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Working with legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet

by Ron Greenfield

There are those seminal moments in any career that stand apart from the rest. One of mine came in the spring of 1997. As Vice President of Marketing and Creative Services at Spelling Entertainment, I was lucky enough to work with the legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet, preparing the campaign and marketing materials for the release of his film, Night Falls on Manhattan.

Sidney Lumet was known for his strong direction of actors, his emphasis on storytelling, and the realism his work embodied, often using New York City as a backdrop in many of his films. In a career that spanned more than six decades, he led the first wave of directors to make the successful transition from television to film, beginning with 12 Angry Men.

Today, many of his films are considered milestones in 20th century filmmaking – Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Network, The Verdict, and Prince of the City, known primarily for their realistic style or dealing with issues of social justice.

By arrangement with the film’s producer, Thom Mount, I flew to New York to record Sidney’s commentary for the DVD release of Night Falls. In preparation I watched and re-watched many of his films, as well as reading his autobiography, Making Movies. I knew this was going to be something special, working with one of the great American filmmakers. I didn’t realize it then, but it would forever change the way I would watch films.

The late critic Roger Ebert said, “Lumet was one of the finest craftsmen and warmest humanitarians among all film directors.” This quote best describes my day in the studio with him.

Night Falls on Manhattan starred Andy Garcia, Richard Dreyfuss, Ian Holm, Lena Olin and in a supporting but pivotal role, an actor who was shortly to become a household name, James Gandolfini.

From the moment the session began, I knew I was attending one of the most extraordinary masters classes in film direction that very few are ever privileged to attend. As the film played in the background, Sidney described the set up for each scene and shot, the motivations and reactions he wanted from the actors, whether they were one of the stars or one of the extras.

It has been said that film is the director’s medium. Being in the studio that day, the truth behind that statement crystallized in my mind as I listened to him comment on Night Falls. Unlike a stage production, film is about the visual image. The choices the director makes are paramount in telling and advancing the storyline. Which camera angle will better serve the narrative — a medium shot, close up, or reaction shot? It’s all about nuance and being in the moment. Several times during the session he kept bringing this point home. “More can be learned about a character through a look, gesture or expression” he said, “than three pages of dialogue. In whatever scene he was discussing, it was unmistakable that his commitment and purpose was getting to the essence and honesty of the scene in that moment.

Often referred to as an “actor’s director,” Sidney had the greatest respect for actors and that was evident as he talked about the casting and time spent in preparation and rehearsals. Sidney was known to rehearse his actors for two or three weeks before a single frame of film was shot, having worked with such distinguished stars as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, and Ingrid Bergman.

Sidney personified professionalism – meticulous, gracious, direct and down to earth. At the break, he asked if I was getting everything I needed. At first I was hesitant, actually I was really nervous, I mean, how was I going to give direction to Sidney Lumet? Noticing my pause, he said, “No, really Ron. Tell me what you need and if necessary, we can go back and re-record. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.” The day proceeded without a hitch.

Several times during the session, he repeatedly mentioned James Gandolfini, more than any of the other actors. He admired his talent, often pointing out an expression or the delivery of a line he felt was totally honest and believable, always referencing being in the moment and finding the truth in a scene. It was the highest praise an actor could receive and it came as no surprise that shortly after the release of the film The Sopranos debuted on HBO. The rest, as they say, is television history.

That day and in the months that followed, in whatever capacity I worked with Sidney in promoting Night Falls, it was always with the utmost in sincerity and generosity. Since then, whenever I watch a film, it has given me a deeper level of perceptiveness, a more discerning eye and understanding of why films either succeed or fail, based on the standards and criteria I learned from Sidney Lumet that day.

Ron Greenfield

About Ron Greenfield

My career has taken me from the thrill of live theater to the sound stages of Hollywood to the immersive aspects of interactive gaming, from New York to Los Angeles and back again. And through it all I am constantly learning what it means by “…putting it all together.” Paying it forward at Aspects of Entertainment. Please follow on Twitter: @rongreenfield1

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