“DADDY LONGLEGS”‘ JOSH AND BENNY SAFDIE | By Scott Macaulay
When I was asked by The Huffington Post to comment on New York movies premiering in Sundance, the first film that popped into my mind was Josh and Bennie Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs. Now, as you may know, I’m a big fan of the Safdie brothers, selecting Josh for our 25 New Faces for the film he directed, The Pleasure of Being Robbed in 2008. That picture is a delightfully freewheeling romance of sorts involving a young woman, played with depth and originality by Eleonore Hendricks, who casually steals, not out of maliciousness or for greed but simply because of a worldview that sees the world as hers.
This second film, Daddy Longlegs, directed with his brother Bennie, extends the Safdies’ emotional range further. It’s the story of Lenny, a projectionist and divorced dad, and it’s set during the summertime two weeks he has custody of his two young sons. Lenny’s lifestyle is both perpetually frazzled and compulsively bohemian, and his take on parenthood is somewhere between unaffected love and a call to child services. Lenny is based on the Safdies’ own dad, and their ability to weave their complicated emotions about him into a work that is alternately shocking, free-spirited and joyful is testament to their extraordinary emotional intelligence as directors. Much credit goes to Frownland director Ronnie Bronstein, who plays Lenny in his acting debut. There’s some of Bronstein’s naturally searching loquaciousness in Lenny, but there’s also the keen intelligence of an actor firmly aware of the implications of his choices.
Daddy Longlegs (previously titled Go Get Some Rosemary when it world premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight) screens tonight, January 28, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of Sundance USA. Whereas other films from the festival are headed out to cities around the country, Sundance has appropriately sent the Safdies back to their hometown. Kids and irresponsible dads exist everywhere, but there’s a particularly Gotham flavor to the brothers’ filmmaking, a capturing of the people and textures of this city that will thrill all of its cineastes. If you miss tonight’s screening, you can catch the movie on VOD through Sundance Selects for a limited time before its theatrical launch later this year.
Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about how you wound up casting Ronnie Bronstein, the director of Frownland, as a character based on your dad.
Josh Safdie: It started with registration at SXSW. I didn’t know he was a filmmaker. I genuinely thought he was a lost silent film actor, like a celebrity from the 1920s. I was totally intimidated by him. The night he won the [Special Jury] award, the programmer who selected both our short, We’re Going to the Zoo, and Frownland, came up to me and said I should meet him. I missed Frownland because I had left my key in the car running overnight. I had this crazy experience — the windshield wipers rubberized my windshield because it was running all night and it was raining. When I was introduced to Ronnie, I said, “Something must be important about you because when I was trying to make your screening I left my keys in my car overnight….” He was weirded out by that introduction, but he and [d.p.] Sean Williams still went to see our short the next day, and they liked it.
Benny: I had been trying to make a short, and that night Josh sent me a photo that had Ronnie in the background. He said, “This guy has got to be in something. Email him about the short you want to make.” So, I sent him this really formal email out of the blue, which to this day, every month, he’ll send back to me. There’s something really weird about seeing yourself so distant from someone you are now really close to.
Filmmaker: What happened next?
Josh: Ronnie was showing Models, the Frederick Wiseman movie, at AMMI, and invited us. I loved the film, and that’s when I asked him, “This is going to seem very weird, and I know my brother contacted you about playing this silent comedy actor, but I think you’d be really great in this story I wrote with my brother. It’s about a dad.”
Benny: [His casting] was a confluence of things. One time he was showing Frownland in Boston and had nowhere to stay. He gets my number, calls me and says, “Can I stay in your place in Boston?” I was like, okay, but we didn’t really know each other, and suddenly we’re staying in the same apartment. We watched Reflections of Evil and then walked all over Boston together. That’s how we got to know each other.
Filmmaker: So how did you merge what you discovered in Ronnie with your vision of your dad?
Josh: I remembered Ronnie’s demeanor based on the speech he gave at SXSW [when he won the award]. He said something like, “This is not a careerist opportunity for me” — there was something goofy to it. Then I saw Frownland a bunch of times, and then we hung out with him. We worked together on [Mary Bronstein’s film] Yeast. We got to see both his ugly side and his slapstick side – he’s a really silly guy. We knew the character we were writing wasn’t Ronnie, and we knew that he didn’t want to play himself, so we came up with this character Lenny, and that’s when the movie took its second form. [Ronnie, Bennie and I] sat down in a diner, three days in a row, eight-hour sessions, and we talked about the movie so much that he knew it. We had written Go Get Some Rosemary as a 44-page story but, in fact, he never read it until after we were done shooting. It was in that diner that the real casting [took place]. We knew exactly what he was capable of and not capable of.
Benny: All just from the looks on his face. If we told him about a scene and it didn’t hit anything with him, we realized that scene wasn’t going to work. We had to tailor this weird version of our father into Ronnie.
Filmmaker: But what was it specifically about Ronnie that prompted you to think of him as a character based on your dad?
Josh: I think it’s the silliness mixed at the same time with the seriousness. We see our dad in that. When I think of our dad, I think of this lonely guy who was delivering jewelry in midtown in the late ‘70s, and I could really see Ronnie [playing that kind of character]. The big difference is that our dad was not an American. He fancied himself as an American, but he became an American in 1982. English is his fourth language.
Benny: He is not as verbose as [Lenny].
Filmmaker: Tell me about the balance between comedy and critique in the film, about constructing the complicated nature of Lenny’s character.
Josh: The movie is a weird meditation on perspectives. It’s very much from the perspective of the kids, but at the same time it’s from the perspective of this man. Ronnie was kind of our soldier in the field — he was our tool to express ourselves as we are as adults. I’m very grateful to him for that. That’s where the movie started to become more complicated, when we realized that he had become a very good, contemporary friend of ours, and we were going to express ourselves through him. That’s where the complicated perspective of the movie comes from — in that initial sit down we realized that his [character] wasn’t just a father figure, it was also us.
Filmmaker: What about the process of directing him on set? What was that like?
Josh: Ronnie in the preproduction process was very cerebral about it, and in the production he became very emotional.
Benny: There were certain times we would sit down with a scene, and he’d come at it one way, in one frame of mind, but [Josh and I] would have sat down the night before, reconciled our differences, and put together a unified vision. And we would know, “Ronnie is really going to pull [the scene] this way, and we have to do something that throws him off it in the opposite direction!”
Josh: It was like chess. Ronnie loved that aspect of it.
Benny: And even while we were filming, Ronnie would know that I’d be more open to certain things than Josh —
Josh: So he’d go to him for those things!
Benny: It was almost like a war, or a battle, but we always knew it wasn’t an ego thing. It was always about ideas.
Josh: That’s why [Ronnie’s] was the biggest casting decision. A really good actor will question the ideas of a scene and the validity of its emotions.
Filmmaker: Did the filmmaking process change for you on this second film?
Josh: Absolutely. The first movie was —
Benny: — way more organic.
Josh: I have a lot of respect for that movie because it was very much like a jazz improvisation. We knew the melodies, and then we kind of went into our own solos. I’m very respectful of that, and I think it’s a triumph, personally, but we had no idea what we were getting into when we started. I had a lot of mangled, gutteral feelings when I thought of Eleonore as her character, who turns out to have been very much a character. I’ve been with her now two and half years, and it’s weird, we did this interview for French television and they shot it on the Staten Island ferry, and she popped this question: “Do you ever think we could work together again like we worked together on Pleasure of Being Robbed?” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” We saw each other as such caricatures, and those caricatures we were able to write. Now we know each other and we know all these things about each other so the caricatures are negated.
Benny: There’s less mystery.
Josh: But the difference [in the making of the two films] is that we knew what we were getting into when we embarked on Daddy Longlegs.
Benny: There was a beginning and a definite ending.
Josh: And we knew the complications. We knew there were two direct perspectives of the movie. There was a harsh perspective, where you are super-critical of this person, and then there was also an extremely loving, compassionate perspective. And we knew we wanted them both at the same time. That’s, to me, the biggest success of the movie, that its perspective completely dances — you don’t know if you love [Lenny], you don’t know if you hate him.
Benny: It’s subjective too. You can watch the movie and be veered down one path, where you just see the hate, and not even know the other loving side exists. Each subjective [position] exists separately, and that they don’t make an objective movie is strange. We wanted [the audience] to feel this weird duality of how we feel towards our dad.
Josh: And how we feel towards ourselves too.
Benny: Writing about somebody’s criticisms to point out the reason you love them is really difficult.
Filmmaker: What was it like as brothers directing together?
Josh: The most appropriate fighting happened. We would hash out our ideas even before rehearsals so we knew that if we were arguing we’d know that the only thing was wrong was not our relationship but that an idea was wrong. If we were having an argument we knew that something wasn’t right, and that was a very comforting thing to know. If we’re arguing about something, it would turn into a stupid personal fight but then we’d know that something wasn’t right in a scene or on a page.
Benny: We’ve always had ourselves as constant companions, so we have similar ways of looking at things, but there is a slight difference. I’m more critical, or more analytical —
Josh: And I can romanticize things.
Benny: And that crunching together produces a deeper perspective than what we would have done individually.
Josh: Because there’s complication.
Benny: I learned so much more about him and myself.
Josh: And on a technical level, I shot 50% of the movie, and Benny did 50% of the sound, so a lot of times in these intimate scenes there was me with a camera, and there was an unspoken dynamic.
Benny: This seems really cheesey, but I guess it made sense that you were looking at it and I was listening to it so we had to trust each other.
Josh: We were shooting really long-lens stuff, so a lot of times I couldn’t hear the dialogue. When we were shooting out in the streets, we never wanted unsuspecting strangers to look and see a film crew. We wanted them to see this guy manically running into his apartment with his two kids. We wanted them to tell their friends and have the movie live on in their dinner conversations.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the editing — what the process was like, and what kind of decisions you had to make.
Josh: Ronnie helped us edit, and then we shot four extra days to fill holes – logical holes, continuity holes, and emotional holes.
Benny: The reshoots on this [film] were so strange. They felt like pure business. “We’re trying to go from here to here and it’s not working. We need to write a scene to fill that hole.” It was about filling these holes.
Filmmaker: How were you guided? Was it just yourselves, or did you do feedback screenings?
Benny: We don’t do that. It was mainly the two of us, and Brett and Ronnie sitting down watching. If something didn’t fit right, you, Josh, would say, “I don’t know what I think of this scene,” and that would start this enormous discussion. We’d go from the highs and the lows and we’d eventually cut out something we loved.
Filmmaker: When was the first time you saw it with an audience?
Josh: We showed it to the six-person crew, and there were two extra people in the studio at the time, so there were eight of us. It was an assembly, but we had already cut 40 minutes. We did some sound design, but emotionally it was a rough cut. That was probably the closest thing we’ve done to [a small group screening]. The biggest thing people said to us was, “That’s a monster of a movie.” It was so long! We took it as a compliment: “We deflated our audience!” But the most important feedback we got from those eight people was that there was so much emotion [in the film]. It was playing flat towards the end. Everybody said, “It has to be an hour shorter.” And that’s when the movie kind of went into a spiral. We started cutting things really randomly, totally in the moment. We had to stop, and we moved the editing to Benny’s bedroom, and then Ronnie really started becoming part of the conversation. He’d come over and we’d have these massive conversations and then we’d do an edit.
Benny: Those were crazy 18-hour days.
Josh: We were trying to make that Directors Fortnight deadline, which was good, because I really believe in deadlines.
Filmmaker: How do you see yourselves in relation to the independent film industry right now? Where do you see yourselves as fitting in?
Benny: I don’t know what it’s like on set for other films. I don’t know if it’s in any way like what we are doing. In some way it does feel like we’re a little separate, like we are at this other table. But I don’t really want to know that.
Josh: We were hanging out in Stockholm with that director, Adam Bhala Lough, who made Weapons and that Lee Scratch Perry doc. He said, “You guys don’t realize but there are no middle movies anymore, no $6 million movies. There are $80 million movies and under $250,000 movies. So we are grateful that we could be so free in the shooting process. We were allowed to emotionally experiment and do whatever we wanted. We could just keep shooting and shooting. I don’t even know what the final budget was on this movie, but if this is the biggest budget I’ll ever see, I’m fine with that. The budget was never a limitation on the movie, except for the paper tornado scene. A friend said, “I wish somebody would give you $2.5 million dollars just so that paper tornado scene could have been four stories high.” And yeah, I would have loved to have closed the block and had massive blowers and much more paper. The one shot I wish we had is a piece of paper traveling through the sky. And I wish we could have had steadicam sometime.
Benny: But at the same time, we did have a rented apartment on 35th Street that we completely had free range to transform into a museum of our childhood emotional ideas, and that was our set. For months we could go there and do rehearsals.
Filmmaker: So even though you are working with six and not seven-figure budgets, budget hasn’t felt like a limitation?
Josh: The interesting thing about wherever independent film is going — I’m perfectly okay if producers are standing behind directors doing these highly personal movies. Not narcissistic, self-involved movies, but highly personal movies you can have free reign with. The idea of a production based on feeling and intuition, I really like that. I’m hearing of people making movies for $80,000, $1000,000 and sometimes shooting film, and if those are the big budgets of this new free filmmaking movement, I’m totally okay with that. I think that’s interesting. Most of the stuff I’m seeing, however, is not taking the risks that I want to see. I want to be so emotionally mixed-up about a movie that I can’t turn away from it.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like you know your audience and have a relationship with them?
Josh: We’re starting to, at least a little bit. Changing the title, that’s something we are doing in conjunction with an audience. We understood that Go Get some Rosemary was a title for us, and it wasn’t translating. We learned that at Cannes. It was kind of alienating and too esoteric. It was playing like a “gotcha” title, and our movies aren’t heady like that. Daddy Longlegs was Ronnie’s suggestion, I think it has a jazzy silliness but at the same time it has a sadness to it. The idea of having long legs is a weird optimistic phrase.
Benny: It’s clumsy. There’s something funny about being clumsy, but you can always fall over.
Josh: We just got our first sketches of the French poster, and they’re naming it Lenny and Les Enfants: “Lenny and the Kids.” Nobody can name this movie! This Greek festival named it something they wouldn’t translate for us. Not being able to name something is the biggest compliment — it’s a sign of uniqueness. But going back to audiences, when we were in Cannes, this young French guy, like 20, comes up to us. He had seen The Pleasure of Being Robbed, and he said, “When I heard you made a movie about a dad and his two kids, I thought, this isn’t underground.” I hate that expression! What does that mean? It’s not underground because it’s about a family! What does “underground” mean — that it has to involve young distraught people? And then I realized that people judge movies based on the demographic they see on paper. They see a father and kids and think it’s for families. But I do think this movie has a really weird reach. The people I’m most interested in hearing reactions from are middle-aged parents who are totally affected by the movie. And people who think, wow, I’m so disheveled I could never imagine having a kid. That’s where I come at the movie from. My dad was my age when he had kids. Jesus, that seems like a project. I think of that every time I walk down the steps of my apartment, like, wow, I could have a kid upstairs!