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No slowing down for Sidney Lumet
Veteran director returns with "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
By MARK DANIELL - For JAM! Movies


Sidney Lumet

"Would I ever do a romantic comedy?" director Sidney Lumet repeats in mock horror. "God no. I would f--- it up. I don't have the lightness of being that could make it work.

"It's very, very hard," he shudders, sitting for an interview at his Bloor St. hotel. "Closest I ever came was 'Murder on the Orient Express.'"

In town to promote "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," his engrossingly tragic new film, Lumet, 83, marked his first appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival last week.

This is surprising when you consider that in his decades-long career he has directed over 50 films including "Serpico," "Dog Day's Afternoon," Network" and "The Verdict."

"I've filmed three movies here in Toronto, but I've never been in the festival," he says with a slight shrug. "I never had a movie coming out at the right time."

Written by first-time screenwriter, Kelly Masterson, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a bleakly nihilistic crime thriller that tells the story of two brothers -- the pitiful Hank (Ethan Hawke) and the faux macho Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) -- who concoct a plan to rob their parents' suburban jewelry store. Things go horribly wrong, and though it plays like a slice of Tarantino-style noir, it plays its cards close to the bone.

"I liked how it starts with this idea of living in Brazil and then each decision after that is worse and worse and worse until everybody is destroyed," he says.

"It may be dark, but it's a great plot," he says, folding his arms across his chest. "And dark doesn't bother me. 'Hamlet's pretty dark. 'Oedipus Wrecks' is pretty dark. Darkness is a part of everybody's life, the only difference is most people won't admit it; admit to those impulses, admit to those thoughts.

"Melodrama is simply dramatizing what we won't talk about."

Because the actions of the film's characters spiral slowly out of control, Lumet says the film demanded stars that could hold their emotions in check until the end. "You have to certainly provide enough freedom and encouragement so that they can feel secure in releasing those kinds of feelings.

"Just like they have to feel secure enough to take their clothes off," he adds, alluding to Marisa Tomei's much talked about nude scene. "But, finally, especially because it is suppressed, it has to be very carefully channeled. And once those feelings are released, you have to start setting limits."

Lauding the film's stars, Lumet says one of the pleasures of doing the movie is it allowed him to try a different approach to directing. "I'm not talking about the fancy playing of time," he says, referencing contemporary filmmaking's penchant for broken narratives.

"When we go over the same incident, but tell it from Andy's point-of-view or Hank's point-of-view, those scenes are shot differently, they're lit different.

"You aren't supposed to notice it, but it's there. It looks like they're shot the same, but they're not. It's a separate set-up, done quite differently."

Reluctant to talk about the film's message, Lumet does acknowledge that at a festival where America's Iraq debacle has been read into everything from "The Brave One" to "Michael Clayton" one of the best interpretations of "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a political one.

"Somebody, who I thought was very intelligent, said it's a perfect picture of what's happened to America."

But unlike Tarantino, who has never told us what happened to Mr. Pink after the shootout in "Reservoir Dogs," Lumet has plenty of answers as to what befalls some of the "Devil's" characters.

"Hank," he says, not missing a beat, "blows the money and becomes a drunk." While the boys' father Charles (Albert Finney) "goes to the smallest town and never talks to anybody again."

Still in love with movies after all these years

Having directed 17 different leading actors in Oscar-nominated performances, Lumet says he still gets a huge rush working behind the camera. "What's exciting about the work is everything is potentially the right solution or the wrong solution," he explains.

"You've got success or failure - and I'm not talking about commercial success - hanging on every decision you make.

"The risks are constant. Every picture is a risk. Every decision you make making them is a risk. That's a big load to carry, but it's exhilarating."

Planning to start his next movie in January, he still has a long list of actors he wants to work with. "Oh God, there are so many. I would love to work with Meryl Streep; I've never had a part for her. I would love to work with DeNiro. I would love to work with George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

"Directors are really lucky. Most of our stars are, actually, really good actors. I've never worked with Tom Hanks he's a marvelous actor. The list goes on forever."

And as for which of his films he's most partial to, well, he'll never say. "If there were a favourite of mine, I would never tell you."

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is in theatres November 16th.
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