top of page
  • Writer's picturePopEntertainment

Sidney Lumet – One of the Last Interviews with the Late Great Director

Updated: May 23

Sidney Lumet

Sidney Lumet

One of the Last Interviews with the Late Great Director

by Brad Balfour

On the occasion of the great Philadelphia-born and New York-bred director Sidney Lumet’s passing earlier this year, The Film Society of Lincoln Center put together an extraordinary retrospective of 16 signature classics, Prince of the City: Remembering Sidney Lumet which was held in the Walter Reade Theater from July 19 – July 25, 2011. It culminated in the closing screening of Lumet’s powerful last feature, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

A melodramatic thriller stoked with dark humor and darker dread, Before the Devil… first premiered in the U.S. at the 2007 New York Film Festival. Its director had long been regarded as an internationally respected auteur that had made several benchmark films such as The PawnbrokerPrince of the City and Network, as well as the two Al Pacino star vehicles, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

Just as Before the Devil was getting all the ballyhoo, Lumet regaled a posse of journos with insights and asides on his latest effort. Only the Devil himself could have commanded more respect. It was not only for the film’s brilliant and unique story structure or its sterling cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei and Amy Ryan), but for Lumet’s application of HD video cameras.

Before the Devil details the tragic tale of two brothers who organize the robbery of their own parents’ jewelry store. The job goes horribly wrong, triggering a cascading set of events that sends them, their parents and their friends and lovers careening towards a disastrous climax.

Little did we know at the time that it would be his last press day… or his last film. On April 9, 2011 the seemingly indefatigable Lumet died at 86, after a long career as an actor/writer/director who made over 50 films – many garnering Oscar wins or nominations for their actors.

The son of Yiddish thespians, Lumet began acting at age four, made his Broadway debut at 11 and first film appearance at 15. But it was as a director – first in early live television and later in movies – that he found his true calling, drawing on his experience in front of the camera to become the very definition of an “actor’s director.”

From 12 Angry Men in 1957 to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the Philadelphia-born Lumet was, in the words of Woody Allen, “the quintessential New York filmmaker,” whether telling gritty stories of urban corruption or adapting Broadway stage classics in cinema.

Here now is that last roundtable interview, published for the first time in its entirety.

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

How well rehearsed were the actors for this film? Did you do a lot of takes for the more challenging scenes? Or was it just straight ahead, one or two takes?

We’re very thorough in rehearsal. We do everything. In fact, before the rehearsal ends, we do a run-through from top to bottom – fights, anything, everything. The scripts are out of their hands. It’s a very thorough preparation. I’m a big believer in it.

From start to finish?

Start to finish. Everything is covered every day, because first of all, it’s the only time they can do it in sequence. They’ll never get it in sequence again. Second of all, when you’re going to ask for this level of intensity, you’re not going to get it if they’re insecure in any way. If they’re tight, the rehearsal just relaxes them completely because they get to know what they’re doing. It’s that that allows all of the emotion to come jumping out and springing to the fore. Yeah, I find it invaluable.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD 08-01-2006 Director: Sidney Lumet DP: Ron Fortunato Shoot Day 17 Scene 22 (Ext) Hank’s Apartment building (DAY) “Gina is waiting – they enter together” Ethan Hawke (Hank) Marisa Tomei (Gina) Photo Credit – Will Hart

Why did you think of Marisa Tomei for Gina – the wife of Phil Hoffman’s character?

I fell in love with her in My Cousin Vinny and it hasn’t abated a bit. A superb actress. When I met her after My Cousin Vinny, I couldn’t believe it, because I thought she was that. Every once in a while, you see a performance and say well, the director went out and got a nonprofessional, and I thought that was true of Marisa. I thought it was true of Tim Robbins in Bull Durham, and I thought, my God, they went out and got themselves a real cracker. So, I loved her work from that and some subsequent work.

Also – this is very important for a picture like this – if you know my pictures, I don’t do sex scenes. I don’t do sex scenes because I don’t believe them. Only one picture I ever believed in [doing it], and there was a reason I believed, but I knew I was going to have to have it in this, that opening scene. It was very important that both actors be relaxed about it, because if they weren’t then it would be like any other sex scene, the ones I don’t believe. And I knew that Marisa just is totally uninhibited. She’s not an exhibitionist by any means, but it’s just another part of acting for her. And I’m sure that Philip is not used to it because he’s not the conventional leading man.

When we were blocking – this is during rehearsal, after we’d finished three days around the table talking and so on – then we got up on our feet, we started to stage it just like you would in the theater. So that’s the first scene, the first one we get to, and there’s a set laid out on the floor and a bed. Marisa, bless her, she hops onto the bed. I wrote out the description very carefully, because there are instances of actors saying, “Oh I didn’t know I was going to have to get undressed,” and by union regulations you cannot make them. I wrote it out in great detail so that they couldn’t say they didn’t know. So, Marisa hops onto the bed, gets up on her knees and on her elbows and slaps her ass and says, “Let’s go, Phil!” It was so great because it not only put it in its proper place – which is part of the movie, part of a performance – but for Philip, that must have been such a release and such a relief that there was nothing competitive or what-have-you.

That took all the stress out of it.

Absolutely. I was thrilled with her. I was thrilled with her.

How do you bring that essence out of an actor?

It varies picture by picture. Another big variable in it is that some actors are in themselves closer to the roles they’re playing, and some actors are farther away. Here, the most important thing there was to work on was the intensity, because like all good melodramas the story is completely unbelievable. The only thing that’s going to create a belief is if the intensity of performance is so high that your audience can’t deny it, that you’re sucked in completely. So, for these actors it was a question of getting up onto a high enough pitch in the inner life of the performance.

You worked with Albert Finney (who plays the father) in Murder on the Orient Express 33 years ago. Did you talk about the differences and similarities of working with him back then and working with him now?

Never. I don’t even see my old movies, an “old movie” is anything I did last. When this round is over with and the premieres that I have to go to, and so on, I won’t see this again. Next Wednesday is the last time I’m going to see this movie.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD 07-25-2006 Director: Sidney Lumet DP: Ron Fortunato Shoot Day 12 Scene 65 (Int) Hospital waiting room “Andy, Gina & Hank find Charles in bad shape” Philip Seymour Hoffman (Andy) Ethan Hawke (Hank) Albert Finney (Charles) Marisa Tomei (Gina) Photo Credit – Will Hart

You’ve shot all your movies with multiple cameras. This one seemed to be very much a stationary camera looking into these lives. Was this something very conscious that you wanted to do or something very different from your older movies?

I never think of the camera work as separated from the picture itself. One of the reasons I love high def – I think in high def – is because multi-camera has become much simpler. For me that takes me right back to my origins, that takes me right back to live TV, because there I’d be using as many as six cameras. So, it was a terrific pleasure. I love high def anyway; I’ve worked in nothing else for the last five years.

What was similar or different about making this film?

The multi-camera use. For instance, in two scenes, there’s one camera there. There’s one camera there. This camera’s covering him. This camera’s covering him. Look, you can get anything you want to in normal film, I realize that; it’s a question of the effort. Take a scene like where Ethan and Philip are ripping off the dope dealer’s place and Philip has just shot that stranger lying there in the bed and he’s rifling stuff in the closet, and Ethan is just standing there petrified – this tension begins between them. “Did you touch anything?” “What?” “Did you touch anything!”

I guess I could have gotten that with individual cameras, first one side, then the other, but two things: it would have taken me all day to build up to that level of intensity, number one; and number two, I still don’t think they ever would have been able to seem like they were working out of each other so completely. Each one of them was in perfect reaction to what the other person was doing because they were doing it together at the same time. All pieces of work you kind of keep hoping for the good accident and it happened when Philip stuck his head out and he said, “Okay, are we good?”

Now that wasn’t in the script. Extraordinary line, extraordinary reaction. Also, from a character point of view, because for the first time, the only time in the movie, Philip is the insecure one and Ethan is the secure one. That inversion is just so humanizing to those two characters. A complete accident and I think it only could have happened if both of them were being recorded at the same time. If that had happened on Philip’s side and he’d thrown that in and then two hours later I’d turned around and gotten Ethan’s side, I don’t think he ever would have gotten to that reaction.

That’s a fascinating perspective that only a good director would have. You actually wrote a draft of the film. You didn’t take a writing credit?

No. I would have loved one, but those things are decided by the Writer’s Guild. I don’t know what they use as judgment, but they are very suspicious – and rightly so – of directors who put their names on as writers as well. Because the normal amount that I do on a script I wouldn’t think of asking for a credit for. The writer may have written “the battle happens and the North wins,” and then the director, because he’ll stage the battle, he’ll ask for a writing credit – and I don’t think he should get it.

How hard was it to get this one made?

I don’t know. It’s a peculiar time in movies now because there’s so much private financing in it, and I don’t know what Michael [Cerenzie, the producer] had when he sent me the script. I don’t know how much money he had lined up, and when the last of it clicked into place.

With a small movie like this, Oscars are a different game now; it’s changed a lot. Now you have to campaign for them. You’ve had so many Oscar-nominated and award-winning movies. How important are awards to movies like this?

I have no idea. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle. I don’t think you can ever figure on it. I don’t aim anything for it. The reason it’s all so much more a sales job now, and ads and this that and the other – in the old days when you were working at 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck sent you a note saying, “Vote for this picture.” Literally… So, your vote was decided for you.

How would they know what you’d voted for?

They knew.

It’s amazing that you’ve made nearly 50 movies in your 83 years. This movie is so great – and to come out at this time in your life. Will you continue making movies after this?

I hope so. With a little luck, with a little help from my friends, yeah.

Copyright ©2011  All rights reserved. Posted: July 25, 2011.  

Photo Credits:#1 © 2007 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.#2 © 2007 Will Hart. Courtesy of ThinkFilm. All rights reserved.#3 © 2007 Will Hart. Courtesy of ThinkFilm. All rights reserved.#4 © 2007 Will Hart. Courtesy of ThinkFilm. All rights reserved.


bottom of page