Movies: The 'Devil' and Mr. Hoffman

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 9, 2007 - 4:36 PM

Philip Seymour Hoffman had a lively time filming "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" with the legendary Sidney Lumet.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD
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Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.'

Photo: Will Hart, Will Hart

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Philip Seymour Hoffman has a great entrance in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," as he and screen wife Marisa Tomei have a graphic, sheet-tearing session of vacation sex in a Rio hotel room.

Without giving anything away, Hoffman also has one of the best exits in quite a while. In the movie, opening Friday, he plays the meaty role of a desperate executive who recruits his brother (Ethan Hawke) into a robbery of their parents' jewelry store that spirals tragically out of control. The Oscar winner is the latest in a pantheon of great actors to work with legendary director Sidney Lumet, joining the ranks of Fredric March, Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Paul Newman and Peter Finch.

"The entrance and exit are great," Hoffman said with a laugh, "but it was more the middle part that got to me, playing this guy who is so at the end of his rope that he's ready to take a desperate step just to change it. To make that convincing is a challenge, because most people would have thought of a different way" than to stage a heist.

"This idea says a lot about who he is and how he got there, and making that believable was the test. He wants to buy his way into a new life, then all hell breaks loose and he realizes he'll never get away. It'll never change, it'll only get worse. It's an inevitable outcome that you don't see coming."

The film combines elements of two of Lumet's finest films, the doomed-robbery drama "Dog Day Afternoon" and the generational tragedy "Long Day's Journey Into Night."I didn't see it as a thriller but as a family drama of epic proportions," Hoffman said.

Over the course of the film, as his relationships with his wife, brother and father disintegrate, Hoffman's character loses his calculating facade, becoming increasingly anxious, despondent and self-destructive.

Because the timeline jumps back and forward repeatedly to show the story from different perspectives, maintaining a sense of continuity about his emotional state was difficult, Hoffman said. To help the actors orient themselves, Lumet led the cast through an unusual two-week rehearsal period.

"We didn't just shoot this film out of sequence; it is out of sequence," Hoffman said. "You had to know where you were in the timeline. He's a Type A personality who starts out controlled, goes through an explosion of emotion when his plans backfire, then shoves all that back down and closes it with a tighter lid than before, which makes him the monster he becomes."

Hoffman, who has worked for renowned directors including Spike Lee, David Mamet, the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, said he was dazzled by the 83-year-old Lumet's vitality and focus.

"There's no fat in his pictures, no extra anything. One or two takes at most and his direction is sharp and clear. You shoot right through the picture, no going back on yourselves or redoing anything. Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.

"He's so efficient, yet he's incredibly deep because of that rehearsal process. The scene where I talk my brother into the robbery in most films would take two days. We finished in eight hours. We got to the end, and Ethan and I looked at each other and said, 'Did we just shoot that scene?' I learned a lot about being economical with the actors' energy."

Oscar winner stays choosy

Hoffman didn't take his best actor Oscar for "Capote" as an opportunity to cash in with a few big-paycheck stinkers.

"I just continued with what I'd done before, which was trying to work with good people," he said. "I've played a CIA agent in 'Charlie Wilson's War' [a political dramedy about the Afghan-Russian war with Mike Nichols directing Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts] and I've got something with Charlie Kaufman coming up," he said.

Hoffman calls Kaufman's "Synecdoche"one of the best scripts I've ever read." He plays a theater director who is convinced that the stage set for his next work should be a life-sized replica of New York City.

"It follows the man through his life, which should tell you something about its scope. I just adore Charlie. I'm so grateful he asked me to do it and so thankful I said yes.

"We're both pretty passionate, demanding people. We're very honest with each other. But ultimately that works in our favor, not just in our relationship but for the film."

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD