Excerpts from Making Movies by Sidney Lumet

I’ve been doing A LOT of reading lately. I’ve mostly been reading about film making. I’m starting to feel the drawing itch come back, so I’ll probably read less, and starting sketching more in the coming weeks. I figured it would be a good idea to post my notes from the books I’ve read. This way I can access them from anywhere should I need to refer to them. And as a bonus, anyone that reads this can benefit from them!

Here’s my notes from Sidney Lumet’s book. This is an incredible book, click the image and go buy it now. Sidney is the director behind such amazing films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, 12 Angry Men (The original), Find Me Guilty, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (I LOVE this one!), Gloria, The Verdict (Paul Newman is my hero), and so many more. He’s one of those directors that doesn’t really make a bad film. Anyway, here’s my notes…

When I read a book like this, I usually attack it with a highlighter. All the little tidbits of information that are important to me at the moment, I highlight. It could be the name of a film that I haven’t seen yet, or a simple thing I should look out for the next time I see a movie again. Naturally, I also highlight great quotes, and useful, thought-provoking statements. Enjoy

There are no minor decisions in movie making. Each decision will either contribute to a good piece of work or bring the whole movie crashing down around my head many months later.

We’re not out for consensus here. We’re out for communication. And sometimes we even get consensus. And that’s thrilling.

I think inevitability is the key. In a well made drama, I want to feel: “Of course – that’s where it was headed all along.” And yet the inevitability mustn’t eliminate surprise.

The script must keep you off balance. Keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give a sense that the story HAD to turn out that way.

Normally I’m not concerned about audience reaction. But when you touch on sex and death, two aspect of life that hit a deep core, there’s no way of knowing what an audience will do.

A character should be clear from his present actions.

If the writer has to state the reasons, something’s wrong in the way the character is written. Dialogue is like anything else in movies. It can be a crutch, or when used well, it can enhance, deepen, and reveal.

The way you tell a story should relate somehow to what that story is. Because that’s what style is: the way you tell a particular story.

Improvisation can be an effective tool in rehearsal as a way of finding what you’re really like when, for example, you’re angry. Knowing your feelings let you know when those feelings are real as opposed to when you’re simulating them.

No lens truly sees what the human eye sees, but the lenses that come closest are the midrange lenses, from 28 mm to 40 mm. The longer the lens, the closer the object seems, both to the camera, and to one another.

If I wanted to get rid of as much background as possible, I’d use a long lens.

When I need a long lens but want to keep the image sharper, we’ll pour in more light

Good camera work is not pretty pictures. It should augment and reveal the theme as fully as the actors and directors do.

Blue or red may mean totally different things to you and me. But as long as my interpretation of a color is consistent, eventually you’ll become aware (subconciously, I hope) of how I’m using that color, and what I’m using it for.

When this magic happens, the best thing you can do is get out of the way of the picture. Let IT tell YOU how to do it from now on.

I guess I’m talking abour self-deception. In any creative effort, I think that’s absolutely necessary. Creative work is hard, and some sort of self-deception in necessary simply in order to begin. To start, you have to believe that it’s going to turn out well. And so often it doesn’t.

Don’t let the difficulty of actually achieveing a shot make you think that the shot is good.

Don’t let a technical failure destroy the shot for you.

You have to keep your eye on the dramatic impact of the shot. Is there life there? That’s what matters.

When in doubt, look at it again a day or two later.

A good place to make an audio cut is on a plosive, a P or a B. An S works well.

Edit it for story, but as part of the form of melodrama, edit is as surprisingly, as unexpectedly, as you can. Try to keep the audience off balance, though not to a point where the story gets lost.

To me, there are to main elements to editing: Juxtaposing images and creating tempo.

If a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo we feel, not the tempo itself.

In movies where I’m not using tempo for characterization, I am very careful to continually change the pace of the movie in the editing.

I think of the tempo change over the arc of the whole picture. Melodramas usually accelerate…But in many pictures, towards the ends, I’ve wanted to slow things down, to give the audience, as well as the movie, time to breathe.

There are no small decisions in moviemaking. Nowhere does this apply more than in editing.

Movies are very powerfull. You’d better have a lot to say if you want to run over two hours.

Overlength is one of the things that most often results in the destruction of the movie in the cutting room.

Almost every picture is improved by a good musical score. To start with, music is a quick way to reach people emotionally.

The only movie score I’ve heard, that can stand on its own as a piece of music is Prokofiev’s, “Battle on the Ice” from Alexander Nevsky

I like to make sure that every music cure has enough time to say and do what it’s supposed to say and do.

Short melodramatic bursts or segues from one scene to another simply fill the air with useless sound and therefore reduce the effectiveness of the music when it’s really needed.

Apocalypse Now, which has the most imaginative and dramatic use of sound effects of any movie I’ve seen.

Howard Shore’s superb scoring for the Silence of the Lambs.

Everything becomes creative if the person doing the job is.

Without ancillary rights, most pictures would lose money. Commercial success has no relation 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. Through some incredible talent, Walt Disney knew. Today Steven Spielberg seems to.

And that’s what so much of making movies is about: fighting.