Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies

A great book about a strange craft.

Sidney Lumet

The director Sidney Lumet, who died last week at age 86, cared passionately about his life’s work of making movies, and about the people he made them with. Lumet regarded everyone on the set of his films as a significant collaborator, from the actors to the cinematographers to the A.D.s and stuntmen and grips. As for writers (the good ones at least—some of those whose scripts he worked with included David Mamet, Paddy Chayefsky, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill), he held them in an esteem that approached veneration.

I don’t know these facts about Lumet from a biography, or from the many fine pieces of writing about him that have been circulating on the Internet these past few days, or even from the films themselves. My sense of what Lumet’s working self was like—of what a generous, exacting, inspiringbosshe must have been—comes from the director’s 1995 book Making Movies, a master class in filmmaking that reads equally well as a practical handbook and as a vivid, earthy memoir. I can’t think of another book that so precisely and matter-of-factly captures what a strange endeavor it is to gather several hundred people and a fleet of equipment-laden trucks on a backlot (or, as was the case in most of Lumet’s films, on location in New York City) and start to do something as foolhardy as telling a story on film.

Leafing through Making Movies after Lumet’s death in search of some vaguely remembered quotes, I was charmed anew by his vibrant authorial voice, and soon found myself re-reading the book straight through. Every page contains at least one rollicking anecdote, astute observation, or nugget of menschy wisdom. One minute he’s painstakingly explaining the concept of completion bonds or reproducing a sample page of a shooting script; the next, he’s describing Al Pacino’s demeanor while viewing daily rushes (“He sits on the side, alone, and an icy calm comes over him”), or giving us a glimpse of a star’s Teamster chauffeur methodically chowing his way through the craft table.

Every aspect of his craft—music, image, sound, acting, editing, blocking—fascinated Lumet, and when he came up against a problem he couldn’t tackle, his curiosity was redoubled. When he had difficulty with the transition from black and white to color in the ‘60s (“Why did black and white seem real and color false? Obviously I was using it wrong or—much more serious—not using it at all”), Lumet hired the cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who had shot Antonioni’s Red Desert, to help him understand how to take advantage of the new technology. Though he admits that the resulting film (The Appointment) wasn’t his best, Lumet remembers it as worth doing because the insights that Di Palma showed him about color helped his work ever after (a great lesson not only for aspiring filmmakers, but for anyone faced with a thorny professional challenge).

Making Movies is so full of these stories of collaboration, of what Lumet calls “a group of people painting with light,” that the best way to give a sense of the book’s richness is to quote a few favorite passages at length. Here, Lumet describes the “mad courage” of Al Pacino on the set of Dog Day Afternoon, the day Lumet shot the scene where Pacino’s bank-robber character has his last phone conversation with the man (Chris Sarandon) he considers his “wife,” and with the woman to whom he’s actually married:

I knew Al would build up to the fullest head of steam if we could do it in one take. […] The character had been in the bank for twelve hours. He had to seem spent, exhausted […] By the end of the second take, Al didn’t know where he was anymore. He finished his lines and, in sheer exhaustion, looked around helplessly. Then, by accident, he looked directly at me. Tears were running down my face because he’d moved me so. His eyes locked into mine and he burst into tears, then slumped over the desk he’d been sitting at. I yelled “Cut! Print!” and leapt into the air.

Not all the tears in Making Movies are tears of triumph. Many postmortem assessments of Lumet’s filmography have included glancing dismissals of The Wiz, his 1978 disco adaptation of The Wizard of Oz (Diana Ross played Dorothy; Michael Jackson was the Scarecrow) that was a critical and commercial flop. But when you hear The Wiz’s back story, you realize how easy it is for a large production to spin out of control, and what a lucky accident it is that good movies ever get made at all. Here, Lumet describes his sinking sensation watching the first day of dailies on The Wiz:

When rushes were over, people left the screening room, bubbling with delight. Sitting there, I could feel [cinematographer] Ossie Morris behind me, not moving in his seat. Tony Walton, the art director, and Dede Allen, the editor, didn’t move either. I turned to Ossie. His head was in his hands. “My balance was wrong. I should’ve used smaller units and opened up more…” His voice was almost choking with tears.

The screening room is the setting for many of Making Movies’ sharpest vignettes, which have the gritty humor of scenes from a Lumet film. Here he is watching rushes in a shabby New York projection room that always smells of Chinese food from the restaurant below: “For whatever reason, producers and studio executives sit in the back row. I’m convinced it’s because they hate movies and want to be as far away from the screen as possible.” Here’s his take on a Technicolor employee flown in from Los Angeles to color-grade the final print of a movie: “He has his coffee and a blueberry muffin in front of him. No bagels for these guys. They’re all George Gentile.”

By moments, this plainspoken memoir of a life in movies achieves something like poetry. Here is Lumet arriving at a night shoot for The Seagull in Sweden:

As the car came over a crest, I saw below me a small, concentrated, white-hot diamond. Everything around it was black except for this beautiful burst of light, where the set was being lit. It’s a sight I’ll always remember: people working so hard, all making the same movie, creating, literally, a picture in the middle of a forest in the middle of the night.

Many obituaries have mentioned Lumet’s lack of a signature directorial style, a fluidity that kept his work unpredictable and vital throughout five decades in the business, but that kept him from being taken seriously in some auteurist circles. Near the beginning of Making Movies, Lumet muses frankly about the lack of a guiding philosophy in the projects he’s chosen. At the age of 71, with four decades of work behind him and at least one great film (2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) still ahead, he sounds as energetic and intellectually restless as a director at the beginning of his career:

I don’t know how to choose work that illuminates what my life is about. I don’t know what my life is about and don’t examine it. My life will define itself as I live it. The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at the moment, it’s enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about.