Front And 'Centre'

Seeing director Sidney Lumet in action on the set of '100 Centre Street' proves precisely how his works get their sense of rhythm

November 13, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

NEW YORK - It was a backstage, pop-culture moment to be treasured.

Last week, I came to New York - to an old, rambling, rust-belt warehouse across the East River from Manhattan in Queens, where the A&E cable series 100 Centre Street is filmed. I came on a kind of pilgrimage to see the making of this gritty series about life in and around New York's night court and to meet its creator, Sidney Lumet, the legendary 77-year-old director of such acclaimed films as 12 Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon.

I have not taken this much of a rooting interest in any series since Homicide: Life on the Street bit the dust. Like Homicide, 100 Centre Street is one of those rare television series with an acute sense of social conscience. And, like almost all such high-quality American television dramas of great moral vision, it needs all the help it can get from critics in finding an audience large enough to keep it on the air.

A scene was just about to start shooting as I arrived on the cluster of soundstages and sets that make up the world of 100 Centre Street, and everything suddenly fell silent. The publicist showing me around and I stopped dead in our tracks just outside a little room as a voice called "action."

Inside, about 100 yards from the soundstage where the actors were about to play the scene, three people sat in tall directors' chairs facing a bank of small TV screens, dials, buttons, knobs and microphones. The only light came from the glow of the screens. Seated in the center chair leaning forward with his face less than a foot away from a grouping of four screens, was Lumet.

"Three," he called out, snapping his fingers like a jazz musician counting time in the darkened room. "One," he said a few seconds later. Again, a finger snap. Then silence.

"Two." Snap. Silence.

"One." Snap. Silence.

"And three." Snap. Silence.

I knew he was directing via microphone the three cameras that were shooting the action being played out on the soundstage. (The fourth screen gave him a master shot of the scene.) But, in 25 years of visiting hundreds of sets and soundstages, I had never seen or heard it done quite like this, with the unmistakable sense of meter and the finger snaps.

I closed my eyes and focused on the voice and the snaps. After a few minutes, I could feel it - the rhythm that Lumet heard in his head and was imposing on the scene.

As a critic sitting on the other side of the screen, I had written innumerable times about the "exquisite sense of pacing" to a scene or the "seductive sense of rhythm" that drove a drama. But until that moment last week, I never truly understood or felt it. That might not be what some think of as a moment of artistic transcendence, but it was close enough for me.

You don't talk to Sidney Lumet when he's working. But, later, I told him what I felt standing in the darkness listening to him direct. And now, I had a question: What about editing and post-production?

No `post'

In my set visits over the years, the one phrase I heard probably more often than any other was, "We can fix it in `post.' " It was a reference to the editing stage of the television-making process, where the raw footage is smoothed-out, dressed-up with music and made ready for prime-time viewing. Isn't that where the rhythm of a piece is created - in editing?

Not on 100 Centre Street when Lumet (who created the series and also serves as an executive producer) directs an episode.

"That is your editing. What you saw me doing there, that's it. That's your edited copy," Lumet said.

"And what you saw was what we used to do in live television in the 1950s as part of the technique. And the reason for it is that you'd be sitting there next to the technical director, and you'd say, `Take two.'

"Well, would the `two' be at the beginning of the word `two' or at the end of the word? And then you might be doing that with five or six cameras. So, rhythmically, the thing that was always best was to just snap your fingers at the actual moment that you wanted them to change cameras."

That way of making television allowed a "tremendous individual style of direction" to emerge, said Lumet, who made his directing debut in 1952 during what often is referred to as the golden age of television. The designation is in large part because of artists like Lumet, Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling working in the then-live medium.

Beyond the now rare opportunity to savor the work of a great director like Lumet, another reason to visit 100 Centre Street is its kinship in sensibility to what was great about television from that era. Some of it's obvious. For instance, Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), whose resume also dates to television in the 1950s, will direct an upcoming episode in which Joanne Woodward guest stars. Eli Wallach was a guest in an episode this year. But the resonance is deeper than that.

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