(L-R): Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie and Lenny Cooke.
Lenny Cooke, a new documentary about the rise and fall of a top-ranked high school basketball player, essentially has two lead characters: there's the cocky, charming kid from Bushwick who lopes through recruiting camps with LeBron James, and then there's the sad-eyed, heavyset man who suddenly appears an hour into the film. It takes a minute to realize that they're the same person. The rift that created these two Lennys? The 2002 NBA draft, which, for reasons no one fully understands, passed Cooke by in spite of all his talent, potential, and hype.
The documentary was directed by Queens-bred brothers Josh and Benny Safdie. (Producer Adam Shopkorn shot the early footage, and executive producer Joakim Noah appears in the film in his Chicago Bulls uniform.) Like their subject, the Safdies tasted success early: their first two features, The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddy Longlegs, premiered at Cannes; both brothers are still in their twenties. We caught up with them earlier this week, and after some passionate words about the new YouTube star known as Trumpet Man -- "I definitely want to have him in a movie somewhere," Benny said -- the brothers discussed their unorthodox approach to documentary filmmaking and shared their thoughts on how to stay in the game.
For starters, tell me about how the two halves of this movie came together.
Benny: Adam [Shopkorn] was following Lenny around with a couple of cinematographers in 2001, when Lenny was the greatest. He set out to make a film about a high school player jumping from high school to the NBA. And as he was following him, things started falling apart: Lenny didn't answer Adam's phone calls and started drifting away, and then he didn't get drafted and he kind of disappeared. Fast-forward to 2008, and Adam's at a screening of ours for Daddy Longlegs, and he came up to us and said, "Look, I have all these tapes, I want to finish this movie. Will you guys help me out?"
Josh: When Adam was making the film and we were in high school, we wanted nothing more than to work on the film; we just were too young. Film and basketball were our two greatest passions. Back in 2000, 2001, it was a side project for Adam. And 30% of the footage he had was interviews with people. It was very much like an article he was essentially writing. When Lenny drifted out of touch with Adam and then he didn't get drafted, I think Adam moved onto another profession. He went into the art world and still is in that to this day. But he, like us, doesn't like to leave anything unfinished. I think he had seen Daddy Longlegs and The Pleasure of Being Robbed and some of our shorts and realized, OK, here are people who are interested in reality -- our films are always very tied to realism, hinting at reality from another source, and they're character studies. And we said from the beginning, We're not writing an article here. We wanted to do an investigative portrait. We said, By doing a micro-portrait of Lenny, we're going to be doing a macro-portrait of America and basketball and the state of the American Dream. So we decided to go in, go in, go in.
Benny: Normally, with a film like this, the first thing you would see is Lenny today, talking about what it was like being the greatest. But the moment you see him today, you can't go back. It's almost like a fiction film, that earlier stuff. You can't cut back and forth between the two because it's just so shocking. To preserve that feeling like of like, OK, I need to understand what happened here, we needed to do the film in two parts. The film needed to exist in present tense and follow his journey chronologically, because you needed to understand from Lenny's perspective. At first, Lenny thought we were going to try and make a comeback story about him, so he would rent fancy cars, but Josh would follow him to the dealership. Eventually Lenny realized we weren't stopping, and we were trying to make another movie -- we were trying to understand him. It was going to be a human story. Once Josh explained that to him, he kind of opened up a lot more and really let it all out, and it's pretty powerful.
Were there other documentaries that inspired you to approach material that way?
Josh: Hoop Dreams was an enormous influence, in the way that it treated the sport as a human subject. And also a lot of filmmakers from the 60s: the Maysles brothers, Frederick Wiseman, Ross McElwee, Shirley Clarke, all these people who looked at documentary as a tool that you could learn a greater truth through the manipulation of reality. Those films really did inspire us as far as how to take our narrative background and apply it to documentaries. [Ross McElwee's 1986 film] Sherman's March had such a personal point of view. You're always taught that documentaries are supposed to be objective, and that was the most subjective you could possibly be. The guy making the film is talking, filming, observing. That subjectivity was something we really were interested in.
You guys and Lenny grew up in New York around the same time. And like Lenny, you've done a lot in not too many years. Do you see personal parallels in your stories?
Josh: Socio-economically, we come from different places. Lenny was a black kid growing up in tough Bushwick, Brooklyn; we were white Jewish kids growing up in Queens. We're predestined to have different lives. But I knew what I wanted to do very early on. So did Benny. We started making films at a very early age. I was 23 years old with my first feature film. You just have to remember to stay humble and stay hungry, because if you're not hungry you're full, and if you're full you just want to sit back and do nothing. The difference between us and Lenny is we're not going to get full easily. We want to keep doing what we want to do, how we want to do it. We've had the opportunity to go and do a genre film for Hollywood for $12 million, but we both know that that's not how we want to express ourselves. The end goal is satiating our soul, and it doesn't come with money.
Joakim Noah, your executive producer, makes a few appearances in the film. When did he sign on?
Benny: He came on after he saw the film. He facilitated a lot of stuff during the filming, but it wasn't till after he saw the film that he realized that it could be a powerful story to the next generation of kids. Just recently in Chicago, when the film opened there last weekend, he brought 45 kids from his Noah's Arc Foundation because he really believed that they could learn something. The top-ranked high school kid in the country, who's going to Duke next year, said the film changed his life, that it's going to really affect the way he looks at success and what it takes to get there. I think that's why [Noah] signed on, because he knows the importance of hard work.
Can you tell me about your next project?
Benny: Yeah, that would be Uncut Gems. It's sort of a thriller/comedy that takes place in the Diamond District, and it's a complete mad world and a place that's disappearing. We're working on a couple of projects, but that's kind our big pie-in-the-sky project that we've been developing for a year-and-a-half now.
Josh: There is an element of basketball in there as well.
Benny: Yeah. It's funny because there was a strong overlap with players that we were talking to during the making of the film.
Wow. Basketball and diamonds.
Benny: Yeah. That bling-bling.
Josh: Our dad was actually was a runner for the Diamond District when we were kids, up until when we were eight years old.
Benny: He would tell us stories that would make you...
Josh: And you'd be surprised at the amount of celebrity, and the basketball players. Whenever they come through town, they're always going to 47th Street, making sure they get their $4-5 thousand chain. There are scenes in the movie that are straight out of that world. And Lenny's going to have a cameo in it.
Lenny will be acting?
Benny: Well, he acts in this documentary. He knew that he was being filmed and he allowed it to happen. And that's one of the most difficult parts of performance. So he's a natural performer.
Lenny Cooke screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through December 12th. More screening info at lennycookemovie.com.