The American director, Sidney Lumet was a master of cinema and is best known for directing some of the most socially conscious films in history.
Lumet was trained during the golden age of television and exhibited an energetic style of directing which blended well with his realistic approach to filmmaking.
Over the course of career, Lumet directed over 40 films which included 12 Angry Men (1957), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981) and The Verdict (1982).
Below, we have shared 42 favorite Sidney Lumet quotes on filmmaking covering everything from writing the script to shooting the movie to working with actors and much more.
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Sidney Lumet Filmmaking Quotes
While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film is which I believe goes one step further. It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience. It stimulates thought and sets the mental juices flowing.
If I’m moved by a scene, a situation… I have to assume that that’s going to work for an audience.
Look, on a movie, we’re all giving each other something precious. No bullshit, I can’t think of a better job. It’s not a technique. I’m not a fool. I think I’m a talented man. But then there’s luck. I think there’s a reason luck doesn’t always happen to others. They don’t know how to prepare the groundwork for luck. I do.
Blue or red may mean totally different things to you and me. But as long as my interpretation of a colour is consistent, eventually you’ll become aware (subconsciously, I hope) of how I’m using that colour, and what I’m using it for.
Commercial success has no relation to a good or bad picture. Good pictures become hits. Good pictures become flops. Bad pictures make money, bad pictures lose money. The fact is that NO ONE REALLY KNOWS. Through some incredible talent, Walt Disney knew. Today Steven Spielberg seems to.
Directors today – the younger ones – are very different, not better or worse, mind you. I think that Steven Spielberg is as sensitive as I am – probably more so. The primary difference is a subtle yet profound one. I think you can draw a solid line between the directors who were brought up on television – who spent their childhoods watching television – and those who didn’t. That reflects the film’s content and how the film is shot. Two totally different types of directors and two totally different types of movies.
There are no minor decisions in movie making. Each decision will either contribute to a good piece of work or bring the whole movie crashing down around my head many months later.
Story and Script
I decide completely instinctively, very often on just one reading. I don’t analyze a script as I read it for the first time. I just sort of let it wash over me. Sometimes it happens with a book. I also make sure that I have the time to read a script straight through. A script can have a very different feeling if reading it is interrupted, even for half an hour. The final movie will be seen uninterrupted, so why should reading the script for the first time be any different?
Now comes the most important decision I have to make: What is this movie about? I’m not talking about plot, although in certain very good melodramas the plot is all they’re about. And that’s not bad. A good, rousing, scary story can be a hell of a lot of fun. But what is it about emotionally? What is the theme of the movie,the spine, the arc? What does the movie mean to me? Personalizing the movie is very important. I’m going to be working flat out for the next six, nine, twelve months. The picture had better have some meaning to me.
When I first meet with the screenwriter, I never tell him anything, even if I feel there’s a lot to be done. Instead I ask him the same question I’ve asked myself: What is the story about? What did you see? What was your intention? Ideally, if we do this well, what do you hope the audience will feel, think, sense? In what mood do you want them to leave the theater?
We are two different people trying to combine our talents, so it’s critical that we agree on the intention of the screenplay. Under the best circumstances, what will emerge is a third intention, which neither of us saw at the beginning… [Arthur Miller] said that he loved seeing what his work evoked in others. The result could contain revelations, feelings, and ideas that he never knew existed when he wrote the play. It’s what we all hope for.
…Of course, the original intent is present. But all of the individual contributions from all the different departments add up to a total far greater than their individual parts. Moviemaking works very much like an orchestra: the addition of various harmonies can change, enlarge, and clarify the nature of the theme.
The script must keep you off balance. Keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give a sense that the story HAD to turn out that way.
If the writer has to state the reasons, something’s wrong in the way the character is written. Dialogue is like anything else in movies. It can be a crutch, or when used well, it can enhance, deepen, and reveal.
I think inevitability is the key. In a well made drama, I want to feel: “Of course – that’s where it was headed all along.” And yet the inevitability mustn’t eliminate surprise.
The way you tell a story should relate somehow to what that story is. Because that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story.
For anyone who wants to direct but hasn’t made a first movie yet, there is no decision to make. Whatever the movie, whatever the auspices, whatever the problems, if there’s a chance to direct, takeit! Period. Exclamation point! The first movie is its own justification, because it’s the first movie.
The theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie). The theme will decide the specifics of every selection made in all the following chapters. 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 to be made.
Once we’ve agreed on the all-important question “What’s this picture about?” we can start in on the details. First comes an examination of each scene – in sequence, of course. Does this scene contribute to the overall theme? How? Does it contribute to the story line? To character? Is the story line moving in an ever increasing arc of tension or drama? In the case of a comedy, is it getting funnier? Is the story being moved forward by the characters? In a good drama, the line where characters and story blend should be indiscernible. I once read a very well-written script with first-rate dialogue. But the characters had nothing specific to do with the story line. That particular story could’ve happened to many different kinds of people. In drama, the characters should determine the story. In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story. For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.
All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen.
Locations are characters in my movies. The city is capable of portraying a mood a scene requires.
If my movie has two stars in it, I always know it really has three. The third star is the camera.
The overriding consideration for me, as is apparent in all these examples, is that the techniques come from the material. They should change as the material changes. Sometimes it’s important not to do anything with the camera, to just shoot it “straight.” And equally important for me is that all this work stay hidden. Good camera work is not pretty pictures. It should augment and reveal the theme as fully as the actors and directors do. The light Sven Nykvist has created for so many of Ingmar Bergman’s movies is directly connected to what those movies are about.
Don’t let the difficulty of actually achieving a shot make you think that the shot is good.
Anything you can do with film, I can do with HD.
Don’t let a technical failure destroy the shot for you.
Working with Actors
I like being described as the actor’s director because it comes primarily from the fact that they open up with me more than they do with most directors.
There’s no real difference in acting between theater and film. Well, there’s one difference — you can get away with more in the theater; you can take it easier than you can in film. But that cliché about how you have to reduce the performance , make it smaller for film, isn’t true. You just have to work more honestly.
There’s no such thing as a small part. There are just small actors.
In Hollywood, actors learn to act from watching television. In New York people learn to act by walking down the street.
No director is going to give an actor charm. It’s something they’ve either got or they haven’t got.
I love actors. I love them because they’re brave. All good work requires self-revelation. A musician communicates feelings through the instrument he is playing, a dancer through body movement. The talent of acting is one in which the actor’s thoughts and feelings are instantly communicated to the audience. In other words, the“instrument” that an actor is using is himself. It is his feelings, his physiognomy, his sexuality, his tears, his laughter, his anger, his romanticism, his tenderness, his viciousness, that are up there on the screen for all to see. That’s not easy. In fact, quite often it’s painful.
I worked with Marlon Brando on The Fugitive Kind. He’s a suspicious fellow. I don’t know if he bothers anymore, but Brando tests the director on the first or second day of shooting. What he does is to give you two apparently identical takes. Except that on one, he is really working from the inside; and on the other, he’s just giving you an indication of what the emotion was like. Then he watches which one you decide to print. If the director prints the wrong one, the “indicated” one, he’s had it. Marlon will either walk through the rest of the performance or make the director’s life hell,or both. Nobody has the right to test people like that, but I can understand why he does that. He doesn’t want to pour out his inner life to someone who can’t see what he’s doing.
Howard Hawks was once asked to name the most important element in an actor’s performance. His answer was “confidence.” In a sense, that is really what’s been going on during rehearsal: the actors are gaining confidence in revealing their inner selves. They’ve been learning about me. I hold nothing back. If the actors are going to hold nothing back in front of the camera, I can hold nothing back in front of them. They have to be able to trust me, to know that I“feel” them and what they’re doing. This mutual trust is the most important element between the actor and me.
I generally hold rehearsals for a period of two weeks. Depending on the complexity of the characters, we sometimes work longer. Generally, we’ll spend the first two or three days around a table, talking about the script. The first thing to be established is, of course, the theme. Then we’re into each character, each scene, each line. We read the script non-stop, then spend the next two days breaking it down into its components,winding up on the third day with another non-stop reading. In this same period we’re seeing if any rewrites are necessary. On the fourth day, I start blocking (that is, staging) the scenes. Each interior we’ll use in the movie has been laid out in tape on the floor in its actual dimensions.
Improvisation can be an effective tool in rehearsal as a way of finding what you’re really like when, for example, you’re angry. Knowing your feelings let you know when those feelings are real as opposed to when you’re simulating them.
As I’m rehearsing, I slowly evolve into the style in which I’m going to shoot the movie.
On Editing and Post-Production
There are no small decisions in movie-making. Nowhere does this apply more than in editing.
To me, there are two main elements to editing: juxtaposing images and creating tempo. Sometimes an image is so meaningful or beautiful that it can capture or illuminate our original question: What is this movie about? In Murder on the Orient Express, the shot of the train leaving Istanbul had that quality. It had all the mystery, glamour, nostalgia, action I wanted the entire movie to have.
Over-length is one of the things that most often results in the destruction of the movie in the cutting room.
The more cuts, the faster the tempo will seem. That’s why melodramas and chase sequences use so many cuts. Just as in music, fast tempo usually means energy and excitement. If a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo that we feel, not the tempo itself.
Edit it for story, but as part of the form of melodrama, edit is as surprisingly, as unexpectedly, as you can. Try to keep the audience off balance, though not to a point where the story gets lost.
Almost every picture is improved by a good musical score. To start with, music is a quick way to reach people emotionally. Over the years, movie music has developed so many clichés of its own that the audience immediately absorbs the intention of the moment: the music tells them, sometimes even in advance. Generally, that would be the sign of a bad score, but even bad scores work.
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