Sidney Lumet

Making Movies

“This is a book about the work involved in making movies.”

Director Sidney Lumet’s (1924 – 2011) unassuming book Making Movies is simply written, effortlessly organized, casually connected and 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.

What is the deal with actors? What are rushes? How are shots determined? And (I’ve always wondered) what does the director 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 Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon. He also was a natural leader who coached some of our most luminous actors into their best roles. On directing Katherine Hepburn in the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Days 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.

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Tethering our creative output to instinct or indeed to an innate concept of “goodness” might seem outdated in our morally-relativistic world, but that’s the point.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

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 wrote most of her monologues, decried the difference between brand and name and the ease with which we forsake the latter for the former.

Many writers and artists talk about following one’s truth, but they preach from the throne of success. The message is less compelling when it comes from a director no one knows. And yet, we need to hear it.

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.”

For more on the alienation of the creative process read Dorothea Brande’s timeless guide Becoming a Writer and striking personal accounts of surviving artistic life from John Cleese and Stephen Fry.