Remembering Sidney Lumet, a New Yorker

This morning brings the heartbreaking news that Sidney Lumet, a masterful director of urban mood, has died at age 86. Lumet, the maker of such classics as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon (above), Serpico and Network, was a sparkling conversationist, modest about his own contributions but forthright about pretty much everything else. Meeting him in his small office on the Upper West Side was a professional highlight for me. When I described his then-new thriller, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, as a comeback, he feistily responded, "Like I've been away!"

After the jump, read my full Q&A with Lumet, a discussion that includes his thoughts on September 11, 2001 and the city he loved. TONY extends its deepest condolences to Sidney's family and friends.

 Dog day evening

Back with a taut new crime film, Sidney Lumet has plenty more to give. By Joshua Rothkopf

He works in a small white room on the Upper West Side. No autographed photos or gold statuettes are in view (though he has both). Sidney Lumet, that most New York of filmmakers, answers his own door, beaming. The director, 83, has a daunting stream of classics to his name: Dog Day AfternoonSerpicoNetwork12 Angry MenThe Pawnbroker... And now he's back with his strongest picture in years, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a caper-gone-wrong movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as corrupt brothers bent on robbing their family's jewelry store. Unfailingly verbose and happy to uncork sage advice and gruff language in equal measure, Lumet was on fire. TONY basked.

Lots of critics are saying "comeback" about this film.
I know. I'm kind of surprised at the word. Like I've been away? In that "away" period, there's some pretty goddamned good work.

I'm not going to argue with you. But you have quite a legacy. Does it ever weigh you down?
No. It's always flattering when people compare. I've heard a lot of questions about how it's related to Dog Day Afternoon. Some audiences have told me how closely my new film is related to Greek tragedy. Terrific, I think. But that's not what we were going for. 

What did you know about Kelly Masterson, who wrote the play the new film is based on?
I not only knew nothing, I've been telling folks about how I never even met her for months. Then I was informed that Kelly was a man.

Awkward. You made some revisions to his play. Anything major?
Well, the characters weren't brothers.

That seems kind of crucial.
Completely. It came out of my own impulse to want to push this into melodrama. They're both fucking the same girl. They're both robbing the same parents. That made the tensions between them enormous.

You've been very fortunate with casting this time, using several great improvisers. How key is that to your process?

Look, I'm a total believer in heady preparation. I rehearse for weeks. These are like theater rehearsals: We get up on our feet on a layout of the set, use props, the works. It's all for one purpose: so you become so confident—in the part, in the environment, in me—that you feel absolutely free in the moment.

Marisa Tomei is especially fearless. And naked. How did you get to that level of comfort with her?
First of all, Marisa arrives full-blown from the head of Zeus; she's ready to work. Totally. She's so secure that she's able to help with the others. 

How do you mean?
Like with the opening sex scene with Philip. I rarely use sex as a big dramatic device. Here I thought it was critical because you have to understand right away that this is what drives him. But I don't think Philip has ever conceived of himself in the nude fucking onscreen. It's just not something that comes his way. So when we started blocking, Marisa hopped up on the bed, got on her hands and knees, slapped her ass and said, "Come on, Philly, let's go!" I could kiss her. Because if Philip had any inhibitions, they were gone.

Your 1995 how-to book, Making Movies, is a classic now.

I got a check for $4,000 the other day. And it's been 12 years.

Would you add anything today?
A big section on hi-def cinematography, because I've worked with it now and I've come to love that camera. It would be more than a chapter.

Ugh. Are you part of this new wave of kids like David Lynch who are not looking back?

There's nothing you can get on film that you can't get on HD. I wish I had it back when I did Dog Day. My shoots go much faster now.

Speaking of, you famously continued shooting a TV show, 100 Centre Street, on September 11, 2001, after the attacks.

You go fucking on. You keep on working. Period. I was rehearsing a play on December 7, 1941. We called lunch, we listened to the news. After an hour, we went back to work. I'm a Depression baby. To me, it's the only antidote.

Your 9/11 crew was not pleased.
I said people could go. I ordered in cots and food. But boy, did I feel resentment the next day. Still, the following day, almost every person came up to me and gave me a hug and thanked me. They had now had the experience of sitting in front of their fucking TV sets. You move on.

Isn't that what New York is about?
That's what work is about.