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Hoop Dreams: Josh and Benny Safdie on Lenny Cooke

An intimate portrait of a near-forgotten high school basketball phenom turned undrafted afterthought, Lenny Cooke is the first documentary from the young New York wunderkinds Benny and Josh Safdie. Given that their previous films, The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddy Longlegs (I miss its original title, Go Get Some Rosemary), were intimate, 16 millimeter throwbacks to another era of rough and tumble New York independent filmmaking, this film comes as a surprise in a way. Made by self-professed basketball fanatics in the midst of a season of discontent (poor Knicks), Lenny Cooke is a project that predates any of the Safdies narrative efforts. An emotionally stirring cautionary tale about the way in which the proximity and seeming inevitability of fame and prosperity tempt an underprivileged young man into making terrible choices for himself, it recalls both Hoop Dreams and Sugar, which like this film are remarkable portraits of the failed path to sports stardom.

Attending the same basketball camps for hyper-talented youngsters, Cooke came of age with contemporary NBA stars Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James and was thought to be an almost certain lottery pick in the year before 9/11. But costly choices (most notably leaving behind a wealthy white benefactor, the Northeast’s answer to that lady from The Blind Side, at a critical developmental stage), a questionable work ethic and poor advice from craven agents led him to both squander his eligibility for college ball and prematurely try to leap for the NBA after taking a season off from organized competition because of his age. Incorporating footage of Cooke shot during the year of his near superstardom, including candid moments between him and the NBA superstars to be, it is a harrowing look at the life of a young man who had the world at his fingertips and let it all slip away.

Lenny Cooke, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, opens today in Manhattan.

Benny and Josh Safdie
Josh and Benny Safdie

Filmmaker: How did you first hear of Lenny Cooke?

Josh Safdie: In high school and still to this day, Benny’s and my two greatest passions have been film and basketball. It’s by far our most useful distraction. It’s like heroin for a junkie with us. We consume and indulge in it as much as possible. It’s the most narrative-based sport and the most visible. There’s so much beautiful improvisation in it. There are characters and personalities and nuances to the narrative. Since being a little kid, I was also into film and in high school had started to acquaint myself with it. We knew Adam Shopkorn back then since we were teenagers through some family connection. As a 17-year-old kid, he would show me the footage that he had of this top-ranked high school basketball legend. Back then I was equally fascinated and awed by the footage of Lenny dunking on his high school basketball competitors in Virginia or New Jersey as I was by the camera he was showing it to me on, the Canon XL1. It had just come out. I just wanted to know everything about how it was shot. It was the amazing nexus of interest for us. I wanted to work on the movie but I was a teenager and he was just out of college and it just wasn’t an option. We kind of fell out of touch with each other. My mom has divorced the guy who was our connection to his family. Life took its course and we stopped seeing each other.

In May of 2010, we saw him at a screening of Daddy Longlegs. This was right when LeBron was at the beginning of the height of his fame. It was just approaching its peak. He was deciding to leave Cleveland. The Decision happened. Anyways, he just came up to us. I think he really appreciated the character study aspect of our film. The realism in Daddy Longlegs, he really responded to. We told him that it had played at a documentary film festival in Copenhagen and I think he responded also to the fact that we set out to do something and we did it. We wanted to make a film and we finished it. Our interest in characters aligned. He remembered our obsession with basketball and he asked if we remembered that film he was doing with that player Lenny Cooke who was dominating Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James and Amar’e Stoudemire and we were like, “Yeah, what happened with that?” He was like, “Exactly. Do you want to come and check out the footage?” So we reconnected with him.

It took awhile to find the beacons of light in the footage because he mostly wanted to show what culturally most people would want to see, the footage of LeBron, the footage of other NBA players, stuff that was all kind of a shallow interest in a way — “Look how good he was, look how much better this guy was than this other guy,” stuff like that. We were most interested in the human side of the story. He had so much footage and so many terrific sports cinematographers shooting for him who were shooting in such a wholly unpretentious way. They were shooting with incredibly objective eyes. In a way, they weren’t filmmakers. They were shooting clips. There were interviews and a lot of wide shots, everyone’s zooming to catch focus.

We already knew how we were going to approach the later scenes but the question was, where are the scenes that highlight Lenny’s emotions and character? Where are the scenes that we can actually edit, where we can make it feel like there are two cameras, where there are different angles. It took a long time just living with that footage, pouring over it back and forth to know where parts were and what we could use from one place in another scene. That was hard. It was like mining. But it was nice, because that was never gonna change, it was the past.

Filmmaker: Was organizing all that footage the first big task you undertook?

Josh Safdie: Oh yeah. The footage was not organized. Adam had had it transcribed, but for the most part the tapes were imported as whole tapes and we had to watch them all over again, all the way through. I went back through and labeled all of the clips, what was good, what was bad. “Here’s a close up of Lenny. Here he’s talking to this guy here. The camera is in all these different places. Okay this is a scene, we have a scene here.” We’d go through and do that each time, find the scenes, just so that the thing could be edited. He had just handed us this box of tapes and a whole stack of paper of what had been transcribed. We had to sit down and watch each tape over and over, subclip, and then move forward. It was the biggest and hardest step. We did that before we even connected with Lenny. We had to figure out what we had.

Filmmaker: Was it difficult to get Lenny involved again?

Benny Safdie: It’s weird, back in the day the camera crew was just a kind of an accessory to his hype. Basketball was his hustle out. Nowadays, basketball is way in the rear view. It took a while for Adam to get him to agree to meet up in Atlantic City. When we first started filming him, and we ultimately filmed him for nearly three years, it was about eight years after the draft. Seven years since Adam had last seen him. He was a completely different person. He was so dramatically physically different from the last time Adam saw him, it was unbelievable. It was a parable.It begged you to probe him and understand his character. How could it be? If you wrote that in a movie, you’d think it was bullshit. His life was the stuff of Hoop Dreams, The Blind Side, Above the Rim, Raging Bull. When we first met up with him, the camera crew was still an accessory in a way. It fed his ego, it made him feel really good, that people were still intrigued by his persona.

In the beginning, he kind of thought he could keep up this image of him having made it, of everything having worked out. One of the first times we filmed him, he was adamant about going back to the hood in Bed-Stuy or Bushwick and he rented a $180,000 Jaguar. He was presenting it as his own, even to us, but we knew it wasn’t his. We rolled up to the neighborhood and everyone saw him get out and it was this white Jaguar. He got out and presented himself and he had a camera crew with him and it was very false. It took about six to eight months of filming him and showing him commitment and letting him know we’re not going to dupe him like everybody else has, to really get him to open up. About a year in, I was filming him, really not for any reason in particular. You know they say in therapy that the best times to talk are when there isn’t anything to talk about. Sometimes we’d go down when there wasn’t any event to film or anything like that, just to talk to Lenny. We’d film him until he fell asleep and then wake up with him. He was still carrying himself in a certain way. He thought what we were doing was a comeback story. I looked at him and I turned the camera off and I asked him if he wanted this film to be successful. He didn’t know what I meant, so I told him that I wasn’t talking to him about successful in a monetary way but successful in an intellectual way, successful on its own terms. “Of course,” he said, so I was like, “You have to start being completely honest with us. It’s not going to be if you’re holding anything back.” He sat there and I could tell it resonated with him. He said, “Okay, I hear you,” and I turned the camera back on and he thought that he was supposed to show that he had regrets and some morality or something like that, but he just let us know, “Guess what, I don’t have any regrets!”

We realized, the guy is a success. He’s not a failure. He didn’t live up to the potential that everyone else grafted on to him, but he bought his mom a house, a Ford Explorer and two refrigerators. She still lives in that house, she still drives that car, she still uses those refrigerators. He had nothing before this and he made $350,000 and probably more, he probably had a million dollars pass through his hands. The agents and drug dealers he knew were throwing him parties for thousands of dollars every night. He made it. He maybe didn’t make it to the level everyone wanted him to or the level he could’ve gotten to with his raw talent, but we forget we’re talking about someone who was 16 when he first started playing basketball. He didn’t have sneakers to play in. He was playing in hush puppies in the park when someone came up to him and said, “‘ll give you some money and some Jordans if you come out next week and play for my AAU team.” It was a hustle from the beginning. He surrounded himself with the right people at sometimes and the wrong people at other times. He kind of fell in love with the game, but it didn’t start with love. I think that was a problem and he’d be the first to admit that.

Filmmaker: The sort of magic realist moment where the older Lenny confront the younger Lenny is the one point when the movie ventures out of the verite style. What inspired that? It’s a incredible choice.

Benny Safdie: It came out of the way we were telling the story. We were telling the story chronologically. The moment you cut to Lenny today, you can’t cut back because mentally your mind can’t handle that switch. Additionally, we really wanted the film to inhabit Lenny’s point of view, so you had to live the hype with him and you had to live the fall with him too. That beginning part of the film leading into the modern day footage had to follow that trajectory. From there, we had a couple of scenes we wanted to include in the film where the camera wasn’t working well. One thing is when Lenny describes his dream house. It’s the most fantastic, imaginative thing you’ve ever heard, but the problem was that he and the camera guy was eating! There was no way to edit it down but we were like, how do we include something like that in the movie. We thought, can we recreate this digitally or make a model of it architecturally. We started thinking out loud like that. We didn’t end up doing that, but that led us to start thinking about how we could get to deeper things within the film. We kind of wanted to get Lenny to tell us this stuff but we didn’t want to do it in an interview. There was just this shot where he’s standing by himself off to the side and there was an empty spot in front of him. It was just there. It’s weird because the whole goal of the film was to make it feel like we didn’t do anything. The fact that that special affect feels just normal I think is incredible, because it’s the ultimate intrusion into the narrative on our part but because it’s Lenny talking about himself to himself and it’s so sincere that the digital effect kind of just disappears.

It’s the same reason we did the later footage as we did. We didn’t want a narrator telling you what happened to Lenny or why he didn’t make it or some coach talking about him with the benefit of hindsight. We wanted everything to come from Lenny. The fall you see, the successes you see, that all has to come from him.

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