Before Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola, there was Sidney Lumet. The six-time Oscar-nominated director brought us the best films in almost every genre including mystery (“Murder on the Orient Express”), courtroom drama (“The Verdict”), crime (“Dog Day Afternoon”), political thriller (“Fail-Safe”) and even musical (“The Wiz”). He’s also perhaps the only director whose career is bookended by two great films, starting with “12 Angry Men” in 1957 and ending with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” in 2007, proving that after half a century and almost a film a year, he never lost his touch.
Ironically, with all Lumet’s accomplishments there has never been a definitive record of his work. Until now. Thanks to director Nancy Buirski and Tribeca’s great history of informative documentaries, Lumet’s cinematic history is brought to us in the unpretentious titled “By Sidney Lumet.” The film was undoubtedly one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
Unlike traditional docs Buirski foregoes the talking heads and chronological order in favor of conveying information through footage of an interview with Lumet himself. This internal and unconventional approach works thanks to the depth of Lumet’s inner feelings which in turn give a fresh introspective of his art and craft.
What Buirski does, through shrewd editing, is touch on Lumet’s personal style while cutting various film clips, from “Network” to “Serpico,” and “The Pawnbroker.” “It was an organic process, I watched all his movies, listened to his interview and tried to gleam the essence of his life, process and influences then movies would just come to mind.” said Buirski during a meeting we had together at Tribeca. “There were themes that come out in the films as a result of knowing about his life that were not intentional themes when he made those films.”
The Lumet interview dates back to 2008, three years before his death, and was recorded by award-winning documentarian Danny Anker, who himself passed away before he could pull together a full project from the material. Buirski saw the eighteen hours of footage (which would eventually be pared down to forty minutes) and thought of it as an opportunity to let Sidney Lumet tell his own story by guiding us through his life and work. “Artists want an opportunity to talk about what matters to them. This approach allows us to hear what Lumet thinks, see those thoughts related visually and as a result, feel his passion.”
Lumet himself was known to be a very generous director both to his actors and his fans. He would always speak openly about why he made films and what was important to him about why he would make them. “He was like a magician giving away his tricks,” Buirski said.
Buirski’s background in documentary filmmaking stems from a love of informative storytelling. “Truth really is stranger than fiction,” she added. She hopes “By Sidney Lumet” will not only renew enthusiasm in the director’s work but by showing how his impoverished background led him to become the filmmaker he was, will manifest how we all end up reflecting our upbringing in our work. So far the film has been well received with the late Lumet’s wife and daughters giving their approval.
“By Sidney Lumet” was shown at last year’s Cannes Festival as part of their Cannes Classics series (more details).