You’d be hard pressed to name a director with more classic films to his credit than Sidney Lumet, who is celebrating his 50th year as a filmmaker (and that’s not counting seven years learning his craft in live television). Beginning with his first feature, the Oscar-nominated Twelve Angry Men, in 1957, Lumet went on to make Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Serpico, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Daniel, The Morning After, and Running on Empty.
A master of the crime melodrama, Lumet is back in theaters with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which is getting rave reviews (you can check some out on metacritic.com). I had the pleasure of speaking to the veteran director at the Toronto Film Festival—you can read some of his comments after the jump:
Were you attracted to the fact that these characters are so despicable?
Absolutely—I’m a great disbeliever in the studios approach that you’ve got to have somebody to love in a movie. Not at all! People that you can dislike are as valuable as people you can adore. There was a not bad movie done brilliantly by the magnificent Jonathan Demme about a guy who ate people! On a good day! And not only that, what’s fascinating about [The Silence of the Lambs] is that it was not only about this terrible psychopath but this perverted love story. And you accepted it—that odd relationship and that strange strange man were wonderful, and despicable.
You like to rehearse your actors, which film stars aren’t always used to. Do any of them ever give you trouble about it?
Generally I find that most actors love rehearsal—almost every actor I’ve worked with, even the ones who’ve not had a theatrical background. I remember when I worked with Jeff Brides on The Morning After. Jeff had had no theater background. He’d always been a movie actor, his father was one, his brother was one, and he said “Gee Sidney, I don’t know about [rehearsing], what if I use up all the spontaneity?” That’s what screen actors worry about. But by the second day he was in hog heaven. Most actors—I’ll tell you how much they like it, they will even do it for nothing.
Your new film has a level of sex and violence comparable to what we used to see in films of the 1970s, yet some viewers seem surprised by it. Have audiences grown more conservative in recent decades?
I think there’s a split—there’s a lot more freedom, but also a greater conservative influence on it. Knocked Up, which I loved, really made me laugh, is really at the heart of it a very conservative movie. They get married, he turns out to be a wonderful father, the word abortion is never mentioned. Now I don’t know whether that’s because [writer/director Judd] Apatow is genuinely conservative or they want to be careful of a conservative audience, who knows? But there’s no doubt at the same time you’ve got many more outrageous and flagrant ideas and behavior in movies.
You’ve made so many memorable films, they must be after you all the time to do DVD commentary tracks. Do you enjoy doing those?
I don’t know this myself, but they tell me that people like those things on DVDs, that it’s a reason they buy them. I think there’s some myth in that. I’m very careful when I do one not to reveal how we did things, because I think that disturbs the concentration of people watching them.
It’s great that you’re still working and still enjoying it.
I don’t understand why people retire—well, I do, it’s because they’re doing work they don’t want to be doing. That’s not my case, thank god. [They’ll have to] carry me out, I’m not going to give up.