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 (June 25, 1924 – April 9, 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.

Portrait of Sidney Lumet in 1939 by Carl Van Vechten.
Photograph of Sidney Lumet as Johnnie in My heart’s in the Highlands, 1939, by Carl Van Vechten. The Library of Congress Archives.

From what actors are really like (Paul Newman was quiet but extremely hard-working, Sean Connery bounded up stairs eager to work) 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.

I love this passage capturing Marlon Brando’s struggle to nail a particularly lengthy and emotional passage in The Fugitive Kind and Lumet’s role in his actors’ execution.

Marlon started Take 1. About two-thirds of the way through the speech, he stopped. He’d forgotten his lines. We started Take 2. The lights didn’t fade properly. Take 3: Marlon forgot his lines at the exact same spot. Take 4: Marlon stopped again at the same line. Until then, I had never gone more than four takes with Marlon on anything. Take 5: The camera move was wrong. Take 6. Take 7. Take 8. Marlon’s memory was failing at the same line. By now it was 5:30. We were on overtime. Marlon had told me about some personal problems he was having at the time. I suddenly realized there was a direct connection between his troubles and the line he couldn’t remember. We tried again. He stopped. I went up to him and said that if he wanted, we could break until tomorrow, but I didn’t want this block to build up overnight. I thought we should bull through it no matter how long it took. Marlon agreed. Take 12. Take 18. It was getting embarrassing. Magnani, the crew, all of us were in agony for him. Take 22. No good for camera. It was almost a relief when something was not Marlon’s fault. I debated whether to say anything about what I thought was bothering him. I decided it would be too great a personal violation of a confidence. Take 27, 28. I told Marlon that since I’d be cutting to Anna anyway, we could do a pickup… Marlon said no. He wanted to get it all in one take. The ending of the speech would be stronger that way.

Finally, on Take 34, two and a half hours after we started, he did it all. And beautifully. I almost wept with relief. We walked back to his dressing room together. Once we were inside, I told him that I might have been able to help him but felt it wasn’t my right. He looked at me and smiled as only Brando can smile, so you think daybreak has come. “I’m glad you didn’t” he said.

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 feelings and instinct or indeed to an innate concept of “goodness” might seem outdated in our morally relativistic world, but that’s the point.

Making a movie has always been about telling a story. Some movies tell a story and leave you with a feeling. Some tell a story and leave you with feeling and give you and idea, and reveal something about yourself and others. And surely the way you tell that story should relate somehow to what that story is.

Because that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story. After the first critical decision (“What’s this story about?”) comes the second most important decision. “Now that I know what it’s about, how shall I tell it?” And this decision will affect every department involved in the movie that is about to be made.

Although all of the technical and artistic decisions follow from that kernal of meaning, 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.

Lee Cobb in "Twelve Angry Men" 1957. Featured in Sidney Lumet's "Making Movies" in the Examined Life Library.
Lee Cobb’s hot anger at Henry Fonda’s cool rationality in “Twelve Angry Men”, 1957. 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!”

Paul Newman and Sidney Lumet on the set of "The Verdict", 1982. Featured in Sidney Lumet's "Making Movies" in the Examined Life Library.
Paul Newman and Sidney Lumet on the set of “The Verdict”, 1982.

Supplement Lumet’s Making Movies 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.