Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Prolific Filmmaker Sidney Lumet

Aug 28, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 11:18 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're continuing our 30th anniversary retrospective with a 1988 interview with director Sidney Lumet, whose movies include "12 Angry Men," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "The Pawnbroker," "Fail Safe," "Serpico," "Murder On The Orient Express," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," "Equus," "The Wiz" and "Prince Of The City." When I spoke to him, he'd already directed about 40 films.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your first film made in 1957, and this was "12 Angry Men," a courtroom drama. You had before that been directing television - live television dramas. Was this a good transition to make since it was basically a one-set movie? It's a courtroom drama. It's a jury drama. They're in the deliberation room most of the movie. Was that a good place to start?

SIDNEY LUMET: It was good, and it was a great problem, except that I was dumb enough not to know what the problem was. It was very difficult to shoot a movie in one room. That never occurred to me.

GROSS: Really?

LUMET: (Laughter) I just plunged in with complete ignorance knowing what I wanted to do with camera, knowing that I could make the camera a good interpretive part of the movie itself. And I may have felt enormously secure at the confinement of it because my background, as you say, had been live television and theater. So the idea of staging something in one room was something that came very easily to me.

GROSS: Well, the movie starred Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. Fonda is the only juror initially convinced of the defendant's innocent. Cobb is the last holdout. I want to play a clip from this movie, "12 Angry Men."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "12 ANGRY MEN")

HENRY FONDA: (As Juror 8) Maybe she honestly thought she saw the boy kill his father. I say she only saw a blur.

LEE J COBB: (As Juror 3) How do you know what she saw? How does he know all that? How do you know what kind of glasses she wore? Maybe they there were sunglasses, or maybe she was farsighted. What do you know about it?

FONDA: (As Juror 8) I only know the woman's eyesight is in question now.

GEORGE VOSKOVEC: (As Juror 11) She had to be able to identify a person 60 feet away at night without glasses.

FONDA: (As Juror 2) You can't send someone off to die on evidence like that.

COBB: (As Juror 3) Oh, don't give me that.

GROSS: It's a heck of a cast. In addition to Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, you have Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. You directed them your first time out on film. And you've since directed Paul Newman and younger actors like Al Pacino and Treat Williams. Is there a difference in the acting styles of the actors who you were directing in the '50s and the actors who came of age in, say, the '70s?

LUMET: Not really, Terry. They - the basic craft of acting has, in the United States, has been set for some years, really, even before the method came in. Basically people like Fonda worked out of a profound sense of truth. In fact a man like Fonda didn't know how to do anything falsely and used himself. He used himself brilliantly. Both of those elements are foundations of the method. And even though he wasn't called a method actor in the sense of having studied the method, he basically worked out of that as most good actors did.

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a method director?

LUMET: No. I become the kind of director that becomes whatever his actors need. When we did "Long Day's Journey Into Night," there was a perfect example. Kate Hepburn has a very specific way of working her own technique. Ralph Richardson is a prime example of British technique, which is primarily from what we call the outside in. Dean Stockwell works completely method from the inside out. And Jason has his own glorious world of creating something from inside himself. And heaven knows where it comes from.

GROSS: You directed Al Pacino in two of his first big movie roles, "Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon." I want to play a short scene from "Dog Day Afternoon," and maybe you can tell me what you think Al Pacino needed when he was getting started. This is a scene from the very opening of the movie when Pacino walks into a New York bank. And he holds it up, and he wants the money to buy a sex change operation for his lover.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOG DAY AFTERNOON ")

AL PACINO: (As Sonny) All right, freeze. Nobody move.

JOHN CAZALE: (As Sal) Get over there.

PACINO: (As Sonny) OK, all right, get away from those alarms. Come on. Now get in the center. He moves, take his head off. Put the gun on him. Get out of the center.

GARY SPRINGER: (As Stevie) Sonny, I can't do it, Sonny.

PACINO: (As Sonny) What?

SPRINGER: (As Stevie) I'm not going to make it, Sonny.

PACINO: (As Sonny) What are you talking about? Put it on him.

SPRINGER: (As Stevie) I can't do it, Sonny.

PACINO: (As Sonny) Sal, Sal.

CAZALE: (As Sal) What?

PACINO: (As Sonny) Where are you? He can't make it.

GROSS: It's an interesting performance because Pacino is so manic in it and yet so insecure and incompetent at robbing this bank. What did he need when he was getting started? You were talking before about giving actors what you think they need.

LUMET: Primarily, what he needed was a - this is going to sound like an anachronism, and it was. He needed a great sense of freedom and a great sense of restriction. That - the creation of the character is really Al's own. He understood something about that man that is irreplaceable.

For example, there's a scene toward the end of the movie where he's talking to his female wife, his real wife, on the telephone, trying to decide what to do. And the scene is extraordinary in the sense that it requires a level of emotion that I've seen very rarely in movies. We did the scene in one take because I - with two cameras because I didn't want him to have to repeat that emotion over and over again. And when he finished it the first time, it was wonderful.

And without waiting an instant, I didn't even cut the camera. So I said, Al, go again. And he looked at me like I was crazy because he was exhausted, he was spent. And I said, right now, action. And what I was driving at was that he had reached such a height at the end of the first take, such an emotional peak. But that's really where I wanted the scene to begin.

GROSS: That's an interesting story. Now, you mentioned there that he really did it very well on the first take, but you wanted that emotional spent-ness (ph) to be the starting-off point, so you had him do it again. Now, you're really known for doing a lot of performances on first and second takes, for not going for a lot of takes. I wonder if you ever run into conflicts where there's one actor in a scene who works really well on that first or second take, and another actor who sees it as their style to go for 15 or 16 takes until they really get it perfect. What do you do if you run into that?

LUMET: I have run into it. And so far - if there were a piece of wood around the studio, I'd knock on it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LUMET: But so far, I've been able to convince the 15- or 16-take actor that the other works. The early takes are not imperfect. They are usually the freshest, truest. The repetition, I find - and I think, for most good actors, the repetitions tend to become mechanical. One doesn't find more truth in it as it goes on.

Now, that partially has to do with the way I work because, as you know, or may know, I rehearse very heavily. I rehearse two to three weeks, depending on the complexity of the characters, before we begin. And those rehearsals are conducted like theater rehearsals, in the sense that people learn their lines completely, are working without scripts. They're completely blocked, to the degree that we're having run-throughs by the end of it.

GROSS: Now, you really came from a theater family. Your father acted in the Yiddish theater. Did having a father in the Yiddish theater help you love performance, drama?

LUMET: Absolutely, absolutely. The peculiar thing is, there's a sort of strange, post-World War II American problem. Children don't - children of actors, and writers and directors tend to be nervous, and they're terrified of going into their parents' work. And yet, the history of the world is going into your parents' work. I mean, in England, in the Redgrave family, Natasha, now, is the fourth generation of that family that's become an actor.

And fortunately, it's beginning to make some sense in America. Last year, I - two years ago, I did a movie with Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges. And I had worked with both of their fathers. I'd worked with Henry, and I'd worked with Lloyd. And I found that very moving.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1988 interview with director Sidney Lumet. We'll hear more after a break, as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's continue our 30th anniversary retrospective and get back to my 1988 interview with director Sidney Lumet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to play another short scene from another movie you directed. And this is "Network," which came out in 1976. Peter Finch won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance in this. And in this scene, he plays a lunatic, self-styled, messianic broadcaster who is basically preaching his editorial.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NETWORK")

PETER FINCH: (As Howard Beale) I don't know what to do about the depression or inflation and the Russians and the crying in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, I am a human being, dammit. My life has value.

So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out. And yell, I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.

GROSS: And right after, as he's doing that editorial, people all over Manhattan in high-rise apartment buildings open up their windows, stick their heads out and start yelling that they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore. I thought that scene really tapped into something. And for me, what it tapped into is the fear - is that in Manhattan, there's so many high-rises filled with so many people with all this pent up anger.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And if it was ever let loose, we'd really be in big trouble.

LUMET: Well, Paddy Chayefsky had that unique ability to tap the most fundamental truths in people, in the individual characters and also in terms of a - in terms of his own - the situation that he was observing. Did you ever see a picture that he wrote called "Hospital?"

GROSS: No, I didn't.

LUMET: Well it's hilarious, as "Network" is, with fundamentally a deeply serious idea behind it. And he did it in that, too. He's - I miss him every day.

GROSS: "Network" was one of your many movies that was shot in New York locations. Now, I think you were really one of the first directors to actually do location shooting in Manhattan.

LUMET: Yeah, Kazan first and me right behind him. But at that time, it wasn't fashionable at all. It was very difficult to put together more than one good movie crew because there was that little work going on here. Also it coincided clearly with the kind of picture we were doing, which were usually very realistic pictures, pictures that benefited visually from being done on location.

GROSS: Sidney Lumet recorded in 1988. He died in 2011 at the age of 86. Tomorrow we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring interviews from our early days. We'll hear a 1987 interview with Ronnie Spector of the girl group the Ronettes and 1988 interviews with Otis Williams of The Temptations and Ben E. King, who was a lead singer with the Drifters and had the hit "Stand By Me." I'm Terry Gross. I hope you'll join us.

While we continue our on-air celebration of our 30th anniversary, there's a lot of sadness back in the FRESH AIR offices. Our longtime colleague and friend Dorothy Ferebee died late last week after a long illness. She was 68. Dorothy was our administrative assistant from 1990 until she retired last year. One of her jobs was answering listener questions, so it's possible you spoke with her on the phone or received an email from her.

We loved Dorothy because she had a big heart, a sly sense of humor, and she was a pretty good mimic. You could always tell where she stood on an issue with just one glance at her face, but she had no patience for phonies. She had the back of everyone she cared about, and that was a lot of people - her colleagues like us, her children, grandchildren, and cousins, her friends and members of her religious community in which she was a leader. She always seemed to be helping someone by offering guidance, practical assistance or comfort.

She loved that we received so many new books at FRESH AIR because she collected books by and about African-Americans. In 2003, she became an author herself. Her book "How To Create Your Own African-American Library" was an overview of essential books including slave narratives, biographies, children's stories and classic novels.

Over the past 30 years, I've done a lot of obits on FRESH AIR, but this is the first time I've had to mark the passing of one of our own. We send our deepest condolences to Dorothy's daughter Kenesah, her son Brahim, who we watched grow up, and their children. We'll close with music Dorothy loved by the band the Buena Vista Social Club. Rest in peace, Dorothy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MURMULLO")

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.