Exclusive Q&A: ‘By Sidney Lumet’ Director Nancy Buirski

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman, director Sidney Lumet, on set, 2007. ©Think Film/Courtesy Everett Collection


Season 31 of American Masters premieres with the eye-opening and immersive documentary By Sidney Lumet. Directed by Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story), the feature takes an in-depth look at Lumet’s lifelong cinematic (and humanistic) passions. Culling from his extensive body of work and a 2008 interview conducted by Daniel Anker, Buirski crafts an illuminating look at one of cinema’s most prodigious storytellers. Our Q&A with Buirski is found after the jump.

Director Sidney Lumet being interviewed for “American Masters: By Sidney Lumet” in 2008. Credit: Courtesy of Augusta Films

Before we get to By Sidney Lumet, can you talk about your experience with the critical acclaim behind Loving (Buirski directed the documentary The Loving Story)?

It’s been wonderful. It’s been something that I think many filmmakers would like to see happen when they work on documentaries and they know they have very solid stories that could live in different places and in different platforms. One hopes that would happen if they believe in the story.

But this was a case where it did happen. Partly because I was involved in making it happen – but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything (laughs). I thought, when I began the documentary – I saw it as a narrative as well. Colin Firth was one of the first people to say ‘let’s do this, let’s get this done.’ Never in my wildest dreams would it become this beautiful and success. That’s all due to (director) Jeff Nichols’ beautiful and incredible vision for the film.

We’re all storytellers at the end of the day. It’s a really rewarding thing to see it live in two forms like this.

VERDICT, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, 1982, directing the actors

Sidney Lumet was a story comes first filmmaker. Does that quality draw you to his work?

I feel exactly the same way. He had a moral message which underscored many of his films, but that’s not why he made those films. He would be the first person to tell you that. His films are fabulously entertaining. Even though they have these moral underpinnings, they are dramatic and exciting. Their characters are well developed. That’s what he cared most about.

He also cared about having a job. That’s why he made 44 films in 50 years. Working in this profession was a very exciting opportunity for him and a bit of luck – he would say. I think that is what makes him so exciting to me as a filmmaker. He wasn’t out there to proselytize. He wasn’t preaching. He was there to make exciting movies and these moral messages came through because they were so much a part of who he was.

By Sidney Lumet isn’t a talking head documentary, which was totally refreshing. Can you discuss your approach in making the film?

We had this wonderful opportunity with this interview that was made in 2008 by Danny Anker. There were close to 18 hours of an interview which was Sidney talking about his life and his work and what mattered to him. So many films of this nature would pull in other people to echo what he said to talk about how they appreciated Sidney.

I thought this was a rare opportunity to let Sidney be our narrator. To guide us through his life and his work and let his work be the echo. And also curate the films around the themes that were coming out of this interview. Not necessarily chronologically or a linear way, but just let those themes come through and see how they emerge in his work. That was very creative and exciting to do it that way.

PRINCE OF THE CITY, from left, Treat Williams, director Sidney Lumet, on location in New York, 1981, ©Orion Pictures. Courtesy: Everett Collection

Can you talk about Sidney Lumet’s brutal honesty towards his work? Do you believe that is one of his strengths as a storyteller?

I do – and I think it comes through in his films. There’s no posturing. This is a man who is incredibly honest.  I think of a musician giving away his tricks. There’s this great book he wrote called Making Movies where he’s extremely articulate and forthcoming about what it takes to make a movie. He’s generous with his ideas.

During the interview, Lumet says “all good work is self-revelatory.” Do you agree with this assertion?

I think sometimes you have to dig deeper to find that revelation in good work than you might have with Sidney. But I think that’s what he is getting at. It’s a rather mysterious thing to say but I think what he’s saying is that if you look hard, you will find that individual in the work.

Even if some filmmakers and other artists work hard to cover it up, I think at the end of the day good work is going to be somehow a reflection of that person. Bad work may not be. Bad work can be superficial. It can just be anything. But when we’re talking about good work, I think you’re always putting something of yourself in it.

12 ANGRY MEN, (aka TWELVE ANGRY MEN), director Sidney Lumet (hat), on set, 1957

Do you look at Lumet’s work as a filmmaker after doing this documentary? And what are your favorite Lumet films?

I was watching his work as I was listening to the interview. I was offered this gig by American Masters. They had the interview basically on the shelf and no one had ever carved out a documentary from the interview. I listened to most of the interview and said ‘well this is an excuse to watch all of his movies.’

I watched all of them chronologically so I was thinking about parts of the interview as I was watching the films and trying to think about how I was going to weave it all together. These films became my illustrative tool for Sidney’s messages.

I probably, consciously and unconsciously, was thinking very much what he said in the interview as I was watching his movies. I have many favorite Lumet movies and it depends on the day you ask me (laughs).

I’m always flabbergasted that the movie he began his feature film career, which was 12 Angry Men, is such an important part of his canon. In that movie, you see this person, represented in the Henry Fonda character, the person who stands up to the mob. The person who stands up to justice and believes in doing what is right no matter what anybody else thinks. That’s a very important film and it leads to everything else.

Yet I am also taken with his last film – Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It has, obviously, a very important moral message, but it’s hidden in the story. I think about this man who is book-ending his career with (these films) and that’s pretty extraordinary.

Martin Scorsese has said in past interviews that the moving image and how to compose a frame is what continued to motive him as a director. What do you think kept Sidney Lumet motivated as a filmmaker? 

I think it’s the story for Lumet. He did love cinema. He went from TV and working in live television to feature filmmaking. Towards the end of his career he was back on TV with 100 Centre Street. He also loved theater. I don’t know if you could say he was as much in love with cinema and moving image as Scorsese, but what they have in common is also a love of story.

Is there a film you go back to, time and time again, for inspiration or motivation. And if so, what makes that film a unique experience?

That’s very interesting. It’s a great question. I don’t tend to go back to a movie over and over again because I have such a tough time catching up and keeping up with everything because there are so many good things to watch. I can tell you that there are movies that I intend to go back to – I have them on my list.

I just, for instance, saw the theatrical version of The Color Purple. Although that film is not one of my favorite films of all time, I intend to go back and look at the film because I want to compare them (the stage vs. theatrical version). I usually go back to look at a movie because it can be instructive to me in a certain way and I want to think about the creative choices that were made in both.

I’ve seen Silence a few times. I know I learn a lot when I look at Martin Scorsese’s work. But I also saw La La Land and I loved it. It just made me feel so warm and so happy. Though it’s not a light movie. There’s some dark moments in it as well. I thought the making of that film was just miraculous. So I hope to get back and see that as well. There is so many good things to see now and it’s hard to keep up with it so I commit myself to going back and look at films (but) I don’t always live up to that!

Peabody and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Nancy Buirski is director and producer of “American Masters: By Sidney Lumet.” Her past films include “American Masters — Tanaquil Le Clercq: Afternoon of a Faun” and “The Loving Story.” Photo Credit: Jade Albert

Lastly, about being committed. Is being committed and engaged with filmmaking a key ingredient in being a successful filmmaker?

Oh yes. You can’t be thinking about anything else. You really have to be dogged about what you do every day. That involves getting up every morning and thinking about what next you’re going to do in your film. If you’re not in the midst of your post production, meaning editing the film, then you’re thinking about what the next project will be. The idea of not having something to create or craft it makes one nervous (laughs)! I’m happy – and happiness comes from that kind of commitment.

I loved By Sidney Lumet. Thank you for your time.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

***By Sidney Lumet airs Tuesday, January 3 on PBS (8 pm – check local listings). I also discussed the documentary on CinemAddicts. Click below to listen to the podcast (the discussion starts 55:20):

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