Sidney Lumet

Making Movies

“My job is to care about and be responsible for every frame of every movie I make. ”

Director Sidney Lumet’s (1924 – 2011) unassuming book Making Movies is simply written, effortlessly organized, and casually connected, yet it delivers a mountain of insight on a fascinating topic: How are movies made?

The first decision, of course, was whether to do the movie. I don’t know how other directors decide. I decide completely instinctively, very often on just one reading. This has produced very good movies and very bad ones. But it’s the way I’ve always done it, and I’m too old to change now.

From what actors are really like (Paul Newman was quiet but extremely hard-working, Sean Connery bounded up stairs) to lengthy insight into how shots are determined, Lumet addresses the unseen aspect of movies both technically and creatively. He frames the book by addressing one of the most common questions: What exactly do directors do?

But how much in charge am I? Is the movie un Film de Sidney Lumet? I’m dependent on weather, budget, what the leading lady had for breakfast, who the leading man is in love with. I’m dependent on the talents and idiosyncrasies, the moods and egos, the politics and personalities, of more than a hundred different people. And that’s just in the making of the movie.

Sidney Lumet was an impassioned director responsible for films like 12 Angry MenNetwork, and Dog Day Afternoon. He also was a natural leader who coached some of our most luminous actors into their best roles. On directing Katharine Hepburn in the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Lumet writes:

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.

making movies
Katharine Hepburn (as Mary Tyrone) sinks into a morphine stupor in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 1962. Source: Embassy Pictures/Photofest.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that he was attracted to a movie’s moral center, its inherent goodness. Lumet would agree; his choice of films to direct sprung from an instinctual feeling.

Whatever I am, whatever the work will amount to, has come out of my subconscious. I can’t approach it cerebrally. Obviously, this is right and correct for me. Each person must approach the problem in whatever way works best for him.

Tethering our creative output to instinct or indeed to an innate concept of “goodness” might seem outdated in our morally relativistic world, but that’s the point. Lumet is quick and frequent to say in Making Movies his decisions need not be everyone’s, nor does the film need be to everyone’s liking; it only need be compelling to him.

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Photo of Lee J. Cobb’s hot anger at Henry Fonda’s cool rationality. “12 Angry Men was about one thing: listening,” said Lumet.

Being true to one’s own inherent morality and sense of beauty—and hoping to achieve commercial success as well—is a profoundly complex matter of creativity. Thespian Anna Deavere Smith, who has written most of her monologues, decried the difference between brand and name and the ease with which we forsake the latter for the former.

Like Deavere Smith, Lumet expresses an much-laudable sense of personal responsibility for his work and a general alliance to its greatness.

My job is to care about and be responsible for every frame of every movie I make. I know that all over the world there are young people borrowing from relatives and saving their allowances to buy their first cameras and put together their first student movies, some of them dreaming of becoming famous and making a fortune. But a few are dreaming of finding out what matters to them, of saying to themselves and to anyone who will listen, ‘I care.’

To find such vision and artistry combined with such a personal responsibility to care is rare among artists. It exists more frequently when you expand what you imagine as an “artist.” From movie directors to gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll, to scientists like Rachel Carson, to poets like Marianne Moore and Pablo Neruda. Individuals who tilt up our chins to unnoticed things exclaiming, with remarkable frankness and no guile whatsoever, “Look at this!”

Supplement Lumet’s thoughts on the creative process with Dorothea Brande’s timeless guide Becoming a Writer or the strikingly personal accounts of John Cleese and Stephen Fry, two British actors who have lived and thrived in the entertainment industry saying, too, I care.