is some of the best film acting I’ve ever seen.

Nothing helps actors more than the clothes they wear. Ann Roth is an amazing costume designer. She can take the most everyday clothes and turn them into some sort of contribution, to both the actor and the picture.

On Family Business, Sean Connery came into rehearsal after having been with Ann 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.

It’s the equivalent of saying, “We’re all making the same picture.”

The first obligation was to let the audience know that this event had really happened. Therefore, the first decision made was that we use no artificial light. The bank was lit by fluorescents in the ceiling. If we had to supplement the light because of focus problems, we simply added more flourescents. Outside, at night, all the light came from the enormous spotlights of the Police Emergency van on the scene. The bounce light reflecting off the white-brick-and-glass exterior of the bank was bright enough to illuminate the faces of the people facing the bank..And for the improvised scenes in the street and in the bank, I used two and sometimes three hand-held cameras to reinforce the documentary feel.

Living in Los Angeles was part of the debilitating influence on the character played by Jane Fonda. I wanted all color exaggerated: reds redder, blues bluer. We used filters. Behind the lens are little slots where frames about two and a half inches by three and a half inches can be inserted. These frames and slots can hold pieces of glass or gelatin that are colored to various specifications. When we could see the sky, Andrzej would add a blue filter that covered only the sky. The sky came out bluer. Every color was reinforced in this way…These filters have some drawbacks. They limit camera movement, since you don’t want the blue sky filter to bleed into the white building or the actor’s face. But used judiciously, they can be very helpful.

We started with an almost naturalistic look. For the first scene between Peter Finch and Bill Holden, on Sixth Avenue at night, we added only enough light to get exposure. As the picture progressed, camera setups became more rigid, more formal. The lighting became more and more artificial. The next-to-final scene — where Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and three network gray suits decide to kill Peter Finch — is lit like a commercial. The camera setups are static and framed like still pictures. The camera had become a victim of television.

At the end of rehearsal [for Long Day’s Journey], just before shooting, I gathered the actors to tell them about my shooting system and habits and to find out if there was anything they needed during shooting that we could provide. At this session, I said to them, “And by the way, you’re all invited to rushes.”

As we were leaving, Kate called me aside. “Sidney,” she said,”I’ve gone to rushes of practically every picture I’ve ever made. But I won’t be coming to these rushes. I can see how you work. I know Boris [Kaufman’s] work. You’re both dead honest. You can’t protect me. If I go to rushes, all that I’ll see is this” — and she reached under her chin and pinched the slightly sagging flesh — “and this” — she did the same thing under her arms — “and I need all my strength and concentration just to play this part.”

Tears sprang to my eyes.

I’d never seen an actor with such self-knowledge and such dedication, trust, and bravery.

She was breaking habits of thirty years because she knew they would interfere with the job. That’s a giant.

[Paul Newman] is an honorable man. He is also a very private man. We had worked together in television in the early fifties and done a brief scene together in a Martin Luther King documentary, so when we got together on The Verdict, we were immediately comfortable with each other. At the end of two weeks of rehearsal, I had a run-through of the script … There were no major problems. In fact, it seemed quite good. But somehow it seemed rather flat. When we broke for the day I asked Paul to stay a moment. I told him that while things looked promising, we really hadn’t hit the emotional level we both knew was there in David Mamet’s screenplay. I said that his characterization was fine but hadn’t yet evolved into a living, breathing person. Was there a problem? Paul said that he didn’t have the lines memorized yet and that when he did, it would all flow better. I told him I didn’t think it was the lines. I said that there was a certain aspect of Frank Galvin’s character that was missing so far. I told him that I wouldn’t invade his privacy, but only he could choose whether or not to reveal that part of the character and therefore that aspect of himself. I couldn’t help him with the decision. We lived near each other and rode home together. The ride that evening was silent. Paul was thinking. On Monday, Paul came in to rehearsal and sparks flew. He was superb. His character and the picture took on life.

I know that decision to reveal the part of himself that the character required was painful for him. But he’s a dedicated actor as well as a dedicated man. And … yes, Paul is a shy man. And a wonderful actor. And race car driver. And gorgeous.

When [Katharine Hepburn and I] first met, on Long Day’s Journey, she was living in John Barrymore’s former house in Los Angeles. I stepped through the doors of what seemed to me a fifty-foot living room. She stood at the opposite end of the room and started toward me. We’d covered about half the distance when she said, “When do you want to start rehearsal?” (No “Hello” or “How do you do?”) “September nineteenth,” I said. “I can’t start till the 26th,” she said. “Why?” I asked. “Because then,” she said, “you’d know more about the script than I would.”

Funny, charming, but she meant it. It was perfectly all right with me if she knew more about the character. After all, she was going to play it, and I had a lot of other things to think about. But the challenge was unmistakable, and I could see trouble down the road.

The solution was to leave her alone. Though she had played great roles, nothing could compare with Mary Tyrone for psychological complexity, physical and emotional demand, and tragic dimension.

During the first three days of rehearsal I said nothing to her about Mary Tyrone’s character. I talked at length with Jason [Robards], who’d played his part before, with Ralph [Richardson] and Dean [Stockwell], and of course we talked about the play.

When we finished the run-through reading on the third day, there was a long pause. And then, from Kate’s corner of the table, a small voice called out, “Help!”

From then on, the work was thrilling. She asked, she told, she fretted, she tried, she failed, she won. She built that character stone by stone.

Something was still tight about the performance until the end of the second week. There’s a moment in the script when her youngest son, trying to cut through her morphine haze, screams at her that he’s dying of consumption. I said, “Kate, I’d like you to haul off and smack him as hard as you can.” She started to say that she couldn’t do that, but the sentence died halfway out of her mouth. She thought about it for 30 seconds, then said, “Let’s try it.” She hit him. She looked at Dean’s horrified face, and her shoulders started to shake. She dissolved into the broken, frightened failure that was so important an aspect of Mary Tyrone. The sight of that giant Hepburn in such a state was the personification of tragic acting.

When the Greeks said tragedy is for royalty, they were only saying that tragedy was for giants.

There was no tightness ever again. Kate was soaring.

If you’ve got a major star, you’ve got that strong personal quality seeping through in every performance. Even with as fine a character actor as Robert DeNiro, DeNiro himself comes out. Partially it’s because he uses himself brilliantly. As I said earlier, the actor’s only instrument is himself. But I think it’s more than that. There’s a mysterious alchemy between star and audience. Sometimes it’s based on the physical beauty or sex appeal of the star. But I don’t believe that it’s ever just one thing. Surely there were other women as attractive as Marilyn Monroe or men as handsome as Cary Grant (though not many). Al Pacino tries to suit his looks to the characters — a beard here, long hair there — but somehow it’s the way his eyes express an enormous rage, even in tender moments, that enthralls me and everyone else. I think that every star evokes a sense of danger, something unmanageable. Perhaps each person in the audience feels that he or she is the one who can manage, tame, satisfy the bigger-than-life quality that a star has. Clint Eastwood isn’t really the same as you or me, is he? Or Michelle Pfeiffer, or Sean Connery, or you name them. I don’t really know what makes a star. But the persona that jumps out at you is certainly a most important element.

The most moving example of how much of themselves actors must pour into a character happened on Network. William Holden was a wonderful actor. He was also very experienced. He’d done 60 or 70 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 very 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? Look 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.

Howard Hawks was once asked to name the most important element in an actor’s performance. His answer was “confidence”. In a sense, that is really what’s been going on during rehearsal: the actors are gaining confidence in revealing their inner selves. They’ve been learning about me. I hold nothing back. If the actors are going to hold nothing back in front of the camera, I can hold nothing back in front of them. They have to be able to trust me, to know that I “feel” them and what they’re doing. This mutual trust is the most important element between the actor and me.

I worked with Marlon Brando on The Fugitive Kind. He’s a suspicious fellow. I don’t know if he bothers anymore, but Brando tests the director on the first or second day of shooting. What he does is to give you two apparently identical takes. Except that on one, he is really working from the inside; and on the other, he’s just giving you an indication of what the emotion was like. Then he watches which one you decide to print. If the director prints the wrong one, the “indicated” one, he’s had it. Marlon will either walk through the rest of the performance or make the director’s life hell, or both. Nobody has the right to test people like that, but I can understand why he does that. He doesn’t want to pour out his inner life to someone who can’t see what he’s doing.

At the same time they’re learning about me, I’m finding out things about the actors. What stimulates them, what triggers their emotions? What annoys them? How’s their concentraion? Do they have a technique? What method of acting do they use? The “Method” made famous at the Actors’ Studio, based on the teaching of Stanislavsky, is not the only one. Ralph Richardson, whom I saw give at least three great performances, in theatre and film, used a completely auditory musical system. During rehearsals of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he asked a simple question. Forty-five minutes later I finished my answer. (I talk a lot). Ralph paused a moment and then sonorously said: “I see what you mean, dear boy: a little more cello, a little less flute.”

I was, of course, enchanted. And of course, he was putting me down, telling me not to be so long-winded. But we talked in musical terms from then on: “Ralph, a little more staccato.” “A slower tempo, Ralph.”

I subsequently found out that when he appeared in the theatre, he played a violin in his dressing room before a performance as a warm-up. He used himself as a musical instrument, literally.

I wasn’t sure whether we were in drama or tragedy territory [with Prince of the City]. knew I wanted to wind up somewhere between the two, leaning towards the tragic. 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: pity 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 of Danny Ciello was played by DeNiro or Pacino, all ambivalence would disappear. By their nature, stars invite your faculty of identification. You empathize with them immediately, even if they’re playing monsters. A major star would defeat the picture with just the advertising.

I chose a superb but not very well known actor, Treat Williams. This may have defeated the commerciality of the movie, but it was the right choice dramatically.

Then I went further. I cast as many new faces as possible. If the actor had done lots of movies, I didn’t use him. In fact, for the first time in one of my pictures, out of 125 speaking parts, I cast 52 of them from “civilians” — people who had never acted before. 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 be slowly eroded as the picture went on.

Most actors, despite Hitchcock’s pronouncement, are very bright. Some are superb on script. Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman are wonderfully helpful. One can gain a lot by listening to them. Pacino isn’t terrifically articulate, but he’s got a built-in sense of the truth. If a scene or a line bothers him, I pay attention. He’s probably right.

What do I owe the writer? A thorough investigation and then a committed execution of his intentions.

What does the writer owe me? The selflessness that Frank Pierson showed on Dog Day Afternoon or that Naomi Foner showed on Running on Empty.

Naomi is a fine, talented, and original writer. Somehow she fell in love with a scene that, to me, was her only bad idea in the whole movie. The young boy, played by River Phoenix, comes into a strange house, sits down at the piano, and begins to play a Beethoven sonata. Eventually he notices that he is being watched by a young girl, about his age. In the script, he segues into boogie-woogie piano music.

I explained to Naomi why I thought it was a bad idea. There was a feeling of pandering to the audience: See, he’s not really an egghead -– he likes jazz, just like you and me. I’ve seen the same scene as far back as Jose Iturbi tickling the ivories in some remote Gloria Jean movie or Jeanette MacDonald singing swing in San Francisco. Naomi fought for it, so I decided to leave it in to see how it played in rehearsal.

When I began to stage the scene, River asked if we could cut that bit. He felt false playing it. I saw Naomi pale. We started to talk about it. River told Naomi with great simplicity and earnestness how it compromised his character. (It was enchanting to see this 17 year old arguing with a serious writer twice his age.) Finally I suggested we try it for a few days to see if there was a value to it.

At the end of rehearsal, Naomi came over to me. She said she didn’t mind if I had to stretch to accommodate the scene, but she couldn’t bear to see River turning himself inside out to make it work.

She loved the scene, but she said, “Let’s cut it.”

In the early days of television, when the “kitchen sink” school of realism held sway, we always reached a point where we “explained” the character. Around two-thirds of the way through, someone articulated the psychological truth that made the character the person he was. [Paddy]
Chayefsky and I used to call this the “rubber-ducky” school of drama: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.” That was the fashion then, and with many producers and studios it still is.

I always try to eliminate the rubber-ducky explanations. A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behavior as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations. If the writer has to state the reasons, something’s wrong in the way the character has been written.

Having decided, for whatever reason, to do a movie, I return to that all-encompassing, critical discussion: What is the movie about? Work can’t begin until its limits are defined, and this is the first step in that process. It becomes the riverbed into which all subsequent decisions will be channeled.

The Pawnbroker: How and why we create our own prisons

Dog Day Afternoon: Freaks are not the freaks we think they are. We are much more connected to the outrageous behavior than we know or admit.

Prince of the City: When we try to control everything, everything winds up controlling us. nothing is what it seems.

The Fugitive Kind: The struggle to preserve what is sensitive and vulnerable both in ourselves and in the world.

12 Angry Men: Listen

Network: The machines are winning.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night: I must stop here. I don’t know what the theme is, other than whatever idea is inherently in the title. Sometimes a subject comes along, and as in this case, is expressed in such great writing, is so enormous, so all-encompassing, that no single theme can define it. Trying to pin it down limits something that should have no limits. I am very lucky to have had a text of that magnitude in my career.

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15 Responses to Sidney Lumet: Excerpts from Making Movies

  1. Larry says:

    Thanks for this Sheila—wonderful compilation of quotes. Such respect for process….. it resonates so clearly when you think of all his great great work.

  2. Robert says:

    There is absolutely no b.s. in his philosophy or his product. I love his accommodation of the writer, esp in the Running on Empty anecdote. Just like he does with his actors, he lets his writers discover for themselves why something is wrong.

  3. Greg says:

    These excerpts show why the book is such a classic, and why Lumet was such a great director.

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  5. sheila says:

    Robert – that Running On Empty anecdote really touched me too and is so illuminating about how awesome the creative process can be when everyone has a lot of space. She had obviously thought about the script long and hard … and when it comes time to filming, you’re gonna see what works and what doesn’t. Lumet didn’t come off as dictatorial (although he certainly could do that if the situation called for it) … It played out in a more organic way, and she was able to let it go. Really quite amazing. You can see why people loved working with him. He brought out the best in people.

  6. sheila says:

    Larry – amazing stuff, right? The whole book is amazing, but I love these anecdotes in particular. It seems to put to rest the ridiculous criticism that Lumet as a director “lacks style”. Puh-leeze.

    But I love his words on the actors’ process too.

  7. Malu says:

    Hi Sheila,
    One day I was idling in the internet and found your blog. I just want to say that I really like your posts and the way you write about films and actors ( I’m an actress here in Brazil ).
    Thanks for your sense of humour, class and style !

  8. Rob says:

    Good stuff, Sheila. Sidney was an extraordinary film maker. One of my faves.

    When I think of directors, I always think of the one portrayed in The Goodbye Girl. I remember an interviewer talking to Lumet about a movie that wasn’t even his and asking him if audiences needed more movies like that. He said he likes all kinds of movies, big movies, little movies, all kinds. When Elliot Garfield (Richard Dreyfuss) asks the director in The Goodbye Girl if he wanted him to be in his movie, he says “Well, we could always go to one … but I think working is much more fun.” I think Sidney would be happy going to one. There’s a joy that Lumet, Spielberg, and Tarantino bring to their films that I just love. It’s because they love movies. R.I.P, Sidney.

  9. Jimmy says:

    Thank you for this piece today Sheila. It was something I needed to take in. I will most definitely get a copy of ‘Making Movies’.

    Thank God for Sidney Lumet. For the amazing body of work ,which he created over the course of his life, will forever stand the test of time.

    An American master. A decent and kind man. He will truly be missed.

    Rest in Peace, Mr. Lumet.

  10. Gerard says:

    Hi Sheila,

    “Just heard of this news about a minute ago ……..and thought of you.” This quote is from a former girlfriend I had while in film school 1982-1984. Although I got a film degree I was an actor who decided to study film and not theater. I had done quite a bit of theater and decided that studying film would give me a better understanding on how to do my job on film. At the time I had seen a good amount of Sidney Lumet movies though I did not know how he worked. The quote above signifies how influential a mentor Mr. Lumet was and is on me both as a filmmaker and actor. “Making Movies” taught me more about the process of making a film than film school.

    “Though not as consistent as Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet is nevertheless a master of cinema.” is a quote from IMDB, I have equal respect and admiration for both Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Kubrick like I do for Lumet, but this quote seems to suggest that Mr. Lumet might be less of a director. Maybe he’s had a few more flops as a director but he’s got about 20 films over Scorsese and about 50 over Kubrick, not to mention his TV and Theater work. Let’s just leave it at “Sidney Lumet, journeyman director, and Stanley Kubrick were masters of Cinema, as is Martin Scorsese”. RIP Mr. Lumet you will certainly be missed by many and by your unknown protege.

    Thank you for your blog I will be visiting it often.

  11. Shelley says:

    When you read something like this post, it makes your wonder (and despair) over how many lousy, thoughtless movies are being made today.

  12. sheila says:

    Shelley – There have always been lousy, thoughtless movies. Today is no exception.

    Artists like Sidney Lumet will always stand out.

  13. Ken says:

    Another great compilation. I really appreciated what Lumet said about Treat Williams — I’m a big fan, have been since Hair. I thought Prince of the City was great.

  14. Todd Restler says:

    Glad to see so much support for Prince of the City, and Treat Williams in that movie. It’s always been one of my favorite performances, if not THE favorite. I felt so deeply for his character.

    The scene where him and his partners are having another barbeque, telling jokes, but he’s already informing behind their backs, is one of my favorite bits of acting ever. He starts telling a joke, but loses his place, and just keeps rambling, getting more and more hysterical, and eventually breaks down crying. He’s just heartbreaking. And I loved the end. SPOILER I fully expected him to wind up dead, since there are so many places where it looks like that will happen. But his utter isolation at the end is even more devasting. He has no identity left.

    What an interesting approach to the casting, hiring many non-actors. It sure worked.

  15. david foster says:

    Sheila, screenwriter Robert Avrech, who worked with Lumet, has a remembrance here.

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