Josh and Benny Safdie talk about their latest film, a story of heroic failure, the documentary Lenny Cooke.
I met with Josh and Benny Safdie in late October to talk about Lenny Cooke, which is currently playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and will open in LA on Friday, December 13. It is the first documentary feature by these young but prolific brothers whose 2009 fiction feature Daddy Longlegs was a highpoint in the history of scrappy New York films. In 2001, Lenny Cooke was a high school basketball megastar ranked above LeBron James. The film takes us from those giddy days of hope to the present, seeking not so much to explain why Lenny never made it to the NBA, but to share the impact of a manufactured dream gone wrong. Mixing footage shot in Lenny’s prime by Adam Shopkorn (one of the film’s producers) and contemporary footage shot by Josh Safdie, Lenny Cooke is a basketball movie for basketball lovers and haters alike, going beyond the sport to offer a sobering account of failure on the superhighway to fame and fortune. The brothers’ palpable belief in film’s ability to be poetic and transformative allows them to transcend time, breaking every rule of documentary filmmaking with an unforgettable sequence in which the 30 year-old Lenny shares the frame with the 17 year-old Lenny. It is a moment that gives Lenny a chance to turn failure into triumph and become a hero on a human scale.
Nicholas Elliott This project originated with a documentary Adam Shopkorn was shooting over a decade ago?
Josh Safdie I was 16 and Benny was 14 and Adam was older—just out of college. He was doing this project on Lenny Cooke and there was nothing I liked more at this time than film and basketball. This project was like the nexus of these two strong passions for me and all I wanted to do was work on it. Not only that, but Adam had this camera that just came out—the Canon X1—and I was like, Oh my God. He showed me footage of Lenny dunking in Virginia, on this small concrete court and I remember being as impressed with Lenny as I was with this camera. Adam told us that he was making this film about the new Michael Jordan and we thought it was so awesome—
Benny Safdie He was interested in high school players making the jump to the NBA and he thought that this was the guy that was going to do it. So he gets in touch with him. He’s following him around and interviewing him, and he’s going to make a movie about him going to the NBA and he’s going to follow him to the NBAafter he’s successful.
JS And then he didn’t get drafted and I think that’s when Adam was like, Okay, failure.
NE What’s interesting is that the film you’ve made is built on what someone else thought was a failed movie.
JS Exactly. He put all the tapes in a shoe box and stored them in his closet. We lost touch with him. We didn’t speak to him for eight or nine years.
BS He came to a screening of Daddy Long Legs and said, “Help me finish this, I don’t know what it’s going to be”—
JS Mind you, LeBron James was all of a sudden the biggest thing in America.
BS Everybody was waiting to hear where he was going to play.
JS All the people who Lenny was dominating were suddenly in their prime. So, I went over to Adam’s and I watched a lot of basketball footage. It was cool, but as a filmmaker I wasn’t inspired. I was more of a basketball fan looking at this footage. He was really persistent about showing us more footage and trying to get us to reconsider and eventually we looked at this Las Vegas tape—I think it’s the most unpretentious footage I’ve ever looked at in my entire life. It’s so pure.
NE So then you started shooting new footage and Benny started editing the old footage?
BS I was logging the footage and creating these scenes which was really hard because there was a limit of how far you could kind of push a documentary where people needed certain information to understand it, where as if you’re watching a fiction film it doesn’t matter, you can just cut and the people will figure it out.
JS To go back to why we did the project, Lenny’s a genuine hero of mine. He was nothing, a poor kid from the projects of Bushwick, basically. Then he was on the cover of magazines and he probably saw one million worth of cash pass through his hands. He lived the bottom and he lived the top; he saw the entire spectrum. He saw it very specifically and very personally; that to me makes him a hero. I think, had he been the person he is today, with the lessons learned, he would be in the NBA.
Lou Reed just died and he had a great lyric he wrote for Kiss: “In a world without heroes there’d be nothing to be.” That’s exactly it.
BS He’s somebody who should be exactly where everybody else is but isn’t, with no concrete justification. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale. He’s allowed himself to be that, and that’s an enormous accomplishment in itself.
NE It’s like he’s allowing you to learn from his mistakes, which brings us to the shot where Lenny today is talking to Lenny back then. It is a tremendous act of sharing and it seems like something that only cinema can do: you give the Lenny of today a chance to talk to Lenny back when he was a kid. This awareness of the power of cinema runs through all your movies.
BS This film is a documentary, so people go in with certain expectations. Just seeing people leave some of the screenings—they were sort of over taken by the fact that they felt something so powerful. We’re trying to transfer the emotion of the main character. You can only really do that with cinema, and you can really feel that. We approach Lenny’s life from his perspective, as opposed to a “normal” documentary which might just go back and forth between the present and the past with talking heads.
JS The concept of allowing Lenny to speak to himself—we do it on a literal level at the end of the film, but the whole movie is just that. I’m attracted to someone like Lenny because he doesn’t reflect. He might get depressed, but he wouldn’t even know it, because he doesn't really think about the past.
BS When we were doing that final scene in which he speaks to his younger self, it was almost like he had never before been forced to reflect or think about what he would say. What he says gets a little convoluted because he’s really struggling. He believed he was talking to himself, and he gave this incredible performance.
NE At what point in your process did you realize that you were going to have a scene like that? What did you tell Lenny to make that scene happen?
JS That final scene was hands down the most expensive part of the movie because we had to have a computer graphics guy come in. We were going to be putting Lenny in a situation that is not free for a performer, in a green screen studio with lines that he cannot cross. We were worried about that, but seeing how Lenny is with the camera, we knew it would be no problem.
He’s such a natural performer in the sense that he has no relationship with cinema. I’d be filming and he’d do or say something and I’d ask him to say it again—I had no problems, ethically, doing that as a filmmaker. I knew from the beginning that he would be able to do something performative, like recite a monologue from his soul, which is improvisation in a way. It's so obvious: What would you say if you had the opportunity to go back and talk to yourself?
NE It might be obvious, but we haven’t seen it in a documentary—at least I haven’t.
JS It is a tough thing to do conceptually, in a documentary, but we didn't really think about that.
BS There’s a little more freedom in a way in documentary, but at the same time you’re very restricted. If you do something that at all steps on the authenticity of the film, the whole world blows up and it’s a failure. There is a very fine line here. It has to feel real and genuine and make sense with the rest of the movie, to fit in with the narrative completely seamlessly.
JS I got no sleep going into the day of the special effects shoot, and Lenny was being a little difficult—when he comes to New York his ego inflames. He has a crazy sense of entitlement. The day we were filming we were trying to get him into a kind of monologue mindset, so we invited a couple of friends there from his past, some of whom he hasn't seen in a long time. He said to us, “I need to drink,” and we didn't say no. It was very much a hang out. We were hanging out with his friends and we had a lot of the footage from 2000 and 2001 up on the drive. We were in this huge green screen room, in the corner with Lenny and his friend—who were drinking a little bit—and we were just shooting the shit. Lenny was like, “Show us this, show us that,” and we were just showing him clips from his past. Naturally that would turn into arguments, because that's what he does best with his friends, argue about modern-day basketball: who was doing this and that and where this person is now. Who’s locked up and who isn’t. It was interesting. We put him in a scenario where he was speaking to his most confrontational friend; that’s who was acting as the young Lenny.
His relationship with me, with the camera, wasn’t subject to documentarian, it was person to person who made him look cool. I was basically an enforcer of his ego and an enforcer of his cool. I was his ladies man! His wingman.
BS Yeah, being followed by a camera was a validation for him, but at the same time we had access to everything.
JS When I was in Emporia, Virginia—where he lives now—I was the white man who was rolling around. I’d sometimes get dropped off literally a mile out of the city and just walk through Emporia, where there are no white people. I felt very safe, so I’d walk through to Lenny’s house with this camera and people would start to get to know me and be like “Oh, that's the guy making a movie about Lenny.” But more importantly, it was “Oh, that guy Lenny is actually pretty important. He has some weird white guy coming all the way from New York to make a movie about him.” We made Lenny feel more in his element because for four years of his life he was in the spotlight of America.
During the green-screen scene, Lenny would get on a roll and show he has no remorse about the decisions he made and he was actually quite proud of the life that he lived. That was interesting! He’s a hero to me and heroes have no regrets. He was boasting about his life, so we’d egg him on.
Then we went back to Brooklyn, where we shot the scene at his friend’s place.
BS He had just been thinking about everything that had happened recently, like throwing his own birthday party and nobody turning up. He’d just turned 30 and it’s all bubbling and it kind of exploded.
JS That to me is the power of watching movies. Why do we watch movies? We sit down, we’re a body, and so we’re experiencing watching another life and we’re experiencing more than one life at the same time. It’s like a drug. This idea of following a character and getting inside someone else’s mind—this double perspective or multiple perspective effect—it really jolts me. I always hope that other people feel that as well, and documentaries always give you that. It’s like Ray Carney once said, “Of course a documentary is going to be interesting on some level, it’s about reality.”
BS But, certain documentaries that are just so objective.
NE “I got some information. I’m done.” That’s most documentaries.
BS Right, and that’s a problem because they’re not really using the medium to its full advantage. Where it gets dicey is when Herzog makes a documentary or with a movie like The Act of Killing.
NE I was going to ask you about that, because you guys made a movie where you give a man the opportunity to have a cathartic experience. I’m very curious to hear what you guys think of The Act of Killing, which gives a mass murderer the opportunity to have a cathartic experience.
BS The filmmaker—Joshua Oppenheimer—gives him the opportunity to feel pain that he’s never felt, but I don’t think that’s catharsis. It’s more vindictive, on the part of the filmmaker. He’s trying to make him feel bad, because that guy had never felt bad before.
JS Now, don’t get this wrong, we both love that movie.
BS It’s great! What makes it interesting is that the filmmaker is like, I’m going to make you confront this whether you like it or not. Yes, it’s unethical, but it’s incredible.
JS What I found to be a strange correlation between that film and ours is that The Act of Killing, on a very basic level, is about teenagers. They were teenagers when they killed. Where is your mind and where are your morals as a teenager?
Think about Lenny or about LeBron James. They’re 17 or 18 years old and all of a sudden they’re thrown into this adult world.
BS With no support system.
JS Yeah, and they’re supposed to become adult superstars that 40 and 50 year old men are obsessing over in their living rooms on Thanksgiving Day. From that perspective, I was very intrigued by The Act of Killing.
BS We wanted to show that Lenny was alone—that he’s this moving island by himself and that he’s got to juggle all these decisions. And it’s hard. There’s this weight on his shoulders and when he doesn't make it, there’s a little relief for him. He starts crying at the press conferences and he’s like, “I’m done. I don't need to handle this any more.”
NE It’s interesting to talk about The Act of Killing in relation to Lenny Cooke because what I meant about the power of cinema is that even though you have a very strong relationship to reality in your films, sometimes the “magic” of cinema—the unreality—is what allows us to feel reality more powerfully.
BS That’s one hundred percent true.
NE One example is this green-screen shot with the two Lennys, but I’m also thinking about Daddy Long Legs. The line between imagination and reality seems very porous in your films. They move easily between a sense of concrete reality and an almost dream-like sensibility.
BS There are a lot of filmmakers who do that, and we would watch those movies and be like, Hold on, they’re doing something here. It’s in reaction to direct cinema; all these people started making these fake documentaries, but with real tactics. We’d watch these movies and feel things that we wouldn’t normally feel. Because it’s in the realm of “realism”, you’re accepting it in a weird kind of way.
JS I’m thinking about the party scene when Lenny turns 30. I remember when we were writing down what we needed for the film, we wrote down “Need to see Lenny feeling happy. Need to see Lenny feeling anxious.” And I said, "The only way we’re going to do this is if I hang out with him from the beginning of a night, all the way until he falls asleep. I want to see him fall asleep on camera." I literally went from place to place to place on his birthday and ended up at his house.
At the end of this night of reflection—him turning 30 and being so upset—there’s basketball on television and I’m so overwhelmed with the beauty of reality that’s unfolding around me. The house felt like a movie set and that scene to me is like the magical moment of the movie. He went from being happy to sad, from angry to nice, and he just keeps saying, “It’s my birthday.” And then he’s watching basketball again. His emotions catch up with him. That to me was when reality and emotion and this concept of filmmaking, this magical coming together of things—that was when all of a sudden it felt to me like life was written. It was a very strange moment for me.
Have you been to our museum, downtown?
NE No, I still haven’t been.
JS This was the founding principle of the museum. It was in the first show: basically all these objects with narratives tied to them. You look at, say, this pen. The pen is presented like the holy grail and it’s on wires and it’s lit and there’s a phone number next to it. You call the number and you’re listening to the story of the pen, that this is the pen that Mike Tyson used to sign the contract to fight Holyfield again. I could tell you that Mike Tyson grabbed the pen and looked at Holyfield for a second and wanted to stab him and you would never believe it, but somehow seeing physical proof of that story makes you think, “Hey it’s true! This is all fact.” That’s what the whole concept of the museum is: evidence. And that’s what movies are to me, evidence of feelings and character.
NE And it makes no difference whether it’s a fiction film or a documentary as long as there’s evidence.
JS It’s all exactly the same thing. It’s absurd that there’s a difference.
The idea of the “perfect documentary” is the most boring movie in the world. There’s no expression, it’s presenting life as it unfolds. It’s literally C-Span, it’s a surveillance camera.
BS It’s funny because when Adam showed us all this old footage and there was this one moment specifically—
JS There was this woman that was sitting on Lenny’s lap—
BS Yeah. She’s sitting on his lap in the car and he’s lying to her about playing basketball. We said, “Okay, there’s a movie here.” It’s not just his story, which is very important, but there’s a movie about his personality, his life, this world that he was forced into, that we could really explore.
JS We saw that clip and that’s when we realized that there’s a very subtle character to tap into here. It’s very easy to write him off.
BS Because nothing bad happened to him, there was no way to say, “Okay, that’s why he didn’t make it.” It’s a very complicated as to why he didn’t make it.
JS In a weird way though, it’s beautiful. Lenny wouldn’t be an interesting story if he had made it. He would have to be a completely different person than he is. Here’s a kid who has no intention of being a professional basketball player—
BS At sixteen years old he was handed a basketball and he happened to be incredible—
JS But he didn’t give a shit. He never practiced. That to me is heroic, that’s godly! He just wasn’t willing to play the game. Look at the executive producer [and NBA all-star] Joakim Noah. He had wealth growing up, he had money, but he had a more metaphysical drive—the drive to be great. Lenny just was great.
NE Last question. You guys are developing a feature now. Are there things that you take away from making Lenny Cooke that have affected your approach to this film?
JS I’m not sure, because the way we approached Lenny Cooke was kind of strange. We just did it. It’s like working out, you’ve got to keep your muscles free. Filming with Lenny was the antithesis of expressing our own egos, and so is this new film that we’re working on. It has nothing to do with us, but it has everything to do with the characters. Lenny was very much that.
BS The main thing I took from making this film was the importance of storytelling. This is not our story, this is his story, his life—how can we convey his emotions and experiences to somebody else? When he watched the movie and started crying, it kind of gave me more faith in what you were talking about earlier—the power of what you can do with movies.
JS I think that what Benny’s saying is that the greatest souvenir from the film is knowing we can get into any scenario and find our footing. To us, the easy part was tapping into the emotional side of Lenny, and who his character is. The tough part was always telling the story.
BS Our grandmother walked out of the screening like a zombie. She couldn’t believe what she was feeling and I had never seen anybody walk out of a documentary like that before, especially one about basketball. She doesn’t care about basketball!
For more on the work of the Safdie Brothers, including information on screenings of Lenny Cooke, visit Red Bucket Films.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is contributing editor for film at BOMB. He recently served on the jury of the 2013 Entrevues Belfort Film Festival and is providing text and appearing in New York City Players' TheaterCon.