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“For Every LeBron James, There Are a Thousand Lenny Cookes”: Josh Safdie on Lenny Cooke and LeBron James

Lenny Cooke

One of my favorite memories of Josh and Benny Safdie is sitting at a table with them at a gala event where they were receiving an award: their attention was on their phones the entire time because the Knicks were playing. The Safdies’ twin obsessions with basketball and filmmaking came together three years ago in making the documentary Lenny Cooke, about the rise and fall of a one-time basketball prodigy who was a rival to LeBron James. One of the most remarkable thing about the film is the way LeBron is used as a main character in the film, primarily through legend and archival footage.

After being primarily available on Showtime since its release, the documentary was finally released on VOD earlier this month. I asked Josh Safdie last week what was timely about a release during the NBA Finals that pitted the Warriors against LeBron James’ Cavaliers:

LeBron, the kid from Akron, from nothing. The kid who doesn’t really know who his father is vs. the kid from NBA riches. The kid whose family has become a meme, the picture perfect Steph Curry and the picture perfect family that surrounds him. The neurosis of LeBron, the weight on his shoulders vs the light-as-a-bee Curry. I look at LeBron and I see Lenny, but with better people around him and a Woody-Allen-like neurosis that put him to the top. LeBron is the only player in the league who, when on the court, truly seems like he’s at the office — and I say that in the best way possible. With the knowledge of Lenny Cooke, you can’t look at LeBron and NOT think about what he overcame, his persistence, his focus and his unsatisfiable hunger for greatness.

At the time of the film’s release I spoke to him about LeBron’s then-negative reputation, connections between fiction and documentary, and the connections between basketball and filmmaking.

Filmmaker: It’s fascinating the way, even though this movie is about Lenny Cooke, you use footage to make LeBron James the other main character. And he’s such an instant bad guy! I always hear that everyone hates LeBron.

Josh Safdie: We have two huge interests: basketball, and [self-]reflection in filmmaking. When we first took on this movie we were very casually involving ourselves. We’ll go down and film and we’ll oversee the edit. But then we got so immersed in telling this story. In the end, I think this movie is about the destruction of the ego and the conservation of the soul. I think LeBron knew that — he knew how to conserve his soul for the greater good of his legacy and for the greater good of his happiness and his passions and how to make his dreams actually come true. Have you ever seen Hoop Dreams?

Filmmaker: Yeah.

Safdie: Well Hoop Dreams was a pretty big movie for us, a pretty big movie for me. I saw it in theaters when it came out in, what, ’95? I was tiny. I didn’t have any concept of the world at large. I wasn’t a fully developed human being. But that movie, now that I look at it as an adult, is like a socialist film. The way it looks at dreams and passions is beautiful, but in a very socialist way that doesn’t take into consideration the drive, the money, which is a reality of America. Don’t get me wrong: Hoop Dreams is one of my top 50 films of all time. I love it and think it’s a masterpiece. But it doesn’t involve that aspect.

Have you ever seen the movie The Blind Side? That Sandra Bullock movie?

Filmmaker: I’ve heard of it.

Safdie: Well, it’s kind of like our story. It’s about a white woman who takes in this inner city black kid and takes him into this upper-middle class [environment]. Well Debbie [Bortner] was upper class, she was rich, and she took Lenny in from a shitty-ass part of Bushwick. What did that mean? He basically thought he’d made it. He was pretending MTV Cribs was coming to his house. He was on the cover of magazines. What’s not in the movie is stuff we just don’t have footage of. We wanted to show and never tell, just ’cause it keeps you present. But people were throwing him money every day, like tons of money. Hustlers in the street were saying like, “Yo, Lenny here’s $3,000. Go to the club and make it rain.” What’s amazing about Lenny is I actually think he’d be a worse person had he become a superstar with the $50 million, $100 million contract.

Filmmaker: Do you think he’s tragic?

Safdie: I think he’s a martyr. Do you think martyrs are tragic? I think martyrs have a purpose, and having a purpose is all that matters in life. I don’t think Lenny knows his purpose. But I know he has purpose and I think this film is kind of a purpose of his life. For every LeBron James, there are a thousand Lenny Cookes. Lenny’s a unique case because he was so overhyped. I mean, he’s New York, and New York is this pressure cooker. And LeBron came to New York just to, like, take his throne. LeBron is from Ohio, where you can be protected even though he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated. LeBron James is one of the most… God, how do I describe LeBron? The movie made it really clear to me — because I hated LeBron, too, going into this film. But now I really admire the guy. I think he’s going to go down in the history books as one of the greatest athletes to ever play a sport in the history of sports. He’s from Ohio, and that’s cool, but he protected his soul, and he knew how to keep himself humble. He knew what drive was, and he never escaped hunger. He’s still hungry to this day! And what does he have to be hungry for? I mean, he has people calling him the greatest of all time, yet he wakes up every morning with a purpose and a drive. And Lenny’s drive was to get out of the hood. And he got out of the hood. He’s back in the hood, but he got out.

Filmmaker: Then he lost his hunger?

Safdie: Yeah.  If you were told every day that you were going to be the number 1 pick in the NBA, and the year before — you saw it in the movie… I mean, that will fuck you up. But he’s content. I mean, imagine if you could prove that you were part of the creation of Zeus — you would be pissed, too. You’d be like, I could have been Zeus. But you’d see him throwing thunder bolts and you’d be like, “Oh he’s only doing that because of me.”

Filmmaker: Wait, who cares about being Zeus?

Safdie: I mean metaphorically.

Filmmaker: No, I get that. But what’s wrong with being mortal?

Safdie: No, I agree. It’s boring to be immortal, if you have no threat to your life. The fact that we know life is fragile is what makes it exciting. I think Lenny would be totally excited if he had 50 million in the bank and could buy whatever he wanted. But I don’t think he’d be a better person. I think he would run into the same problems.

One of the first lines in the movie is so important to us: “How many people here think they’re in control of their own destiny?” I mean, you ask any adolescent that and of course they’re going to say “Yeah, I am in control.” But they’re not. None of us are in control of our destinies. I think it was [Lenny’s] purpose in life to see all the perspectives. I mean, that guy, he lived the extremes. He was living dirt poor and he was living filthy rich. That seen where he doesn’t know you need an I.D. to get on a plane — he doesn’t know he needs an I.D. to get on a plane because he’s only flown privately. Think about that. That’s crazy. That’s the goal for me, is to understand the extremes, the polarity of life. And he says in the movie, “I lived at the bottom and I lived at the top and I’m back where I started.” Nothing has really changed but he doesn’t realize that he’s seen it all.

Filmmaker: How did you decide on the structure? It’s very disciplined, not too didactic.

Safdie: Friends [said] we should intercut, and I’m not gonna lie — I said, “Benny, maybe we should try it.” But Benny [Safdie, who edited as well as co-directed] was like, “We’re not going to try it.”  I shot it and Benny edited it. I would direct the footage by shooting it and by that way, I’d direct Benny while editing via the way I’d shoot a scene. But he had a very strong idea of how it should go: it should be linear and it should be chronological. And my whole motto is being present, and the only way you can be present is if you’re not looking at the past and not looking at the future, you’re just accepting the moment for what it is. That’s what the movie does; that’s what showing and not telling is. The films I’ve always been attracted to show things as they are. The antithesis would be flashback scenes. I think there’s presentness you can achieve with talking heads, if you treat them as a moment in time where someone is talking to somebody else. That’s why, for the most part, the interviews happen in the situation at the time it happens. It’s very interesting to not lose track of the moment. And like you were saying, [Lenny] was always content in the moment. Maybe that was the problem. But is that a problem? No you should just be content with what you’re doing right now.

Filmmaker: So about the “show not tell,” and the challenges of making a documentary this way: how did you get the exposition this way? It was really great, for instance, the way you filmed the interviews or the way used archival footage.

Safdie: Exposition was the biggest challenge. Plot is like the most difficult thing for us. We can operate more emotionally and understand how someone feels. The biggest triumph for us was the scene after his birthday. He’s sitting on the couch and he’s watching the highlights and LeBron is on TV. And you just see this man, this mortal, watching these gods play. You just kind of feel… it humanizes them in a way I’ve never seen athletes humanized before. That was the real triumph for me, feeling what he maybe feels that he’s not even aware of. The difficult part was the story. Such an intricate, crazy story. It was difficult for us, wondering if we wanted to include these talking heads and if we wanted to include this archival footage. But we knew we had an appreciation for it as time capsules.  Basically all that footage from 2000 that Adam [Shopkorn], our producer, was filming…do you know the story?

Filmmaker: No no, tell me.

Safdie: So I was 16 when Adam was filming that. I knew him through family. And I knew that I wanted more than anything to be in films. I loved movies since I was a little kid. And I loved basketball a lot, too. I was a Knicks fan, and I cried when the Knicks lost the NBA Finals in 1993. I walked to a Forest Hills basketball court in Queens, with my basketball, and I looked at everyone on the street and thought, “They must be very sad, too.” Not realizing that most people didn’t even care.

Anyway, [Adam] was following this kid Lenny Cooke around because there was this New York Times article about him and he thought Lenny was the new Michael Jordan. And he would show me the footage. I was equally as impressed by the camera that he bought for the movie, a Canon XL1, as I was of the footage of Lenny dunking on the side of a highway in Virginia. I wanted to work on it but I was too young, he wasn’t going to allow it. Adam and I lost touch, Lenny didn’t make it to the NBA, Adam went into a different business, and we went on to make films and release them. And Adam came to a screening of Daddy Longlegs in 2009. And this was at the height of LeBron’s fame, when he was making the decision to leave Cleveland and go to Miami. And he was like, “Look, LeBron is so famous right now, I can’t help but think of Lenny.”  And we said “Yeah, whatever happened to that?” So we watched the footage, our friendship with him rekindled, and we realized we could satiate our interest in basketball with our interest in filmmaking and combine the two.

Filmmaker: So how did you decide to use that archival footage in this?

Safdie: [long pause.] The way we basically build fiction films is we try to create a reality that we document. So it’s documentary style, but you can basically stimulate reality. And you can do that with documentaries — people do that all of the time. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to — not create a spectacle out of reality, but just kind of treat it as it is. That ties into the archival footage because we had these fixed memories and we couldn’t do anything about them. We didn’t shoot them, we weren’t involved in the production of them. If we had been we probably would have been in the club right there next to Lenny. I would have been in Brooklyn every weekend. It would have been a much different scope of footage. But because it was so narrow…it’s the past. And you can’t change the past, unless you treat it like the present, which is what we tried to do. So what if this was footage that was coming in right now? We’d be like, Sherlock Holmes deductive thought: “OK, this is happening,” and we’d just forget about the fact that there was the future. We’d treat archival footage like the way we treat footage when it comes in when we edit a fiction feature. Basically the script is out the door when we edit a fiction feature, and we have what we have and it’s fixed. We could go back and shoot more, but — wait, we can. We went back and shot with Lenny now. And we could add to the past, in a way, by creating a new present. And that was very difficult for us at times. You try to allow reality to dictate the script as opposed to letting the script dictate reality.

Filmmaker: Do you do that in your fiction movies, too?

Safdie: Yeah! I mean we cast people who we’re attracted to their energy. And we try to let the characters live within them, and we just document the way it’s coming out of them. That’s essentially what making a fiction film is. You’re documenting the creation… I mean it’s all that cheesy crap, you know, every film is a documentary in some way.

Filmmaker: OK, tell me more about the documentary element of your fiction films.

Safdie: Documentary style hints at the extremities of the way life unfolds. Fiction films, for us, we approach things in the style of realism, because realism is hinting at the way life feels without being actual life. I mean, you could set up a surveillance camera in the corner of a room, and someone could come in here and tell his wife, “I’ve been having an affair for the past three years.” And you could have the audio and everything but it wouldn’t affect viewers. You’re not getting at the greater truth, and that’s what realism is: you’re getting at the greater truths. But maybe the greater truths aren’t very realistic!

Filmmaker: And you mentioned the metaphor of basketball…

Safdie: Well, I have to leave in a minute because I have to play in my playoff game in the league I’ve been in for a couple of years.  Sports and physical movement keeps your mind healthy. Basketball, specifically, you’re literally running around in a circle as fast as you can. Your bearings are all fucked up; you don’t know where you are, but you’re right there. I love that about it. And it’s so up and down. It could be up by 20 points and down by 20 points within five minutes. I don’t even really follow other sports. Well, boxing I love, too, because there’s a real physical dance to it.

Filmmaker: So is there a connection between basketball and filmmaking?

Safdie: Absolutely. The moodiness of basketball, the high pace. I would go to Knicks games and film, in slow motion, plays that I appreciated back when D’Antoni was the coach. He would do an offense called “Seven Seconds or Less,” and I would cut it to hardcore music.

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