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Sidney Lumet’s Inspired Advice for Directing People to Their Best

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“Go as far as you feel. Do as much or as little as you want to. If you feel it, let it fly.”

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There is a shining, searing moment in Sidney Lumet’s films where the hero, driven by inevitability of events, must confront who he is, and who he needs to be. Recall Lee J. Cobb’s contorting physiognomy as he recognizes his prejudice in 12 Angry Men; Al Pacino on the phone to his lover in Dog Day Afternoon, knowing all is lost but unable to voice it; and William Holden fighting ineluctable age and impotency in Network.

The vulnerability saturating these scenes is more than good acting: it’s great actors being human, accepting that humanity and drawing from it rather than transcending it. They are rare and raw performances brought into being by talent and, even more so, empathetic direction, leadership and shepherding of skills.

Lumet was an actor’s director, famous for the performances he inspired: Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico; Albert Finney and Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express; Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch in Network; and Katherine Hepburn in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. 

Making Movies, Lumet’s memoir, is a book of love, love of work, work of life. Roger Ebert called it “One of the most intelligent and informative books ever written about cinema.”

It’s also a book about leadership and bringing out the best in people, helping them feel and think, a theme I love to explore in my own fiction. I’ve given Lumet’s consummate book a few reads over the years, and I thought I’d extract his most penetrating advice on directing people to their best:

Define and set a purpose everyone can embrace.

This is the point of the film, and thus, the point of the work: “Having decided, for whatever reason, to do a movie, I return to that all-encompassing, critical discussion: What is the movie about? Work can’t begin until its limits are defined. It becomes the riverbed into which all subsequent decisions will be channeled.”

Reinforce a culture of humility and balance.

Star power was often a threat to the team, it’s the job of the director to balance the scales. Lumet describes how he began read-throughs in the Ukrainian National Home in New York City, with odors of pierogi and borscht; colored lights and mirrored balls; stacks of cartons and even garbage, as a gentle way to put everyone on the same page. “I’ve rehearsed eight or nine movies here. I don’t know why I feel like this but rehearsal halls should always be a bit grungy.”

Love your team, they do what you cannot.

“I love actors. I love them because they’re brave. All good work requires self-revelation. It is his feelings, his physiognomy, his sexuality, his tears, his laughter, his anger, his romanticism, his tenderness, his viciousness that are up there on the screen for all to see.”

Understand your team, as a group, as individuals.

Lumet is quick to assess hidden desires and inhibitions: “Two production assistants are nervously awaiting me…Slowly the actors come wandering in. A false joviality hides their nervousness … The star is also ingratiating himself, showing what a regular guy he is … The last to arrive is the writer, he is last because he knows that at this point he is the target.” Lumet was careful to ensure each person’s needs – psychological and otherwise – were met.

Understand yourself and how you thrive, and know your limitations.

Much of the memoir is Lumet’s humble, honest reflection on his own motivations and limitations, including; “Whatever I am, whatever the work will amount to, has to come out of my subconscious. I can’t approach it cerebrally.”

Additionally, Lumet acknowledges the bounds of his control and influence quite humbly: “How much in charge am I? I’m dependent on weather, budget, what the leading lady had for breakfast … Like all bosses and on set, I’m the boss, I’m the boss only up to a point. And that to me is what’s so exciting.”

Find and nurture each individual’s source of power and talent.

“On Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I found that I could use editing tempos to reinforce character. I shot Katharine Hepburn in long, sustained takes, so that in the editing, the legato feel of her scenes would help us drift into her narcotized world. We would move with her, into her past and into her own journey into night.”

The little things lead to the best performances. Again on Hepburn: “The work was thrilling. She asked, she told, she fretted, she tried, she failed and she won. She built that character stone by stone.”

Give your team permission to find their best selves by role-modeling how.

Lumet understood his people, he anticipated what they were capable of, but even he admits he couldn’t see how they’d get there except to say it had to come from them, not him. He generously allowed a wide creative berth, so they could find their own perfection. In editing, lighting, cinematography, most of all acting:

“That is really what’s been going on during rehearsal: the actors are gaining confidence in revealing their inner selves. They’ve been learning about me. I hold nothing back. If the actors are going to hold nothing back in front of the camera, I can hold nothing back in front of them.”

In one of the most memorable passages of the book, Lumet discusses coaching Paul Newman in his Oscar-winning role as Frank Galvin in The Verdict through a scene where Newman must play a man not just at the end of his rope, but a man realizing his destruction will destroy others:

“I said [to Paul] his characterization was fine but hadn’t yet evolved into a living, breathing person. Was there a problem? Paul said he didn’t have the lines memorized yet and that when he did, it would all flow better. I told him I didn’t think it was the lines. I said there was a certain aspect of Frank Galvin’s character that was missing. I told him I wouldn’t invade his privacy but only he could choose whether or not to reveal that part of the character and therefore that aspect of himself.”

Given the kind of support and encouragement that only a trusted leader can provide, Newman, admittedly shy and reserved, delivered the most emotionally raw performance of his career. Elevating the performance and the film to the level of art, that which gives image to things we ourselves cannot express.

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Well-worth viewing is Lumet’s video obituary, The New York Times Last Word, in which he discusses trusting his audience and good vs. evil.  I rarely watch a film without the accompanying Roger Ebert review. In Ebert’s definitive The Great Movies, in The Great Movies II, he reviews several of Lumet’s films in the reverent, authoritative style only Ebert can master. I’ve always considered creative work a useful example of skills useful in any field of work, I explore this further in Being a Writer Is like Being a Consultant.

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