Sidney Lumet, filmmaker


Awards: 2005 Honorary Oscar; 1997 WGA Evelyn F. Burkey Award (1997); DGA Lifetime Achievement (1993); Golden Globe as best director for "Network" (1977). Current credit: Director of ThinkFilm's heist thriller "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," about a jewelry-store robbery gone horribly wrong. Memberships: Writers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America. Academy member since: 1957.

The Hollywood Reporter: Your latest film has arguably the most memorable title of the year.
Sidney Lumet: Isn't that wonderful? It's an old Irish toast, the last two lines of which are "May you have a half-hour in heaven before the devil knows you're dead." It's nice when you get a good title, but when we were doing (1975's) "Dog Day Afternoon," we hated the title, so we ran a contest at Warner Bros. We were offering $5,000 to anybody who could come up with a better title. And nobody did, so we said, "All right, let's go ahead with 'Dog Day Afternoon.' " It's the old thing: If the picture's a hit, it's a great title; if it's a flop, it's a bad one.

THR: "Devil" is a crime story, which is a subject you're familiar with. What interests you about that world?
Lumet: Automatically, you've got a good thing going for you. In a courtroom, right away you've got two sides. In a prison, you've automatically got two sides. You're off and running as far as drama is concerned, so the audience can immediately make some very valid assumptions. Being a lazy old man, it's easier.

THR: The film features an impressive cast -- Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei. What's your secret to getting strong performances from your actors?
Lumet: I understand what their problems and potential problems are. I can anticipate them. I love them and sympathize with them, and I think they can feel that and are therefore able to ease off, to relax. And when you're relaxed, things start to happen. Tension never helped anybody. Relaxation is a key to so much. I think I get them ready for work rather than ready for exhibitionism or self-protection or any of those things that hurt performances.

THR: Given that you've spent so much time working in both film and television, which medium would you say is more effective when it comes t communication with audiences?
Lumet: When you look at television, certainly a television show will reach many more people than a movie will. But does a TV show have the same impact as a movie? We could argue about that. The thing is, a 17-inch piece of glass to me has less impact than a 40-foot image. I think the only essential is that it be good. Otherwise, then it's what we call agitprop -- trying to get a point across for the sake of the point rather than trying to get a drama across.

THR: How is creating television in the new millennium different from when you were doing shows like "You Are There" in the 1950s and '60s?
Lumet: When I was doing it in the '50s, all of my work was live. Now that is simply gone. I guess it doesn't make sense financially, so that's a big loss to me. Filmed television can sometimes be the worst of both worlds. One of the reasons I loved doing "100 Center Street" was by doing it on high-def I was using two, three, four cameras a show -- much like we were doing in live days. And that was terrific because it allowed us to get a lot of work done in a very short period of time. We'd do an eight-hour day and go home.
THR: Have you ever taken advice from anyone about your career?
Lumet: When I was out in California and I had my second nomination (for "Dog Day Afternoon"), I had dinner with George Cukor, a great man, magnificent director. He said, "Sidney, don't be disappointed. I had to be nominated five times before I won," which I thought was the most charming advice. First of all, look at the level of work he was nominated for (1933's "Little Women," 1940's "The Philadelphia Story," 1947's "A Double Life," 1950's "Born Yesterday" and 1964's "My Fair Lady"). Second of all, he was telling me that I might get it on my sixth nomination, which was a great compliment. That's as close to the most flattering advice I'd ever received, because it said wonderful things about the man who gave it to me, and wonderful things about me.