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Further Phoenix
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Running on Empty

Steven Spielberg

Sidney Lumet

Naomi Foner

Making Movies

San Francisco

Academy Awards

Dog Day Afternoon

Prince of the City

12 Angry Men

Murder on the Orient Express

Gore Vidal

Jose Iturbi

Jeanette MacDonald

Gloria Jean
Rio's Attic: Celebrating the Life and Times of a Dearly Missed River Phoenix
American EnglishEn Français

Making Movies

by Sidney Lumet.
First published in 1995.

ISBN 0-7475-2767-9 (Paperback, 220 Pages)

Since the beginning of his career in 1957 Sidney Lumet has directed more than forty films and to date, these pictures have received more than fifty Academy Award nominations.

Here, the acclaimed director presents an honest and fascinating account detailing the enormous amount of work that goes into the production of a film. Beginning with script selection, the director leaves no aspect of movie-making untouched dealing with such issues as cameras, actors, costumes, the cutting room and sound recording.

Someone once asked me what making a movie was like. I said it was like making a mosaic. Each setup is like a tiny tile. You color it, shape it, polish it as best you can. You'll do six or seven hundred of these, maybe a thousand. (There can easily be that many setups in a movie.) Then you literally paste them together and hope it's what you set out to do. But if you expect the final mosaic to look like anything, you'd better know what you're going for as you work on each tiny tile.

Throughout the book, most of the memories that the director recalls are his experiences working on his most famous films such as 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City. But Lumet still has time to fondly recall working on one of his lesser-known movies. It was a project that we learn he felt so passionately about that he took a pay cut just so he could be permitted to direct it - a decision he tells us that he has never once regretted. That movie was Running on Empty.

Naomi is a fine, talented, and original writer. Somehow she fell in love with a scene that, to me, was her only bad idea in the whole movie. The young boy, played by River Phoenix comes into a strange house, sits down at the piano, and begins to play a Beethoven sonata. Eventually he notices that he is being watched by a young girl, about his age. In the script, he segues into boogie-woogie piano music.

I explained to Naomi why I thought it was a bad idea. There was a feeling of pandering to the audience: See, he's not really an egghead - he likes jazz, just like you and me. I'd seen the same scene as far back as José Iturbi tickling the ivories in some remote Gloria Jean movie or Jeanette MacDonald singing swing in San Francisco. Naomi fought for it, so I decided to leave it in to see how it played in rehearsal. When I began to stage the scene, River asked if we could cut that bit. He felt false playing it. I saw Naomi pale. We started to talk about it. River told Naomi with great simplicity and earnestness how it compromised his character. (It was enchanting to see this seventeen-year-old arguing with a serious writer twice his age.) Finally, I suggested we try it for a few days to see if there was a value to it. At the end of rehearsal, Naomi came over to me. She said she didn't mind if I had to stretch to accommodate the scene, but she couldn't bear to see River turning himself inside out to make it work. She loved the scene, but she said, "Let's cut it."

Lumet explains that even after the final scene of a movie has been shot, work is still far from over. In the book's closing chapter he talks candidly about one of the most nervous parts of the movie making process - the very first audience preview.

When I pull up, a line has already formed. The people have been recruited mostly from shopping malls. Someone has asked them if they would like to see a movie. A brief plot outline has also been given. Representatives of the research group conducting the preview hover about.
On the line, every demographic group is represented, depending on the anticipated rating. The officially designated categories are: Males 18-25, Females 18-25, Males 26-35, Females 26-35, Males 36-50, Females 36-50, Males over 50, Females over 50. It's all very politically correct: a few African Americans, some Latinos and Latinas, Asian Americans. I've never seen any Native Americans. On Running on Empty, the head of production decided on an entire audience of adolescents, because the star was the magical River Phoenix, a teenage idol. Never mind that the story was about sixties radicals who were on the run because of a campus bombing. There was no way anyone under twenty-five would even know that these kinds of people existed. Naomi Foner's script was very complex, involving not only the boy's relationship to his parents but also his parents' relationship to their parents. The head of production had a teen star, so in his wisdom, that meant a teen audience.

ISBN 0-6797-5660-4 (Paperback)

In a book endorsed by such luminaries as Steven Spielberg and Gore Vidal, Lumet presents his memoirs in both a comprehensive and courteous way. He praises many of the people he has worked with during his career but politely withholds the names of those he has experienced conflict with. By the close of the book, the reader is left in no doubt about the enormity of a director's job. However, this most humble of directors has no problem noting that, in the quest for a good movie, others often make equal sacrifices.

I love actors. I love them because they're brave. All good work requires self-revelation. A musician communicates feelings through the instrument he is playing, a dancer through body movement. The talent of acting is one in which the actor's thoughts and feelings are instantly communicated to the audience. In other words, the "instrument" that an actor is using is himself. It is his feelings, his physiognomy, his sexuality, his tears, his laughter, his anger, his romanticism, his tenderness, his viciousness, that are up there on the screen for all to see. That's not easy. In fact, quite often it's painful.

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