By Koraljka Suton
Once it opened, everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, what a brilliant satire.’ But Paddy and I always said, ‘This isn’t satire, it’s sheer reportage.’ We were both brought up in television, so we knew what we were dealing with. But I’ve got to tell you—I don’t think I’ve seen it in 20 years (I don’t usually like to look at my work)—I’m stunned at how prescient it is. A lot of what was hilarious 25 years ago got no laughter tonight because it has all come true. So it hits you with a kind of impact that was not originally intended. —Sidney Lumet
“Stop thinking of writing as art. Think of it as work. If you’re an artist, whatever you do is going to be art. If you’re not an artist, at least you can do a good day’s work.” These were the words of renowned American screenwriter and playwright Paddy Chayefsky (born Sidney Aaron Chayefsky) who rose to prominence during the first Golden Age of Television and who would become the only person to win three Academy Awards for best screenplay, both original and adapted, without the help of a co-writer. Chayefsky was, without a doubt, a true artist. But in his case, artistry and hard work went hand in hand, for it was ultimately his inspired, passion-fueled work ethic that enabled him to craft screenplays such as those for Marty (1955), The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976), earning him the aforementioned accolades. And when it came to Network, what provided Chayefsky with the fuel he needed to sink his teeth into a topic not easily swallowed and to write with such wit, precision and nuance was his ongoing frustration with what television had turned into after the Golden Age of Television reached its end by the year 1960. In 1968, he began writing a pilot for a comedic show he entitled The Imposters or There’s No Business, about a group of radicals that infiltrates a television network for the purpose of sabotaging it internally. A script note read: “We are not dealing with a human institution. We are dealing with an enormous profit-making machine.” Sadly, the series never got made. The rage Chayefsky felt though did not go away, but rather stayed with him and built up from within. He was mad at television and at its viewers, bearing witness to how the political climate influenced the audiences’ preferences and coming to the conclusion that Americans “don’t want jolly, happy family type shows like ‘Eye Witness News’, the American people are angry and want angry shows.” In the early 1970s, he decided to channel his emotions into a screenplay for what he initially thought would be a comedy, but he ended up claiming that “the only joke we have going for us is the idea of ANGER.”
Thus, Network was born, Chayefsky and brilliant director Sidney Lumet’s dark satire that, from today’s perspective, seems more like a once gruesome prophecy that we have collectively been living for decades now. Watching Network from our modern-day viewpoint, the notion that such a truth-depicting film was ever considered a satire to begin with seems uncanny, preposterous even. Whereas in the 1970s, it was quite the opposite—the very ideas and fears that Network so uncompromisingly outlined and articulated caused quite an uproar, with the producer of The Today Show Paul Friedman saying it was “so unfair,” newscaster Edward Newman claiming that TV producers would never stoop so low for ratings, with there being evidence that suggests that “the opposite is true” and the president of CBS News stating that Network was such a caricature “it simply couldn’t happen.” But alas, happen it did and still happening it unfortunately is. The screenwriter presumably did not expect such vehement reactions from the news media and thus went on to craft an apologetic letter in which he wrote: “I never meant this film to be an attack on television as an institution in itself, but only as a metaphor for the rest of the times.”
Lumet’s movie introduces us to Howard Beale (Peter Finch), a once-popular news anchor who learns from the news division president and his friend Max Schumacher (William Holden) that he will be fired due to a decline in ratings. Beale’s response? He announces on his show that he would be killing himself on air the following week. Although he gets sacked immediately, Beale manages to convince Max to allow him to apologize and say goodbye to his viewers. But instead of doing as promised, he angrily rants about how life is bullshit. This is where the head of the programming department Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) steps in, seeing the news anchor’s rage-filled outbursts and the subsequent surge in ratings as a unique opportunity to develop an entertainment show with Beale as the central figure. And so the newly appointed “mad prophet of the airwaves” quickly becomes all the rage (pun intended) and the ratings keep skyrocketing.
Thanks to the celebrated filmmaker and five-time Academy Award nominee Sidney Lumet sitting in the director’s chair and an insanely talented cast and crew in front of and behind the camera, Network went on to set a number of precedents come Oscar night: apart from winning Chayefsky his third Oscar, it was the second film in history to have won three acting awards (Peter Finch for Best Actor, Faye Dunaway for Best Actress and Beatrice Straight for Best Supporting Actress), with Finch being the first actor to have got the Oscar posthumously (the late Heath Ledger went on to win one in the Best Supporting Actor category for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2009) and with Beatrice Straight’s performance becoming the shortest one to ever win an Academy Award, with a mere five minutes and two seconds of screen-time. Other nominations included Best Director, Best Actor (William Holden), Best Supporting Actor (Ned Beatty), Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Best Film Editing (Alan Heim) and Best Picture (Howard Gottfried). In the year 2000, the Library of Congress selected Network for preservation in the United States National Film Registry due to it being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
But the fact that Network managed to set precedents and break records is just one of the many testaments to its greatness. The entire process, from Chayefsky’s script development to pre-production and filming, could be viewed as one giant amalgamation of meticulous hard work and genuinely inspired artistry. The screenwriter had a great deal of difficulties with his script, most notably with finding a suitable enough ending, developing the central love story and clarifying the main theme. The New York Public Library got its hands on a number of notes Chayefsky made during his writing process, which undoubtedly showcases the extent and magnitude of his struggle. But without those labor pains which included concepts that just did not seem to work and characterizations that ran counter to what was seen in the final product, it would have been impossible for the screenwriter to ultimately hit the mother lode. For he first had to get all of those imperfect words and ideas out of the way, so that the brilliance that is his final draft could come into being. And if anything, Chayefsky was very attached to every single line of dialogue he had written and every single nuance he wished to capture. Being as successful as he was, he was even given final cut of the film, which in the movie-making business is nothing short of unconventional. He did not shy away from using the power he had and therefore spent a great amount of time on set, making sure that no word of written dialogue was left out during the actors’ performances and pinpointing comedic instances that Lumet did not catch. But when the time came to shoot the emotional scene between Max and his wife, Lumet, having been married four times, did not allow his friend to interfere and told him: “Paddy, please, I know more about divorce than you.” It was precisely that scene that earned Beatrice Straight her Academy Award.
Lumet was, after all, known as an “actor’s director,” spending a substantial amount of time on preparation and rehearsals, with the aim of bringing out the very best in the thespians he was working with. That is why Lumet insisted on two weeks of acting rehearsals before they started filming. He wanted his actors to have a solid enough basis in terms of how they relate to their character and the characters of their co-actors so that when the cameras were rolling, they could be free to feel out the moment and play with all the new variables and parameters that inevitably come with shooting on set. In this way, the actors could easily build on the foundation that they had previously made, making their performances truly inspired and, as it turned out, Oscar-worthy. That being said, the movie producers were not entirely on board with casting Peter Finch, fearing that he could not sound American due to him being born in England and raised partly in Australia. That is why they demanded that he auditioned and the prominent actor duly obliged. In preparation for his screen test, Finch would listen to broadcasts done by American newscasters for hours on end, then record himself reading editions of The Herald Tribune and The New York Times, followed by him listening to playbacks to hear if he had nailed it. Producer Howard Gottfried said that the actor “was nervous as hell at that first meeting over lunch and just like a kid auditioning. Once we’d heard him, Sidney Lumet, Paddy, and I were ecstatic because we knew it was a hell of a part to cast.”
Lumet had said that when choosing an actor for a role, one should always cast for the third act—meaning that what should be taken into account is the progression of a character i.e. the person they are to become during the course of the movie, as opposed to who they were at the beginning. In the case of Howard Beale, Lumet needed to cast someone who could be the mad man. And Finch proved to be the perfect choice. His bullshit speech was shot first and the following day saw the filming of the brilliant scene in which he utters the immortal line “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Because Lumet believed that Finch needed to be extremely convincing in his passion and exhaustion if he were to bring the entire nation to its feet, the director wanted to start the next take the moment the first one was finished, so he loaded up two cameras with film and that way they did not have to waste time reloading. After the first take, Lumet just told Finch that it was marvelous and immediately started with the second take. But Finch only managed to get to the line that begins with “I don’t want you to write to your congressmen because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write” before collapsing in his chair, claiming that he could go no further. And that was all she wrote. For that reason, what we see in the finished film is the first part of the second take and the second part of the first take. This also explains the solitary instance of an alteration in Chayefsky’s written text: the original line goes “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” (and is uttered as such by Beale’s viewers who scream it from their windows, as well as his live studio audience), but Finch accidentally slipped in an extra “as,” so what we hear in the movie is him yelling: “I’m AS mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Sadly, Finch died of a heart attack on January 14th, 1977 at the age of sixty.
His iconic character is the only person not telling, but rather yelling the unflattering truth and raising the viewers’ awareness in regard to how they truly feel (mad as hell… and they are not going to take this anymore), but what he is doing is merely stating the status quo, without proposing an alternative to it. And this is exactly what the puppet-masters are counting on, gleefully exploiting Beale’s inspired psychological state that constantly verges on a mental breakdown, without any regards towards his life and health. But although Beale is the character most viewers associate with the movie (he is, after all, the star of his own one-man show), his is in fact not the central story of Network. Just as Beale had become the television studio’s puppet, his character is used by Chayefsky as a device that enables the rest of the players to show their true colors and allegiances, which in turn makes the allegory the screenwriter was aiming at all the more poignant and precise. Max, on the one hand, represents honest, fact-based journalism, whereas Diana embodies the seductive pull of sensationalism on the other. He ends up falling in love with her—although repulsed by her moral code i.e. lack thereof, he can resist her neither physically nor emotionally. But their relationship is doomed to fail, for if Max is to keep his integrity intact (i.e. if the news and us, its followers, are to remain uncorrupted), he must abandon Diana and everything she stands for: “You are television incarnate, Diana, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. The daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split-seconds and instant replays. You are madness, Diana, virulent madness, and everything you touch dies with you. Well, not me. Not as long as I can still feel pleasure and pain. And love.”
Max might have ultimately saved himself, painstakingly aware of how being with a woman who lived and breathed everything that television was beginning to represent influenced the quality of his life and almost led to his emotional demise, but we as a society have not. The reason why Network managed to be eerily prognostic while ultimately becoming so unbelievably current is because the human condition remains unchanged. What still permeates our core as a species is a deep sense of loneliness and isolation (often leading to feelings of meaninglessness) which our psyches meet with a coping mechanism in the form of escapism that quickly consumes us whole. And becoming addicted to submerging ourselves into the lives of others, whether they be fictional or not, while claiming no responsibility for lives of our own in the process, is just one of the many ways in which escapism can manifest itself. With our collective core wounding remaining the same as it has always been, the only things that are susceptible to change are the vehicles that enable our escape in the first place. Whether it be television or the vast array of platforms, gadgets and toys that the Internet provided us with is irrelevant—as long as there are inner voids to fill, we will continuously strive to come up with all the more ingenious, convenient and flashy ways to try and fill them. In the words of acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who modeled certain characters in his series The Newsroom and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip after Chayefsky and his firm beliefs: “If you put it in your DVD player today you’ll feel like it was written last week. The commoditization of the news and the devaluing of truth are just a part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write ‘The Internet.’”
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
I wanted everyone, every man, woman or child to realize that they had a choice. I wanted them to know that they have the right to get angry, to get mad. They have the right to say to themselves, to each other, to the world at large, that they had worth, they had value. The speech wrote itself, because that was Beale’s battle cry for the people. —Paddy Chayefsky on Howard Beale’s “Mad as Hell” speech
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network [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.
PADDY CHAYEFSKY SPEAKS OUT
The Chayefsky script, with its crisp jargon and its fast-flowing comedy, interrupted by those arias of self-revelation and moments of heart-stopping compassion that are this writer’s hallmark, is remarkably rich in itself, as well as in comparison to the aridity of most screenwriting. And it is an obvious joy to performers rarely given an opportunity to portray such articulate characters. Peter Finch’s Howard, whose restrained madness reaches heights of glittering sanity, sustains a peculiar dignity and a deeply moving pathos. William Holden’s Max, like many Chayefsky protagonists, is in the middle-of-the-night stage of his emotional life; unlike them, he is decisive and self-aware, the man of “simple human decency” who sees and escapes self-destruction. Most glittering is Faye Dunaway’s Diana, the woman of self-styled “masculine temperament,” a driven careerist existing only in her work, unable to feel, only to “handle,” emotion, her self-absorption total. She is indeed “television incarnate,” as Max calls her, detached from unscripted living. There are persuasive performances, too, by Robert Duvall as Hackett, the ultimate corporation man, the knife—and hacksaw—at the ready in every move; Ned Beatty as the conglomerate chieftain who sees the world as “a college of corporations”; Beatrice Straight as Max’s deeply caring wife; and Marlene Warfield as the Marxist whose manifesto soon includes syndication rights and overhead clauses. —Paddy Chayefsky speaks out by Susan Horowitz, The Saturday Review, 1976
Network is about how television is obsessed by ratings, isn’t it?
Television is an advertising medium. If you’ve got a good show, you raise the price of your advertising. The top shows are paid something like $130,000 a minute, as opposed to a news program, which might get a fraction of that. If they had their way, they’d throw out the news altogether and keep putting the ‘Bionic Woman’ on.
Do you see television moving in any particular direction?
Profit orientation entirely. Most people in charge of television today still retain a sense of responsibility. They try to balance some sort of noblesse oblige with the profit motive. What happens with the next generation—no longer Brahmans of television, just profit makers? That’s what Network is all about.
That people coming up have no conscience?
They’re no longer programming people, creative people with theatrical backgrounds. They come out of advertising, sales, managing local stations. They’re totally oriented towards profits, towards ratings, which is the same thing.
Are you speaking just about television here?
We [Chayefsky and his producer, Howard Gottfried] always do microcosm films—the whole society in one institution.
Like Hospital, your film with George Scott? Wasn’t that also about the depersonalization of an institution and also a satire?
They’re satires, but there’s not one unauthentic note in either Hospital or Network. The medical journals cited Hospital as being highly realistic.
What about style? In Network you seemed to be combining realism with parody and rhythmic, almost poetic dialogue. Is there any particular reason you do this?
I just get personal, professional pleasure out of mixing a complex of styles.
It seems to be an unusual form for film. Does it grow out of your experience in theater?
Probably. You have more technical license in the theater. You can even write in verse in the theater. Gideon was totally written in verse but squeezed into block paragraphs so that the actors wouldn’t be made self-conscious by it.
Will audiences accept poetry?
It’s tough. Contemporary drama is not a language drama. Poetry has to come from the conceptions, the visual imagery. Film is the hardest on language. You have to find some device. I use insane people a lot because it allows you to be extravagant in your language, and insanity is a very contemporary theme. It’s hard to find a form of diction for the movies that most of the audience will accept as entertainment and that another layer of audience will accept as poetry. You have to make it sound as if they’re talking realistically but with an articulate reality—characters who are capable of poetic reality.
Do you expect Network ever to be shown on television?
We cut our own television version. Otherwise, they’ll butcher it. Cut a whole scene to take out one dirty word.
So your attitude toward television is suspicious?
I’m not as benign as I used to be. I don’t have much hope, but it’s still there. Television remains a medium with limitless potential. It’s really beyond comprehension. —Paddy Chayefsky Speaks Out
PADDY CHAYEFSKY: THE AGONIES OF A SCREENWRITER
“My biggest contribution is in explaining my humor to the actors,” says Chayefsky and proceeds to reenact wickedly funny sequences from The Hospital and Network, describing how he molded the actor’s delivery. “I often scare the hell out of actors,” he says. “I think I traumatized Peter Finch on Network.” In Network, Peter Finch stars as Howard Beale, a Murrowesque newsman dueling with a soulless, conglomerate-brained television network. That script introduced a battle cry that has subsequently become part of the culture: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” In one memorable scene, New Yorkers all over the city open their windows and shout that warning en masse. Social satire has never been a rarer commodity in American films than today, and Chayefsky’s Swiftian ferocity exhilarates audiences. —Paddy Chayefsky: The Agonies of a Screenwriter by Robert F. Moss, The Saturday Review, May 1981
THE NOTES BEHIND ‘NETWORK’
The screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, who died in 1981, left behind many notes on his script for Network. Credit: The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. —Notes of a Screenwriter, Mad as Hell
Thirty-five years after the release of Network, the unpublished notes of the writer Paddy Chayefsky document the angst and animus that he channeled into the film’s Academy Award-winning screenplay. —The Notes Behind ‘Network’
The shooting script for Network. Howard Beale’s “Mad as Hell” speech was filmed on Day 1.
Dave Itzkoff’s marvelous book Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies is a must-have on your shelf. Purchase your copy at Amazon.
In one of his best interviews, Lumet discusses his directing style developed over 50 years of filmmaking including such noteworthy films as 12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.
Arguably the most penetrating examination of the communications industry ever produced, Sidney Lumet’s Network is a truly seminal work, so its selection to inaugurate the DGA’s Under the Influence series in New York was fitting indeed.
OWEN ROIZMAN, ASC
Sidney Lumet’s blistering, Oscar-winning Network, a darkly comic depiction of television culture, earns Owen Roizman a third Oscar nomination for his innovative use of progressive lighting, which grows brighter and more artificial as the story develops.
The cinematography concept of Network was wonderful and Owen Roizman carried it brilliantly. Since it was a film about corruption, we would corrupt the camera. There was a realistic look with William Holden and Peter Finch in the beginning, by the end of the movie it looked like a Ford commercial. It was so gorgeous, it looked like A Man and a Woman, we just gradually made the film look gorgeous. I never liked to see any of this happening. My objection to a lot of work is the stuff that draws attention to itself. I like to sit back and let it hit me. A lot of what I see that I don’t like is the stuff that draws attention to itself. In Network we stretched it over 2 hours so you never see it happening. The original ad for Network was one of the best ads I’ve ever seen. Manhattan skyline with TV cameras with Peter Finch on a cross. The copy said ‘The greatest story ever sold.’ Great ad. Arthur Krim put up money. By the time picture came out all that was left was the lightning bolt. Literally. Just the lightning bolt. —Sidney Lumet
“It was the best script I ever read,” Roizman said about screenwriter Paddy Cheyefsky’s darkly satiric tale of a television corporation desperate for ratings, directed by Sidney Lumet. In this clip, he discusses the lighting techniques used while shooting on location in a high-rise office building.
What was your basic photographic style in shooting Network and how did you arrive at it?
The style evolved from my discussions with the director, Sidney Lumet, He thought that the style should develop in three phases. The first phase should be “naturalistic,” the second “realistic” and the third “commercial.”
Could you analyze each of those a bit more fully in terms of how they were actually expressed by your photography?
Well, in the naturalistic or “ultra-real” phase I would shoot with whatever light existed in the location. If it happened to be fluorescent, I’d go with the fluorescent—whatever light was there. In the realistic phase, if fluorescent light existed in the location, I’d go with the fluorescent, but I would then augment it, model it a little more to make it more pleasing and do my own version of realism. I’d try to follow the actual light sources as much as possible, but if they weren’t pleasing, I’d make them pleasing. In the commercial phase, I’d create my own sources and my own moods, as far as lighting was concerned.
Was it the lighting alone that varied in these separate phases?
No, the degree of camera movement varied, also. For example, in the beginning or naturalistic phase there was quite a bit of camera movement, but that was cut down in the other phases until, at the end, there wasn’t much camera movement at all. In other words, at the very beginning we tried to keep it a bit more frantic camerawise, a bit more exciting. Then slowly, slowly, slowly it came down to almost a standstill. The transitions from one phase to the other were very subtle, but Sidney Lumet feels that we accomplished what we set out to do.
What would you say presented your single most difficult problem in photographing Network?
The fact that it was basically a script full of words—beautifully written words, but words rather than action, nevertheless. There were a lot of sequences with long speeches in them and the big challenge to me was how to take a basically uncinematic picture—one that really didn’t call for a tremendous amount of visuals—and give it a nice photographic flavor, a believable setting and effective mood. My approach was one of trying to give each speech or statement its proper mood, a visual background that was correct for it.
Can you tell me a bit about the sets and locations that were used?
We shot most of the picture in the MGM Building in New York. There was one floor that was empty and that was being considered for rental. So we rented that whole floor and built all the office sets right there in the building, using the exteriors outside the windows of the building as backgrounds, rather than doing it on a sound stage with Translight backgrounds. So, actually, all those rooms were constructed by our Production Designer and we made them all practical—dressed them and shot them as though we had gone into actual interior locations. We had no wild walls, except for one room, Bill Holden’s office. In all the other sets we shot without wild walls; we just crammed the camera in the same as we would in an actual interior and no matter what the exterior conditions were outside the windows, we had to live with them, as far as balancing light was concerned.
Still making movies: an interview with Sidney Lumet, Cinéaste, Vol. 31, No. 2.
ALAN HEIM, ACE
Editor Alan Heim, ACE on editing Beatrice Straight’s performance in Network. From Manhattan Edit Workshop’s Critical Ends series, featuring award winning editors discussing their craft.
Sidney Lumet spoke 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. The interview was conducted by Dr. Ralph Engleman on October 28, 1999.
Sidney Lumet discusses his work on the film Network, commenting on the character’s storyline and the narrative of the film.
Nelson Carvajal’s video essay, TV Takeover, is nothing but brilliant from start to finish.
“Today, we look at Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s 1976 diatribe of the television industry, Network. The cast won a multitude of awards including the Oscar for Best Actress won by Faye Dunaway and the Oscar for Best Actor won by Peter Finch—who won over another nominee for the same film: William Holden. Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for only five minutes and two seconds of screen time—the shortest performance to win an Oscar. And Ned Beatty was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for pretty much one scene. So, what was Lumet doing to elicit such brilliant motion picture acting?” —CinemaTyler
MAKING MOVIES BY SIDNEY LUMET
Sidney Lumet shares his book, Making Movies, about the technique and job of filmmaking.
I love long speeches. One of the reasons the studio resisted doing Network was that Paddy Chayefsky had written at least four four-to-six-page monologues for Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch. And to top it off, he’d given a very long speech to Ned Beatty as the head of the world’s largest corporation, trying to get Howard Beale on his side. But the scenes were visually arresting and brilliantly acted.
When we did Network, Paddy Chayefsky knew what he wanted. After all the difficulties in getting the picture OK’d, I knew he was in no mood for any rewrites demanded by stars. I’d heard, too, that Faye Dunaway could be difficult. (This turned out to be totally untrue. She was a selfless, devoted, and wonderful actress.) As always, if there’s a potential problem, I like to bring it out in the open before we begin. So I made an appointment to see her. Crossing the floor of her apartment, before I’d even reached her, I said, “I know the first thing you’re going to ask me: Where’s her vulnerability? Don’t ask it. She has none.” Faye looked shocked. “Furthermore, if you try to sneak it in, I’ll get rid of it in the cutting room, so it’ll be wasted effort.” She paused just a second, then burst out laughing. Ten minutes later I was begging her to do the part. She said yes. She never tried to get sentimental in the part, and she took home an Academy Award. My point is that it’s so important to thrash these things out in advance. If push comes to shove, you can then say the obvious truth: “This is a script we both said yes to. So let’s do it.”
Many of my relationships with writers have been just the opposite. My respect for them would grow so great during our working time that I’d want them in on every aspect of the production. Chayefsky, who was also a producer of Network, was a formidable talent. Beneath that comic exterior was a really funny guy. His cynicism was partly a pose, but a healthy dose of paranoia was also in his character. He told me that Network got made only because it was part of a settlement of a lawsuit that he’d brought. I don’t know if this was true, but he was litigious. His answer to conflicts very often was, “Can I sue?” He was a man who cared passionately about his work and about Israel. When we were casting, I suggested Vanessa Redgrave. He said he didn’t want her. I said, “She’s the best actress in the English-speaking world!” He said, “She’s a PLO supporter.” I said, “Paddy, that’s blacklisting!” He said, “Not when a Jew does it to a Gentile.” He clearly knew more about comedy than I did. In a scene where Howard Beale comes wandering into the building looking like a lunatic, mumbling in wet pajamas and a raincoat, the guard had a line as he opened the door: “Sure thing, Mr. Beale.” In my heavy-handed way, I told the guard to take in Peter Finch’s disheveled state, then humor him as he said the line. Paddy was at my ear in a second. “This is TV,” he whispered. “He shouldn’t even notice him.” He was right, of course. The line got the laugh it deserved. It wouldn’t have been funny delivered my way. But in the marvelously written and acted scene when William Holden tells Beatrice Straight he’s in love with someone else, Paddy started toward me with a comment. I held up my hand and said, “Paddy, please. I know more about divorce than you do.” We had a wonderful give-and-take during both rehearsal time and shooting time. There were no problems from the first reading of the script through the opening of the movie. Paddy came to rushes (when we look at the previous day’s work), and I invited him into the cutting room. By that time he was happy as could be, and he declined. After the first rough cut of the picture, we sat together with the script and made maybe ten minutes of dialogue cuts, and that was it. When I look around at some of the absurdities in our lives, at the grotesque times we live through, I constantly wonder what Paddy might have done with them. He would’ve had too much to write about. I miss him every day.
The most moving example of how much of themselves actors must pour into a character happened on Network. William Holden was a wonderful actor. He was also very experienced. He’d done sixty or seventy movies by the time we worked together, maybe more. I noticed that during the rehearsal of one particular scene with Faye Dunaway, he looked everywhere but directly into her eyes. He looked at her eyebrows, her hair, her lips, but not her eyes. I didn’t say anything. The scene was a confession by his character that he was hopelessly in love with her, that they came from very different worlds, that he was achingly vulnerable to her and therefore needed her help and support. On the day of shooting we did a take. After the take, I said, “Let’s go again, and Bill, on this take, would you try something for me? Lock into her eyes and never break away from them.” He did. Emotion came pouring out of him. It’s one of his best scenes in the movie. Whatever he’d been avoiding could no longer be denied. The rehearsal period had helped me recognize this emotional reticence in him. Of course, I never asked him what he had been avoiding. The actor has a right to his privacy; I never violate his private sources knowingly. Some directors do. There’s no right or wrong here. But I had learned my lesson many years earlier, on a picture called That Kind of Woman. I needed tears from an actor on a particular line. She couldn’t do it. Finally, I told her that no matter what I did during the next take, she should keep going and say the line. We rolled the camera. Just before she reached the line, I hauled off and slapped her. Her eyes widened. She looked stunned. Tears welled up, overflowed, she said the line, and we had a terrific take. When I called, “Cut, print!” She threw her arms around me, kissed me, and told me I was brilliant. But I was sick with self-loathing. I ordered an ice pack so her cheek wouldn’t swell up and knew that I would never do anything like that again. If we can’t get it by craftsmanship, to hell with it. We’ll find something else that’ll work as well.
The movie was about corruption. So we corrupted the camera. We started with an almost naturalistic look. For the first scene between Peter Finch and Bill Holden, on Sixth Avenue at night, we added only enough light to get an exposure. As the picture progressed, camera setups became more rigid, more formal. The lighting became more and more artificial. The next-to-final scene—where Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and three network gray suits decide to kill Peter Finch—is lit like a commercial. The camera setups are static and framed like still pictures. The camera also had become a victim of television. (All of these transitions in lenses and in lighting happen gradually. I don’t like any technical devices to be apparent. When they’re stretched over a two-hour period, I don’t think the audience is ever conscious of the changes taking place visually.)
Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech in Network was done in almost the same way. In that picture it was easier, because the speech lasted only about six minutes; all I needed was to have a second camera ready. No reloading. No time lost between takes. Halfway through the speech on Take 2, Peter stopped. He was exhausted. I didn’t know then of his weakened heart, but I didn’t push for another take. And that’s how it wound up in the finished movie: the first half of the speech from Take 2, the second half from Take 1. Back to our day of shooting. I’ve started with the widest shot against wall A, as described earlier. Now I start moving in for tighter and tighter shots against the same wall. When I’ve finished everything that could be shot against wall A, I’ll move to wall B. I try to lay out the shooting order so that we can move the basic camera position as little as possible. The smaller the move, the quicker we’ll be ready, because relighting takes less time. Clearly, this isn’t always possible. The actor might move around the room from wall A to wall B. Sometimes I’ve staged a scene so that the camera is in the center of the room and has to pan around 360 degrees. All four walls appear in the shot as the actor moves. These shots are very difficult to light. It can take four or five hours to light a shot that goes 360 degrees, sometimes a full day.
In Network, I was afraid that music might interfere with the jokes. As the picture went on, the speeches got longer and longer. It was clear at the first screening that any music would be fighting the enormous amount of dialogue. Again, no score.
In the past few years, I’ve previewed and consequently altered the following pictures: Power, The Morning After, Family Business, A Stranger Among Us, and Guilty as Sin. I never used previews before then, except for Network. We previewed that to find out about the laughs. They were all there and then some. Except for minor trims, we didn’t touch a frame. Other than Network, I never previewed any of my pictures that were successes, critical and/or commercial. I don’t want to be unfair. I never previewed lots of flops either. But I’ve never been able to solve the problems of a picture by making changes that were indicated by the previews. And in the quest for a hit, I made those changes after long talks with studio executives who had thoroughly analyzed the questionnaires and focus-group results. I tried it. It didn’t work. Maybe it was me. Perhaps nothing could have helped the movie. I don’t know.
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sidney Lumet’s Network. Photographed by Michael Ginsburg & Mary Ellen Mark © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (A Howard Gottfried-Paddy Chayefsky Production), United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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