The King of New York: Rolling Stone's 2008 Feature on Sidney Lumet

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How did you talk him off the ledge?
The only thing that worked was to get up on a ledge with him. There was no hint of analysis on my part, no attempt to say, "Al, calm down." I just kept relating his present state of mind to the character and what the character must have felt like when he decided to rob the bank. I had such faith in him as an actor, having worked with him already in Serpico, that I knew way back in his head the actor part of him would be digesting all these feelings and saying, "Hey, I can use that in the performance." It was no problem. He showed up the next day.

What about your state of mind on a movie set? Do you carry a whip to lay down the law? Are you a shouter?
Never shouting. Always calm, unless I've got a lunatic on the set. I work with great good humor, very close to the crew. It's very relaxed. And one of the things I told Al, I said, "You're a real pain in the ass." Because at that time, he was one of those actors who had to stay in the state that the scene demanded. If the scene was in great anger, he'd be fucking angry all day — kicking things, speaking rudely to people. And I said, "Al, I've got to get you together with Albert Finney," who I'd worked with in Murder on the Orient Express. "With him, you say, 'Cut,' and he steps out, stays quiet and thinks about the next scene. With you, when the character has a bad day, you give us a bad day." He listened — it was good.

I've been on a Lumet set — you're very affectionate with people, a toucher, a kisser.
The fastest kiss in the East [laughs]. Look, on a movie, we're all giving each other something precious. No bullshit, I can't think of a better job. It's not a technique. I'm not a fool. I think I'm a talented man. But then there's luck. I think there's a reason luck doesn't always happen to others. They don't know how to prepare the groundwork for luck. I do.

How does one prepare for luck?
Work. It's something that I'm so dependent on: work. Three of the worst moments generated from the outside — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when JFK was shot and 9/11 — in all three instances, I broke for lunch, and we came back an hour later and resumed work. There was no dwelling on it. We had our work to do. It absolutely had to go on, even if I could feel resentment from the crew.

On 9/11, you were shooting 100 Centre Street for cable TV.
Right. I arrived around 9:10 a.m., and coming over the Triborough Bridge, I saw Tower Two go down. And there was never a doubt in my mind that we should continue. I called everybody together, and I said, "If you're worried about your families, go, please. But if there are enough of you left, I want to keep on working." I had cots brought in so we could sleep at the studio. And then the following day, Wednesday, when we went back out on location, members of that crew came up and said, "Sidney, you were so right for us to keep working, because all we would have done is go home and watch the fucking box, same shots over and over, of everything falling."

Speaking of the box brings us to Network. Peter Finch won the first posthumous Oscar, for playing a crazed TV anchor who's mad as hell because TV will do anything for ratings, including film robberies and executions. This was in 1976. You and writer Paddy Chayefsky actually foresaw the birth of reality TV.
People would say to me and Paddy, "It's a brilliant satire." And we'd say, "What satire? It's sheer reportage" [laughs]. We had the feeling while making Network that something special was happening. But it wasn't totally joyful making it. I was so worried about my comedy skills. I was very good at making jokes. But here, working with Chayefsky, who was the modern Molière, the jokes were about the most serious things.

When you direct something like the "mad as hell" scene, are you aware it's going to have an impact on the zeitgeist?
Not when I'm doing it. But I knew that "mad as hell" had to be done in total truthfulness. And it was such a sense of devotion and participation by Peter Finch on the first take. And I wanted to do another. "Start slower," I said, "and let's see what we get." And we started Take Two, and Peter stopped in the middle. I didn't know about his heart condition then. He wasn't saying anything, because it would have made him uninsurable. He just stopped and said, "Sidney, I can't go on." I said, "OK, let's not push it." And what you see in the movie is that first half of the speech from Take Two, and the rest from Take One. He was dead a few months later.

You seem to have a genuine connection with actors. You're probably the only director, living or dead, who has ever directed both Marlon Brando and Vin Diesel. Is it because you began your career as an actor?
I understand what they're going through. The self-exposure, which is at the heart of all their work, is done using their own body. It's their sexuality, their strength or weakness, their fear. And that's extremely painful. And when they're not doing it in their performance, they pull back. They get shy. Paul Newman, who I worked with on The Verdict, is one of the shyest men I've ever met. That's why rehearsal is so important.

How long to rehearse on a movie?
Sometimes three weeks — Long Day's Journey Into Night was four weeks. It depends on the complexity of the characters. That way the actors get confidence in what I see in them. Actors have told me, angrily, about directors who don't see. That's the reason Marlon Brando was a tester. He would test to see if the director understood what he was doing.

How did Brando test you?
He tested me the second day we were shooting The Fugitive Kind. He would do two takes. But in one, he was working from the inside. In the other, he was just what we call indicating it. Doing the same vocal pattern, the same physical pattern, but not really playing it. He watched to see which take I printed.

And what if you picked wrong?
Oh, you are fucked from there on in [laughs]. Because he is not going to pour it out for somebody who doesn't see it.

What about your movie orphans, the ones no one takes home and gives careful attention, even on DVD?
Daniel is one because of my love for that script Edgar Doctorow did from his own book [a fictionalized version of the Rosenbergs and their execution for spying] and for the theme: the cost children pay for their parents' passions. The failure of that movie got me to do two more movies, Running on Empty and the silly, bad Family Business, with the exact same theme. Crazy.

Let's try an experiment: Pretend that you just got a script. And it's called The Sidney Lumet Story.
I'm saying no right now [laughs].

Humor me. I want to know where the movie starts. Do you paint a rosy picture of your life as the child of Baruch Lumet, a star of the Yiddish theater? You have a father, and then you have this guy who's also up on the stage. Is there a disconnect?
He was no father figure. He was only a father up on the stage. It's the only time I liked him. He was a terrible man.

Did he lose his patience with you?
He didn't have patience. He had a bad temper. He hit us. He was probably unfaithful to my mother all the time. I don't know. But she sure complained about him. I could hear the fights. Nothing admirable about him, until he went to work. And then he was admirable.

And how was he when you started to get in his game and act?
Thrilled. This was during the Depression. So when I worked, we ate. He wasn't working that often. The Yiddish theater was well past its great days. He was a very talented actor, but he had an accent — a heavy accent, Polish — so he never could work on Broadway. And eating was a problem for a long time, until I began working steadily on Broadway.

And your mom was what? Worried?
She was supportive. We ate regularly when I worked.

Any siblings?
A sister, older, and I think she probably had some resentment because, among other things, I got all the attention.

Did you like it?
Loved it [laughs]! As Mel Brooks said, it's fun to be the king.

You started acting onstage when you were four. At eleven, you made your Broadway debut in Dead End. I found a New York Times review of your stage performance in My Heart's in the Highlands. It said, "Lumet, as the boy, was charming and showed a manly technique." What manly things were you doing?
I was acting the part. One of the points of the play was that my father is a poet, and I'm the kid, thirteen, and I'm taking care of him, 'cause he can't do squat about life. I'm the one who gets us through it.

Just like at home?

On to Hollywood: What was the first acting you did in front of the camera?
Just did it once: One Third of a Nation. I was fifteen.

How would you direct that scene in your movie biopic?
To show the terror. The director was maddening. And he knew nothing about actors, or working with them. The star was Sylvia Sidney, who, you'll pardon me speaking badly of the dead, was a nasty old cunt. When it was time for my closeup, the director said, "Sylvia, please give him the lines, instead of the script girl." She was so resentful of that, she sat there clicking her knitting needles. She was a great knitter. Not one look at me, just mumbling. She was terrible. The whole experience was lousy.

Acting's loss, directing's gain. How does it make you feel when you run into younger filmmakers, like George Clooney, who say, "Mr. Lumet, I admire your work so much that I'm stealing from it"?
I don't know what the fuck they're talking about. I don't know what they're stealing, because, to me, the style of every movie is determined by the script. As far as I can see, there is no Lumet style. I pour myself into it, but I don't know what they're extracting. I swear I don't. I'm thrilled that a movie of mine has a resonance for somebody that I never intended, 'cause that means I did it well, but I never know what it is.

OK, weird last question: What was your first memory?
Hmm. I think . . . it's at a very young age. I remember being in my carriage, and we lived on the Lower East Side then, and it was a rough place to live. And I remember somebody putting a snowball under my hat, next to my ear. And the cold, I swear I remember feeling it.

It's tactile — like you, like your movies.
It's a feeling. It has no judgment. I'm starting a new movie now, Getting Out. It's a prison picture. I wrote it. And I have a feeling about that, too. A feeling, no judgment. Just off we go.

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