Exactly 50 years ago, Sidney Lumet made his filmmaking debut with 12 Angry Men—and nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Director. It was only up from there (The Pawnbroker, The Appointment, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict) until it wasn’t. But now Lumet, 83, has another terrific New York story: After his new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, premieres at the New York Film Festival on October 12, he’ll be celebrated at a “Director’s Dialogue” on October 13.
So, you must be getting used to these tributes?
It’s strange, because I’m not dead yet.
I noticed. And your Lifetime Achievement Oscar was, what, three years ago?
Usually people get these three months before they die, so I guess I’m doing okay.
In your new film, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke star as brothers who knock over their parents’ Westchester jewelry store.
I sent the script to Phil, he said, “Which part do you want me to play?” I said, you pick. He laughed—but really, I meant it. I told him he could play either brother.
You sound like somebody who saw him play both of the brothers in Sam Shepard’s True West on Broadway.
Exactly. He can do anything. But when I settled on Ethan, it just made sense for Phil to play the older brother.
Hawke and Hoffman have spent a lot of time onstage. You grew up acting in Yiddish theater, and first directed for the stage. How important is this link between theater and New York movies?
It’s how I learned everything. And the actors are completely different here. We have people who make a living out of their own clichés, we just don’t have as many.
What do you mean by that?
Since actors need to get training someplace, in New York they tend to get it in the theater. In L.A., the only place they can get it is in TV. And the series are—as valuable as they are for sheer experience—deadening emotionally. Especially if you’re in a hit. After a year in a role, you’re not really discovering anything new.
How did growing up here inform your early films?
You begin to see details pretty quick. Growing up Jewish—I lived in every borough but Staten Island—if I walked a few blocks one way or another into another neighborhood, I got beat up. So you learn to pay attention. You notice things pretty closely. That immigrant experience not only gives you a tremendous sense of time and place and limits, it also gives you a tremendous energy, because you have to pay attention. All the time.
Almost all of your films—from The Pawnbroker to your latest—have an intense level of that famous New York grit. Is being streetwise really such a difference between us and Hollywood?
In L.A., there’s no streets! No sense of a neighborhood! They talk about us not knowing who lives in the same apartment complex as us—bullshit! I know who lives in my building. In L.A., how much can you really find out about anybody else?
What do New York filmmakers get from all that?
Really, it’s just about human contact. It seems to me that our greatest problems today are coming out of the increasing isolation of people, everywhere. Look, I was even feeling isolated on the East Side. Fifteen years ago on the East Side, there were people all around at night. Now, after 8:40, nobody’s walking anymore. So I just moved back to the West Side. There are still people on the streets there.
You’re a linchpin of New York’s so-called seventies golden age. Did it feel like that then?
You know, I never really was friends with all those guys, and I don’t know why. Woody—well, he’s Woody, so you don’t expect to be hanging out with him. But Scorsese and all those guys? We didn’t hang out. I never felt like there was a school of New York filmmakers. We were all doing our own things. That stuff about a movement came later.
When people talk about that golden age, what they usually mean is that today’s films stink.
I think it’s a great time right now for New York film, actually.
So, who’s inheriting the mantle?
Oh, I can’t say names. Somebody would get bent out of shape.
Then, in the abstract, what do you imagine the next wave will look like?
Well, we were shooting out in Astoria, and one day I was watching all these kids standing outside a school near the studio. It was just marvelous: Indian girls in saris, kids from Pakistan, Korea, kids from all over. So I think you’ll see more directors from these communities, telling their stories. You know, I started out making films about Jews and Italians and Irish because I didn’t know anything else.