There haven’t been many filmmakers who started doing some of their best work at the age of 83, but that’s the big surprise behind Sidney Lumet’s 45th movie Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and it’s high praise considering that his filmography includes film classics like Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Network.
His latest is based on a screenplay by Kelley Masterson, and while at first, it might seem like a simple crime drama about a jewelry store robbery gone wrong, it’s actually a complex character drama featuring an amazing ensemble cast led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei. Hoffman and Hawke play brothers Andy and Hank, who mastermind said robbery, while Tomei is Hoffman’s super-sexy trophy wife who has been having an affair with Hank, and Finney is the boys’ father who faces great tragedy because of his sons’ decision. The story is told from the perspective of the three men in an intriguing non-linear style that allows you to see many scenes from different points-of-view.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the veteran director and his talented cast, and we weren’t too surprised that there was a lot of mutual love and respect between them.
“It’s easy to sit around here and talk about how brilliant Sidney Lumet is but it’s been hard for years for Sidney to get a film made,” Ethan Hawke told us when asked about how he got involved with the movie. “When I got this script, Phil Hoffman had just won the Oscar and he wanted to do this movie and wanted to do it with me. I thought it just showed such class on Phil’s part, for somebody to use his Hollywood cache to greenlight one of their mentor’s movies. To Phil and I, Sidney Lumet movies are why we wanted to be actors. We’ve been chasing the dream of the old school New York actor–you put in the hard work, you clunk around 42nd Street and you go downtown and you do auditions and try to put on plays, and you fight the good fight, and you try not to give in to the glamour. That’s the vintage New York actor’s aesthetic. Sidney Lumet got his hands on a really great script, and he played to his strong suit. He cast the entire movie with theatre actors. You have Brien O’Byrne and Amy Ryan and Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris and Michael Shannon. This is a guy who cares about theatre. Most of the guys breaking into film today, they haven’t even seen a play. That’s okay for them but this is Sidney’s thing. If I got this script and it said that this guy out of film school was doing it, I’d think its never going to work, but it plays right into Sidney’s sweet spot. This is the kind of thing that he won’t make too glamorous, he won’t make the violence sexy in a dumb way, and you know he won’t make it stupid, and in fact, the opposite. He elevated it.”
“The story is appealing. It’s an old story,” Phil Hoffman explained, when asked about his own reasons for doing it. “It’s a story that’s been around since everything else has existed. It’s the story of Cain and Abel, it’s the story of trying to extricate yourself from your family and your family ultimately bringing you down. What happens at the end of this movie, is something that reverberates through drama forever. That’s the one thing that attracted me the most was that last action. I thought, ‘God I’ll never read a film that has that action in it again.’ I’ll have to go back and read old Greek dramas or Shakespeare to see that action being taken. It’s so powerful; so upsetting in such a profound way. It’s very gutsy for a film to want to do that.”
The Oscar winning actor talked about the way that he worked with Lumet on developing his character. “We developed it together. He thinks like an actor–he thinks like a director obviously first–but he also has a head like an actor. He’s very good with the questions he asks. His questions are very intelligent and sharp and so you are bringing your thing and he’s helping you. He’s asking the right questions. If he’s sees you’re confused he knows what to say to get you on right page any notes or questions coming in you can decipher them quickly.”
“This idea is that he’s an ‘actor’s director’ implies sometimes that he’s going to nurture you through something, when it’s actually the opposite that makes people do something. It’s when you empower them,” Hawke added.
“There was only a few things I needed to think about,” Hoffman replied when asked about Andy’s backstory. “What was Gina and Andy’s relationship like before? How long had they been together? They had been together for a while, probably since their early or mid 20s. I always had this idea that she worked for him; she was a secretary in his office and they started to have an affair–it was kind of a hot affair. It had lot of risk to it and it led toward a real love affair and it was serious but also very exciting and a very satisfying one when they were young. And the other thing was his relationship to his family. Obviously, he was a dark horse as a kid, did not think that he would amount to anything but he did. so you have to see that his feelings about his brother, sister, mother and father was much more complicated than Hank’s and those kind of things.”
“I always imagined that Hank was really good at sports,” Hawke said about his own character’s backstory. “Not enough to be a professional athlete, but good enough to have a tremendous amount of pride in that like through junior college, then when it didn’t work out, he kind of had nothing, but he had a lot of family love when they were younger. Most people can’t take that to a professional job. Probably played in some amateur league and that was the great joy of his life.”
The thing that binds the brothers together and ultimately breaks them apart is Marisa Tomei as Andy’s trophy wife Gina. The actress told us how her character developed. “Sidney had a vision of how he wanted my character to be, and he had some pretty detailed history he had written out before we started shooting. I always thought she was kind of a dingbat and I still think she’s really aimless. Giving that she feels anger and is disgusted with the man in her life, I don’t think she’s getting enough of what she wants at that moment. I don’t even think it’s a positive kind of anger, but that was definitely something that Sidney crafted from how he was seeing her and how he wanted her to play in the mix of the bleakness of the men.”
“I fell in love with her in ‘My Cousin Vinny’ and it hasn’t abated a bit,” her director gushed when asked why he chose Tomei for the part. “When I met her after ‘My Cousin Vinnny’ I couldn’t believe it. Every once in a while, you see a performance and think, ‘Well the director went out and got a non-professional’ and I thought that was true of Marisa. I loved her work from that and some subsequent work.”
Hawke explained Hank’s motivations for going along with his older brother’s plot while sleeping with his wife behind his back. “The whole reason why my character does the robbery is because he’s desperate to be close to his brother. He loves his brother and wants his brother’s approval so badly, but he wants it so badly that he hates his brother. It’s that thing where love turns into hate, and he sleeps with his brother’s wife to be close to him and because he hates him. He wants to hurt his brother. His brother makes him feel so bad about himself his whole life, makes him feel small and pathetic and teases him with his affection, and Hank is not that bright, not going to win any awards. I want to be him. I want to f*ck his woman, I want to be smart like him.”
“One of the things that’s fun about a Sidney Lumet set is that it’s no-nonsense,” Hawke admitted. “He’s really professional. He treats you like he would the cinematographer. Sidney likes to map out all the beats and then say, ‘On Wednesday, you’re going to come in and we’re going to do four different takes of you walking into the rental place in varying degrees of disarray.’ He treats you like a professional, and he expects a lot. When you tell the cinematographer to come up with the shot list, you expect him to show up with it, and he expects you to come up with three to four varying different degrees of what might be right for the tone of his movie, and then we do it and ten minutes it’s over.”
A lot of Lumet’s ability to work fast and get the most out of his actors comes from his drive to rehearse every scene as if it was a play. “In rehearsal, we’re very thorough,” Lumet told us. “We do everything. In fact, before the rehearsal ends, we do a run-through top to bottomfights, everything. Their scripts are out of their hands. It’s a very thorough preparation. I’m a big believer in that. Start to finish, everything is covered every day, because first of all, it’s the only time they can do it in sequence. They’ll never get to do it in sequence again. Second of all, when you’re going to ask for this level of intensity, you’re not going to get it if they’re insecure in any way, if they’re uptight. The rehearsal, because they get to know what they’re doing, just relaxes them completely, and it’s that, which allows all of the emotion to come jumping out and springing to the fore. Yeah, I find it invaluable.”
“Sidney’s crazy like that. We were so well-prepared,” Hawke told us. “He wants to map all that sh*t out. When a movie turns out well, it’s a good chemistry experiment. We all like to work that way. There’s a certain kind of actor where this wouldn’t fly. They don’t know how to do that.”
“The rehearsal period was great,” Tomei agreed, “but it was a little tough for me, because I was doing ‘Wild Hogs’ at the same time, and I had to go back and forth like three times during the two week period. It was really draining and I never really felt like I got in the groove. That’s why it was great that Sidney had such a clear vision in the first place, because I felt like I was completely at sea. Ultimately, I just had to go on instinct and she’s kind of aimless, so it worked for me.”
What will immediately grab everyone’s attention as the movie begins is the sweaty sex scene between Hoffman and Tomei that kicks things off, which Lumet credits to Tomei’s daring. “If you know my pictures, I don’t do sex scenes, because I don’t believe them,” he said. “I knew I was going to have it in this, that opening scene, and it was very important that both actors be relaxed about it. If they weren’t, it would be like any other sex scene, the ones I don’t believe. I knew that Marisa is just totally uninhibited. She’s not an exhibitionist by any means, but it’s just another part of acting for her. I’m sure that Philip is not used to it, because he’s not the conventional leading man. When we were blocking, after we finished rehearsal around the table, then we just started to stage it, just like you would in a theatre, so that’s the first scene, the first one we get to, and there’s a set and a bed, so Marisa hops up in the bed, gets on her knees and elbows, slaps her ass and says, ‘Let’s go, Phil!’ That was so great, because it not only put it in its proper place, which is part of the movie and performance, but for Philip, that must have been such a relief that there wasn’t anything competitive. I was thrilled with her.”
To wrap things up, we asked Hoffman why he seems to have a proclivity for playing bad guys or men with questionable morals. “I think everybody has questionable morals, look at this table,” Hoffman joked, pointing to the journalists at the table. “If that’s what you are looking at in a film then we have different tastes in movies because I think everyone should be questionable and every character you should play should be questioned; although this character is more extreme than most; this character is not somebody who is redeemable or forgivable by the end at all, but I would not say that these are the characters that I play very often.”
Lumet’s fans should be happy to know that he’ll be building on the momentum of Before the Devil by starting a new movie at the beginning of next year, although he was hesitant to share any details about it.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, October 26.