My Best Friend, The Camera

A Tribute to Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

How do you write a tribute to an icon of a bygone era in moviemaking?

You could go to Wikipedia to see that he directed, produced or wrote over 50 features, and was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Director of 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982). You could find out that over the course of his remarkable career, he directed 17 different actors to Oscar®-nominated or -winning performances.

But then anyone who’s a fan of Sidney Lumet (is anyone not?) probably already knows that. It’s been well documented that Lumet, perhaps the personification of “New York” filmmaking, started his career in acting – he was one of the original “Dead-End Kids” on Broadway – and then later directed theater and television. What’s harder to capture, now that he’s gone, is how Lumet really felt about the world he inhabited for more than six decades, or of the people who worked with him.

In his book Making Movies, the writer/director/producer said he wasn’t going to give people insight into Sidney Lumet, the person, or gossip about the people he worked with. Nevertheless, his writings about his craft and his role as a director, spoke volumes.

Here are just a few…

There are no minor decisions in moviemaking. Each decision will either contribute to a good piece of work, or bring the whole movie crashing down around my head many months later.
I’m the boss only up to a point. I’m in charge of a community that I need desperately and that needs me just as badly.

I try to create a very loose set, filled with jokes and concentration.

I don’t mind limitations. Sometimes they even stimulate you to better, more imaginative work.
Preparation allows the “lucky accidents” that we’re always hoping for to happen.

What Lumet said about the camera, which he called a “director’s best friend” is also telling.

First of all, the camera can’t talk back. It can’t ask stupid questions. It can’t ask penetrating questions that make you realize you’ve been wrong all along. Hey, it’s a camera!

It can make up for a deficient performance.
It can make a good performance better.
It can create a mood.

It can create ugliness.
It can create beauty.
It can provide excitement.
It can capture the essence of the moment.
It can stop time.
It can change space.
It can define a character.
It can provide exposition.
It can make a joke.
It can make a miracle.
It can tell a

So, how do you say goodbye to one of the industry’s most prodigious and influential talents, a director that respected and understood the role of the camera department as well as any who has ever stepped on a set? By talking to some of the people who had worked with him, of course.

After finishing a low-budget James Ivory-directed movie called The 5:48, cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak went for a sail in the Caribbean with his family. After a few weeks at sea, he pulled in to port to check his messages and found a bundle from Burt Harris, Sidney Lumet’s long-time producer and collaborator, that read, “Where are you? Sidney wants to meet you for a film!!!” [Exclamation points not added.]

“I am very nervous and very excited sitting with Sidney Lumet, who already was a legend,” Bartkowiak recalls. “He told me he saw The 5:48 and loved it. Then he said he’d let me know. As I was getting up to say my goodbye and leave, Sidney called Burt Harris in and said, ‘Bertie,’ he looked at me, ‘let’s not f–k around; you got a job, kid.’ I nearly died.”

Over the course of their 11 movies together, Bartkowiak remembers that Lumet thought carefully, made up his mind quickly, and stuck to his decisions.

“Once he committed to his shots and locations, he never changed his mind,” Bartkowiak says. “We had three weeks rehearsals with the actors. On occasion, his stars would have a different idea [than his plan]. Sidney would go into a conversation of why their idea was not as good as his, and 99 percent of the time he got his way. It always started with Sidney getting into his station wagon at his home with Burt and me, to drive to location and talk about the day. [When we got there] you would see Sidney pacing, looking at his watch, waiting for the magical call time so he could start directing. He was like an impatient little boy waiting for his candy.”

Bartkowiak notes that Lumet, whose parents, Baruch Lumet and Eugenia Wermus, were both actors in the Yiddish Theatre, was not particularly observant to his religion when it came to filming.

“When we needed thousands of extras, and had to shoot in mid-Manhattan, he always scheduled during the High Jewish holidays to shoot, knowing full well that the Garment District or the Jewelry District would be empty and traffic-less during those times,” Bartkowiak laughs.

“I will always remember an image of Sidney in his sneakers, blue jeans and blue sweater, which he wore every day on every movie, quietly pacing on the side, and lifting the left wrist of his sweater to look at his watch to look at his wrist. He loved the technology for getting images, but was very afraid of losing time, due to technical problems.”

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.”

Fortunato says that first interview epitomized Lumet’s character.

“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.”

Both cinematographers say that although Lumet was timid when it came to new technology, he eventually embraced camera progressions like the Steadicam, Luma or Technocrane.

“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.”

Operator Tom Priestley Jr. echoes Fortunato’s recollections.

“One day I suggested we do something as a dolly shot,” Priestly begins. “Sidney shook his head. ‘No. One dolly shot. Scene 35.’ He had a plan and that was it.”

Priestly says the most amazing example of Lumet’s work process was on Network.

“We went to Canada to shoot the TV studio sequences, because in 1976, that was the only place where we could shoot at 25fps,” he recounts. “I remember watching him literally cut a three to five minute sequence like a live director. By the time he was finished, he was drenched in sweat. He had literally attacked the shot. It was amazing to watch.”

For operator Peter Nolan, working with Sidney Lumet on 100 Centre Street and then Strip Search was a “baptism by fire for which I will always be grateful,” he says. “I’ll never forget when Sidney would line up his shots, he would slowly put his hand somewhere in space and say, ‘Peter, let me see it over here on a fifty.’ What he meant was, roll the camera over and put a 50mm lens exactly where his hand was and it always lined up. His precision was uncanny. He was always prepared, which actually led to a surprisingly collaborative work environment.

“One day we had an 8 a.m. call for a big exterior scene in the Bronx,” Nolan continues. “We shot over five pages and I was back at my apartment in two hours. More than once, Sidney could turn to the AD and ask with a hint of glee, ‘Is there time to cancel the caterer?’”

Operator Bruce MacCallum, who worked with Lumet on Find Me Guilty and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, recalls a filmmaker who was supremely organized.

“He knew every crewmember’s job,” MacCallum states. “Once we rolled, Sidney was always to my left or right watching the actors. I rarely remember him being seated. If anyone had an issue with a shot, be it framing, focus, a bad light cue, a sound glitch or even an actor wanting another take, if he was happy with the performance and camera move we had to show him on playback or convince him otherwise why we needed another take. He set a very high bar.”

But, as Local 600 Eastern Director Chaim Kantor, who worked on 100 Centre Street remembers, Lumet wasn’t above using chicanery to get his way.

“Sidney worked quickly with very few takes and many scenes covered with only the master to keep the actors (and crew) ‘hot,’” Kantor says. “There were times, however, the producer side of Sidney took precedence over his role as writer/director. On one occasion, I recall that an actor was not satisfied with a take at a point when Sidney was ready to move on. I don’t recall whether the issue was a flubbed line or a piece of physical business, but after a bit of back and forth, Sidney assured the actor that he had that portion of the scene covered from ‘the other side’ (another angle). The actor was satisfied, and we moved onto the next scene. Of course, the crew knew that there was no ‘other side’. The scene had been done in one shot with no coverage.”

“As a crew member, you always knew precisely what you would be shooting and when you’d be doing it,” recalls D.I.T. Abby Levine, who worked with Lumet on 100 Centre Street, Find Me Guilty, Strip Search and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. “Once in a while I had the opportunity to eavesdrop over the headphones or intercom, and heard Sidney instructing actors. In one scene, which appeared simple to me, Sidney described a character getting angrier and angrier with his mother, yet quieter and quieter out of respect, but then consequently needing to move closer to be heard. The precision, consciousness and clarity of his explanation became immediately obvious to the actor, and got the performance Sidney needed. It was a model of efficiency; and no one was ever fishing around to figure out what they should be doing.

“I lived in Sidney’s neighborhood, and would occasionally see him on my run to the park,” Levine adds. “On one of those days my wife came to the set. Upon meeting her for the first time, Sidney said: ‘Hey, I just saw your husband in his underwear this morning!”

Everyone who worked with Lumet recognized his complexities. Although he preferred to rely on proven technology, the director embraced the digital world while it was still in its infancy, probably because he could go back to his roots and do things like “live switching” on 100 Centre Street.

“He was eager to embrace the newest technology and meld it with his love for speed and efficiency,” says assistant Heather Norton, who worked with him as a day player on Night Falls on Manhattan, then Strip Search, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and 100 Centre Street. “Everything I did with Sidney was like we were learning together.

“He treated all of us as if we were as knowledgeable as he was, as equal participants in a creative project. I remember he used to ask for lenses, no matter what conversion or format we were shooting in, that didn’t exist, and I learned quickly that he was always right. The aspect ratio and shot that he had created in his mind was exactly what he was asking for and it was up to us to make the adjustments with the tools at hand to create his vision.”

“The crew loved it when he was directing 100 Centre Street,” says assistant-turned-operator Susan Starr, who also worked with Lumet on Gloria and Strip Search. “We knew we were going to have short days; he would be well-prepared. One Friday, we had a location day with a seven-page ‘walk-and-talk.’ Our crew call was 7 a.m. and we finished around 11 a.m.”

Starr, like so many others polled for this tribute, says Lumet made the demanding and exhausting process of moviemaking “joyful.”

“Some compare making a movie or a TV show to being in an army,” Starr reflects. “If so, then Sidney was a general. Some compare making a movie or TV show to an art form. If so, then Sidney was an artist. Some compare making a movie or TV show to being in a family, albeit sometimes dysfunctional. And if that’s true, then Sidney was also the father figure.

In fact, Starr insists, Lumet was all three. “He was the leader, artist, confidant, and the conspirator you always wanted,” she says. “If he liked you, he would tell you how to do everything from quitting smoking to becoming more confident in your job. He was quick to listen, quick to commiserate, and quick to advise. He always arrived with a smile – and a plan – and was quick to laugh.  I can’t think of another director, or person for that matter, like him. I was so lucky to have known Sidney Lumet.”

As were we all – if not in person or on the set, surely through his powerful and still fresh body of work that included features like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, Serpico, Bye Bye Braverman, The Anderson Tapes, and Prince of the City, as well as live television plays like The Iceman Cometh, Rashomon, and All The King’s Men.

By Pauline Rogers. Photos by Will Hart.