By Parrish Stikeleather
I sent the script first to Philip, one of the finest actors in the country, and I gave him the choice to play either brother: Hank or Andy. Then I sent it to Ethan. And Ethan said he wanted to play Hank. I was surprised, because Hank is a weak character, and most actors are afraid of that. But Ethan had this image of how to activate a weak man. He’s always in motion. I preferred Andy to be older, to be the influence on Hank, pushing him. So I called Philip back, and he said, “Great.” That simple. Marisa Tomei was my first choice to play Andy’s wife, who’s cheating on him with Hank. Marisa is wonderful after that sex scene, when sadness overwhelms her. I love that moment. I also love it when Albert Finney, as the father, walks down the hospital corridor at the end. There’s another scene in the script after that with Ethan and Marisa, but I didn’t use it. I knew the movie was over when Albert walked out. It doesn’t matter what happens after. Let the audience wonder.
Sidney Lumet has famously said, “In drama, the characters should determine the story. In melodrama, the story determines the characters.” Many filmmakers and writers would see this as a negative, but as Lumet has proven over the course of his fifty-year career—ending with the gritty, all-too-real Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead—there is something to be appreciated and learned from the often neglected genre of melodrama. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Lumet admits his first meeting with the two leads—played brilliantly by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke—that he warned them he may, at some point, “ask them to do something that seems forced… but it is because in melodrama when you need an act two curtain, you need an act two curtain. It is part of being honest to the form, to the genre.”
Masterfully written by Kelly Masterson (and his first screenwriting credit at that), the script made its way through the hands of various producers and directors in Hollywood before arriving one day in the mail, in an envelope, addressed to Sidney Lumet. Lumet loved it upon the first read and didn’t waste a moment. They were off making the film.
The opening scene shows a man and woman having sex, and in the hands of a lesser director it may have become something of a gratuitous trick to get the audience’s attention. Of course, it does gain one’s attention quickly upon first viewing, but not for the reason most might think. This scene reveals a character who is desperate, primal, and longing to achieve a permanent state of happiness. A man looking for a way to have it all, and control it all. Hoffman’s character of Andy, from the beginning, is plotting a way to move to Brazil with his wife so they can live every day as if it were that opening scene: pure ecstasy with not a worry in the world.
The casting of the film consists almost entirely of theater actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Amy Ryan, Michael Shannon, Rosemary Harris, and Bryan F. O’Byrne. Lumet, who is well known for his rehearsal periods before filming, gathered the cast two weeks prior to principal photography and ran through every scene. By the end of the two weeks, the cast had run through the film in its entirety from beginning to end, just as if it was a play. Lumet believed the rehearsal process allowed him to see how each individual actor worked so he could cater his directing to their style. Although cinema is often considered a director’s medium, and it very much is, Lumet approached his craft with the actors at the top of his list. He was there for them, not the other way around. Of course this method, along with his incredible oeuvre, made him a dream collaborator for any working actor. Philip Seymour Hoffman said of the prolific director in the DVD behind-the-scenes documentary, “If you didn’t know he made it, you would think a thirty-year-old man made this movie.” Sidney Lumet was 82-years-old when he directed what would end up being his last film. Over the span of a 50+ year career, Lumet directed 43 feature films, and this is not including his many TV shows and TV movies. It is incredible to think that the man who made this film also made 12 Angry Men, his first feature film, back in 1957. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is honest, tragic, heightened, and holds nothing back. When most filmmakers would be resting upon their laurels, Lumet was making what is arguably the most daring film of his career. Shot on digital—when the digital revolution was only beginning—the film showcases a master using everything he has learned yet not shying away for a moment from experimentation.
The film is told through each character’s perspective all centered around the days leading up to, and the day of, a robbery. The robbery is promised to be simple and small, a mom & pop operation. This is the case Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) makes to his younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), when trying to get him in on the job. It is only after Hank finally agrees that Andy tells him exactly which mom & pop jewelry store they will be robbing: their own parents’. The robbery is the second scene in the film and plays out in real time. The angles are stark, nothing stylized. It is almost as if we are watching security camera footage of the event but seen through the eyes of a master. Each shot is nuanced and specific, yet never distracting. An elderly woman opens the shop, alone, when she is followed in by a masked man with a gun. As with any tragedy, things go from bad to worse. What was meant to be a simple robbery ends in bloodshed as both the woman and the thief exchange gunfire. This is where it goes to worse. There were supposed to be no guns involved in the first place, the woman injured was supposed to be one of their employers, but since she couldn’t make it to work that day the mother filled in. What began as a simple mom & pop operation all ended with the thief lying dead—the thief that Hank recruited to assist him in the robbery without consulting with Andy—and their mother rushed to the hospital with severe gunshot wounds. All in a desperate attempt to get some extra cash to make better lives for themselves. Again, this being a tragedy, the mother does not make it. The father, played with great force by Albert Finney, makes the final decision to take her off of life support. Hank and Andy are shattered. They never saw this coming. Now they are left with guilt, no money, and a terrible secret to keep from their father.
The film portrays human characters who are desperate to escape the stresses of life. In a way, the film is about those who experience a self-fulfilling prophecy. The constant greed, lust, envy, and attempts at making things right all build to a point of no turning back. The girlfriend of the now-dead thief—the third guy who Hank hired to help in the robbery and ended up being shot to death—shows up with her brother (Michael Shannon) to convince Hank to give her ten-thousand dollars to help take care of her and her child. Hank used to want the money… now he needs it. With no ideas of what to do he calls his brother to ask for help. He tells Andy over the phone, whose wife just left him, the predicament he is in. Andy reassures him they will figure something out. A common theme which is threaded throughout the film: don’t worry about it now… we’ll figure something out later. Any way to put off future thinking to indulge in present pleasures. A simple and easy way to escape the worries and demands of the world. Andy and Hank visit a high-end drug dealer who personally shoots heroin into his patients as they lie on the bed in his penthouse apartment. Hank sees a side of his brother he did not know was there when Andy clubs the dealer in the face with a gun upon entry. Hank follows Andy to the back bedroom where a man is lying, passed out and high, on the bed. Not wanting to risk any witnesses, Andy silences the gun with a pillow and with genuine hesitation but pre-determined will he pulls the trigger. Andy kills an innocent man and this spins Hank into a state of shock. Andy has crossed a threshold of which there is no turning back. With nothing else to be done, Hank helps Andy fill a duffel bag full of cash. The cash, again, to help settle all of their worries and troubles. After the exchange of the money goes awry when Andy pulls a gun on Shannon’s character, he ends up in the hospital on life support. Just like his mother. Hank gets away, but in the meantime their father (Albert Finney) has discovered the truth behind his wife’s demise: his own son was behind it all. In the final scene of the film, Andy is killed by his father.
With a harrowing score by the masterful Carter Burwell, the music gives the film a true sense of dread. We know things will not end well and the score affirms it. Burwell, however, was not the first choice for composing the score for the film. Another composer had created a score for the entire film for Lumet to only then realize it just wasn’t working. Burwell says of the director, “I had never met Sidney Lumet before he contacted me about replacing the score to this film. Sidney felt that the original score (which I haven’t heard) wasn’t working and that the music needed to tell the audience more about the characters.” He added that he, “almost always prefer(s) to underplay a film rather than overplay, but in this case, Sidney felt we should not shy about the ‘melodrama’ and so the score sounds a bit overwrought at first—at least to me.” The final effect the music has in the film could not be further from “overwrought”. Together, Burwell and Lumet pushed the score to a place that met the characters exactly where they were.
Cinematographer Ron Fortunato, who had previously worked with Lumet on Find Me Guilty, lensed the film. He and Lumet shot with two High-Def cameras. Only a little over a decade later and there are several shots that reveal the arguably primitive nature of early digital cameras. One thinks specifically of a shot of Ethan Hawke sitting in his car once he realizes the robbery has gone awry. The background is completely blown out. This is not to say the cinematography is lesser because they chose to shoot digitally. In fact, the opposite is true. There is a grittiness to the image where digital is often scolded for being too sleek. The lighting and camerawork are subtle, as only Lumet knows how to do it. There are several Oners in the film and you would not know it upon first viewing. Somehow Lumet manages to use every camera trick in the book but all we can pay attention to are his actors. It only makes sense with his roots being in theater. He is an actor’s director through and through. Fortunately for us, the cinematography does not take a backseat.
The one moment of the film that is visually jarring, and indeed completely intentional, is when Andy is sitting at a picnic table in the backyard talking to this father. They sit on the same bench, but faced opposite directions: the father with his elbows resting on the table, and Andy with his back up against it. The camera frames Finney on the right side of the screen for his coverage, and one would expect Hoffman to be framed on the left. However, Lumet and Fortunato understand the depth of the scene and the relationship of these characters all too well to stick with traditional coverage. Lumet cuts to Hoffman’s coverage but crossing the 180-degree line completely. Hoffman and Finney end up being framed on the exact same side of the screen, with the other in the same spot in the background for their respective coverage. This furthers, visually, the idea that Andy and his father are one and the same. Like father, like son. This prepares us for the final scene which fittingly mirrors the first in the most opposite of ways. Andy experiencing life, and Andy experiencing death. He suffers at the hands of his father, the man who quietly passed on the genes of unsurfaced violence. It is the story of the son becoming the father, yet we don’t know until the end where the son got it all from. How was Andy capable of this? Where did this violence come from? It was harbored, the same way his father before him harbored it, until the moment it needed to be used.
Parrish Stikeleather is a writer, director, and actor from Wilmington, North Carolina. His films have been featured on Booooooom, Film Shortage, and Cinephilia & Beyond. As a lifelong fan of movies he enjoys writing about the films he loves when he is not making his own.
Raise the stakes. I don’t mean, put the hero in more jeopardy or add a ticking clock. I mean dig deeper—make it more personal and more emotionally significant. Get right into the guts of the characters. While I often try to pull my characters in two or more directions, I think Sidney’s contribution took my material into richer psychological territory. This gave the wonderful actors great stuff to work with in which the emotional stakes were very high. When I am working on projects now, I ask myself the question: how do I get further into this character and really rock him? —Kelly Masterson
Screenwriter must-read: Kelly Masterson’s screenplay for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
‘BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD’ PRESS KIT
“I read the script and I was enchanted,” Lumet recalls. “I thought it was a wonderful story. There’s nothing like good melodrama, and the continual surprises in the script just bowled me over.” Lumet’s appreciation for melodrama is unique. The genre could be perceived as old-fashioned and exaggerated at a time when “reality” is an important (and highly marketable) concept. But Lumet understands that melodrama is a classic form of storytelling. “Melodrama has very wide range,” he explains. “The story asks the viewer to suspend disbelief and to accept more and more outrageous circumstances and behavior. In a really remarkable melodrama, the events of the story unfold quickly and without warning. Time is short and the pressure cooker is really cooking. There is no time to give the character a background or to deal with his past. The storytelling is fast, lean, and aggressive. Anything that does not advance the story is unimportant.” Even writer Kelly Masterson’s title, which is taken from an old Irish toast which says “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” suggests urgency and potential consequences for catastrophe. “In most dramas,” Lumet continues, “the story has to come out of the characters: this is such-and-such kind of person, and therefore this is the inevitable result. In a melodrama, it’s the exact reverse. The characters have to adjust to the demands of the story and justify their actions.”
Another point Lumet makes is that characters in melodramas are rarely familiar—or heroic—types. They can be unsympathetic, or even downright despicable. But that does not prevent audiences from responding to them. “Hannibal Lecter changed everything,” he observes. “Who of us has known someone who eats other people? How is it possible that a character says, ‘I’m having someone for dinner,’ and the audience roars with laughter, knowing that he’s going to eat them.” Similarly, there are no conventional heroes in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Circumstances bring out the worst in each member of the family. At virtually every opportunity, they make the worst possible choices and act in ways that surprise and horrify even themselves. It is the actors’ challenge to make this unlikable behavior, however extreme, believable.
In thinking about a cast to inhabit this provocative story, Lumet placed Philip Seymour Hoffman at the top of his list. “I think Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors in America today,” he says. Recognizing Hoffman’s incredible breadth of talent, Lumet decided against the obvious choice of casting him in the role of Hank, the weaker brother. Instead, Lumet played against type and cast Ethan Hawke as Hank and Hoffman as Andy, the misguided mastermind of the crime. In fact, these consummate actors could have played either role and done it well. But Lumet wanted to introduce an element of surprise to his melodrama.
Lumet was impressed by all of his cast members and was confidant they would convince the audience to suspend disbelief and surrender to the extreme, almost operatic world of the story. “The first day of rehearsal was enormously exciting because I had never worked with any of the people before, except Albert Finney on Murder on the Orient Express many years ago. I’d never worked with Marisa Tomei, or Ethan Hawke, or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but immediately it was apparent that the level of talent was very high.” He found Marisa Tomei to be “an enchanting actress. There are no two takes that are alike with her and all of them are real,” he praises. Lumet was also happy to reunite with Albert Finney. “Working with Albert again after all this time was so moving to both of us,” he says. “Even then, when he was at the height of his popularity, the sex object of the world, he was playing a man 20 years older than himself, so hidden behind makeup and hair that you wouldn’t have recognized him.”
Lumet’s vision for his cast extended to the film’s supporting players and extras. Ethan Hawke points out that the finest stage actors in the world (which, in this case, includes Oscar-nominee Rosemary Harris and Tony award-winner Brian F. O’Byrne) are eager to work with Lumet, even for a couple of days. “One of the great things about working with him is that you end up acting with these people every day,” he says. Lumet’s actors also talk about his ability to focus their attention and sharpen their motivation. In private moments, often delivered with great affection, “He grabs your shoulder, your face, your hand. He wants his connection close and wants you to know that he’s on your side,” says Hoffman. “He doesn’t play the withholding father type. He’s direct, he’s honest, and he’s supportive.”
Lumet has great respect for the acting process. Much like the theater, all of his films begin with extended rehearsals. It is an intense two-week process, from read-through to walk-through, including discussions and blocking on taped sets. The actors start at the beginning and go all the way through the entire film, just like a play. They work with furniture and props, and it is a learning process for everyone. Rehearsal is sacred to Lumet and his actors and he refuses to be interrupted. “The nice thing about a long rehearsal process was that we got to know all our key collaborators before we arrived on the set,” says Ethan Hawke. “We had an opportunity to make many of the creative decisions before we started filming.” Preparation is the key to Lumet’s famously smooth and efficient productions.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was shot during the summer of 2006. Filming began in New York City and moved to Bayside, Queens, White Plains, Yonkers and other locations in and around Manhattan, before settling at Hell Gate Studios in Astoria, Queens for the second half of principal photography. Lumet’s crews are always impressed by the clarity with which he makes decisions and the speed at which he shoots. One grip recalls that Lumet asked for his camera and lights to be installed in the exact spots he’d originally chosen weeks before on a location scout, when, unbeknownst to their director, assistants had placed tiny marks on the ground. Three-time Academy Award-winning sound mixer Chris Newman first worked with Lumet on the 1983 movie Daniel, a 1950s period piece starring Timothy Hutton. He remembers that Lumet shot a six-camera set up with 10,000 extras, moved the company, dressed 3,000 extras for the next scene, and shot it with three cameras, all before lunch. This is standard operating procedure for Sidney Lumet.
“Everyone is amazed at how fast Sidney moves. It creates a tempo on the set that is electric,” explains Ethan Hawke. “It amps up everybody’s nerves, particularly the performers. I like it. It takes a couple of days to get used to it. But, eventually, you know that if you have three takes in this movie, something’s wrong.” Phillip Seymour Hoffman had no trouble adjusting to Lumet’s pace. “Once you understand his rhythm, you’re in it,” he says. “It doesn’t seem crazy; it doesn’t seem too fast. Somehow, you never feel rushed. You know that when you’re here, you’re going to shoot.” Albert Finney adds, “I worked with him 32 years ago. He shoots just as fast now as he did then. He’s still the same.”
Lumet’s turbo-charged production necessitated 24 hour-a-day construction crews to keep up with the rapid set changes. Production designer Chris Nowak designed interior sets for the jewelry store, Andy’s office, and apartments for Andy, Hank, his ex-wife and daughter, and Bobby, the thief whose actions set the plot in motion. The largest set was Mooney’s Pub, the upscale restaurant and bar where a number of important scenes take place. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was shot by Ron Fortunato, who also worked with Lumet on Find Me Guilty, Strip Search, and multiple episodes of 100 Centre Street.
Lumet’s film is knowingly misanthropic. “You can see this is a disconnected clan and because of that disconnection, these brothers feel that they can get away with this terrible crime,” says Hoffman. “What will it matter? Their parents are not going to care. The insurance will take care of it. They won’t be hurt… until their not-so-carefully laid plans fall apart. For all its craziness and intensity, this story is actually very believable. From what I read in the news and witness in the world, there are crazy families everywhere, pitting brother against brother, and father against son. Tragic, but it happens a lot.” —Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead press kit
The making of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
One of the last interviews with the late great director. This interview, written by Brad Balfour, first appeared in PopEntertainment.com (July 25, 2011).
How well rehearsed were the actors for this film? Did you do a lot of takes for the more challenging scenes? Or was it just straight ahead, one or two takes?
We’re very thorough in rehearsal. We do everything. In fact, before the rehearsal ends, we do a run-through from top to bottom—fights, anything, everything. The scripts are out of their hands. It’s a very thorough preparation. I’m a big believer in it.
From start to finish?
Start to finish. Everything is covered every day, because first of all, it’s the only time they can do it in sequence. They’ll never get it in sequence again. Second of all, when you’re going to ask for this level of intensity, you’re not going to get it if they’re insecure in any way. If they’re tight, the rehearsal just relaxes them completely because they get to know what they’re doing. It’s that that allows all of the emotion to come jumping out and springing to the fore. Yeah, I find it invaluable.
Why did you think of Marisa Tomei for Gina—the wife of Phil Hoffman’s character?
I fell in love with her in My Cousin Vinny and it hasn’t abated a bit. A superb actress. When I met her after My Cousin Vinny, I couldn’t believe it, because I thought she was that. Every once in a while you see a performance and say well, the director went out and got a nonprofessional, and I thought that was true of Marisa. I thought it was true of Tim Robbins in Bull Durham, and I thought, my God, they went out and got themselves a real cracker. So I loved her work from that and some subsequent work. Also—this is very important for a picture like this—if you know my pictures, I don’t do sex scenes. I don’t do sex scenes because I don’t believe them. Only one picture I ever believed in [doing it], and there was a reason I believed, but I knew I was going to have to have it in this, that opening scene. It was very important that both actors be relaxed about it, because if they weren’t then it would be like any other sex scene, the ones I don’t believe. And I knew that Marisa just is totally uninhibited. She’s not an exhibitionist by any means, but it’s just another part of acting for her. And I’m sure that Philip is not used to it because he’s not the conventional leading man. When we were blocking—this is during rehearsal, after we’d finished three days around the table talking and so on—then we got up on our feet, we started to stage it just like you would in the theater. So that’s the first scene, the first one we get to, and there’s a set laid out on the floor and a bed. Marisa, bless her, she hops onto the bed. I wrote out the description very carefully, because there are instances of actors saying, “Oh I didn’t know I was going to have to get undressed,” and by union regulations you cannot make them. I wrote it out in great detail so that they couldn’t say they didn’t know. So Marisa hops onto the bed, gets up on her knees and on her elbows and slaps her ass and says, “Let’s go, Phil!” It was so great because it not only put it in its proper place—which is part of the movie, part of a performance—but for Philip, that must have been such a release and such a relief that there was nothing competitive or what-have-you.
That took all the stress out of it.
Absolutely. I was thrilled with her. I was thrilled with her.
How do you bring that essence out of an actor?
It varies picture by picture. Another big variable in it is that some actors are in themselves closer to the roles they’re playing and some actors are farther away. Here, the most important thing there was to work on was the intensity, because like all good melodramas the story is completely unbelievable. The only thing that’s going to create a belief is if the intensity of performance is so high that your audience can’t deny it, that you’re sucked in completely. So for these actors it was a question of getting up onto a high enough pitch in the inner life of the performance.
You worked with Albert Finney (who plays the father) in Murder on the Orient Express 33 years ago. Did you talk about the differences and similarities of working with him back then and working with him now?
Never. I don’t even see my old movies, an “old movie” is anything I did last. When this round is over with and the premieres that I have to go to, and so on, I won’t see this again. Next Wednesday is the last time I’m going to see this movie.
You’ve shot all your movies with multiple cameras. This one seemed to be very much a stationary camera looking into these lives. Was this something very conscious that you wanted to do or something very different from your older movies?
I never think of the camera work as separated from the picture itself. One of the reasons I love high def—I think in high def—is because multi-camera has become much simpler. For me that takes me right back to my origins, that takes me right back to live TV, because there I’d be using as many as six cameras. So it was a terrific pleasure. I love high def anyway; I’ve worked in nothing else for the last five years.
What was similar or different about making this film?
The multi-camera use. For instance, in two scenes, there’s one camera there. There’s one camera there. This camera’s covering him. This camera’s covering him. Look, you can get anything you want to in normal film, I realize that; it’s a question of the effort. Take a scene like where Ethan and Philip are ripping off the dope dealer’s place and Philip has just shot that stranger lying there in the bed and he’s rifling stuff in the closet, and Ethan is just standing there petrified—this tension begins between them. “Did you touch anything?” “What?” “Did you touch anything!” I guess I could have gotten that with individual cameras, first one side, then the other, but two things: it would have taken me all day to build up to that level of intensity, number one; and number two, I still don’t think they ever would have been able to seem like they were working out of each other so completely. Each one of them was in perfect reaction to what the other person was doing because they were doing it together at the same time. All pieces of work you kind of keep hoping for the good accident and it happened when Philip stuck his head out and he said, “Okay, are we good?” Now that wasn’t in the script. Extraordinary line, extraordinary reaction. Also from a character point of view, because for the first time, the only time in the movie, Philip is the insecure one and Ethan is the secure one. That inversion is just so humanizing to those two characters. A complete accident and I think it only could have happened if both of them were being recorded at the same time. If that had happened on Philip’s side and he’d thrown that in and then two hours later I’d turned around and gotten Ethan’s side, I don’t think he ever would have gotten to that reaction.
That’s a fascinating perspective that only a good director would have. You actually wrote a draft of the film. You didn’t take a writing credit?
No. I would have loved one, but those things are decided by the Writer’s Guild. I don’t know what they use as judgment, but they are very suspicious—and rightly so—of directors who put their names on as writers as well. Because the normal amount that I do on a script I wouldn’t think of asking for a credit for. The writer may have written “the battle happens and the North wins,” and then the director, because he’ll stage the battle, he’ll ask for a writing credit—and I don’t think he should get it.
How hard was it to get this one made?
I don’t know. It’s a peculiar time in movies now because there’s so much private financing in it, and I don’t know what Michael [Cerenzie, the producer] had when he sent me the script. I don’t know how much money he had lined up, and when the last of it clicked into place.
With a small movie like this, Oscars are a different game now; it’s changed a lot. Now you have to campaign for them.You’ve had so many Oscar-nominated and award-winning movies. How important are awards to movies like this?
I have no idea. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle. I don’t think you can ever figure on it. I don’t aim anything for it. The reason it’s all so much more a sales job now, and ads and this that and the other—in the old days when you were working at 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck sent you a note saying, “Vote for this picture.” Literally… So your vote was decided for you.
How would they know what you’d voted for?
It’s amazing that you’ve made nearly 50 movies in your 83 years. This movie is so great—and to come out at this time in your life. Will you continuing making movies after this?
I hope so. With a little luck, with a little help from my friends, yeah.
Filmmaker Sidney Lumet joins actors Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman to present their new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (11/30/2007).
Jeffrey Gurian of Comedy Matters TV, in rare footage, interviews the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the late Sidney Lumet, Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke, about their film Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.
RON FORTUNATO, ASC
Ron Fortunato began working with director Sidney Lumet as the cinematographer on the television series, 100 Centre Street. They have since teamed on Lumet’s Strip Search for HBO, and the films, Rachel, quand du seigneur, and the critically acclaimed Find Me Guilty, starring Vin Diesel. Mr. Fortunato’s first film as cinematographer was the 1992 production of Fathers & Sons starring Jeff Goldblum. Among his subsequent films are Nil by Mouth, Basquiat and Mac. His most recent film release is the taut drama set in Apartheid era South Africa, Catch A Fire. His other television credits include the pilots for Brotherhood and Wonderland.
Cinematographer Ron Fortunato says Lumet was his hero in film school.
“We worshiped him. Over 20 years ago, I sent him my commercial reel. It was ridiculous that he would have considered me,” Fortunato recalls. “Then, in 2000, I was doing a panel for the French/American Film Festival in New York with Steven Poster,” he recalls. “One of the questions was, ‘What director would you most want to work with and why?’ I said my dream was to work with Sidney Lumet. After the panel we were walking across 57th street to a restaurant and my cell phone rang. ‘This is Lily from Sidney Lumet’s office.’ I think I said something like, ‘Oh, come on. Very funny.’ I thought it was a joke. [I said,] ‘Call me back tomorrow, I am a little busy.’ She called the next day. It was really him.” “These days, directors see more than one person. They usually have a stack of reels on the desk. Sidney had nothing but time,” Fortunato says. “He asked a few semi-personal questions. By the end of the interview he said, ‘Let’s make it work’. And we started the ground breaking 100 Centre Street.” “Struggle was the word for it,” Fortunato recalls. “In Before the Devil Knows Your Dead there is a scene where Albert Finney was at the end of a very long table. Sidney wanted a very slow push-in and close-up on the face, as Albert decides to pull the plug. He suggested we put an operator on a blanket and pull him across the table. “I looked at my grip and made a ‘T’ sign,” he laughs. “Sidney was pissed off. ‘What the f–k is this?’ I crossed my fingers and said ‘Sidney, you’re going to love it.’ If it didn’t work, I would never hear the end of it. When we had to do Ethan Hawke’s shot, we swung the camera across the table and that was it. We rolled. He was sold. If it made it more expedient, Sidney loved it.” —My Best Friend, The Camera
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 Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Photographed by Will Hart © Capitol Films, Funky Buddha Productions, Unity Productions, Linsefilm, Michael Cerenzie Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or donate directly below: