You're not pissed about not winning?
I hate to sound like a smart person [laughs]. But I've always had the perspective that it's the work that matters. So that's been where the concentration has gone. I didn't even go out for the Oscar show when I was nominated on 12 Angry Men. It's not out of nobility. I'm thrilled that they gave me an honorary one. I clutched it. You wouldn't have been able to pull it out of my hand without killing me. One of the reasons is I love a hit. And the best thing about awards is that they can get me the money for three more flops. I've been a minority in terms of the establishment part of the business. I'm from New York.
Isn't there a New York establishment?
I've never been aware of one. I don't see Marty Scorsese socially, and there's nobody's work I admire more. Woody Allen? Never. [The artist] Julian Schnabel and I talk, but we were friends before he became a movie director. Maybe they just don't include me. As far as I know, the New York film cabal doesn't exist.
Let's get to your latest New York movie: You open Devil with a hot sex scene, which is not in the Lumet tradition.
Right. I don't do fucking scenes.
So why this time? The first thing we see is a naked Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei going at it in a hotel room in Brazil. Were you trying to make a "today" movie with a porn-Web-site vibe?
I don't know what the fuck today is, any more than I know what a commercial movie is. The reason for the sex scene is simple. Andy, Hoffman's character, is going to do some very unpleasant things during the body of this movie. It's therefore important to know what it is he wants, what's driving him. And he wants his idea of fancy sex — fancy only because he can't really function unless he's away from the city, away from his brother, from his parents. He's one of those people who needs the cruise-ship mentality to function sexually.
Tomei naked, I get it. But Hoffman?
That's the point. He's overweight. He's got a big ass. And to top it off, he's looking at himself in the mirror. But you have to know what his character wants. So it was the first thing I added.
After you made them brothers.
Right. They were just friends in Kelly Masterson's script. People often talk about the family dynamics in my movies, maybe because in 1962 I did Long Day's Journey Into Night with Katharine Hepburn. That one says it all about family. But looking at my work that way would inhibit me. It's like if I had to come up with some defense for each movie of mine that fails at the box office. I can't. I don't have enough ego to say, "That's a good movie. Fuck you if you don't know it." But I know it. I don't forget [laughs].
Was it easy casting the movie, getting Hoffman and Hawke?
Wonderfully easy. I sent the script first to Philip, one of the finest actors in the country, and I gave him the choice to play either brother: Hank or Andy. Then I sent it to Ethan. And Ethan said he wanted to play Hank. I was surprised, because Hank is a weak character, and most actors are afraid of that. But Ethan had this image of how to activate a weak man. He's always in motion. I preferred Andy to be older, to be the influence on Hank, pushing him. So I called Philip back, and he said, "Great." That simple. Marisa Tomei was my first choice to play Andy's wife, who's cheating on him with Hank. Marisa is wonderful after that sex scene, when sadness overwhelms her. I love that moment. I also love it when Albert Finney, as the father, walks down the hospital corridor at the end. There's another scene in the script after that with Ethan and Marisa, but I didn't use it. I knew the movie was over when Albert walked out. It doesn't matter what happens after. Let the audience wonder.
You've made some movies — A Stranger Among Us, The Wiz, Family Business — that you've been hammered for. How does that make you feel?
It hurts. But what happens over time — maybe it's because I started so early as an actor, four years old — there's always been a leveling influence. I don't plunge into despair. And when it works well, I don't go wild with joy. Now maybe I'm missing something. Maybe I've reduced the size of my life. I don't think so. I think it's the sensible way to work.
You were praised for your book Making Movies, in which you said, "I've done two movies because I needed the money. I've done three because I love to work and couldn't wait anymore." Do you know a movie will suck while you're making it?
In one, I knew at the end of the second week of rehearsal. And the other one, I knew on the second day of shooting. And the terrible thing is there's nobody I can talk to, because I'm the director [laughs]. I can't tell the actors. They'll go running to the hills and scream, and be totally useless. So I'm stuck with this knowledge. And now I've got to go through eight weeks, whatever the shooting schedule is. But you do know.
It must be a special kind of torture.
It is. What helps is that all of us have this never-ending talent for self-deception [laughs]. You need that self-deception just to go to work.
OK, let's look at some Lumet classics from the 1970s. What's your memory of Dog Day Afternoon, with Al Pacino as a bank robber who takes hostages? It's the quintessential New York movie.
Well, my biggest memory of it is how high we were. I think we did that movie in, like, thirty-two days. And that's 500 fucking people in the street all the time. Part of the exhilaration came from Al's performance, because he was so screaming high. He was two octaves above C.
Was he living this part?
He was so terrified of it that the only way he could get through it was to turn himself into an obsessed actor, although he's always obsessed, really. Do you know that the day before we started shooting, he quit?
You're kidding, right?
He asked me and the screenwriter, Frank Pierson, to come up to his house for some cockamamie reason. It was preshooting terror. And we walked in. He was crawling around on all fours, barking like a dog. And I know Al's not crazy. Nor is he a lunatic when he works. He's got very solid technique, knows what he's doing. I said, "Al, what the fuck is this?" He said, "I'm out of control. I can't do this one." At the time, I don't think there'd ever been a major Hollywood star who had played a gay man, much less a gay man who wanted to marry another guy, much less steal to get the money for the guy's sex-change operation. The terror for Al came in realizing what he had committed to. The Godfather had already opened, and he was at the top. Plus, he had a Godfather II start date waiting, a week after we finished. So it was all beginning for him.
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