Sidney Lumet writes about all aspects of filmmaking, from the director’s point of view: choosing projects, working with writers (he’s not a writer), style, working with actors (how to get the best out of them), working with cinematographers (style, the look of the film, lens, filters…), working with the art department (style, colour scheme, architectural style, locations…), being on set, working with editors (pace, mood, tempo, rushes, rough cut…), working with composers and sound designers, working with timers (in the film age—now in the digital age, the equivalent are colourists), and working with the studio.
In lucid prose, he writes about all aspects of filmmaking from pre-production to production to post-production, the myriad of possibilities a director has, and all the decisions a director has to make, with lots of invaluable insight and advice for young/aspiring filmmakers like me. Take this passage about editing:
That is good advice.
Earlier I was amused that both he and Tarkovsky wrote about cinema and directing but Tarkovsky’s book was called Sculpting in Time and Sidney Lumet’s was Making Movies. But the different titles also hint at their different approaches: Tarkovsky’s book is a thoughtful read, offering his thoughts on the art of cinema and the ideas behinds his own films, but Sidney Lumet’s book is more practical, and more useful.
It’s also refreshing to read a book by a director who is not an auteur. He writes about everyone with respect and gratitude. Film is collaborative. That of course doesn’t mean that everyone in a film crew is equal, as some people seem to think in film schools. Sidney Lumet repeats throughout the book the phrase “making the same picture”, which refers to the director’s vision.
Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that even though Sidney Lumet, throughout the book, writes with respect of actors and people in different departments of a film crew, you can tell that he doesn’t have warm feelings for studio and executives, especially in the final chapter, “The Studio”. He mentions that it helps, but also writes about the silliness of previews (early screenings for a small audience whilst a film is in late stage of post-production) and the lack of correlation between them and a financial success of a film. He writes, early in the chapter, that stars don’t make a film a hit, but later writes that studios push for stars anyway, and how it affects the budget of a film (not only the stars’ salaries but also their “limos, secretary, cook, trailer, makeup, hair, and clothes person”—“a lot of money that won’t wind up on the screen”).
But that is the problem with cinema—it is an art, but also a business.
Above all, Sidney Lumet says cinema is an art form, and:
“Commercial success has no relationship to a good or bad picture. Good pictures become hits. Good pictures become flops. Bad pictures make money, bad pictures lose money. The fact is that no one really knows.”He says:
“It’s the movies that are works of art that create this interest, even if they’re not on the 10-highest-grosses list too often.”This is a very good book.