Written by Brian Brooks
Movie fans may find it surprising that prolific filmmaker Sidney Lumet did not receive an Oscar until he was given an honorary Academy Award in 2005. He did, however, receive nominations for Best Director for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982) in addition to a writing nomination for Prince of the City (1981).
Lumet, however, was the spotlight in a multi-hour interview a few years before his death, though until now, it had been seen only by a few — until now. A feature-version of the wide-ranging discussion with the director is at the center of the aptly titled documentary, By Sidney Lumet, by Nancy Buirski.
Buirski was invited to view 18 hours of footage of the interview with Lumet created by Daniel Anker, who himself passed away in 2013. American Masters asked Buirski if she’d be interested in tackling a feature-film-style documentary of the footage, which was shot in 2008, about three years before Lumet’s own death in 2011.
“It’s a deep, broad interview, but it didn’t have a particular coherence,” said Buirski. “My challenge was to find a storyline in that.”
After viewing Lumet’s films and watching the interview footage, she did in fact find a thematic core that moved her to take on the film. In By Sidney Lumet, the film reveals what matters to him on a human and artistic level. The feature shows clips from many of Lumet’s 44 films to create a portrait of the work and life of one of the influential filmmaker. By Sidney Lumet focuses on Lumet’s moral tales, which it argues, captures the dilemmas and concerns of a society struggling with ‘how one behaves to others and to oneself.’”
“I sensed the story had to do with his denial that he was making films that have a moral message,” said Buirski. “He said that he didn’t set out to do that, but if you look at his films and listen to him carefully, the films resonate today and embody [morality].”
Lumet made over forty films beginning with the lauded 12 Angry Men, starring Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Jack Krugman and Martin Balsam, usually coming out with a new picture every year up to his final feature, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007.
“His work ethos was incredibly important to him,” said Buirski, who shaved the many hours of footage down to a digestible one hour and forty-three minutes for the doc, including scenes from many of his classics. “As I got to understand his life influences and the tropes that were inspiring and driving him, I felt those films where morality is deeply embedded are [recognizable.] When you understand his life, you see that this is a man who is dealing with these issues even if it’s conscious or not. Those were the themes I was trying to develop.”
Early on in By Sidney Lumet, the director reveals witnessing a horrifying assault on a young women by a group of me, while on a train overseas, which is understandably jarring. The frightening experience stayed with him throughout his life, though very few knew about it until he revealed it in this interview.
“I do think this [terrible event] is part of the weaving together of life experiences that are reflected in his movies,” said Buirski. “Many of his main characters deal with a person going up against a mob or dealing with an injustice…He kept that story buried most of his life. This was, I believe, the first time he spoke about it publicly. His family didn’t even know about it. You can only imagine how powerful it was if he kept it hidden so long. It had to have played an influence.”
When taking on By Sidney Lumet, Buirski — who incidentally produced the awards-tipped Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols, and is currently making its way into theaters around the country with robust box office numbers — described herself as a fan of Lumet’s as she dove into creating the documentary, but ended up a “huge fan.”
“He loved Daniel (1983) and sorry it didn’t do better,” explained Buirski. “He tried to wrestle with that story, but it’s one of his favorite films. I think this is one case where he’ll admit it’s somewhat autobiographical because it deals with the leftist protest community from the Lower East Side and that’s what he grew up with, so he was fascinated by that. Running on Empty (1988) was also a favorite, but was also not successful. But he does talk about his affection for Network which of course was a very successful movie. There is so much humor in that film.”