By Sven Mikulec
When esteemed actor Henry Fonda saw a successful teleplay called 12 Angry Men written for CBS’s Studio One, his complete lack of producing experience didn’t stop him from contacting the teleplay’s author Reginald Rose. Excited by what he perceived as high-quality material for a feature film, Fonda struck a deal with Rose to produce the picture. They chose to offer the directing gig to Sidney Lumet, who was only 33 years old and without a feature film under his belt, but still considered an experienced TV veteran, having worked on television since 1950 directing countless episodes of CBS’s TV shows like Danger, Mama and You Are There. Reginald Rose developed the concept for the teleplay drawing inspiration from his own experience as a juror in a criminal case back in early 1954: he realized the dramatic power stemming from such a situation and agreed with Fonda that the potential for a great film was there for the taking. They covered the 350-thousand-dollars budget themselves, and thanks to the unexpected success of the earlier teleplay-turned-Hollywood-hit called Marty, which was considered the first successful TV-to-cinema adaptation, United Artists agreed to distribute their film. Sidney Lumet, who would later get worldwide recognition on account of his incredible efficiency, shot 12 Angry Men in mere nineteen days, making use of his extensive experience of working under stress and harsh deadlines from his TV and theater days. 12 Angry Men premiered on April 13, 1957, to widespread and universal critical acclaim, but according to news reports published a year later, it barely managed to cover its production and marketing expenses. A big part of the blame for the disappointing box office run, however, lies on United Artists’ back: ecstatic by the apparent quality of their product, they disregarded Fonda and Lumet’s desire for the film to start its journey modestly and steadily. Why would they practice patience and wait for the public anticipation to grow when they were confident they had a huge hit on their hands? Instead of a shy opening at a local theater, followed by a tactical push coordinated with all those positive reviews, they opted for a majestic opening at the Capitol Theatre with its highly optimistic 4,000 seats. When only a couple of rows were sold out for the premiere, they soon pulled it out of the circuit. Critical praise, however, brought 12 Angry Men three Academy Award nominations—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay—but in all three cases the picture was defeated by The Bridge on the River Kwai. Berlin was far kinder to Fonda and Lumet’s feature filmmaking debut, as 12 Angry Men went home with the prestigious Golden Bear.
This unorthodox courtroom drama tells the story of twelve members of the jury who have to fulfill their civic duty of deciding if a young man from the slums was guilty of stabbing his father to death. It’s a different kind of a courtroom drama because the film is set almost entirely in the jury room: you hardly get a glimpse of the court or its surroundings during the whole 95 minutes. During his short time on screen, the judge delivers the necessary instructions to the jurors, and in these brief sentences strung together in a bored, monotonous delivery, it’s obvious even he believes this is an open-and-shut case. The overwhelming majority of the jurors agree, as the immediate vote clearly shows, but it seems only a single person believes the young man faced with a death sentence deserves at least some kind of an honest, dedicated debate. Juror number 8 explains they shouldn’t take their duty casually, as the stakes are incredibly high, and what follows is a brilliantly scripted, intense and very dynamic conversation between these twelve people with hugely different backgrounds, interests and characters brought together for one specific, once-in-a-lifetime purpose. Confined to a very limited space that seems to get smaller and more crowded by the minute, they enter a heated debate that not only sheds light on the peculiarities of this specific court case and the circumstances of the defendant’s life, but on their own personalities, hidden motives and backgrounds as well.
In order for a film of this particular profile to work, several crucial requirements must be met. The most obvious one is the necessity for a good and highly entertaining or intriguing script. 12 Angry Men is a film about a group of people sitting at the table and talking. There are no flashy sequences or breathtaking imagery that could pull the focus away from the conversation: it’s the lines the characters deliver that carry all the action and the spectacle. Reginald Rose’s screenplay is perfect, as it not only efficiently explores the central “innocent until proven guilty” postulate but simultaneously illuminates the protagonists and thus tells an incredibly complex story ranging from the judicial system, through immigrant issues and inherent prejudice within the American community, all the way to the issue of death penalty and troubled family relationships. What makes the story so much more exciting is the fact that the only juror determined to stand up to his peers and open up the possibility of the defendant’s innocence is not a person who is completely sure the boy didn’t do it. Actually, he’s not sure at all. He listened through all of the testimonies and examined all of the evidence produced, just like the other jurors had, and he doesn’t think he’s the only sane person in the room: all the evidence points to the defendant’s guilt. However, he firmly believes and passionately advocates the idea that anyone in such a situation should be entitled to an hour of concentrated and serious consideration.
Without very talented actors, which 12 Angry Men abounds in, not even the best script in the world would be able to pull it off. Henry Fonda was the only big star among the cast, but with Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, Ed Begley, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber, Edward Binns, Jack Klugman, John Fiedler and E. G. Marshall sharing the table, the perfect cast was gathered. Aware of the difficulty of the task in front of them, Fonda and Lumet picked the best character actors Broadway had to offer.
Even though this film basically lives and dies in a single room, this certainly doesn’t mean it was an easy project to shoot. If the characters are stationary, it means that the camera has to become much more active for the film to really work. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who shot On the Waterfront only four years prior, and Lumet, therefore, developed a distinct visual style and employed genius techniques to secure the much needed dynamic of the film’s visuals. “Technically, it’s an enormously complicated movie,” Lumet later explained. “You’d think that shooting in a tight space would be the easiest thing in the world, when in fact the easiest thing to shoot is a cattle round-up! Just put six cameras on it and all the footage will be so marvelous you won’t know what to choose because the action is so terrific. Here, through the slow intensification of performance, and then also through a very subtle use of the camera: use of lenses, use of lighting… not trying to avoid the claustrophobia, but trying to take advantage of it. Make it more claustrophobic. Make the ceiling feel lower, make it seem as if the walls are closing in on them. We weren’t kidding anybody. We were going to be in one room. Let’s use it dramatically!” What Lumet and Kaufman did was play around with camera angles. They shot the first third of the film above eye level, the middle part at eye level and the last third from below eye level. As the ceiling began to show in the frames, the feeling of the room tightening down on its inhabitants was ingeniously transferred through the screen. While the debate was intensifying, the tension was further pumped up with simple tricks such as this. The lenses and the angles were not the only tools in Lumet’s box: the atmosphere was further perfected by Carl Lerner’s editing. In the first part of the film the takes are often long but get shorter and shorter as the story progresses. Quick cuts accentuate the sense of anxiety and stress, which is why around half of all of the cuts appear in the last twenty minutes of the movie.
Even though Fonda decided not to produce a picture ever again, stressed out by the whole experience, his only producing credit couldn’t have been spent on a better film. Lumet’s directing debut is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking with lasting quality and never-ceasing influence. It’s no wonder that the film is still frequently shown not only in film schools around the world, but in law schools as well. In our opinion, 12 Angry Men is, first and foremost, a testament to Reginald Rose’s powerful writing and Lumet’s directing prowess, and we simply can’t be any happier to offer you a chance to study the hell out of Rose’s marvelous screenplay. Consider this our little present to you in this special time of the year when people around the globe celebrate Festivus. Dig in deep and deeply enjoy.
Screenwriter must-read: Reginald Rose’s screenplay for 12 Angry Men [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
MAKING MOVIES BY SIDNEY LUMET
“I read it when I was in film school—when it first came out. I had a hardcover copy, which was a big investment when I was a film student (and broke). I remember just devouring it over a weekend. Eating up those stories about Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men. It’s an incredibly clear, honest, and precise discussion of the films Lumet made over the course of his career. There are many pearls of wisdom about directing and filmmaking in the book. It breaks down the different problems Lumet had in making films, and tells how he solved them. Even though I had only done a bunch of short student films at that point, I could sort of identify with some of the challenges that he dealt with and wrote about. And I eventually got to put some of the stuff to use. Generally, hearing how Lumet navigated the struggles I was running into myself—that was very encouraging.” —Darren Aronofsky recommends five of the best books on making movies
We had no money to make 12 Angry Men. The budget was $350,000. That’s right: $350,000. Once a chair was lit, everything that took place in that chair was shot. Well, not quite. We went around the room three times: once for normal light, a second time for the rain clouds gathering, which changed the quality of the light coming from the outside, and the third time when the overhead lights were turned on. Lee Cobb arguing with Henry Fonda would obviously have shots of Fonda (against wall C) and shots of Cobb (against wall A). They were shot seven or eight days apart. It meant, of course, that I had to have a perfect emotional memory of the intensity reached by Lee Cobb seven days earlier. But that’s where rehearsals were invaluable. After two weeks of rehearsal, I had a complete graph in my head of where I wanted each level of emotion in the movie to be. We finished in nineteen days (a day under schedule) and were $1,000 under budget. Tom Landry said it: It’s all in the preparation. I hate the Dallas Cowboys, and I’m not too crazy about him and his short-brimmed hat. But he hit the nail on the head. It is in the preparation. Do mountains of preparation kill spontaneity? Absolutely not. I’ve found that it’s just the opposite. When you know what you’re doing, you feel much freer to improvise.
On my second picture, Stage Struck, a scene between Henry Fonda and Christopher Plummer took place in Central Park. I had shot most of the scene by lunchtime. We broke for an hour, knowing that we had just a few shots to do after lunch to finish the sequence. During lunch, snow started to fall. When we came back, the park was already covered in white. The snow was so beautiful, I wanted to redo the whole scene. Franz Planner, the cameraman, said it was impossible because we’d be out of light by four o’clock. I quickly restaged the scene, giving Plummer a new entrance so that I could see the snow-covered park; then I placed them on a bench, shot a master and two close-ups. The lens was wide open by the last take, but we got it all. Because the actors were prepared, because the crew knew what it was doing, we just swung with the weather and wound up with a better scene. Preparation allows the “lucky accident” that we’re always hoping for to happen. It has happened many times since: in a scene between Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave in the real Istanbul for Murder on the Orient Express; in a scene between Paul Newman and Charlotte Rampling in The Verdict; and in many scenes with Al Pacino and various bank employees in Dog Day Afternoon. Because everyone knew what he or she was doing, practically all of the improvisation wound up in the finished movie.
12 Angry Men, Boris Kaufman, photographer. It never occurred to me that shooting an entire picture in one room was a problem. In fact, I felt I could turn it into an advantage. One of the most important dramatic elements for me was the sense of entrapment those men must have felt in that room. Immediately, a “lens plot” occurred to me. As the picture unfolded, I wanted the room to seem smaller and smaller. That meant that I would slowly shift to longer lenses as the picture continued. Starting with the normal range (28 mm to 40 mm), we progressed to 50 mm, 75 mm, and 100 mm lenses. In addition, I shot the first third of the movie above eye level, and then, by lowering the camera, shot the second third at eye level, and the last third from below eye level. In that way, toward the end, the ceiling began to appear. Not only were the walls closing in, the ceiling was as well. The sense of increasing claustrophobia did a lot to raise the tension of the last part of the movie. On the final shot, an exterior that showed the jurors leaving the courtroom, I used a wide-angle lens, wider than any lens that had been used in the entire picture. I also raised the camera to the highest above-eye-level position. The intention was to literally give us all air, to let us finally breathe, after two increasingly confined hours.
A character shot in close-up is usually talking or reacting to one person or more. Again, to help maintain reality and concentration, I like to have the off-camera actor or actors gathered around the camera to work with the actor being photographed. Clearly, this was a must in 12 Angry Men. Sometimes the off-camera actor doesn’t really work with the on-camera actor. He may be afraid of using up the feeling if his side hasn’t been shot yet. Sometimes it’s a subtle form of sabotage. Visiting a set one day, I saw the star feeding off-camera lines to a day player (an actor hired for a small part on a daily basis). The star sat on a high stool and didn’t even look at the other actor. In fact, her attention was riveted on her crocheting. This can create very bad feelings on a set. Whenever I see it happening, I take immediate steps by talking to the off-camera actor as gently or firmly as is needed.
This opens up an important area. When the actor is being photographed looking at someone off-camera, he can obviously see past him to the whole darkened studio. We call this the actor’s “eyeline.” It can involve both sides of the camera. Just before we roll, any well-trained AD will always say, “Clear the eyeline, please.” If William Holden is making love to Faye Dunaway, he doesn’t want to see some teamster sipping coffee behind her. He doesn’t want to see anybody other than Faye watching him, even if he has great concentration. Since most crews don’t understand this, “Clear the eyeline” becomes a never-ending refrain. Take 1 is over. I saw something I didn’t like. I want to go again. The same process. “Scene Sixty-eight—Take Two.” “Sticks.” “Action!” Take 2 is all right, but “Let’s try one more.” I’ll come up to the actor with a new suggestion, just to see if it will stimulate a surprise or a more spontaneous or surprising performance. Sometimes I’ll say, “That’s a beauty. Print it. Now, just for the hell of it, try whatever comes to mind.” Sometimes the actor will ask for another take. I always go along with that. About half the time the actor does do better. Sometimes if I feel the actor is struggling with a scene, I’ll call “Print” even though I don’t intend to use the take. I do it as encouragement. When actors have heard “Print,” they know they have a good one in the can and they relax. This frees them for something more spontaneous.
I’d like to try to explain the process I go through when I call “Print.” After all is said and done, that’s the reason we’re doing all this. Obviously, certain shots in a movie require nothing beyond mechanical perfection. I’m not thinking of those. I’m thinking of shots that are involved with character, or critical plot points, or highly emotional moments. First, I place myself as close to the lens as possible. Sometimes I sit on the dolly, just beneath the lens. Or I tuck myself behind the operator’s shoulder. This way I’m not only as close as I can get to the lens’s view of the scene, but I’m also out of the actor’s eyeline. Then comes the hard part. Just before we roll, I make a quick mental check of what preceded the moment we’re about to film and what comes afterward. Then I focus my concentration on what the actors are doing. From the moment the actors start working, I play the scene along with them. I say the lines inside my head, I sense their movements and feel their emotions. I’m putting myself through the scene as if I were them. If the camera moves, out of the corner of my eye I’m watching the lens shade to see if the move has been mechanically smooth or jerky. If at any point in the take my concentration breaks, I know that something has gone wrong. Then I’ll go for another take. Sometimes, on particularly good takes, I’m so moved that I stop “doing” the scene and just watch in awe at the miracle of good acting. As I said earlier, that’s life up there. When it flows like that, that’s when I say “Print.” Is it exhausting? You bet it is.
One of the most complex lighting jobs was the first shot inside the jury room in 12 Angry Men. The shot lasts almost eight minutes. We meet all twelve jurors. The shot starts over the fan, which will matter later in the movie, and at one point or another moves into at least a medium shot of each person. I did it on a crane. The base of the crane (the dolly) had thirteen different positions moving in and about the small set. The arm (the boom) on which the camera sat had eleven different positions left and right and eight different positions up and down. Boris Kaufman needed seven hours to light the shot. We got it on Take 4. If I’m going to make a big turnaround, going from wall A to wall C, I try to time it for the lunch hour. Generally, the construction crew (four grips, two carpenters) go to lunch an hour earlier than we do. By the time we break, anywhere between 11:30 and 1:30, they’re already back and can make the changeover. They put wall C back and pull out wall A. It’s more complicated than it sounds. Everything has to move—chairs, makeup tables, sound boom, camera dolly; the dressing (curtains, shelves, pictures, et cetera) comes down off wall A and has to be put back up on wall C. The paint, plaster, or wallpaper on the walls gets damaged from constant movement and has to be repaired. If ceiling pieces are being moved, the old ones have to be removed and new ones put in. The floor becomes filthy during shooting and has to be swept. Dolly tracks have to be taken up. Every lamp has to be disconnected. The main power cable has to be rerouted to the opposite side of the set.
The break is usually welcome. We’ve lit for perhaps an hour or an hour and a half, but we’ve shot for two and a half or three hours. That’s a good proportion. The actors warm up and, like a good fullback, get better as they work more. But that’s a lot of work, and they can use a breather. Many eat a slow lunch, and since the wall move will take more than an hour, they get a chance to nap. At least I hope they’re napping. When the AD calls lunch, I head for my dressing room. My Achilles tendons ache a little, because I’ve been on my feet for about four hours. I find it hard to sit down on set. I long ago stopped drinking coffee all morning. A buttered bagel will do nicely at about eleven. In England, the camera apprentice brings a tray of tea for the cameraman and camera crew, for what is called “elevenses.” With the tea is a plateful of greasy bangers, fried bread (fried in the grease of the bangers) slathered with rancid butter, onions, soggy bacon. It’s delicious! See what a good mood you’re in when making movies? In my dressing room, lettuce, tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg, and some sliced ham or turkey await me. I’ll spread mayonnaise on the lettuce, add ham and tomato inside the lettuce leaf, roll it up and bolt it down. I finish my “meal” in five minutes. And then I go to sleep for fifty-five. I’ll be asleep within minutes after lying down, a technique I learned in the army during World War II. Again, after all these years, I wake up about a minute before lunch hour is over and go back on set.
With the walls moved, it’s time for a new setup. The actors are called. They are usually out of costume, and their makeup needs repair from whatever they did during lunch hour. We start by walking through the new shot. Again I tell them not to work full out. We make sure all props are placed. Then, with stand-ins watching carefully, we go through the shot again, only this time for camera. I’ve chosen the lens and actually watch the scene, operating the camera myself. I’m not good on the wheels, but I’m not bad either. If the camera moves during the shot, we mark the camera positions with tape on the floor. Sometimes there are eight or ten camera moves in a shot, so that the moves have to be numbered on the floor. Camera height changes are also marked. In addition, places where the actors come to rest are marked with tape, a different color of tape used for each actor. The stand-ins take over so Andrzej can start lighting, and the actors head back to their dressing rooms to get ready. The afternoon passes quickly. The amount of work done in any day depends on so many factors. However, as long as the actors don’t have time to get bored, I consider it a good day. Around three o’clock, the production office sends down a copy of the next day’s call sheet. I check how far along I am with today’s planned shooting. If I think I’ll get more done, or less, in the remaining time today, I’ll have them change the call sheet accordingly. If the actors can get another fifteen minutes’ sleep in the morning, I want them to have it.
Henry Fonda never went to rushes in his whole career. In fact, he rarely saw the movie until it had been out for over a year. But on 12 Angry Men, he was also the producer, so he had to come. After we’d seen the first day’s rushes, he leaned forward, squeezed my shoulder, whispered, “It’s brilliant,” and fled, never to return. Pacino always comes. He sits on the side, alone, and an icy calm comes over him. He’s very tough on himself. If he feels he blew it, he’ll ask you to reshoot, if possible; it invariably comes out better. Sometimes actors use rushes self-destructively. They get sidetracked by how they look. The slightest hint of bags under the eyes will send them into a fit of depression. When I see this happening, I ask them not to come anymore. This usually sets off a minor crisis, but I’m prepared to be very tough about it. Some actors contractually have the right to come to rushes. For some reason, I still remember that I made 387 setups in 12 Angry Men. Over half of those setups were to be used in the last half hour of the movie. The cutting tempo was accelerating steadily during the movie but would break into a gallop in the last thirty-five minutes or so. This increasing tempo helped enormously both in making the story more exciting and in raising the audience’s awareness that the picture was compressing further in space and time.
WHO THE DEVIL MADE IT
The following is an excerpt from Peter Bogdanovich’s greatly absorbing Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, a series of interviews with everyone from silent-film pioneer Allan Dwan to Sidney Lumet.
“It was lovely, my darling,” Sidney Lumet said to Ralph Meeker, who starred in the live-TV production Lumet was directing of Ernest Hemingway’s short story Fifty Grand, adapted by A. E. Hotchner. I had a bit part in it. This was early in 1958, and Lumet had directed just one feature and years of rich television work in that medium’s first (and finest) flowering. “Really beautiful, sweetheart.” The theatrical way Sidney had of talking to his actors (and his crew)—which reminded me of Stella Adler as well—influenced my treatment of actors and my way of addressing people in general. Sidney did it without affectation, like breathing. But the “darling/dearest/sweetheart/love/honey/” way of speaking is very New York theatrical and, after all, Sidney Lumet is a child of New York City if ever there was one—he has shot most of his work on the East Coast—as well as a child of the theatre, having acted on Broadway while still quite young, and before that on the Yiddish stage at age four. This background gives him remarkable rapport with actors, who tend to let their guards down with Lumet. His technique, like John Ford’s, of making it known that he expects the actors’ performance in the first couple of takes, has worked well for him.
Lumet’s pictures have received over fifty Academy Award nominations, and he has been nominated for the directing Oscar four times, for the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award seven times. Indeed, the DGA has given him its highest, most prestigious prize—the D. W. Griffith Memorial (not awarded every year)—for an entire body of work; only twenty-three directors in the world have received this. Sidney’s first feature, 12 Angry Men, was immediate proof of his solid camera sense and thorough understanding of the importance of size of image and continuance of performance: it’s a bravura first turn, all in one room, with a brilliant character-man cast (except for Henry Fonda, who co-produced), nearly every one of whom became a star in TV or movies. More prolific than any of his contemporaries (Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann), Lumet has directed subsequent pictures that have included: the Brando/Magnani/Tennessee Williams combination The Fugitive Kind; Paddy Chayefsky’s best script, Network; two archetypal Al Pacino vehicles, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon; the vivid crime pictures Prince of the City and Q&A; Ralph Richardson and Katharine Hepburn in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; Paul Newman in The Verdict; River Phoenix in Running on Empty. Honored by retrospectives all over the world, Lumet was designated by the French government as Commander of Arts and Letters.
In his working style, he does something that sets him apart now even more than when I first interviewed him in January 1960 (in New York City): Sidney “cuts in the camera.” Which means he knows before he shoots exactly how each scene or sequence is going to be edited and therefore films only what he needs to accomplish this, leaving few options in the cutting room, thus accelerating the process enormously both in shooting and post-production. It is a method of working that a great many of the top silent directors used, and many of the best sound directors as well. However, practically no directors do it now, and so Lumet has become, in yet another way, a connection to a fine craft already diminished and not getting better. As an aid to would-be picture makers—and instructive to practicing ones too—Lumet published in 1995 an extremely useful, well-thought-out book on the various phases of film production: Making Movies (Knopf) should become a standard text.
The first part of our interview appeared, in a different form, in Film Quarterly (June 1960), after Lumet had made only four features. The next time we talked was thirty-five years later over the phone, coast to coast. Show business is such a strange and intense fraternity and one of its more pleasant qualities is that, because show-biz folk are like gypsies—forever transient—most of them always act as though they just saw each other a few days ago rather than having had no contact for perhaps three and a half decades. They seem to have, also, a better sense of the relativity of time, knowing how lives can slip away if you are constantly going from one surrogate family—as each film’s cast and crew quickly can become—to another over and over, two or three times a year; just once every year is complicated enough. So Sidney and I picked up as though it were only a little while ago that he had directed me as a teenager on live TV; or just a few years since he had directed his fourth picture and thought about “going independent.” We both had just read over our original interview and agreed that the innocence on both sides of the mike should be preserved.
Our first interview, commissioned by Film Quarterly, was conducted in Mr. Lumet’s New York offices on June 14, 1960, eleven days before his thirty-sixth birthday. I asked which of his first four features were released as he had envisioned them…
12 Angry Men and The Fugitive Kind. On the other two (Stage Struck; 1958 and That Kind of Woman; 1959) the editing was disastrous—they took the editing back to California. On Stage Struck, unfortunately, I did something quite unforgivable—I just lost interest in it; I didn’t follow through on the cutting. That Kind of Woman was a series of fights that went on all year between myself and the producers.
On what level?
Every level—Sophia Loren’s performance, largely. I fought like mad about the editing and the scoring on that, but the enmity between the producers and me was so total that they just went back to California and cut spitefully—to prove to me that certain scenes were not necessary. It got to that petty a level. It was one of the things, I must say, that scares me about going to work for a major studio—the fact that that can happen. Actually, it was not a bad picture; it had a kind of lovely atmosphere about it. But the old idiocy of you-make-it-good-by-making-it-fast is nonsense, because some of the longest pictures I have ever seen are sixty-five-minute bad pictures.
How was the situation on 12 Angry Men?
Well, it was just me and Reggie [writer-producer Reginald Rose] working by ourselves, and it was angelic. On Fugitive Kind, too, [producers] Marty Jurow and Dick Shepherd were marvelous; they considered the cutting part of the director’s job, and the scoring. Because the big cliché is: “Well, he needs somebody to really edit his work,” which is nonsense, because there is not a single good director that isn’t also his own best cutter.
You’ve directed extensively on TV; what are the biggest differences you found between directing for films and TV?
Scale. It’s the difference between working on a twenty-one-inch canvas and a seventy-five-foot canvas, and that’s a tremendous difference. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that can work in both—there’s a certain level of drama that works in everything—but directorially it’s a shift in the eye; it’s a shift in the instruments, the tools that you use to focus dramatic attention and so on. And it’s also a difference internally—for instance, I’ve seen some Shakespeare on TV and it’s been disastrous. I wonder if the sheer physical size of the screen isn’t something that automatically rules out tragedy, for example.
Then you must be against the showing of movies on TV.
Yes, it’s incredible. It’s one of the reasons I don’t think pay-TV is going to be the panacea that the Hollywood people think it’s going to be. Take a picture like Red River —it’s a superb film; cinematically, an extraordinary piece of work. And what [Howard] Hawks did in terms of the reality of a cattle drive is, to me, on the level with what [John] Ford did with Stagecoach . It’s a definitive film. But you see it on TV and it’s just shots of cows going by—it’s pointless, it’s meaningless, it seems as if it’s overlong. The majesty of what Hawks does is lost.
What are the differences you found in directing for the stage and movies?
To begin with, they’re even farther apart than TV and motion pictures. To me, far more things can be interchanged between TV and motion pictures than between theatre and motion pictures. The theatre, for all its attempts at realism for the past thirty years, is a totally unreal medium—its essence is really poetic rather than literal. The screen can become poetic but, God knows, the majority of the good work has been devoted to literal and realistic, representational art. So it’s an enormous difference—the difference between poetry and prose. It’s a different medium: the fact that acting is used and that words are used—well, in watercolors and in oils, paints are used and the surface is used—but the two are totally different. There are a great many artists who are marvelous in one and not in the other. It’s just something else.
What have you found to be your main obstacle in film work?
For myself the main obstacle is the setup, the film in America. The financial setup, the method of making motion pictures, and the method of distribution is one that conspires to defeat freedom and good work. And I suppose it’s the age-old complaint; there’s no solution that I know of. I know every once in a while somebody just takes a camera and goes off into the street, but what if you had a piece that doesn’t belong in the street? What if your piece needs a sumptuousness and a sensuousness as part of its dramatic meaning? And, you know, documentaries and semidocumentaries are not the only method of work in film. And as soon as you get past that level, financially you’re caught in a miserable situation. Twelve Angry Men cost $343,000, which is ridiculously cheap, but that’s a rarity; it had one set, twelve actors, and a very tight shooting schedule of twenty days.
Many fine directors—Huston, Wilder, Bergman, Welles, Kubrick—either write their own screenplays or collaborate extensively with others on scripts. To date you haven’t done either; do you think you’d find it more satisfying to work on scripts rather than just do the best you can with material you are given?
It’s not “either/or.” I can’t write. And I have such respect for writers—I don’t understand how two writers collaborate, for instance—so that the method for myself is one simply of letting them do their work, then going back into work in terms of whatever specifics are needed, whether it’s structural or dialog. On Fugitive Kind, for instance, there was a good deal of rewriting between the original draft and what wound up on the screen.
On the two films that didn’t turn out the way you liked, did you have any say in the script?
Oh, yes. I think it’s a mistaken notion that we are not going to goof it more often than not. Looking back over an extended period, I think, my God! if you hit a 50 percent average in this work, you are doing fantastically on any level. Also, you go to a piece for many different reasons. I loved the script of Stage Struck because it wasn’t designed to be anything other than what was there: it was a valentine to the theatre; it was a fairy tale. It was shot that way, done that way, right from the opening title shot with the kid getting touched on the shoulder by a wand. That was its scale; you can’t look for the same literary level you do on something like Fugitive Kind. The important thing to me is only that it completes itself 100 percent.
Boris Kaufman was your photographer on every film except Stage Struck; how large do you feel is his contribution when an evaluation of the final work is made?
Well, Boris is a rarity, because there are loads of brilliant technical people—and he is brilliant technically—but his real artistry comes through in the fact that I don’t know of another cameraman who has the sense of dramatic interpretation that Boris has. When Boris and I have worked together there’s never been any instance where we haven’t done something outrageously new—though they don’t jump out at you in the films, thank God. The camera becomes another leading actor. There are two basic philosophies—and traps—that I think directors fall into: one of well-just-let-me-lay-back-and-just-show-what’s-going-on, just-let-me-record-it, or the converse, the shooting-through-the-crotch, and gimme-that-eyeball-in-the-front school. They are both fallacious because the camera—like everything else in a piece—has to relate to what’s going on dramatically. You have to cast your camera the way you cast an actor. It’s a question of the cameraman taking the directorial concept—and this is literally my framing with the viewfinder and the outline of the shot by me—and then, like a totally exciting artist, making it his own in the way he uses light.
Many critics either lament the death of Hollywood or constantly refer to the great dearth of talent out there. Is the West Coast a cultural desert?
This is gonna sound spooky—I think it goes back much farther than Hollywood. That place has no reason for being. It seems to me—as far as I know; I’m not the most erudite person in the world—but all the great centers of art have been centers of other things. They’ve either been a geographical center of the country or they’ve been a seaport—whether it’s been Venice, Florence, Rome, London, Paris, New York, Berlin—they’ve had other functions; the life of the place has been connected to the mainstream of life of that nation, of those people, and art came as a flower of that. Now, Los Angeles [laughs]—I’m sorry, it’s not a seaport, it’s lousy land for farming, it’s got no reason for being. Right now it’s got aircraft factories, and maybe in five hundred years aircraft factories’ll be a reason for having a city. But up till now there hasn’t been. It seems to me that it’s extremely difficult for any creative work to latch itself onto an inorganic place. I think it’s interesting that San Francisco’s always had the artistic excitement—certainly in terms of literature and painting—Los Angeles never.
They’re isolated in Hollywood, in other words.
Yes, I feel that in order to get some sunlight they went to a completely dead spot. They should have gone a little further, into the desert, and never gotten any rainfall and then they would have had perfect shooting schedules. And it’s interesting because all the directors I respect have gotten away from there as fast as they could. [Fred] Zinnemann hasn’t made a picture in Hollywood I don’t think in five years, Gadge [Elia Kazan] hasn’t made a picture in Hollywood in seven years. [George] Stevens has, and I think it’s showing in the work. I think he’s a great director.
How would you explain, then, the great films that have been made in Hollywood, say in the twenties and thirties?
When you hire the most talented people alive—literally—assembled from all over the world, to work there, of course you’re gonna have some good ones. And also good work is possible anyplace. I don’t mean that Hollywood kills work; I just think it makes it tougher to do good work.
Now that the autocracy of the major studios is over, do you think the independents have raised the level of films in America?
No, because basically they’re the same guys who just didn’t have a chance when the studios were tight and strong. With all due respect and affection for United Artists, they’re not risking a bloody thing; you still come into UA with a star versus a budget. And it is basically the same procedure at Metro. [Sam] Spiegel, every once in a while—because he’ll produce a winner like The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957; David Lean]—is allowed to try something off-beat. But he knows full well that he has to keep returning financial winners. I know I’m very pressured by this. I hope Fugitive Kind makes a lot of money because none of my pictures have made a lot of money and I need one. I know my employment will be directly affected by it. So it isn’t really independent production—nobody gets together and says, “Hey, let’s make a movie about …” What’s basically happened, I feel, is that because of financial reasons the actors have begun to dominate the market completely, and that’s a good move only because as long as it’s a roulette game I’d just as soon see the people who are actually spinning the wheel get the largest share of the dough. I don’t think it’s accomplished anything creatively. I think most of the actors who kept saying, “Oh, God, if I ever have my own independent company, boy, will I do good stuff…” have turned out the same crap that Louis B. Mayer used to do—only not as well.
Do you think there is a cinematic movement in America coming to compete with the French New Wave?
No, I don’t. I hate to be pessimistic, but I don’t at all. Reggie Rose and I’ve been trying for a year and a half to get done a piece that he wrote, a brilliant piece called Black Monday, which is the story of a Southern town on the first day of integration of schools. And we’re just not gonna get it done; it’s that simple. Out of the very nature of the subject matter, it’s gotta be big. The financial problem is getting extremely severe now in terms of getting money to do a picture. I think, by the way, that in five years it’s going to be absolutely marvelous, because we’re going to have financing the way plays are financed: a bunch of people get together, put up money, and you rise or fall with the quality of the piece.
What do you think are the advantages or disadvantages of wide-screen, CinemaScope, stereophonic sound, and the like?
I think they’re ridiculous; I think they’re pointless; I think they’re typical Hollywood products. And typical Hollywood mentality, because the essence of any dramatic piece is people, and it is symptomatic that Hollywood finds a way of photographing people directly opposite to the way people are built. CinemaScope makes no sense until people are fatter than they are taller.
Why then do serious directors like Kazan or Stevens choose to work in CinemaScope?
They don’t choose; there’s no choice. When Stevens does a picture for 20th Century Fox he has to shoot in CinemaScope. On Anne Frank, he fought for six months trying not to shoot it in CinemaScope and then had to. Spent all his time with the art director trying to figure out beams and girders to cut down the sides of the screen, and how to isolate what he wanted. I can’t think of a picture that is better having been done in CinemaScope.
There are many purists who believe the medium has declined because of sound. Do you agree?
No. Technical things are marvelous. Why limit oneself? Use color, use drawings, use everything. Let artists have every bloody tool they want. Why not? Sound is another tool. Orson Welles used sound so brilliantly in every film he ever did. His soundtracks are something directors should study. He took another mechanical thing and made it work even more for the dramatic result—that should be the object all the time. I don’t understand why a restriction enhances—to me, it doesn’t. Sound should be used for life, just like pictures should be used for life. On Stage Struck, for example, I had tremendous fights with the sound department, because they kept saying, “There’s a truck in it, there’s a truck going by in the theatre.” That’s right, I said, that’s what you hear in a theatre. At that level of vitality, sound is terribly important and can be used as creatively as anything else.
What filmmakers, if any, have most influenced your work in movies?
I don’t think any. I have great respect for about, I guess, seven or eight directors—Carl Dreyer, to me the greatest director who’s ever been in films—René Clair, Stevens, Jean Vigo, de Sica, Wyler, Zinnemann.
Having been an actor, what do you think a stage performer finds most difficult in adjusting to pictures?
Probably the toughest problem is for him to keep track of the point of development, or the point of transition, that his character is at because of the out-of-sequence problem and the working in small sections. So that the growth, the tiny motivating rivulets that go into the big stream of the entire character, tend to get lost and he tends to become general and act attitudes, because his concentration is scattered and he doesn’t quite know where he’s at. It’s one of the reasons I like the rehearsal procedure so: it gives him a very clear idea of the sweep of the man. On every picture except Fugitive Kind the last four days of rehearsal were run-throughs just like a play or a TV show.
Which actors have been the easiest to work with, and the most gratifying?
Well, Marlon was a joy: I would look forward to when we could go to work on a scene. Hank Fonda, to me, is one of the most underestimated actors: if I read one more review that says, “Hank Fonda gave his usual good realistic performance,” I’ll flip, because this man has such depth and such a sense of truth in his work—extraordinary. I love working with Sophia, I love her—I think she is enormously talented. I’ve liked almost everybody I’ve worked with.
Since you feel bitterly about the way two films were reworked, isn’t it possible for you to become independent and make films your own way?
I’d love nothing better, but none of my pictures have made enough money, so I am not a sure bet. A director-friend of mine has a plaque on his wall from the exhibitors, as “the outstanding money-making director” of a certain year, and he has an independent deal. So until I get one of those plaques, I’m not going to have that deal.
There are many young people I know of in New York who are going out and raising money for a picture just because they want to; would that be difficult in your position?
Peter, the problem is only one of money. The two things I want to do now, for example, will cost $600,000, which is very tough.
Can’t a picture be made for less than that?
Not the two I’ve got in mind—I know they can’t—and I am probably as economical a shooter as can possibly be: on 12 Angry Men, I exposed a total of sixty-three thousand feet of film. I don’t know if you know how little that is—it’s insanely little—I’m not even talking about printed film. Printed there was only about eighteen thousand feet. I can work as economically as I have to.
Almost every director is occasionally exposed to withering reviews of his work; what do you think when you read a bad notice?
There’s just nothing you can do because you’re talking from such completely different frames of reference; you know, you just gotta let it go. And some of the greatest significances as well as some of the greatest attacks are attributed to complete accidents. On All the King’s Men [TV, 1958], I read a review which loved the show and which called me a genius because in the first scene when Willie Stark was on his way up, talking to the people, I’d shot reactions of the crowd in the stand, the wildness of the faces and so on—and then in the second part, which came on a week later, when he’d been in power for six years, he was making an outdoor address and I played it in the rain with umbrellas (visually it was quite exciting) and how wasn’t this marvelous that on his way up he was related to the people and looking them in the eye, and here he was now like standing over their graves and they’re covered with umbrellas. The reason for it was very simple—I used up all the money for extras on the first show and on the second show I needed a crowd of fifty and I could only afford twenty people so I gave them umbrellas which spread everybody out [laughs]. So, go figure.
Complete freedom granted, would you rather work in films, TV or the theatre?
I never want to give up any one of them. I guess I’d spend the majority of time in the movies simply because it takes the longest. I mean, to me the ideal setup would be a picture a year, a play a year, and about three months of TV a year—because each one gives you such a shaking-up for the other, they all help one another because the problems are so totally different.
Thirty-five years later, Sidney and I spoke on the record again—this time by phone—he in New York and I in Los Angeles. We might have seen each other once or twice at some awards functions but we’d hardly spoken in three and a half decades. I began by asking what had been the main thing he’d learned about pictures since our last interview…
It’s a hard question, because there’s so much: the biggest thing is that the learning process never stops. The very fact that you take a picture for many different reasons: anything from needing a gig because you need the money, to the most deep-felt connection to the material, and you work for nothing and you couldn’t care less about whether it ever gets released—you just want to get the picture onto film. Whatever the reasons are, each one involves a different set of muscles, or rather the same muscle, like an awl biting into wood—going deeper and deeper around the same area—each time one level deeper.
You have built a reputation for shooting very few takes and for cutting in the camera, which seems to be kind of a lost art: when you and I were starting out it seems like a lot of people made pictures that way.
Oh, yeah. Ford worked that way; Orson worked that way.
How did you learn that technique, and have you had trouble with it over the years?
I learned to really push my training—coming from the theatre and live TV: you are forced by their nature to make the dramatic selection in advance. In other words, for better or worse, I can make do: this is what this movie is about. And I literally cannot see it four different ways. [William] Wyler’s extraordinary habit shooting a master from four different walls and all the subsequent coverage from those masters—I wouldn’t know where to put the camera after I’ve done my first master. Now, that’s got its advantages and its disadvantages, but the process of making the dramatic selection in advance is just part of my background. Then, you know, people always say, “Oh, you’re so speedy”; if you add the rehearsal time to my shooting days, it’s not so speedy.
How many days do you rehearse usually?
It depends on the complexity of the material. Murder on the Orient Express , not a very complex picture in terms of relationships and so on, one week. Most pictures, two weeks. The Verdict  and Dog Day Afternoon , three weeks each. Long Day’s Journey into Night , four weeks. So, when you start adding that, all of a sudden the thirty-two-day or thirty-four-day shooting schedule is no longer so miraculous. I just don’t have to stop and have those discussions on set—I’ve had them in rehearsal. Again, out of that, I’ve found—and I think it’s generally true—that most really first-rate actors are at their best in the first four takes. I mean, there’ve been times, obviously, when I’ve gone a hell of a lot longer than that. Because there’s always that one shot in every movie where for some reason it doesn’t go right and all of a sudden you are up to take eighteen and you don’t know why and it drives you crazy. The door slams, or the plane, or what have you: a hair in the [camera] gate, and suddenly it’s eighteen takes. I remember it happened once with Katie Hepburn on Long Day’s Journey into Night. She was marvelous but we had problems of one sort or another in the first four takes and it took fourteen more takes for her to fill up again. She’d empty out and there was no way she was going to fill up except by gently starting to do it over and over and over again until the tank filled up with gas again.
Yes, that’s been my experience too. I’m not as secure sometimes and I go on longer.
But I hear this thing of: “Oh, here he is, a perfectionist,” and they go thirty-two takes. You know what I honestly think? They don’t know what the fuck they want, and they’re just waiting to see it. Maybe they can recognize it when it happens. But they don’t know what they want and finally, around take thirty-one, that’s it.
How would you now describe picture making?
I think it’s like making a mosaic. You take each little tile and polish and color it, and you just do the best you can on each little individual tile and it’s not until you’ve literally glued them all together that you know whether or not you’ve got something. Those of us who have had good work can admit the truth, which is: good work is an accident. That’s not being falsely modest, there’s a reason that the accidents are going to happen to some of us and will never happen to other people: we’ve got some sort of knowledge, or instinct, of how to prepare the ground for the accident to happen. Because some people work in a way that they shortcut any chance of the accident happening.
Is there a particular movie you’re still dying to make?
Yeah, still hope to make… I don’t know anymore—because it’s a very peculiar place out there now. For many years I had the Kazantzakis novel The Last Temptation of Christ under option. That was one I’d always intended to do. I was so glad that Marty [Scorsese] finally did it  because: can you imagine what would have happened if a Jew had done that movie? It would have been unbelievable. They picketed [Lew] Wasserman’s house, for Christ’s sake, and all he did was put up the money for it. If it hadn’t been a Catholic like Marty doing that movie—if I had done that movie—I think possibly we would have had the first pogrom in American history. Then, of course, there are the impossible dreams: I mean, wouldn’t you love to redo [Stendhal’s novel] The Red and the Black [shot in 1954; Claude Autant-Lara]? It was done with Gérard Philipe—who could not have been more perfect—but I didn’t think the picture was terrific. I would love to do The Red and the Black.
How do you see the current climate for pictures?
When the bigger corporations started buying out movie companies, I wasn’t horrified and upset the way a lot of people were. Because to me, one of the things that was always missing on the managerial level with the studios was any sense of continuity. When Adolph Zukor had first had Famous Players, which became Paramount, the guy was just thrilled getting what he could get: it was “take-the-money-and-run” department because it was just so out of anyone’s imagination that life could be like this. One could have money and power and be in what has turned out to be the most glamorous work of the twentieth century. And I thought, well, when Sony comes in, when Matsushita comes in, then by God they’re gonna think about who’s going to follow them; they’re going to realize we’re around for a while. The old guys—Zukor, Mayer, all of them—could never think like that because it was all too miraculous. It had to be fly-by-night. The sense of permanence that I thought would happen would give everybody a relaxed attitude; I thought, therefore, that experimentation would be open, pictures would be more open. I figured, even General Motors turns out a low-priced car and a high-priced car. But it’s just the reverse. What’s happened, it seems to me, is that people are twice as scared, I guess because now you can really get rich being an executive. So, maybe that’s what’s got to do with the fear; maybe the fact that people are still awed by the fact that, after armaments, I believe entertainment is the second greatest factor in the balance-of-payments economy of the United States. And so, instead of this being a liberating influence, it’s become an inhibiting influence. When you combine that kind of shock with the increasing dominance of television—whether cable, free, what-have-you—I think we’re in a terrible morass and sinking all the time. If you look back over the years and examine what’s wound up as the five best pictures of the year, as far as the Academy is concerned, it’s really rather startling. If anybody ever looked at that 1939 list of Academy Award nominations—the world pales beside it.
Of course, we have to be fair because, also in those days, Metro just by itself was turning out fifty or sixty pictures a year. I think Hollywood was turning out over five hundred pictures a year in the late thirties, forties—it was an enormous amount—so that meant there was a lot of crap around too. But at least it was crap on a move-upward scale; by that I mean “B” writers and directors moved to “A” writing and directing. There was a food-chain present, a purpose being served. I don’t see that happening now. I may be wrong. But when you look at the first pictures Billy Wilder worked on when he came to Hollywood, or Joe Mankiewicz or Herman Mankiewicz for that matter, you see this steady move up as they either learned their craft, or, if they knew their craft before they came, got the opportunities over a period of time. They were not necessarily measured by flop or hit because that much product was needed—they were under contract—bang! they kept turning it out.
Didn’t it start to fall apart when the studio system collapsed?
Orson said when the old studios were each making fifty to sixty movies a year, there was room for one Orson Welles movie. Since today they don’t make nearly as many, there’s no room for that.
And the room, as you know, is becoming narrower and narrower. There’s supposedly a big burst of independence now and we’ll see. But you and I have seen this before—we’ve seen long periods when there’ve been a lot of independents around. Just about ten years ago, Dino [De Laurentiis] was operating, and Lorimar and Nelson. Umpteen companies were trying to become majors and they all disappeared. But you would think that with all the safety nets which the ancillary rights offer—free TV, pay TV and videocassette and so on—that it would be very hard to lose up to ten million bucks. Maybe I feel this way because I’m unemployed—I don’t know—but I can make a very good movie for ten million dollars. And that’s the number that scares them more than anything.
Why, do you think?
I can’t figure it out. Listen, they’re not fools. Maybe they’re right. My feeling is that the slow collapse of United Artists into Orion, and then afterward the slow deterioration as Orion wound down, is symbolic to me of the loss of independence and a kind of quality. Not that they were the only ones who were doing it—I don’t mean to imply that—but as a studio it seemed to me that they were based on a very sound premise as a financing and a distributing entity and, listen, they went under and what can I tell you, Columbia Pictures still exists.
Is there any advice you have for the up-and-coming?
Yeah. Slow up. One of the big things I’ve learned is not to give advice.
12 SILENT MEN
“Alfred Hitchcock was an advocate of visual storytelling. ‘Pure cinema’ is what he called it. He wasn’t keen on movies that relied heavily on dialogue: Hitchcock cheekily referred to them as ‘photographs of people talking.’ Would the Master of Suspense have liked 12 Angry Men then? Sidney Lumet’s classic is a very talky talkie: a courtroom drama, that most garrulous of movie genres. But Lumet proves to be a visually gifted director. When it comes to staging this long jury deliberation, his blocking is inspired and makes the power plays crystal clear. In this chatty feature film, a silent short is hiding. We isolated the shots in which no character is talking: the quiet lulls in the stormy debate and the wordless reaction shots. We fashioned these silent shots into a six minute montage, adding only music and non-verbal sounds from the film. No dialogue. (Well, almost none. You’ll hear). Is the story arc still comprehensible? Can you still sense the tension and the power struggles between the twelve jurors? Judge for yourself.” Please visit filmscalpel.com for detailed credits.
A LESSON IN STAGING
“So, let’s say you’ve got a 90-minute movie that features twelve characters and is all set in one location. How on earth can you shoot it in a way that’s unique and exciting, and not just an endless series of mids and closeups? Let’s dive into Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and study what it has to tell us about scenic density.” —The Royal Ocean Film Society
VISUAL HISTORY WITH SIDNEY LUMET
Sidney Lumet discusses his directing style developed over 50 years of filmmaking including such noteworthy films as 12 Angry Men (1957), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). Interviewed by Marc Levin.
Commentary by Film Historian Drew Casper.
In his three-hour Archive interview, Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) speaks of his work as an actor on the stage before he became a director in television. He recalls his work on the television series Danger (1950-55) and You Are There (1953-57), both “live” dramatic shows of the time. He discusses the use of blacklisted writers on these shows and how the material they wrote often reflected the era of McCarthyism. He also discusses other television dramatic anthology series he directed, including Omnibus, Goodyear Playhouse, The Alcoa Hour, Studio One and Kraft Television Theatre. He describes his direction of the well-known television special The Sacco-Vanzetti Story and The Play of the Week: The Iceman Cometh, both of which aired in 1960. He speaks of his transition to a feature film director with 12 Angry Men in 1957 and his work on such other feature films as the Paddy Chayefsky’s satire, Network (1976). Dr. Ralph Engleman conducted the interview on October 28, 1999 in New York, NY.
This is a compilation of interviews conducted with Sidney Lumet throughout his carrer, where he talks about the art of directing, his beginnings and films.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Photographed by Muky © Orion-Nova Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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