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Sidney Lumet understands and loves melodrama, which is why he was the only director in a seven year search to grab Kelly Materson’s screenplay of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in which he also reconfirms his prowess with actors.

At the age of 83 – and on the occasion of his 45th film – Sidney Lumet is perhaps even more vital, more engaging, and more engaged than he was in the early days of his career. Known as the “actor’s director,” he was presented with an honorary Academy Award in 2005 in recognition of his “brilliant services” to performers, screenwriters, and the art of the motion picture. As his long and distinguished filmography suggests, Lumet has always been intrigued by stories about families in unusual or distressed situations (e.g. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), and capers gone awry (e.g. “The Anderson Tapes”). Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead incorporates both these themes and is very much in the tradition of his previous works. “I read the script and I was enchanted,” Lumet recalls. “I thought it was a wonderful story. There’s nothing like good melodrama, and the continual surprises in the script just bowled me over.”

"melodrama is a classic form of storytelling"

The genre could be perceived as old-fashioned and exaggerated at a time when “reality” is an important (and highly marketable) concept. But Lumet understands that melodrama is a classic form of storytelling. “Melodrama has very wide range,” he explains. “The story asks the viewer to suspend disbelief and to accept more and more outrageous circumstances and behaviour. In a really remarkable melodrama, the events of the story unfold quickly and without warning. Time is short and the pressure cooker is really cooking. There is no time to give the character a background or to deal with his past. The storytelling is fast, lean, and aggressive. Anything that does not advance the story is unimportant.” Even writer Kelly Masterson’s title, which is taken from an old Irish toast which says “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” suggests urgency and potential consequences for catastrophe.

“In most dramas,” Lumet continues, “the story has to come out of the characters: this is such-and-such kind of person, and therefore this is the inevitable result. In a melodrama, it’s the exact reverse. The characters have to adjust to the demands of the story and justify their actions.”

Another point Lumet makes is that characters in melodramas are rarely familiar – or heroic –types. They can be unsympathetic, or even downright despicable. But that does not prevent audiences from responding to them. “Hannibal Lecter changed everything,” he observes. “Who of us has known someone who eats other people? How is it possible that a character says, ‘I’m having someone for dinner,’ and the audience roars with laughter, knowing that he’s going to eat them.” Similarly, there are no conventional heroes in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Circumstances bring out the worst in each member of the family. At virtually every opportunity, they make the worst possible choices and act in ways that surprise and horrify even themselves. It is the actors’ challenge to make this unlikable behavior, however extreme, believable.

In thinking about a cast to inhabit this provocative story, Lumet placed Philip Seymour Hoffman at the top of his list. “I think Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors in America today,” he says. Recognizing Hoffman’s incredible breadth of talent, Lumet decided against the obvious choice of casting him in the role of Hank, the weaker brother. Instead, Lumet played against type and cast Ethan Hawke as Hank and Hoffman as Andy, the misguided mastermind of the crime. In fact, these consummate actors could have played either role and done it well. But Lumet wanted to introduce an element of surprise to his melodrama.

"to suspend disbelief "

Lumet was impressed by all of his cast members and was confident they would convince the audience to suspend disbelief and surrender to the extreme, almost operatic world of the story. “The first day of rehearsal was enormously exciting because I had never worked with any of the people before, except Albert Finney on Murder on the Orient Express, many years ago. I’d never worked with Marisa Tomei, or Ethan Hawke, or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but immediately it was apparent that the level of talent was very high.” He found Marisa Tomei to be “an enchanting actress. There are no two takes that are alike with her and all of them are real,” he says. Lumet was also happy to reunite with Albert Finney. “Working with Albert again after all this time was so moving to both of us,” he says. “Even then, when he was at the height of his popularity, the sex object of the world, he was playing a man 20 years older than himself, so hidden behind makeup and hair that you wouldn’t have recognized him.”

Lumet’s vision for his cast extended to the film’s supporting players and extras. Ethan Hawke points out that the finest stage actors in the world (which, in this case, includes Oscar-nominee Rosemary Harris and Tony award-winner Brian F. O’Byrne) are eager to work with Lumet, even for a couple of days. “One of the great things about working with him is that you end up acting with these people every day,” he says. Lumet’s actors also talk about his ability to focus their attention and sharpen their motivation. In private moments, often delivered with great affection, “He grabs your shoulder, your face, your hand. He wants his connection close and wants you to know that he’s on your side,” says Hoffman. “He doesn’t play the withholding father type. He’s direct, he’s honest, and he’s supportive.”

Lumet has great respect for the acting process. Much like the theatre, all of his films begin with extended rehearsals. It is an intense two-week process, from read-through to walk-through, including discussions and blocking on taped sets. The actors start at the beginning and go all the way through the entire film, just like a play. They work with furniture and props, and it is a learning process for everyone. Rehearsal is sacred to Lumet and his actors and he refuses to be interrupted. “The nice thing about a long rehearsal process was that we got to know all our key collaborators before we arrived on the set,” says Ethan Hawke. “We had an opportunity to make many of the creative decisions before we started filming.”

Published March 20, 2008

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Sidney Lumet – his films include 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict, Running On Empty

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
Australian release: March 20, 2008

Onset with Albert Finney

Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is unhappy with his life, as is his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) but he is broke and in debt. His younger, less resolute brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is divorced and behind with the child support payments. Andy suggests an outrageous solution: robbing the Hanson family’s own suburban jewellery store, owned by their parents (Albert Finney & Rosemary Harris). The insurance will cover the loss, and the heist will be dead easy since they know the workings of the store. Reluctantly, the desperate Hank agrees – but can’t face the task himself, so hires a small time thug, who insists on taking a real gun for the job. Nobody was meant to get hurt, but then nothing that happens was meant to happen and the heist sets off a cascade of disastrous decisions and revelations.

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