Working With Sidney Lumet: Not a False Note
It was my great honor to have Sidney Lumet as the director of my screenplay, A Stranger Among Us, 1992, starring Melanie Griffith, Eric Thal, and Mia Sara.
Working with Sidney was a master class in making movies. I learned more from Sidney than anyone else in my entire Hollywood career. He relished collaboration. But, like a no-nonsense general, always maintained a firm grip on the material, insisting that the greatest sin was dramatic falsehood. No matter how outlandish the scene or the core material, it is the movie maker's job to infuse the narrative with a spine of truth.
Director Sidney Lumet, 1924 – 2011
Audiences, Sidney told me over and over again, can sense when Hollywood tries to put one over on them with polished nonsense.
In 1991, when “Stranger” received the green light to go into production, my producer Howard Rosenman, without whom the film would never have been made, asked me who I wanted as director.
Without hesitation, I replied,” Sidney Lumet.”
“I'll send him the script with an offer,” said Howard.
Sidney Lumet was one of the great Hollywood directors, and though he got his start in live television in the late 50's, I always thought of Sidney's work as a direct descendant of the Hollywood's Golden Age. Like Howard Hawks, John Ford, Clarence Brown, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wellman, Billy Wilder, George Cukor, Victor Fleming and so many others, Sidney strived to hide technique in order to achieve an invisible style in which the story and performance was supreme. Like movie masters of previous generations, Sidney labored to make sure that the audience understood the geography within the frame, and from one scene to the next. Frenzied editing was, for Sidney, a sure sign that the director, literally, could not direct.
For “Stranger” primarily a romance between a hard-boiled and foul-mouthed female detective and a serenely spiritual Hasidic young man, I wanted a director who would concentrate on performance and not hide behind bravura camera movements, the bread and butter of the tedious and clueless auteurists.
Eric Thal and Melanie Griffith in A Stranger Among Us, 1992.
A few days later, I was told to expect a phone call from Sidney Lumet.
”Robert, my dear, this is a wonderful, unexpected script and we are going to work together to make sure that everything you've written comes through in the movie.”
“Oh, gee, Sidney Lumet...”
It will surprise no one that yours truly, a writer, was at a loss for words.
Two days later, I flew to New York and met Sidney in his Broadway office.
Sidney was gracious, a gentleman. He sensed my frayed nerves—a sleepless five hours on the red-eye—and, I suppose, my hero-worship was embarrassingly obvious.
Writing is rewriting. And in motion pictures, the writing is never done until the film is locked and in the movie theaters.
Sidney was determined that “Stranger” emphasize the love story.
I agreed, but worried that the mystery and suspense would get diluted.
Sidney allowed that my fears were probably correct, but, he said, a film must have a consistent tone. One always makes a thematic choice and in this case, the romance was, without question, the strongest element.
“Anyone can write a car chase” Sidney said, ”but only you, my dear Robert, can convincingly write about a hard-ass female detective and a Kabbalah inspired Hasid.”
For two weeks, Sidney and I labored over the production rewrite. It was exhausting and exhilarating. Ideas were proposed, dropped, resurrected, and then replaced with even better ideas. Sidney left the dialogue to me. He trusted my instincts and only intervened to cut words.
Less is more.
Relaxing, we discussed, what else? Movies.
Specifically, the work of Japanese master, Akira Kurosawa. Sidney and I agreed that The Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950), were, probably, the two greatest movies ever made.
“Not a false note in either film,” said Sidney.
Further, Sidney and I decided to lift an idea that Kurosawa pioneered with the use of weather in The Seven Samurai. Stranger would begin with bright and sunny days and gradually darken, until the last scene where rain would pour down on our main character. The weather would, invisibly, buttress the tragic character of the love story.
Rewrite finished, Sidney and I headed back to LA for a meeting with the studio brass.
Script conferences are always torture. There are usually a dozen executives in the room, each has his own idea of what the film should be, how to improve it, how to make it more commercial. And each executive is deathly afraid of losing his parking spot in the studio lot.
Soon, it became clear what the executives objected to.
The screenplay was, well, too Jewish.
Too much Jewish ritual.
Too much Yiddish.
Too many obscure Jewish references.
Melanie Griffith as Detective Emily Eden with child extra on her lap during the Sabbath sequence in Stranger Among Us.
“We think the film should be more universal,” said the most powerful executive in the room.
My mouth was dry. The blood pounding in my ears. Why on earth did the studio agree to pour millions into this script and then deliberately sabotage the very material they claimed to love?
Sidney pondered a moment and said, ”When I made Fail Safe (1964) there were over a dozen technical military terms that flew right by the audience. They had no idea what the phrases meant. But you know why we kept them in the movie?”
The executives leaned forward.
So did I.
“We kept them in the movie because the audience knew they were real, the audience knew the words were genuine. They didn't have to know what they meant.”
“As for making the material more universal, well, in my experience the more specific the cultural details the more universal does the story become.”
Every executive sat back, considered Sidney's words for a long moment and then they all just nodded, and smiled.
Sidney did not bully the executives, he did not get all diva on them and insult their intelligence. Sidney's articulate counter-argument just made sense.
The studio executives, to their credit, withdrew their objections and told us to go ahead and make our movie.
Wisdom, a rare virtue in Hollywood, triumphed.
Outside, in the studio parking lot, I hugged Sidney, for he had just saved my script—rescued our film.
Sidney smiled and said: ”My dear Robert, how could I do otherwise? I owe it to the material and I owe it to you.”
I believe Sidney had it backwards. I owed Sidney, and continue to owe him: for his talent, his generosity, and his supreme humanity.