May 2003

Under the Influence: Sidney Lumet and Network

BY KEVIN LEWIS  

Sidney Lumet and Raymond DeFelitta

Arguably the most penetrating examination of the communications industry ever produced, Sidney Lumet's Network (1976) is a truly seminal work, so its selection to inaugurate the DGA's "Under the Influence" series in New York was fitting indeed. The series is sponsored by the Independent Directors Committee (IDC), and many of its members — Dan Algrant, Raymond DeFelitta, Tom DiCillo, Mary Harron, Marc Levin — admit they are quite "under the influence" of Sidney Lumet.

DeFelitta (Two Family House, Café Society) led a discussion with Lumet and moderated the energetic Q&A. "One of the reasons I am so delighted that you are our inaugural speaker for 'Under the Influence,' " he said, "is because, for many years, New York filmmaking essentially meant Sidney Lumet. Of all the people who came out of live TV, you never left." And although he had "no sense of mission" about creating films in the Big Apple, Lumet said he never liked making movies in California.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the evening was the admiration expressed on the part of younger DGA members for an older, yet pertinent film. Long before the real advent of "reality television" and such political satires as Wag the Dog, Network existed as a cautionary fable about what might occur if network programming devoured the money-losing news department. With the connivance of a network executive (Frank Hackett, played by Robert Duvall), the rapacious producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) contracts with terrorists to stage attacks and robberies for broadcast, thus creating a riveting "reality" program. When a veteran anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is fired and threatens on-camera suicide, Christensen makes him the star of a show in which he cheerleads a frustrated public into screaming, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

DeFelitta defined the film as extreme satire. "This is over 25 years old and it is clearly 25 years ahead of its time. What did you think of this when you first read it?"

"I thought it was marvelous," said Lumet. "Once it opened, everybody kept saying, 'Oh, what a brilliant satire.' But Paddy [Chayefsky, screenwriter] and I always said, 'This isn't satire, it's sheer reportage.' We were both brought up in television, so we knew what we were dealing with. But I've got to tell you — I don't think I've seen it in 20 years (I don't usually like to look at my work) — I'm stunned at how prescient it is. A lot of what was hilarious 25 years ago got no laughter tonight because it has all come true. So it hits you with a kind of impact that was not originally intended."

Randy Slavin, DGA director member Alison Thompson and Lumet

Interestingly, Network was greenlit by MGM to settle a lawsuit that Chayefsky had lodged against United Artists over receipts on his previous film, The Hospital (1971). "Network was the settlement on The Hospital suit," Lumet said, revealing that it cost $3.8 million and was shot in 32 days.

DeFelitta noted that the film contains a "feast of great acting of so many different styles." Lumet, who himself was a child actor on Broadway in the 1930s, is beloved by actors because of his empathy and respect for them. Indeed, one hallmark of Lumet's movies is a large ensemble cast in which each performer shines, for example, Twelve Angry Men (1957), The Group (1966) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

Lumet's films have ranged from gritty crime and urban dramas like The Pawnbroker (1965), Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to such classic plays as Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) and The Sea Gull (1968). Few can rival his record as a director of performances which have been awarded not only Oscars, but also Cannes, Venice and New York Film Critics honors. In bold and courageous fashion, Lumet has directed casts comprised of Old Hollywood stars, method actors and emerging stage-trained performers. "Everybody in the Network cast was [my] first choice," said Lumet. It is a testament to the respect accorded to the director by even the finest actors.

Lumet went on to describe some of Network's challenges. "It was a very difficult movie because the comedic level made the drama work better, and making sure that that comedic level was working was extremely tough. Stylistically, once I knew where I had to go with it, it wasn't too difficult to arrive at. Since it was a movie about corruption, we corrupted the camera. The opening scene between William Holden [playing Max Schumacher] and Peter Finch on Sixth Avenue (the two of them drunk and roaring with laughter) was totally naturalistic and shot and lit that way. The minute Faye Dunaway appears, the light changes completely, and by the last scene, the movie looks like a Ford commercial. That movement, we did very subtly and very slowly so that you didn't spot it happening. Basically, that's what was going on visually and that's what was going on in performances as well."

Lumet discusses directing Network

At the time of the film's release, Finch garnered most of the critical attention. Who could compete with the image of an insane Howard Beale, screaming the now immortal line, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" and threatening to commit suicide on camera? Finch, who died of a heart attack shortly after the movie opened, received a posthumous Oscar, and Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight won the best actress and best supporting actress Academy Awards.

Yet Holden, who was up against Finch for best actor, is the commanding presence in Network today. Floating above all the performances, DeFelitta said, was Holden in what he considers to be one of the great performances. "He was remarkable," agreed Lumet. "He says to her [Faye Dunaway], he's the only thing between her and insanity. And he's the only thing between the picture and insanity. The function he performs for her is the same function that he performs for us, the audience."

DeFelitta recalled that Lumet was criticized by the television industry for biting the hand that fed him, just like Billy Wilder was trounced by Old Hollywood for making Sunset Boulevard (1950). And there are thematic similarities between the two films (beyond the casting of Holden as lead). Sunset Boulevard and Network both juxtapose the pioneers of an industry with those buccaneers who grapple with changing old to new. As Norma Desmond was part of a simpler era in the embryonic film industry and out of touch with a frightened post-World War II Hollywood, Max Schumacher in Network was a first-generation television executive unable to comprehend the greed for ratings and millions in the conglomerate communications industry.

But Lumet is not sentimental about his role in the industry. "I think it's always important to bite the hand that feeds you. There's nothing sacred. We were making a living, and we were giving a lot back. Paddy was doing wonderful work, I was doing very good work, and they were getting what they hired us for. They were getting ratings and successful shows ... CBS was getting its money's worth. I had no guilt for giving them a kick in the ass if we wanted."

Though it was written by Paddy Chayefsky, who also wrote the teleplays for groundbreaking dramas like Marty (1953), the film represents an accurate reflection of Lumet's experiences as a player in the first generation of television. Several times during the evening, Lumet mentioned CBS (his alma mater in the early 1950s for such series as You Are There and Danger) as the model for UBS, the fictional broadcasting network in Network. The images of anchormen like Walter Cronkite, and the mentioning of Edward R. Murrow and Robert Trout as colleagues of Howard Beale and Max Schumacher, support the roman à clef design.

Later in the discussion, Lumet was complimented for his civility toward actors. "Well, the niceness — that's because I'm a nice guy. I can't stand tension on a set. It doesn't help. There are directors who like to create it because they think it's a way of working. Look, we're like athletes, you get tension around there, and you're going to pull a muscle someplace. So you start and say, 'Hey folks, it's only a movie.' Start with that. The reason for the speed is because I rehearse. I think we rehearsed Network two or three weeks. When I say rehearse, we rehearse everything: walking, if there's a car chase, we rehearse the car chase, and at the end of the second week, for example, we have a runthrough, just like in the theater. It's blocked, the sets are laid out on the floor, and props are there. So once we get to the shooting, we know where we are.

"I can't remember going past four takes on anything we did in Network. If I go more than four takes, it's usually because I staged it wrong, or maybe there are some words that are wrong. [Rehearsal] is also a time in which the actors can develop faith in me, in my taste and in my knowledge. Once they have that, they are released, they are free.

"So when we get to the shooting, we're off and running. And quite the reverse, when I have worked with actors who've only worked in movies, they come in terrified of rehearsal. They say, 'Sidney's going to kill the spontaneity.' The truth is the exact opposite. Because they know what they're doing, because they know where they are in the character, because they feel safe with me and in the selections they've made, they are twice as free. On a location, if a plane goes by, fine, they'll incorporate it or ignore it. If a dog bites them, they'll incorporate it or ignore it. They're open to whatever the momentary situation is because they are much more secure. So, if anything, it helps spontaneity."

Lumet is a master at understanding producers, and a question was raised about his priorities in dealmaking. "The financial structure is so complex," Lumet replied. "It's not that I'm so naive, it's just that I'm not really interested. I'm interested in a chance to work, and so when I was doing Danger and You Are There — two live, half-hour shows a week — the agency guys in the back, they didn't bother me. I was delighted that they would give us the money to put on those shows.

"It's like today: I don't get upset at the studio. I can't go out and raise six million or 12 million or 20 million bucks, or if I could, I sure as hell don't want to spend my time doing that. I'm very grateful to someone who gives me that money. Clearly what I'm talking about is the work. Movies need money to be done. Television needs money to be done. The big thing you do is obviously try to protect the integrity of what you're doing. So as soon as you get your first three hits, don't go for a bigger salary. The first thing you go for is final cut, and they'll trade you for it because they are interested in money. You turn down the five million, the six million, and say, 'I'll take my 1½ million, I want final cut.' You'll get it — if you've had the hits. So, it's about getting an opportunity to work, and then doing everything you can to protect it. You're not going to win all the time. There's no feeling in the world like going in and seeing your picture re-cut. It's like they've done it to your body physically. It ain't easy, but it's not supposed to be easy, is it?"

DeFelitta closed the evening with an understatement. "I think that you've just heard the most pragmatic and inspiring words you could hear about filmmaking."

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