Sidney Lumet knows how to get some satisfaction

by Steven Rea

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

9 November 2007

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead 

“It’s not one of your average feel-good movies,” says Sidney Lumet with a satisfied grin, speaking of his latest—the ferociously dark, wildly entertaining, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

Indeed. A crackling melodrama set on Lumet’s home turf—New York, where he shot “Serpico” and “Q & A,” “Prince of the City” and “Dog Day Afternoon”—this tale of two brothers plotting a jewelry store heist is rife with, as the director puts it, “extreme behavior.” Ethan Hawke, as a deadbeat, divorced, loser dad, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as an embezzling junkie real estate exec, are the siblings in question.

cover art

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Director: Sidney Lumet
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris

US theatrical: 26 Oct 2007 (Limited release)

And their every action is questionable, from the robbery gone terribly awry, to the affair one brother (Hawke) is having with the other’s wife (a terrific Marisa Tomei), to the twisted relationship between the two men and their mother and dad, played by Rosemary Harris and a mightily agitated Albert Finney. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” takes its title from an old Irish toast.

Lumet is 83. It’s his 45th feature, and it jags and spins with an energy, and agility, that puts pip-squeak indie filmmakers to shame. After a two-week rehearsal period that mapped out the film beginning to end, Lumet, his cast and crew went to work, shooting in and around the city for a breakneck 29 days.

“It’s really all about preparation for me,” says the director, wearing denim and sneakers and swiveling in his chair in the little office he keeps in a historic apartment building on the Upper West Side. “It’s because I come from the theater, and live television. And in both of those, you have to make your choices, your decisions, in advance.

“Now, there’s nothing superior in the way I work. I mean, for some reason I remember that on `12 Angry Men’”—the 1957 courtroom classic that marked Lumet’s feature debut—“I exposed something like 72,000 feet of film, which is nothing. But Billy Wilder, one of the great American directors, would shoot, 1,200,000 feet on a movie. And he came up with some pretty good results. So, there’s no superiority, there’s no `better way.’ It’s just how I work.”

For his merrily misanthropic “Before the Devil,” Lumet shot in high-definition digital video, which made the production, and the setting up of multiple camera shots, even faster. He first used the technology for “100 Centre Street,” the courthouse series he created, and produced, that ran on A&E a few years back (and is now available on DVD).

“I don’t want to work any other way,” he says, “and my guess is that in five years—or however long it takes for it to be decided who’s going to pay for the electronic projectors in theaters—film won’t exist.”

And Lumet, not one to wax nostalgic, won’t miss it.

“Anything you can get from film, I can get from hi-def. And hi-def can give me things that film cannot. When you look at a shot that has sky in it, the blue of that sky is never the same as what your eye sees. Those two blues never match, in any movie.

“If you take a shot of Central Park, the green of the grass isn’t the same as what your eye sees.” At which point Lumet, an Army radar technician during World War II, jumps into a lengthy explanation of the three kinds of energy—electromagnetic, chemical and thermal—and how film employs two of those forms, thereby losing energy, whereas hi-def is simply, purely electromagnetic.

Sharpen your pencils. There will be a pop quiz later.

Lumet, born in Philadelphia (“I was very smart, I left when I was 1,” he cracks), spent his childhood acting in his father’s Yiddish theater company. His family got through the Depression working on a Jewish soap opera for radio. After the war, Lumet returned to theater, as a director, and then worked in live television, overseeing shows such as “Westinghouse Studio One,” “You Are There” and “The Best of Broadway.” He has been nominated for five directing Oscars (for “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network” and “The Verdict”). In 2005, he was presented with an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

“Before the Devil” is Lumet’s second turn with Finney. Almost 35 years ago, the director steered his star through the celebrity-studded Hercule Poirot mystery “Murder On the Orient Express.” As for Hawke, Hoffman and Tomei, Lumet hadn’t worked with any of the three before, but knew what they were capable of—having followed the actors in film a bit, but much more so on the stage.

“When I spoke to Philip the first time, I said, `I’m sending you a script, pick either part,’ ” referring to the ill-fated brothers. “That was a little Machiavellian on my part, because I knew how flattering that was.

“But Philip didn’t. He came back and said, `Listen, I love this script, but I don’t know which one I want to do.’ He said, `Why don’t you go ahead and see who else you cast,’ which gave him a lot of leverage, because if he didn’t like the actor, then he could bow out altogether. And I sent it to Ethan, and I told him the truth, I said, `Philip’s got it and I don’t know what part he’s thinking of doing. So you tell me.’ And Ethan picked Hank, the younger brother, which was wonderful. It all worked out.”

Right now, Lumet is readying his next feature, from a screenplay he’s written, which, if the financing comes together, he’ll direct early in the new year. The man, whose influence is amply evident in Tony Gilroy’s great “Michael Clayton,” shows no sign of slowing down.

“In all honesty, I’m not super-energetic or anything,” Lumet says. “I get as much back as I put out. ... My job is to get the best out of everyone working with me, and that’s a terrific job. And when you get that best, it’s deep with satisfaction. So I come home tired, but happy.”

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