Native New Yorker Safdie Brothers Infuse Films With Life in the Big City
“What it means to have long legs – especially in a filmmaking sense – when someone says a film has long legs it can go very far,” director Josh Safdie, 26, explained to me over the phone recently about the title of his recent film, “And Daddy Longlegs is this guy who wants these little moments to stretch forever out of pure self-doubt and narcissism.”
New York natives, Safdie (pictured, right) and his brother Benny (left) are co-founders (along with their friend Alex Kalman) of the production company Red Bucket Films. Last year the company released Daddy Longlegs, which the brothers directed, starring fellow director Ronald Bronstein as Lenny Sokol, the father of another pair of actor-brothers: Sage and Frey Ranaldo (at left). The young Ranaldos are sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee, who makes a cameo as the stepfather. It will screen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) August 21 (4:30, 9:15pm), with a personal introduction by the directors at the early showing.
Bronstein (pictured below) plays the divorced father of Sage and Frey, and the film follows the kids over a chaotic custodial two-week vacation with their eccentric father on the Lower East Side. Though you may recognize the story, you may not recognize the title – it first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival under the name GoGet Some Rosemary, a reference to one of Bronstein’s lines. The film’s producers found the title a bit esoteric, and offered that a change might be in order. The new moniker was coined by Bronstein in a brainstorming session.
“Now there’s four titles,” said Safdie, as he inhaled a cigarette. “Lenny and the Kids, in France; in Iran – we have Iranian television distribution – they won’t even tell us what it is; now we just found out in Argentina they want to change the title.”
Though the change was originally a compromise for the pair, Safdie said he likes it. “I’m complimented by that – that there’s no right title in a way,” he continued. “Everybody needs to contextualize it in their own way. I like that because the movie isn’t about one thing. You could say, ‘Yeah, it’s about a bad dad, I don’t think he’s a bad dad, but the general public says that.”
Adding, “This Iranian actress saw the film and she said, ‘Wow, so the mother stretched the canvas and the father comes in every once in a while and Jackson Pollacks all over it.’ I liked that.”
This weekend marks the final days of the Safdie Brothers two-week summer series Emotional Sloppy Manic Cinema, which features films they directed and selected for screening at BAM. Preceding the two screenings of Daddy Longlegs (trailer below) this Saturday is François Truffaut’s Small Change (1976, 2, 6:50pm).
On Monday, they will screen a double feature including a little known short called Doin’ Time in Times Square (1991, August 23, 4:30, 6:50, 9:15pm), a home video documentary of life on the streets of Times Square in the late 1980s, shot from a high rise window. “It’s hard for me to believe sometimes that the city was once like that,” Safdie said, though he does vaguely remember it.
The director, Charlie Ahearn – who will introduce Monday’s 6:50pm screening – shot the film as he and his wife raised their two young children, including son Joe Ahearn (founder of Showpaper and the facilitator of Silent Barn, a DIY music space in Ridgewood, Queens), in the apartment. Inside the window of the high rise was the seemingly happy family life of the Ahearns. Outside was the fracas of everyday life – hustlers, hookers, and many a drunken New Year’s Eve celebration – but Safdie told me, “shooting from the window fictionalizes it.”
The Safdie brothers spent the beginning of life in Forest Hills, Queens before moving to West 77th Street when in Josh’s 6th grade year their mother remarried. Soon they would attend Columbia Preparatory School, a private school on West 93rd Street near Central Park and life was much different. Yet their time spent with Dad, not unlike Lenny Sokol’s character in Daddy LongLegs, brought to their foreground a variety of characters and experiences.
“A lot of the characters [in our films] are based on people I grew up with,” he said, “but there’s a certain level – there’s a dying breed in New York – these people who inhabit fully the 12 feet around them at all times.”
It’s their personal stories that have shaped the fillial directors’ craft, infusing even the smallest moments on the screen with clues to their upbringing. In The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), which screened last weekend at BAM, Safdie directed and starred alongside newcomer Eleonore Hendricks, whose eponymous character struggles with kleptomania – stealing not just the material but the intangible: perception, time. Josh enters the picture as Eleonore decides to steal a car, and the duo takes off on a jaunt to Boston, where Safdie graduated college in 2006.
While the scenes set in New York City are boisterous and unmitigated, the time lapsed in Boston, a drain on the social and physical connections that these characters attempt to make. “It’s kind of a hermetic town, it’s a place to be by yourself,” Safdie offered on his time there. Though, that hermeticism allowed him to reflect on his life in New York and make films about it with his production company cohorts in Red Bucket Films.
“I think [The Pleasure of Being Robbed] is about the spaces that New York can put you in,” he concluded. “How you can operate on a level of first impressions in this city, you don’t really have to know anybody, you can just project, go out and be who you want to be.”
The latter is exactly what the Safdie brothers seem to be doing.