Sydney Lumet was a great director. Among the late filmmaker's work is 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and The Verdict. IMDB lists around 75 film and television credits to his name ranging from a 1951 television series called Crime Photographer to 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, his final film before his death in 2011. He was nominated for an Academy Award five times, received an honorary award in 2005, worked with some of the greatest actors and technicians in film history, and was amazing prolific during numerous eras and styles. When someone like Sydney Lumet writes a book about directing, you read it.
Written in 1995, Making Movies is Lumet's account of how to make movies as director, the responsibilities overseen, the challenges inherent in the form, the people one deals with, and the different steps of the process. Lumet's films often had a nitty-gritty atmosphere to them, and the same applies to his book. This is an exploration of the job and what it takes. While directing movies is a rewarding and artful endeavor, Lumet explains how it's not all glamorous; it requires an enormous commitment of time, energy, talent, and effort.
The book;s structure parallels a movie production starting with the idea for a movie. Lumet calls this the most important decision in the entire process: what is this movie about? The answer to that question dictates everything else that follows, everything from the cinematographer and production designer hired, the look of the movie, the film stocks used, the actors chosen, the type of performances striven for, everything. What a movie is about affects how it is about it.
Lumet divides the book into chapters by the given step of the process: script, style, actors, camera, art direction, shooting the picture, watching rushes, editing, sound and music, sound mixing, the final cut, and showing the completed movie to the studio that financed it. Along the way, Lumet shares his philosophies and stories illustrating where he got his beliefs about filmmaking. He works in both positive anecdotes and depressing horror stories about his experiences.
Essentially, the basics of directing are identical to almost any other managerial position. A director has to have a clear vision of what he or she wants to accomplish, hire the best-fitting people to carry out the task at hand, be prepared for unexpected developments, know how to communicate and work out any potential issues, understand every aspect of the organization he or she heads up, balance ambition and restriction, and take charge. Being a director is being a leader. "There are no small decisions" in movie making, Lumet writes. When things get rough, everyone in the cast and crew has to be able to look to the director for understanding and clarity.
What helps the book is how Lumet comes off as very personable, knowledgeable, and professional, not a self-promoting egotist. He gives enormous credit to many of the actors, crew members, and technicians he's worked with over the years. Nor is he not out to stir gossip. Anyone he had an issue or problem with is not mentioned by name, only the lesson taken away from the experience. Readers seeking for a tell-all should look elsewhere.