Verdict, The: Making of Lumet’s Superb Courtroom Drama, Starring Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, James Mason

Film rights to Reed’s novel were bought by the production team of Richard Zanuck and David Brown.

A number of actors, including Roy Scheider, William Holden, Frank Sinatra, and Dustin Hoffman, expressed interest in the project because of the strength of the lead role.

Arthur Hiller was originally attached to direct while David Mamet was hired to write a screenplay.

Though Mamet had made a name for himself in the theater, he was still new to screenwriting (his first film credit had come in 1978). The producers were uncertain whether Mamet would take the job given the standards he set with his own previous work, but according to Lindsay Crouse, who was then married to Mamet, the film was actually a big deal for him.

Mamet’s original draft ended the film after the jury left the courtroom for deliberations, giving no resolution to the case. Neither Zanuck and Brown believed they could make the film without showing what happened, and Zanuck met with Mamet to convince him to re-write the ending. However, Mamet told Zanuck that the ending he wanted was “old-fashioned” and would hurt the film. He also reacted negatively to Zanuck’s use of sarcasm to make his point, as Zanuck claimed his copy of the script was missing its final pages before telling Mamet the film title would need a question mark after it.

Hiller also disliked Mamet’s script and left the project. The producers commissioned another screenplay from Jay Presson Allen, which they preferred.

They were later approached by Robert Redford to star in the film when he obtained a copy of the script from Allen.

Redford suggested James Bridges as a writer-director, and he had Bridges write several drafts of the screenplay, more or less sanitizing the lead character as he was concerned about playing a hard-drinking womanizer.

Neither the producers nor Redford were happy with the rewrites and soon Bridges left the project. Redford then began having meetings with Sydney Pollack without telling the producers. They got irritated, and fired Redford.

Zanuck and Brown then hired Sidney Lumet to direct, sending him all versions of the script. After several rewrites, Lumet decided the story’s original grittiness was fast devolving and chose Mamet’s original script. This was agreed to by Paul Newman, who ultimately agreed to star.[8] Lumet recalled that they had to rework only one or two scenes, mainly giving the trial a resolution as Zanuck and Brown had originally requested. Unlike Zanuck, when Lumet approached Mamet, he was able to get his approval to make that change to his original work.[7]

Lumet then recruited Jack Warden and James Mason, both of whom he had worked with before.

He wasn’t sure if Mason, a renowned actor in that era, would take a supporting role, but Mason liked Mamet’s script and did not object.

Prior to filming, Lumet held extensive dress rehearsals, standard practice for Lumet’s films but not common on Hollywood productions. Newman was appreciative as they proved crucial in developing his performance, giving him the time that he needed to tap into the emotional bankruptcy of his character.

At one point during production, Newman barely avoided serious injury when a light estimated to weigh several hundred pounds fell about three feet away from him after breaking through its supports. The wood planks were apparently weakened by overnight rain.

Bruce Willis and Tobin Bell have uncredited background appearances. They are seated together as extras in the final courtroom scene.

The producers were reluctant to keep the scene where Newman strikes Rampling, believing it would turn the audience against his character and even damage his public image. Newman insisted on keeping it, believing it was right for the story.

After the film was finished, the studio’s executives sent Lumet several suggestions and urged him to rework the ending with Galvin finally answering Laura’s phone call, but Zanuck said that Lumet had final cut authority, and the film would remain as completed.

In 2013, the Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #91 on its list of the “101 greatest screenplays ever written”.