Sidney Lumet was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the modern era, directing more than one movie a year on average since his directorial debut in 1957 of 12 Angry Men.
As well as being a fine craftsman in his field he also had a strong direction of actors and thus was also known as the ‘actor’s director’, having worked with the best of them during his career including Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Paul Newman and Sean Connery to name but a few.
In his book Making Movies Sidney relays the process or method by which he worked with his actors on each film project and the stages of rehearsals prior to production that they went through.
‘I love actors. I love them because they’re brave.’ Are the words Sidney proclaims as he’s about to explains the process in which actors require to work hard in order to reveal their true selves. He goes on to say the talent of acting is one in which the actor’s thoughts and feelings are instantly communicated to the audience. The instrument that the actors use are themselves. It’s their feelings, their physiognomy, their sexuality, their tears, their laughter, their anger, their tenderness that are up there on the screen for all to see. That’s not easy. In fact, quite often it’s painful.
Sidney believes that there are many actors who can duplicate life brilliantly. Every detail will be correct, beautifully observed and perfectly reproduced. But one thing is missing. The characters not alive. Sidney didn’t want life reproduced up there on the screen. He wanted life created. The difference lies in the degree of the actors personal revelation.
Before every film went into production Sidney would normally do a good two weeks rehearsal with the actors before filming. Running through the script which meant a run through that goes straight through the entire script, with no stops between scenes. The intention was to find the character within the scenes and give it an emotional resonance.
The first two or three days were spent around the table, talking about the script. The first thing was to establish the theme. Then into each character, each scene, each line. Even if the main character had a critical scene with a character who appeared only once in the movie, Sidney would bring that small part actor in for the day for rehearsals.
During the process of the read throughs he discovered that after three days of reading the third time round wasn’t as good as the first. That’s because the actors instincts were pushing them on that first day. But
instinct wears out quickly in acting, because of repetition. So one has to substitute ‘actions’ that can stimulate emotions to compensate for the loss
of instinct. That’s what two days of discussions were about. In other words, they began to use technique. By the time they reached that second reading, instinct had been used up, but they still haven’t had enough time to find all the emotional triggers that the actors needed. And this is why the reading wasn’t as good.
In the same period they were seeing whether transitions are missing in character or plot, whether all the necessary information is conveyed clearly, whether the pictures were too long or its dialogue not crip enough.
On the fourth day they started blocking the scenes. The interior scenes were laid out in tape on the floor in its actual dimensions. Furniture put in the same place where it would appear on the actual sets all the way down to the props that were needed. The actors were up on their feet and it’s ‘cross here’, ‘sit on this line’ ‘I’ll be more comfortable not looking at her in this scene.’ They staged everything including fights, chases, walks, everything whether indoors or out. Sidney called it ‘throwing it up on its feet’ and the process took about two and a half days.
Then they started again from the beginning, stopping every now and again to make sure every move in the staging flowed from what was discussed earlier. The director wanted to see where the actors instincts lead them. To see how each step flowed organically from the previous step: from reading to staging to deciding how to shoot the picture. This stop and go process would take another two and a half days.
On the final day of rehearsal they’d do one or two run throughs. Making sure to rehearse in sequence. Rehearsing this way gave the actors the sense of continuity, the ‘arc’ of their characters so they knew exactly where they were when shooting began, regardless of the shooting order.
This allowed the actors to gain confidence during rehearsals by revealing their inner selves. They learned about the director who held nothing back and therefore they didn’t have to hold nothing back in front of the camera. They had to be able to trust the director to know that the director could ‘feel’ them and what they were doing. This mutual trust was the most important element between the actor and director.
At the same time that they were learning about the director, the director was finding out things about the actors. What stimulated them, what triggered their emotions? What annoyed them? How was their concentration? Did they have a technique? What method of acting did they use? The actors were also learning about each other. They were revealing themselves to each other, sharing, in greater and greater amounts their personal feelings.
Sidney always searched and explored ways in which he could get actors with different life experiences and acting techniques to look like they were making the same movie. Just as in life, really talking, and listening to one another is very, very difficult. In acting, that’s the basis on which everyone is built. Sidney would tell his actors ‘Go as far as you feel, do as much for as little as you want to. If you reel it, let it fly. Don’t worry whether it’s the right emotion or the wrong one. We’ll find out. That’s what rehearsals are for. But talk to each other and listen to each other. Don’t worry about losing your place in the script as long as you’re really talking and listening to each other. Try to pick up on what you just heard.’
It is the rehearsal period that gave the time not only to prepare the mechanical aspects of the picture but to develop the closeness needed for private, emotional revelations.
Sidney believed that self knowledge was important in so many ways to an actor. Improvisation could be an effective tool in rehearsal as a way of finding out what the actor was really like when, for example, they’re angry. Knowing their feelings let Sidney know when those feelings were real as opposed to when they were simulating them. No matter how insecure, almost all great actors have a high degree of self knowledge. They may hate what they see, but they do see themselves. It’s self knowledge that serves as the integrating element between the actor’s natural persona and the character they’re playing.