Anna Magnani and Sidney Lumet on The Fugitive Kind, 1959
In the course of my time working in film production, I have come to know some crew members who worked on several of Sydney Lumet films.
For people for whom a 12 hour day is considered short, working on a Lumet set was a revelation. The guy shot fast. Really fast. Maximum 8 hour days.
Now, that can create a minor financial problem if you are a crewmember used to making at least 4 hours of overtime a day. But you get over it due to the wonder of watching a man create brilliant movies with such breathtaking efficiency. He ate up the schedule, got so far ahead of schedule in fact that sets couldn’t be built fast enough to keep up with him.
In all my years in the industry, I’ve never seen such a thing. How is it possible?
The secret is knowing exactly what you want and how to get it. If that sounds easy, it’s not. Personally, I have trouble deciding what I want for lunch, much less how to prepare it.
Lumet had superb instincts, which were refined over years of experience starting as an child actor in the 1930’s, then director of Off-Broadway and summer stock theatre in the 40’s.
By the 1950’s he was working in television and by the end of the decade had directed hundreds of episodes of weekly dramatic series for CBS, as well as televised plays for Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theatre and Studio One.
The Secret is Knowing Exactly What you Want and How to get it.
By the time he began directing feature films, he had evolved an extremely effective technique. He rehearsed with his actors for a minimum of two weeks before shooting, working with the actors to develop the entire arc of the piece. He would stop rehearsing a scene just before he felt the actors were about to nail it, to leave them in a state of suspended excitement and anticipation. When shooting commenced, he was famous for getting a scene in one take, often two at the most, because he ran the rehearsals so well the actors were ready to pop as soon as he called action. He was so organized and confident about the coverage he wanted that he would shoot everything he needed for a particular angle on a set, then tell the set decorators they could start striking that part of the set while the crew went to lunch because he was finished with it. He was never wrong.
It takes a lot of preparation and experience to know what you want and how to get it, but that preparation is not primarily about sitting at a desk planning things. It’s about working as much as possible with actors and text, and doing theatre or scene study provides that.
So don’t spend your life just trying to put together a movie. Fill your days with the incalculably rewarding work of finding out how drama and comedy and story function by putting it on its feet, whether there is a camera running or not.
That way, on every day of a shoot you can make every moment count.
While you’re at it, read Lumet’s book, Making Movies, truly one of the indispensable books about the art and craft of filmmaking.