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Los Angeles Times
Page E1
Arts Entertainment
Style Culture
January 4, 2005
by John Horn,
Times staff writer

Sidney Lumet keeps up the pace

The filmmaker, 80, takes no time to deliberate on the set of his latest courtroom drama, ’Find Me Guilty.’ He’ll pause for an honorary Oscar.

, N.J.
– As an action star, Vin Diesel has raced cars, jumped motorcycles, and out run space aliens. But even with such testosterone-fueled credentials, Diesel on a recent morning can barely keep up with 80-year-old director Sidney Lumet.

Technically, Diesel isn’t due on the set of Lumet’s courtroom story ”Find Me Guilty” until 9:30 a.m., Lumet already has filmed multiple takes of the day’s first scene, and is looking for his leading man, eager to move on.

The director of such cinematic landmarks as “Serpico,” “”Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “12 Angry Men” and “The Verdict” starts sizing up the set that will be used as a judge’s chambers in the next scene on the day’s already busy schedule. “It may not look like I am working, but I’m working,” Lumet tells his crew, mulling over some options before he promptly makes up his mind. “Put one camera right here.”

Dressed casually in jeans, a sweater, sneakers and a baseball cap, Lumet then speedily tells them what lenses he wants, and precisely how many feet of dolly track should be laid under each of the two cameras.

Where other directors would repair to their cantilevered trailers and a soy latte while the scenery is moved and light rearranged, Lumet paces around his set like a  real estate agent about to hold an open house, making sure every prop and piece of furniture is in just the right place.

“OK Where’s Vin?” the director asks when he is satisfied.

Fact is, Diesel hasn’t yet completed the two hours of daily makeup required to transform his 37-year-old self into the 48-year-old mobster Giacomo “Fat Jack” DiNorscio, upon whose epic criminal trial the movie is based. Diesel soon arrives on the set to rehearse the scene, although he hasn’t had time to put on his DiNorscio-styled hairpiece.

Spotting the actor in his familiar baldness, Lumet says of Diesel, “Ahh, there’s the Vin we know.”

The run through begins immediately.

At a point when most filmmakers his age are content to hang out with the grandkids and collect residuals, Lumet, whose carrer is so long he worked with (and helped protect the identity of) blacklisted TV screenwriters in the 1950s, wasn’t just working. Rather, he was filming at a pace many directors a third his age couldn’t match.

Scheduled for a breakneck 30 days of filming. “Find Me Guilty” was completed two days ahead of schedule.

Lumet can now use the extra time to polish his acceptance speech for the honorary Academy Award he will receive in next month’s ceremonies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected Lumet for the award, the director’s first oscar, to recognize his “brilliant services to screenwriters, performers and the art of the motion picture.”

With more than 40 movies on his curriculum vitea, what Lumet lacks in youth he more than compensates for with experience, especially when it involves his preferred genre, the legal drama.

To observe Lumet on a movie set is to be reminded of how movies used to be made, beforespecial effects and post-production tricks rendered the principal photography of actors a minor component of a film’s final construction. With “Find Me Guilty,” the movie is nothing more – or less – then what Lumet can capture from his performers on a New Jersey soundstage.

Working with versatile digital video cameras, Lumet made much of “Find Me Guilty” as if it were on of his 1950s live television dramas, which included “Playhouse 90” and “The Alcoa Hour.” With no need to change film magazines, scenes could run for several screenplay pages at a time. In taking yet another tip from the “get-it-fast” book of TV production, Lumet employed two cameras at the same time, so that he could simultaneously record both participants in a dialogue.

Instead of donning headphones and sitting behind a bank of video monitors while his actors performed their scenes, as almost all directors do, Lumet stood between his cameras, walking up as close to the cast as he could without being caught in the frame.

“He is able to act as a constant reminder that we as actors are proteted, because he is in the trenches with us. So it allows us to do things we might not normally do as actors,” Diesel said after completing the film.

            Although it’s not a written condition of employment, Lumet’s actors know their dialogue cold, and spent two weeks rehearsing the movie before production commenced. Filming can (and does) move a lot faster when actors are not calling for lines every 15 seconds.

            “I’ve always worked at great speed, “Lumet said a few days after “Find Me Guilty’s” principal photography had been completed. “ ’12 Angry Men’ took me 19 days. I think the longest I’ve ever shot – Prince of the City’ – was 51 days, but that had 135 locations.”

Gangland trail

            DiNorscio’s life story reads like typical Lumet fare: an intriguing mix of crime, character and courtroom theatrics. In some ways, “Find Me Guilty” is reminiscent of some of Lumet’s earlier leg

Al dramas, particularly “The Verdict,” “Q & A,” “Guilty as Sin” and his feature debut, “12 Angry Men.”

            Unlike those films, though, “Find Me Guilty” is being made outside of the studio system. Financed by producer Bob Yari, the $13-million production does not yet have a domestic distributor or a release date.

            “I’ve never done it before,” Lumet says of working without a distributor. “But I don’t worry know about money is they always get it back somehow.”

            “Find Me Guilty’s script, by Lumet and screenwriters T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea, focuses on the real-life 1987-88 racketeering trial of DiNorsco and 19 other reputed members of the Lucchese crime family.

            The court case lasted 21 mind-boggling months. At the time, it was the longest criminal case in U.S. District court history.

            DiNorscio said during his trial that he was a “comedian, not a gangster,” was allowed to represent himself, and his legal tactics and profane rebuttals helped turn the trial into a circu.

            An ailing DiNorscio visited the set of “Find Me Guilty” at Lumet’s invitation, and died a few days later, in November 2004.

            When Lumet began work on the script, Joe Pesci was being courted to play the lead role. When negotiations with the “GoodFellas” star came to an impassse, Lumet lobbied for Diesel, having seen him in “Boiler Room” and “Multi-Facial.”

            “Find Me Guilty” isn’t exactly the first time Lumet and Diesel have collaborated. Diesel says that when he wrote, directed and starred in his 1997 breakout Sundance Film Festival movie, “Strays,” he used Lumet’s 1996 filmmaking book, “Making Movies,” as his guide.

            “His book gave me a sense of empowerment, a place to start, a blueprint on how to follow the process that these masters used,” Diesel said.

            The education continued on the set of “Find Me Guilty,” with its bustling courtroom scenes and extended monologues.

            “Every day on this movie was like opening night in the theater,” Diesel said. “That’s the challenging aspect, but also the rewarding aspect. You are going to be called on, in a roomful of 200 New York actors, to do a 10-minute speech.”

            Lumet said that shile he doesn’t know what his next project might be, he wants to countinue spending his days on a movie set.

            No matter how deep his résumé, however, he could use a hit.

            His last project was 2004’s HBO movie “Strip Search,” a post-9/11 national security drama which the cable channel pulled after only a few showings. His last film to earn a wide theatrical release was 1999’s poorly reviewed “Gloria,” a remake of a movie about a gangster’s mistress, staring Sharon Stone.

            “For whatever reason, I have just kept working and working and things turn up that I want to do,” Lumet said. “I don’t know if it’s a compulsion. It’s certainly a lovely way of life. If you’re in movies, there is no job better than mine. So why stop until nature makes you or the  studios make you?”

            Producer Yari said he’s happy to keep Lumet busy, and hopes others do the same.

            “In Hollywood, there is so much reluctance to hire older directors,” Yari said. “But working with somebody like Sideny, well, it’s a shame he’s not doing more.”