One of the most celebrated and gifted directors of the age, Sidney Lumet also had the distinction of writing one of the greatest books ever written on film making. Making Movies was the simple title and having read it is nearly as good as having had a personal tête-à-tête with Lumet on each step of his artistic process.
Lumet came to Hollywood from television and by first feature film he had already gained a nomination for Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Despite great acclaim with critics and audiences throughout his lengthy career, the famed film maker frequently spoke out against auteur theory and attributed his success to the collaborative efforts of his production team. He frowned upon the way other directors would dismiss the ideas and vision of the writers, actors, and cinematographers.
Lumet developed an artistic process over his 56 year career which he divulged liberally throughout his life. For the sake of this essay only two main aspects will be examined. The information as it pertains to pre-production will be separated thusly:
Lumet admitted that though it sometimes resulted in bad films, he would choose the films he wanted to do instinctively - rarely reading a script twice before he had made his mind up. (Making Movies pg. 12) He was careful to read each screenplay in one sitting to capture the flow of the story. The initial exposure to the story was never heavily analyzed, rather he would allow the mood and tempo to "wash over" him. (MM pg. 13)
He chose his films for many different reasons and from several different sources. One film was chosen simply so he could work with a certain cinematographer and learn to better direct films in color.
Once a script was decided upon his next work was to begin to pull it apart starting with the identifying of the central theme. (MM pg. 15-16) When he had determined what the film was about he would then begin to work out the style of the film; "I work from the inside out. What the movie is about will determine how it will be cast, how it will look, how it will be edited, how it will be musically scored, how it will be mixed, how the titles will look, and, with a good studio, how it will be released. What it's about will determine how it is made." (MM pg. 13)
Working with actors - Rehearsal
As a person and as a director Lumet was keenly sensitive to the emotional, physical, and artistic plights of the actors he worked with. He drew from his own former experiences as an actor - ever careful to respect the fears, limitations, strengths of the acting talent he worked with. As a result he became known as "an actor's director," garnering memorable performances from many of the great actors (Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Katherine Hepburn, Philip Seymour Hoffman etc.).
In each of his films Lumet would have a couple weeks set aside for rehearsal with the actors and the writer - even the producer if they were on good terms. (MM pg. 52) These rehearsals would include blocking and props though Lumet would not yet concern himself with what the camera might later be doing. Nor would he plan the blocking before hand, preferring instead to let these things flow naturally through interpretation.
These sessions were for the actors and himself, a chance to develop a relationship of trust with each other and with the script. (MM pg. 55)
The great benefit to him in these rehearsals was the chance to catch artistic problems before they gained solid hold. He relates the following story working with Paul Newman on The Verdict:
"When we broke for the day, I asked Paul to stay a moment. I told him that while things looked promising we really hadn't hit the emotional level we both knew was there in David Mamet's screenplay. I said his characterization was fine but hadn't yet evolved into a living, breathing person. Was there a problem? Paul said that he didn't have the lines memorized yet and that when he did, it would all flow better. I told him I didn't think it was the lines. I said that there was a certain aspect of [the] character that was missing so far. I told him I wouldn't invade his privacy, but only he could choose whether or not to reveal that part of the character and therefore that aspect of himself. I couldn't help him with that decision. We lived near each other and rode home together. The ride that evening was silent. Paul was thinking. On Monday, Paul came in to rehearsal and sparks flew. He was superb. His character and the picture took life.
"I know that decision to reveal the part of himself that the character required was painful for him . . . I would've hated to leave Paul's decision until we were actually shooting the movie . . . A much poorer film would have resulted. It was the rehearsal period that gave us the time not only to prepare the mechanical aspects of the picture but to develop the closeness needed for private emotional revelations" (MM pg. 52-54)
Sidney Lumet's career was prolific and varied. He sought no distinct common style. "I hate any style if you can spot it." He noted that in most of his movies, "I don't think there's a visual style, because I try very hard to find the visual style that [particular] story needs." (New York Times 2007)
No critic would claim each of Lumet's works masterful, but there can be no question of his influence and status as one of the great American directors.