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12 Angry Men- A Lesson in Staging

It was one of the things, I must say, that scares me about going to work for a major studio—the fact that that can happen. Actually, it was not a bad picture; it had a kind of lovely atmosphere about it. But the old idiocy of you-make-it-good-by-making-it-fast is nonsense, because some of the longest pictures I have ever seen are sixty-five-minute bad pictures. How was the situation on 12 Angry Men? Well, it was just me and Reggie [writer-producer Reginald Rose] working by ourselves, and it was angelic.

Then you must be against the showing of movies on TV.

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And what [Howard] Hawks did in terms of the reality of a cattle drive is, to me, on the level with what [John] Ford did with Stagecoach []. The majesty of what Hawks does is lost.

Lumet's Motivation for Making "12 Angry Men"

What are the differences you found in directing for the stage and movies? To me, far more things can be interchanged between TV and motion pictures than between theatre and motion pictures. The theatre, for all its attempts at realism for the past thirty years, is a totally unreal medium—its essence is really poetic rather than literal. The screen can become poetic but, God knows, the majority of the good work has been devoted to literal and realistic, representational art. There are a great many artists who are marvelous in one and not in the other.

What have you found to be your main obstacle in film work? For myself the main obstacle is the setup, the film in America. The financial setup, the method of making motion pictures, and the method of distribution is one that conspires to defeat freedom and good work. What if your piece needs a sumptuousness and a sensuousness as part of its dramatic meaning?

And, you know, documentaries and semidocumentaries are not the only method of work in film.

Many fine directors—Huston, Wilder, Bergman, Welles, Kubrick—either write their own screenplays or collaborate extensively with others on scripts. On Fugitive Kind, for instance, there was a good deal of rewriting between the original draft and what wound up on the screen. Oh, yes. Looking back over an extended period, I think, my God! Also, you go to a piece for many different reasons.

It was shot that way, done that way, right from the opening title shot with the kid getting touched on the shoulder by a wand. The important thing to me is only that it completes itself percent. Boris Kaufman was your photographer on every film except Stage Struck ; how large do you feel is his contribution when an evaluation of the final work is made?

The camera becomes another leading actor. You have to cast your camera the way you cast an actor. Many critics either lament the death of Hollywood or constantly refer to the great dearth of talent out there. Is the West Coast a cultural desert? This is gonna sound spooky—I think it goes back much farther than Hollywood. That place has no reason for being. Yes, I feel that in order to get some sunlight they went to a completely dead spot. They should have gone a little further, into the desert, and never gotten any rainfall and then they would have had perfect shooting schedules.

How would you explain, then, the great films that have been made in Hollywood, say in the twenties and thirties? And also good work is possible anyplace. Now that the autocracy of the major studios is over, do you think the independents have raised the level of films in America? And it is basically the same procedure at Metro. But he knows full well that he has to keep returning financial winners. I hope Fugitive Kind makes a lot of money because none of my pictures have made a lot of money and I need one. I know my employment will be directly affected by it. Mayer used to do—only not as well.

Do you think there is a cinematic movement in America coming to compete with the French New Wave?

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The financial problem is getting extremely severe now in terms of getting money to do a picture. What do you think are the advantages or disadvantages of wide-screen, CinemaScope, stereophonic sound, and the like?

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And typical Hollywood mentality, because the essence of any dramatic piece is people, and it is symptomatic that Hollywood finds a way of photographing people directly opposite to the way people are built. CinemaScope makes no sense until people are fatter than they are taller. Why then do serious directors like Kazan or Stevens choose to work in CinemaScope? On Anne Frank, he fought for six months trying not to shoot it in CinemaScope and then had to.

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Spent all his time with the art director trying to figure out beams and girders to cut down the sides of the screen, and how to isolate what he wanted. There are many purists who believe the medium has declined because of sound. Do you agree? Technical things are marvelous. Why limit oneself? Use color, use drawings, use everything. Let artists have every bloody tool they want.

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Why not? Sound is another tool. Orson Welles used sound so brilliantly in every film he ever did. His soundtracks are something directors should study. He took another mechanical thing and made it work even more for the dramatic result—that should be the object all the time. Sound should be used for life, just like pictures should be used for life. At that level of vitality, sound is terribly important and can be used as creatively as anything else. What filmmakers, if any, have most influenced your work in movies?

Having been an actor, what do you think a stage performer finds most difficult in adjusting to pictures? Probably the toughest problem is for him to keep track of the point of development, or the point of transition, that his character is at because of the out-of-sequence problem and the working in small sections. On every picture except Fugitive Kind the last four days of rehearsal were run-throughs just like a play or a TV show. Which actors have been the easiest to work with, and the most gratifying?

Well, Marlon was a joy: I would look forward to when we could go to work on a scene. I love working with Sophia, I love her—I think she is enormously talented. There are many young people I know of in New York who are going out and raising money for a picture just because they want to; would that be difficult in your position?

Peter, the problem is only one of money. Printed there was only about eighteen thousand feet. I can work as economically as I have to. Almost every director is occasionally exposed to withering reviews of his work; what do you think when you read a bad notice? And some of the greatest significances as well as some of the greatest attacks are attributed to complete accidents. The reason for it was very simple—I used up all the money for extras on the first show and on the second show I needed a crowd of fifty and I could only afford twenty people so I gave them umbrellas which spread everybody out [laughs].

So, go figure. Complete freedom granted, would you rather work in films, TV or the theatre? I never want to give up any one of them. I mean, to me the ideal setup would be a picture a year, a play a year, and about three months of TV a year—because each one gives you such a shaking-up for the other, they all help one another because the problems are so totally different.

Whatever the reasons are, each one involves a different set of muscles, or rather the same muscle, like an awl biting into wood—going deeper and deeper around the same area—each time one level deeper. You have built a reputation for shooting very few takes and for cutting in the camera, which seems to be kind of a lost art: when you and I were starting out it seems like a lot of people made pictures that way. Oh, yeah. Ford worked that way; Orson worked that way.