Sidney Lumet, Making Movies
This is a book about the work involved in making movies… I’ll try to tell you best I can how movies are made. It’s a complex technical and emotional process. It’s art. It’s commerce. It’s heartbreaking and it’s fun. It’s a great way to live.
The first sentence in Lumet’s bio actually made me gasp: “Sidney Lumet’s films have received more than fifty Academy Award nominations.” Fifty. And he made fifty years worth of movies: 12 Angry Men came out in 1957, and Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead came out in 2007. What was his secret?
I don’t think art changes anything… I do it because I like it and it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.
Lumet was opposed to the concept of “the auteur”—he was very much more what Terry Gilliam calls “a filteur.” He chose material and movies to make that he could make personally interesting to him, but he always emphasized filmmaking as a collaboration. “If all this sounds like hard work,” he said, “Let me assure you that it is.”
There are so many good bits in this book:
- “All good work requires self-revelation”
- “I don’t want life reproduced up there on the screen. I want life created.”
- “What we’re doing matters. It needs concentration.”
- “We’re not out for consensus here. We’re out for communication.”
My favorites, which translate well to other art forms:
“What the movie is about [should] determine how it is to be made.
“Discussions of style as something totally detached from the content of the movie drive me mad.” I’m a big fan of the “don’t worry about style” school, believing that style emerges out of the things you’re obsessed by. Lumet put it perfectly:
The question “What is this movie about?” will be asked over and over again throughout the book. For now, suffice it to say that the theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie.) […] 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.
But what of what Lumet calls, “The ‘auteur’ nonsense?”
So-and-so’s “style” is present in all his pictures. Of course it is. He directed them. One of the reasons Hitchcock was so deservedly adored was that his personal style was strongly felt in every picture. But it’s important to realize why: He always essentially made the same picture. The stories weren’t the same, but the genre was…
“Creative work is very hard, and some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.”
The truth is that nobody knows that that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work… all we can do is prepare the groundwork that allows for the “lucky accidents” that make a first-rate movie happen.
But the self-deception has to be a balanced kind:
I think most of us feel like fakes. At some point “they” will get onto us and expose us for what we are: know-nothings, hustlers, and charlatans. It’s not a totally destructive feeling. It tends to keep us honest. The other side of that coin, though, the feeling that we own the work, that is exists only because of us, that we are the vessel through which some divine message is being passed, is lunacy.
Don’t let today’s work hurt the way you evaluate yesterday’s work.
[You] have to watch your inner state very carefully as you come into rushes. Perhaps today’s shooting hasn’t gone very well. You’re tired and frustrated. So you take it out on yesterday’s work, which you’re watching now. Or perhaps you’ve overcome a major problem today, so in an exultant mood, you’re giving yesterday’s work too much credit.
If you have even a sliver of interest in how movies are (or were) made, this is a must-read.