TORONTO–Sidney Lumet isn't getting shy in his old age. His new family-values thriller, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead , kicks off with a steamy sex scene between Philip Seymour Hoffman ( Capote ) and Marisa Tomei ( In the Bedroom, My Cousin Vinny ) that features a lot more of Tomei than Vinny ever saw.
Asked about the graphic opening during a one-on-one interview with the Georgia Straight just before his film's North American premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, the 83-year-old directing icon ( Network , Dog Day Afternoon ) explained: "That's what changes his life," referring to Hoffman's character, a morally bankrupt money manager.
"It's not just a question of fancy fucking. It's a question of the ability to take pleasure in something away from the reality of his life, and from now on he's on a quest to change the reality of his life to see if he can get the things he wants. What does he want? He wants that kind of freedom sexually. He wants an apartment like his dope dealer's. Those are his values. And a lot of destruction happens as he tries to reach them."
The elaborate thriller twists time and perspectives to tell the stories of a family caught up in, well, a lot of destruction. "It's the story of a family that, decision by decision, makes a mistake and," Lumet laughed and continued, "nobody makes the right decision. Every decision everybody has to make is wrong, and the deeper in, the worse the decisions get."
The other family members making really bad decisions include Tomei as Hoffman's wife, Ethan Hawke as his younger, dimmer brother, Albert Finney as daddy dearest, and Rosemary Harris as mom.
Lumet, however, seems to have made a great decision with Before the Devil , which is being called one of his best films. Lumet said he chooses all his projects "sheerly by instinct. I'm not being anti-intellectual. I'll think about it afterwards, after I've said yes. But the initial yes is totally instinctive."
Lumet said his instincts on this script by first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson told him it was "a marvellous story. Certain stories, they just make you go, 'I don't believe it.' And then you do believe it, you know. And there's nothing better than that."
Lumet received a lifetime-achievement Oscar in 2005 after a career of four nominations (but no wins) for best director, beginning with 12 Angry Men in 1958. But Lumet started his directing career in the 1940s working in live TV. "It's the greatest training ground for directors.”¦you find enormous visual knowledge and things to learn visually–the laws of optics are constant”¦ In television, if I was doing 40 shows a year with an average cast of 12–I mean, we're talking about 480 actors a year. So the training you get is irreplaceable."
Lumet was unwilling to name a favourite project from his oeuvre, at least publicly. "When you work with actors or anybody on a production, everybody comes into it figuring this is going to be the best thing we've ever done. And if you suddenly come out and say, "The thirteenth one is the one I like most," what does it do to the other 11? It makes orphans of them."
What does he love about directing? Lumet sighed before breaking into a grin. "Everything. I feel lucky because I can't think of a better profession.”¦I'm sure there are better professions, better ways for people to spend their time, but I can't see it.
"There's no best time for me.”¦The only thing I can tell you is there's one part of it that's the dullest part that I don't like–and that's the mix, that's where you put all the soundtracks together. But other than that, everything else is fun”¦ You've always got the specificity of what you're doing, whether it's in the shooting style, whether it's the way you want to cast it. It's the wonderful thing about our work, that it's never boring."