Monday, 8 April 2013

Book review: "Making Movies"

I first read Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet, when it came out in 1995, and was dazzled (and intimidated) by the complexity of big-time filmmaking. I reread it in 2013 and had the exact same reaction. This is a serious book about filmmaking.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) directed seventy-two movies and TV shows. He is best known for films such as 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007).


Lumet was an actor, appearing on stage in Broadway shows from the age of five. He spent three years with the US Army during World War II, then started directing off-Broadway stage shows after the war, before moving to TV in 1952.

His first movie, 12 Angry Men, was nominated for three Academy Awards. It was also a start of the trend whereby he never won, despite being personally nominated four times. Fourteen of the films he directed were nominated a total of 46 times for Oscars, winning six times. In 2005 the Academy gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award for his "services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture."

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Here are some quotes from the book.
I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he'd panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he'd panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport—neither of which belonged in a period movie.

Often the last to arrive [at rehearsal] is the writer. He is last because he knows that at this point he is the target. At this moment, anything wrong can only be his fault, since nothing else has happened yet. So he moves quietly to the coffee table, stuffs his mouth full of Danish so he won't have to answer any questions, and tries to become as small as possible.

There are many reasons for accepting a movie. I'm not a believer in waiting for "great" material that will produce a "masterpiece." What's important is that the material involve me personally on some level.

I've done two movies because I needed the money. I've done three because I love to work and couldn't wait any longer.

The truth is that no one knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work.

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, take it!

The theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie).

What is the movie about? Work can't begin until its limits are defined, and this is the first step in that process. It becomes the riverbed into which all subsequent decisions will be channeled.

The script must keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way.

Dialogue is not uncinematic. So many of the movies of the thirties and forties that we adore are constant streams of dialogue.

The point is that here is no war between the visual and the aural. Why not the best of both?

A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behavior as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations.

If the writer has to state the reasons, something's wrong in the way the character has been written.

I like the writer present at rehearsals. Words are critical. And most actors aren't writers, nor are most directors.

I use improvisation as an acting technique, not as a source of dialogue.

Most writers are so used to being slapped around that they're stunned that I want them at rehearsal.

There's a powerful magic about being a writer that I still marvel at.

I want the writer to see the first cut. First cuts of a picture always have to have some time taken out of them. Most writers are able to see repetitions in their own work.

In a sense, a movie is constantly being rewritten. The various contributions of the director and the actors, the music, sound, camera, decor, and editing, are so powerful that the movie is always changing.

Making a movie has always been about telling a story.

In Murder on the Orient Express, I wanted Ingrid Bergman to play the Russian princess. She wanted to play the retarded Swedish maid. I wanted Ingrid Bergman. I let her play the maid. She won an Academy Award.

Just as in life, really talking and listening to one another is very, very difficult. In acting, that's the basis on which everything is built.

Sanford Meisner was one of the best acting teachers of my time. With beginning students, he spent the first month or six weeks getting them to really talk and listen to one another, That's all. It's the great common denominator where different acting styles and techniques meet.
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Steven Spielberg said of this book:

"Film would be a better place if every director were required to share with other romancers of film his process. It is a gift to us all that it is Sidney Lumet, one of America's greatest filmmakers, who is sharing his point-of-view."

2 comments:

Ed Love said...

Got it, must actually read it sometime. Apparently, it's no good just owning books ...

Kathy Smart said...

All meaty quotes. Wouldn't it be fantastic to be a writer on one of his films?