Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 04-11-11

Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet

With the passing of Sidney Lumet Hollywood has lost another of its iconic filmmakers. These links to what many of us regard as “better days” in the movie business are increasingly few and it’s sad to see them taken by death.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lumet about “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” his wonderful 2007 thriller that has now become his last film. I found him to be a terrific interview — no pretensions, happy to engage in unhurried storytelling and remarkably youthful in spirit and energy despite being 83 at the time.

His classic 1976 drama “Network” is one of my all-time favorite movies and brought him best directing Oscar, DGA and BAFTA nominations and a Golden Globes best directing win. Over the years Lumet was also Oscar nominated for directing “12 Angry Men” (1957), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) and “The Verdict” (1983) and for co-writing with Jay Presson Allen the adapted screenplay for “Prince of the City” (1981). The Academy gave him an honorary Oscar in 2005. I had hoped he would be Oscar nominated again for “Devil,” but I’m sorry to say that was not the case.

My column below with Sidney Lumet originally ran Oct. 31, 2007.

“Devil” director: That elusive combination of boxoffice success, critical enthusiasm and filmmaker cache that translates into prime Oscar and Golden Globes nominations is coming together beautifully in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

With its lively $36,919 average per theater at two screens in New York last weekend via THINKFilm, its very fresh 85 percent critics’ rating on RottenTomatoes.com and Lumet’s distinguished 50 year career in Hollywood, “Devil” has heavenly potential in this wide open awards season. THINKFilm is launching the dark suspense thriller in Los Angeles and five other top markets Friday (11/2) and will expand its run in the coming weeks.

“Devil” earned a slot on my own developing Top Ten List immediately after I had an early look at the picture. It’s a film that should surface in key awards races — including best picture, director, original screenplay (Kelly Masterson), actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman, a best actor Oscar and Golden Globe winner for “Capote”), supporting actor (Ethan Hawke, a two time Oscar nominee), supporting actress (Marisa Tomei, a supporting actress Oscar winner for “My Cousin Vinny” and an Oscar and Globe supporting actress nominee for “In the Bedroom”) and original music (Carter Burwell).

Produced by Michael Cerenzie, Brian Linse, Paul Parmar and William S. Gilmore, “Devil” was executive produced by Belle Avery, Jane Barclay, David Bergstein, Janette Jensen Hoffman, Eli Klein, Hannah Leader, Jeffry Melnick and Sam Zaharis. In “Devil” Hoffman and Hawke play brothers who are both in serious financial trouble and decide to carry out Hoffman’s plan for solving their problems by robbing a mom and pop jewelry store. Unfortunately, it’s their own parents’ store and without giving anything away here to spoil it, let’s just say things don’t go according to plan.

Like other legendary directors, Lumet’s never actually won an Oscar, although he’s been nominated by Academy members five times — in 1958 for the classic “12 Angry Men,” his first feature since he started out directing live TV in 1948; in 1976 for “Dog Day Afternoon;” in 1977 for “Network,” one of my all-time favorite films and as valid a portrayal of the network television business today as it was 30 years ago; in 1982 for co-writing the adapted screenplay for “Prince of the City;“ and in 1983 for “The Verdict.” The Academy awarded Lumet an honorary Oscar in 2005, but “Devil” is so good it could bring him the real thing this time around.

Lumet at age 83 — his energy, vitality and passion for filmmaking, by the way, puts others half his age to shame — is not only overdue for an Oscar win, he’s also overdue for a Directors Guild of America victory. His seven DGA noms include “12 Angry Men” in 1958, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1963, “The Pawnbroker” in 1966, “Serpico” in 1974, “Murder on the Orient Express” in 1975, “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1976 and “Network” in 1977. Lumet received the DGA’s Honorary Life Member Award in 1989 and the guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. “Devil” could become his first DGA win.

On the Golden Globes front, Lumet won for “Network.” He’s also received five other Globe noms — for “12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict” and “Running on Empty” (in 1989). The Los Angeles Film Critics Association has honored him twice with wins for “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and recently voted him its Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented in January. Among his other best director awards over the years are those from the New York Film Critics Circle for “Prince of the City” and from the National Board of Review for “The Verdict.”

For some insights into the making of “Devil,” I was happy to be able to catch up recently with Sidney Lumet, who’s long been one of my favorite filmmakers. When I asked why he wanted to make this film, Lumet told me, “The story. I just love story and when I find a good one I’m thrilled and can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

Asked how “Devil” came to him, he replied, “In the mail from Michael (Cerenzie). That simple. It was wonderful to read something and say, ‘Wow, I want to do that!’”

Given Lumet’s affection for melodrama, which “Devil” is, I asked him to explain the difference between melodrama and drama: “To begin with, a good drama comes out of the characters and in a good melodrama the characters come out of the story. In other words, in a drama the characters determine the story. In a melodrama, the story determines the characters because a melodrama is about story. That’s all it’s about and all the adjustments have to be made to it. I think there’s one other thing, maybe, that comes into it, which is that in a melodrama the story, itself, is way past the probable. In fact, it’s usually improbable — not impossible, but improbable — and in a drama that better not be so.”

After reading “Devil” and deciding he wanted to direct it, Lumet explained, “I don’t know whether Michael had gotten the money by then or not. But you know Michael so you know that that didn’t matter. He was off and running! So he had enough assurances (to go forward and) we went to work casting. There was some rewriting necessary.”

The casting process, he added, “wasn’t that difficult because we got lucky. I sent Philip the script and told him he can play either (brother’s) part. Now that was a bit Machiavellian on my part because what I was really doing was flattering him. What could be more flattering? And he said, ‘Well, I don‘t know what I want to play. Why don’t you shop around and see who else you’ll get and then we can decide?’ I did think of Ethan next. He’s always interested me as an actor. As wonderful as he is in this, I think there is so much more that he can do that we haven’t seen of him yet. He read it, loved the script and picked (the role of the weaker brother) Hank and that’s where I really lucked out because when you’ve got a weak character the worst thing you can do is cast it with a weak actor or an actor with a weak persona. What’s wonderful about Ethan in that part is that he is so active in selecting the things that portray a weak character that the performance is wonderfully alive. And then as he decided to portray that (role) I called Philip and said, ‘He wants (to play Hank)’ and he said, ‘Great, because I’ve been rereading and I think the other part’s better for me.’ And off we went!”

It was early 2006 when the casting came together. Intensive rehearsing followed, as it typically does when Lumet’s making a movie: “I come from the theater and live television so for me the rehearsals are critical and I’ve always worked that way. There’s no particular superiority in working that way. God knows, directors who do not rehearse have turned out great, great, great movies. But for me it really is necessary. It works much like a theater or a live television rehearsal, which is we’re around a table for a little while, then we get up on our feet and we block it. I block it all — fights, car chases, the works. And depending on the complexities of the characters, it is minimally two weeks (of rehearsal time). Now ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ I only rehearsed one week. But usually (it’s) two weeks. ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ which was a very complex character piece, was four weeks of rehearsal. So that’s what determines the length (of the rehearsal period). This was two weeks.”

When it comes time to shoot, Lumet explained, “I never storyboard. What’s happened is that during the rehearsal — because I block it and I put it up on its feet — I start to think about how I’m going to shoot it. I’m lucky in that sense in that I’ve got a good visual memory so that by the time I go on set I’ve pretty well got it all laid out in my mind.”

Therefore, when he’s shooting he’s not doing as many takes as directors who don’t already know how they plan to cut everything together. “I expose very little,” he said. “If I expose 120,000 feet (of film) that’s a lot for me.”

Looking back on the challenges of production, he told me, “You know, you think (with a film like this there’s) a limited number of characters, a limited number of locations and a lot of it (to be shot) in the studio, it’s going to be an easy picture. And, you know what? It’s never an easy picture. When we were in that shopping mall (where the jewelry store that’s robbed is located) for at least a week it was 95 degrees, at least, every single day. You can imagine how hot that concrete was as we were getting towards the third and fourth and fifth day. It was brutal. I was the only one who was out there all the time. Other people would go inside to an air conditioned place and sit and have an iced coffee (while) I’m out there every second with the crew and it was tough.

“Then, also, you have to work around the restrictions. This is typical on every picture. I’m not complaining in any way. But when we get into the dope dealer’s apartment, that’s in a building owned by Donald Trump and there is very little that you can do. You better not take a paint chip off a wall, by God, because you’re going to have to put it back and then some.”

In the film Albert Finney plays the brothers’ father, who’s had a particularly difficult relationship with his older son, played by Hoffman. Lumet and Finney had previously worked together very successfully on “Murder on the Orient Express.” “The key to everything in the casting was I knew that in order to make the story work I needed an extremely high level of intensity,” Lumet pointed out. “So what do you do? You go out and you get the best actors you can. And, of course, that’s Albert. I was so thrilled (to get him). It was Ellen Lewis who brought up his name. She’s the best casting director I’ve ever had. Nothing delighted me more — (well) one thing delighted me more, which was when he said ‘Yes.’”

With so many wonderful actors cast in “Devil,” Lumet needed to deal with a wide range of acting styles. “Absolutely,” he agreed. “It’s part of the job and part of the work that I get done in rehearsal is making sure that they all belong in the same picture. That comes about simply by my working the way they want to work rather than trying to make them work in a particular way. I become what they need. So it kind of all filters through me what’s up on the screen in that sense. It’s work, but not at all impossible work. In fact, it’s rather interesting.”

As he’s shooting, Lumet is typically editing the movie in his head. Does he do an actual assembly of footage during production? “With high-def now, it almost does it itself,” he explained. “Tom Swartwout, who’s been my editor for the past five years, is doing an assembly (while shooting’s underway). I didn’t use to do that, but I found that Tom’s taste was so similar to my own that I could come into the cutting room the day after I finished shooting — and now in high-def you don’t have to wait for the rushes to arrive — and I could take a look at what Tom did. He usually understands so well what my intention is that it gives us a good leg up.”

Clearly, Lumet’s a big fan of shooting digitally: “I love it. When I saw the first demonstration of the camera that Sony made (about) seven years ago, I fell in love with it. I wanted to find out about that camera so I did a television series (‘100 Centre Street’ in 2001-02) in which A&E allowed me to shoot it in digital rather than in film. I did two seasons of it and it was a great education. Then I did the picture with Vin Diesel in it (‘Find Me Guilty’ for Yari Film Group in 2006) and I’ve done this picture in it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the way I want to work from here on out.”

It’s an interesting point of view because you might guess that a filmmaker who’s made 45 movies since the mid-1950s would probably be more comfortable continuing to work with film as he’s been doing rather than start learning how to shoot in digital. “I love this way of doing it,” he observed. “It’s got a lot of advantages. I can give you a four hour lecture on what the advantages are.”

“Just do five minutes,” I joked.

“I’ll do about three and a half,” he laughed. “The first thing is that it allows me to use multi-camera techniques, which takes me right back to live television. That’s a tremendous advantage because you can build to an intensity because the actors know that they’re not going to have a two hour interruption while you break up everything to shoot the other side (and that) you’re doing the entire scene in one. I find that it is far more economical and that I use much less light. You’ve got an ability to control the amount of light to what I think is a far greater degree.

“The third thing, and it’s equally important, is when you look at the sky you’ve never seen that color sky on film. When you look at grass in the park, you’ve never seen grass that color on film. The chemicals (used in film processing) cannot do that. They can do other things. Look, I’m not a fool. There’s been a hundred years of great movie photography. But to get actually what your eye sees, you better go to high-def because you’re not going to get it on film. And for me that’s a tremendous advantage. Trying to get what was really there on ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ was agony and we never did get it. We got something close to it, but we never really did get it. And now we can.”

Asked if any scene during production came to mind as having been especially challenging, Lumet replied, “Well, you remember the scene where they’re going through the dope dealer’s apartment? (So as not to spoil anything, I’m skipping Lumet’s description of that very intense scene.) Philip is rummaging through the safe deposit box (hoping to find money) and Ethan is outside just quaking. That scene builds to a kind of intensity that’s really rather amazing. I could have gotten it with single cameras (shooting on film) — first doing Philip’s side, then doing Ethan’s or vice versa — but not only was I liberated in the sense of knowing that I would only be doing it once and getting both their sides at the same time, but they were (also liberated).

“The actors were working out of each other in a kind of self-abandoning way that I don’t think would have happened if I’d been using a single camera technique. And each response was pitched at the same level the other actor had led you into. So I think that would be a very good example of where (shooting digitally) can help enormously in performance.”