Find Me Guilty: Interview with Director Sidney Lumet

It was the longest criminal trial in U.S. history. After years of federal investigation, 20 members of the Lucchese crime family are brought to court on 76 different charges. The government is prepared to take down one of the mobs biggest crime families, until one defendant decides to do the unthinkable: defend himself.

Find Me Guilty is based on the true story of Giacomo Jackie Dee DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), a member of New Jerseys notorious Lucchese crime family. In the midst of serving a 30-year sentence, Jackie is offered an opportunity to shorten his time by testifying against many of his friends. Disgusted with the legal system bureaucracy, and refusing to betray his family, Jackie stands trial as defendant and attorney. Im no gangster, Im a gagster, insists Jackie as he overcomes the complicated politics of the courtroom, and comfortably takes over the spotlight. With his outrageous sense of humor, raw determination and unconditional loyalty, Jackie never fails to surprise the judge, the jury, or his skeptical fellow defendants.

Lasting 21 months during 1987-88, the Lucchese trial became the longest in U.S. criminal history. It has continued to stand out over the years as an epic moment in courtroom history: 20 defendants, 20 defense attorneys (one for each defendant), eight jury alternates (due to the anticipated length of the trial and the fear of bribery), and unusually extensive summations (one defense lawyers closing statement ran for five days). In fact, most of the courtroom testimony in the movie is drawn from actual trial transcripts. Matching outrageous humor with genuine tragedy, Jackies desperate personal journey culminates in one of the most shocking verdicts in American judicial history.

Directed by Sidney Lumet from an original screenplay by Lumet and T.J. Mancini & Robert McCrea, Find Me Guilty is a production of the Yari Film Group and Three Wolves Production. The film stars Vin Diesel, Ron Silver, Alex Rocco, Peter Dinklage, Linus Roach and Annabella Sciorra.

The set of Find Me Guilty pulsed with fervent excitement, raw creative energy, and a unique efficiency that could only be orchestrated by a truly seasoned director like Sidney Lumet. Having recently celebrated his 80th birthday, Lumet stands as a monumental figure not only in contemporary American film but also in film history. The five-time Oscar nominated director examines once again the themes of crime, betrayal and redemption that have inspired him in the creation of such classics as 12 Angry Men (1957), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Prince of the City (1981) and The Verdict (1982).

Hes one of the most thoroughly organized directors that Ive ever worked with, and Ive worked with quite a few. Shooting a film with him is pure execution. It allows us to just fly through the material, says producer Robert Greenhut. In addition to serving as associate producer with Lumet on Dog Day Afternoon, Greenhut has brought his production skills to nearly two dozen Woody Allen films and such New York gems as Arthur, The King of Comedy and Big.

The high regard for Lumets efficiency is confirmed by writer-producer T.J. Mancini, (Strays, Shadow of Doubt), who found Lumets brisk pace remarkable. He makes it looks effortless, says Mancini. A lot of directors will do take after take until they tire an actor out. Sidney will just do one or two takes, maybe three. Hes just impeccably exact in getting what he wants. And I think actors bring so much more commitment just for the opportunity to work with him.

Lumet himself found refreshing the complexity of character offered by the real life Jackie DiNorscio. First of all, he himself is just as wild a character as Ive ever come across, the director explains. A mob guy, cocaine dealer, liar, cheat, whoremonger–everything unpleasant–and yet there was something quite moving about him. His loyalty to his family was steadfast, and the humor he brought into the courtroom was remarkable. He was also totally fearless.

The scope of the trial, which formed the core of Jackies story, also offered the director a massive canvas. It was the longest criminal trial in U.S. history, and you can see why it took two years: there were 20 defendants with 76 charges against them, and 20 lawyers. So the sheer mass of it wasunbelievable, says Lumet. Along with DiNorscios irreverent yet sympathetic approach, the director notes, there was also an undefeated prosecutor.

Producer Bob Yari recognized a compelling story in the trial of Jackie DiNorscio, having recently made such films as Hostage with Bruce Willis, Haven with Orlando Bloom, and Prime with Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. Jackie was a complex person who had his own moral universe. Facing 30 years in prison, they offered to shave time off his sentence if he was a cooperative witness, but he said hed rather be in jail a thousand years than lie and rat out these boys that he knew since he was a kid.

DiNorscio said during his trial that he was a comedian, not a gangster, and, in representing himself, he managed to turn the trial into a circus, says producer George Zakk. Bringing his skills as a producer to Vin Diesel projects like XXX and A Man Apart, Zakk first read Find Me Guilty four years ago and brought it to the attention of Diesel.

The development of the screenplay originated with T.J. Mancini, a New Jersey native who was fascinated by the trial when it took place in the late 1980s. Through a mutual friend, Mancini spoke with DiNorscio in prison, broaching the idea of turning the story of the trial into a movie. Over the course of three years, Mancini and writer Robert McCrea (The Other Side Of Capone, Frankie Perrone) interviewed DiNorscio by telephone in ten-minute sound bites and obtained the rights to option his story. Mancini met DiNorscio in-person upon his release from prison, marking the start of an ongoing dialogue.

He was a natural, charismatic showman. In the prison newspaper they compared him to Jackie Gleason, recalls Mancini, maintaining that he was a tough anti-hero with a big heart, an underdog who went up against the FBI and the best prosecutor in the state and remained fearless. The screenwriters understood that all of these elements ” most importantly, DiNorscios sense of humor ” had to be carefully woven into the script.

Principal photography began in October 2004 on location in New York City. Looking to capture the East Coast reality of the trial, the location proved critical for the filmmakers. It was very important that the film have total authenticity in the look and in the sound, said Lumet. I just wanted to make sure that every single person there belonged.

Lumet took painstaking time in prepping the film, but sought the convenience and artistry of high-definition video in shooting it. Having shot all of his A&E crime drama series 100 Centre Street on high-def, he valued two distinct benefits. First, it speeds up the horrendous physical process of shooting a film, allowing him to work at a brisk tempo and keep the actors fresh between takes. Second, as opposed to the false colors rendered on film, HD offers real color as seen by the naked eye. When you want a totally naturalistic look, film is fighting you every second. I can get things in HD that I cannot get in film.

Director of photography, Ron Fortunato, who worked alongside Lumet on 100 Centre Street as well as on the HBO telefilm Strip Search, understood the look that Lumet wanted. He also recognized a challenge in shooting the majority of a 27-day schedule inside one room. This was the most interior movie Ive ever done, he says. About 60 pages of the script are shot in the courtroom, and you have to be careful not to do things differently just to do them different from the day before. You have to make sure its appropriate for the scene.

Based on the script, Lumet realized that he needed a unique courtroom layout. I reversed the usual setup of a typical courtroom, he explains. Instead of a long shape, with a bowling lane going down the middle of the visitor section, I wanted it twice as wide as it was long, since we had to seat 40 people at the defendants tables. Because the government knew the trial would take a long time, he says, they had eight alternate jurors, a total of 20 people in the jury box. All of the jurors had to able to see whoevers testifying. We decided to move the witness box in front of the judges bench, rather than to the side, because it was the only way to do it visually. The result is that, right from the start, the courtroom looks different.

The director turned to vet production designer, Chris Nowak (100 Centre Street, Strip Search) to create a courtroom that met his vision. This trial took place in Newark Federal Courthouse, which we had to recreate, he explains. The Newark courtrooms are all dark wood, but we couldnt spend that much time in an all-dark wood courtroom. So we decided to make it a little grander with marble and a warm, rich color to reflect the emotions running through the courtroom. To further ensure authenticity, the production designer brought a natural wear-and-tear to the courthouse with fabricated stains, watermarks, chipped plaster and worn paint.

Lumet’s masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon, took place in one location, a bank–theres something that really builds tension between people in a claustrophobic environment over a long period of time. Mancini cites Lumets 12 Angry Men as a great example of a picture shot primarily in one room where a lot of dramatic truths are squeezed out from a lot of great characters. Its not the number of walls, its by the number of epiphanies you have in your story that makes it memorable.

In addition to the main courthouse, about 18 other sets populate Find Me Guilty including the prison where the mobster is incarcerated. Says production designer Nowak, Jackie was at Manhattan Correctional Facility, but Sidney felt that it didnt have enough character. So, our prison cellblock is modeled more after the ones upstate in Sing Sing. Given that the actual trial went on for 22 months, Nowak also took care to show the change of seasons: from the greening of spring to the snowfall of winter.

Costume designer Tina Nigro, who previously worked on Oz and The Jury and with Lumet on Strip Search, quickly discovered her own challenge: dressing more than 120 people every day. For the main mobster characters, she explains, the costume department shopped in many of the stores that the defendants would have solicited, from Bensonhurst to Howard Beach. I didnt want it to look modern, but we also didnt want anything too 80s, says Nigro. So the mens suits were either two-button or double-breasted; there were no four-button suits. We kept it classic with no obvious time period.

Courtrooms and costumes aside, the filmmakers knew that the main element ensuring the authenticity of Find Me Guilty would be the films star. Sidney Lumet indicated that the casting process was very, very tough, ruling out many of the actors who have become closely tied to the crime genre in the past. Of the choice of Vin Diesel, Lumet calls him a superb actor… Very few people know it, but they will after they see this movie. Because the normal association is, Oh, well, hes a racecar action hero.

Lumet first saw Diesels work in the actors short film Multi-Facial. Its a story of an actor making the rounds and auditioning in a single day, and so he gets a chance to play five different characters. Its only a 20-minute movie, but you can see that hes enormously talented. When I saw that movie, I saw a major talent. For his part, Diesel wanted to shoot a film with Lumet in New York, where the actor began his career.

Lumet offers high praise to the other members of his cast as well: Peter Dinklage as attorney Ben Klandis (Peter is one of the very important American actors… I wanted somebody sympathetic, because hes such a support for Jackie), Linus Roache as Federal Prosecutor Sean Kierney (I lucked out…I was having a great deal of difficulty casting the part and four days before rehearsal, he came in and read, and he was perfect), Alex Rocco as mob boss Nick Calabrese (When he walked in for casting, he was visually absolutely perfect for that part), Ron Silver as Judge Finestein (The only one in this cast that Ive worked with before [on Garbo Talks], a real pleasure to work with, my first choice for the part), and Annabella Sciorra (She has one scene, but its one hell of a scene).

This film will be notably different from others in the genre, according to Greenhut due to DiNorscios chief asset, his fearless sense of humor. I think that he used this natural gift to charm the jury and make a mockery of these federal prosecutors whose case may have not been as strong as it could have been, he says. Its a bizarre situation that a trial could last for two years and that someone with so little education could successfully defend himself. But despite all his foibles, Jackie DiNorscio won the hearts and minds of the jury.

Sidney Lumet’s Career

Lumet knows New York better than anyone. A New Yorker since the age of two, Lumet has made 30 of his 43 feature films in the Big Apple.

Lumets motion pictures have received over 50 Academy Award nominations culminating in his acceptance of an honorary Oscar at this years Academy Awards. His many honors include four Oscar nominations as Best Director, for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The Verdict (1982). He also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay as co-writer of Prince of the City (1981). He has also been honored with an impressive seven Directors Guild of America Award nominations for his work.

The son of an actor in Europes Yiddish theatres, Lumet was a child actor from age five until he entered the U.S. Army at 17. After military duty, he returned to New York and became a director in theater and television. During the 1950s he directed over 250 television shows, many of them broadcast live. His TV credits include Danger, You Are There, Mama, Kraft Television Theatre, The Alcoa Hour, Goodyear TV Playhouse, Studio ne, Omnibus, Playhouse 90, The Sacco & Vanzetti Story and The Iceman Cometh.

In 1957 Lumets motion picture directorial debut, 12 Angry Men, earned three Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. In the years immediately following, he directed Stage Struck and That Kind of Woman. During the 1960s he directed The Fugitive Kind, A View From the Bridge, Long Days Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, Bye Bye Braverman, The Sea Gull, and The Appointment. He was one of the creators of King: A Film Record Montgomery To Memphis.

The 1970s proved to be a remarkable decade for the director featuring such critically acclaimed films as Serpico (whose raft of honors included Oscar nominations for its screenplay and star, Al Pacino), Dog Day Afternoon (six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture), and the groundbreaking Network (ten Oscar nominations and four wins).

Ten Lumet films were released in the 1980s: Just Tell Me What You Want (which he also produced), Prince of the City (also co-writer), Deathtrap, The Verdict, Daniel, Garbo Talks, Power, The Morning After, Running on Empty and Family Business.

He began the 1990s directing Q&A, also his first solo writing credit, followed by A Stranger Among Us, Guilty As Sin and Night Falls on Manhattan, which he also wrote. While making Gloria on the streets of New York, his scathing social satire of the medical establishment Critical Care was released.

With Find Me Guilty, Vin Diesel joins the ranks of gifted actors and celebrated movie stars who have seized the opportunity to practice their craft under Lumet’s able hands. From Marlon Brando to Al Pacino, Ingrid Bergman to Faye Dunaway, the list of screen performers who have appeared in a Sidney Lumet film is staggering.

Lumets prestigious honors include the Directors Guilds prestigious D.W. Griffith Award, given for an unusually distinguished body of work, as well as the New York Film Critics Award for Prince of the City and the Los Angeles Film Critics Award and Golden Globe for Network. New Yorks Museum of Modern Art honored him with a retrospective, as has virtually every major international film academy. In 1997 he was given the Billy Wilder Award for Excellence and Achievement in Film Direction from the National Board of Review, and the Writers Guild of Americas Evelyn Burkey Award for his contribution to films that brought dignity and honors to writers.

Lumet is the author of an extremely popular filmmaking primer titled, Making Movies (Vintage Books). Currently in its eighth printing, Making Movies is widely considered to be the finest, clearest and most direct illumination ever written by a working filmmaker concerning the mysteries of how, and sometimes why, movies are made.