Monday, April 18, 2011

ME AND SIDNEY: THE 21rst CENTURY MEETING

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In early 2002, the Directors Guild of America (of which I was then a fairly new member) instituted on the East Coast a screening series that had become quite popular in Los Angeles. "Under the Influence" was an evening that comprised the screening of a movie directed by an older member who was then interviewed by a younger member. The film was picked by the younger member who presumably had been influenced by it years before.

If you've read the previous post, you already have guessed who I picked and probably which movie. In due time, Sidney Lumet was asked by the Guild if he would participate in an "Under the Influence" event at which his 1976 masterpiece "Network" would be shown, to be followed by a Q&A with a young (ish) filmmaker named Raymond De Felitta. He readily agreed. He must have not been very busy.

Needless to say I was thrilled and, after careful thought and deliberation, decided against telling Lumet about how I stalked him in 1980. He showed up at the pre-event cocktail party (with his very charming and well turned out wife) wearing a typical Lumet costume: jeans, flannel shirt, enormous down jacket, sneakers. I introduced myself and we made some small talk. As I recall we had both attempted--with no success whatsoever--to make films with RKO Pictures, a re-boot of the famous old studio which was currently tempting filmmakers with old titles from their library that they were looking to remake. I had spent far too much time trying to update an old Rosalind Russell movie called "The Velvet Touch". Lumet, I knew, had also wasted a lot of time trying to remake "The Set-Up", Robert Wise's 1949 boxing classic. I told him of our shared experiences and he threw up his hands in melodramatic disgust and said: "Oh, those guys'll never make anything!" (He was right--except for having some minor participation in a tepid remake of the already tepid "Mighty Joe Young", they never did make a damn thing.)

We screened the movie for a sizable audience and I think we were all stunned a bit by how correct Paddy Cheyefsky's vision of the television future--not to say of our whole culture--had been. Far from seeming a hysterical hyped-up warning shot fired into a future that never came to be, the entire film--and especially the ending--suggested nothing so much as Fox's fall line-up.

We did the Q&A and I was delighted to find that Sidney was as effortless an interview subject as he was said to be an on-set presence; he made it all easy, answering quickly, concisely and making point after good point which magically transformed me into a very successful interviewer. We discussed William Holden's performance in some detail and he shocked the audience by telling us that the whole film was shot in thirty days--an unbelivable achievement for a film of such complexity. Lumet had always been a director who wanted fewer days, who made himself race to be ahead of schedule, who valued the first and second take above all. Producers had to argue with him to do retakes and actors usually begged for a third take (and I imagine were occasionally grudingly granted the "actors free take").

So the evening is over and Sidney and I shake hands while a group of the audience members begin to crowd around him, wanting to meet him. The DGA magazine photographer, however, wanted a shot of us together for the magazine. Sidney agreed and we stood off to the side and posed. We both put on our best smiles and I couldn't help but remember the long-ago summer day when I lurked in his office doorway waiting to accost him with my resume. The photographer snapped one shot of us. Then, as he prepared to snap a second one, Sidney quickly said: "Ah, come on, come on, you got it!" And he walked away, leaving the photographer with exactly one "take" to choose from--a perfect Lumet gesture to end a perfect Lumet evening.

Click here to read the full article about the evening, complete with a shot of me and Sidney on stage together. I imagine that the two shot that we did simply wasn't good enough to use...

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2 comments:

Robert said...

I've made the terrible mistake over the years of calling some of Lumet's movies my favorites (Running on Empty, Network, others) WITHOUT calling him one of my favorite directors. Think I fell into the trap of only calling out the directors with so-called "distinctive" styles. I should have known better. Too often "distinctive" is synonymous with style over substance. Lumet is distinctive for other reasons -- mainly for maintaining a no b.s. standard for more than half a decade.

Robert said...

Let's give him his credit... How bout half a century???!!