Lenny Cooke: Interview with directors Safdie brothers and Lenny Cooke

I recently had the privilege to see a wonderful documentary titled Lenny Cooke, directed by the Safdie brothers.  I was also lucky enough to sit in on a round table interview with the directors, the producer, and the legend himself, Lenny Cooke, to discuss their filmmaking process and Lenny’s unique story. Following are the questions that were posed at the round table giving us an inside look into a very special film.  In select theaters now!

—Marco Agnolucci 

How long did it take you to go through all of Adam Shopkorn’s previously filmed footage as well your own?

Benny Safdie: The length that we were on the project, four years.  It was more about going through the footage and figuring out what the scenes were that we could work with.  It was a lot of one camera shooting and we wanted to make it look like it was ten cameras.  It was figuring out how to make it work.  And ok this is a good scene, how can we work with this?  It was also a lot of labeling.

How much footage did you have to start with?

Adam Shopkorn: Sixty-five hours.  One hundred fifty hours in the end, half of which was today’s footage.

Benny Safdie: The past footage was kind of nice because it was this finite piece of history.  So it was much easier to wrap your mind around it.   

Josh Safdie: It was also our way of getting to know Lenny before we got to know Lenny.  By the first time I met Lenny I had all these memories that belonged to him, it’s an imbalance, you don’t really want that.  I had to spend six months hanging out with Lenny to even out the playing field.  Let him get to know me.  I don’t believe in fly on the wall tactics. I disappear but I like to be a part of the energy of the room.  You can ask Lenny wherever he was going I’m just like another person in the room, I’m talking to people, I’m hanging out, I’m putting the camera down occasionally.  Because it’s all about democracy in my mind. 

Benny Safdie: It was weird for me because I was always in the backrooms.  We would go down, all of us, to Emporia (Virginia) just to be together with Lenny.

Why did you guys choose to tell Lenny’s story rather than someone else’s?

Josh Safdie: Lenny’s story found us.  Adam Shopkorn was working on the film in 2000 and 2001.  I remember when he was making the film, and I loved basketball and film.  Film is like my therapist, it’s how I understand life.  And basketball is my greatest distraction; it’s how I get away from things, from life.  So here was this nexus of basketball and film and I also fell in love with Lenny’s story.  Then we watched all this footage where he was dominating superstars in the NBA.  So it was this juxtaposition, then when I got to meet Lenny, the fact that he had no regrets about the situation was so interesting and so compelling to me that I kept wanting to film, investigate, and paint a portrait.

Benny Safdie: I think it was also incredible that there was this trove of archive footage that really allowed us to get deep in a new way that I don’t think any other movie has done.  Because it was all there, it was really interesting, a crazy tale.

Adam Shopkorn: It’s topical too today, you throw something down on a shelf in a shoe box for six years and then you open it up six years later, pop it in the deck, and you’re thinking Oh God, this is terrible, but it just so happens that we popped it in and wow!  It’s the entire top echelon of the NBA. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time an x number of years ago when these kids were fifteen and sixteen years old.  So for a long time I thought it was done, on the shelf, but thanks to Josh and Benny they helped me complete it.  I guess if I waited another 7 years to where LeBron was 36 it probably wouldn’t be as topical.  But we obviously had to finish it while those guys were in the prime of their careers.

Are you guys Nets or Knicks fans?  Is it therapeutic to watch the Knicks right now?

Josh Safdie: Describe therapeutic.

Benny Safdie: Knicks fans.  It’s not fun but I still watch. 

Adam Shopkorn: I’m a disgruntled Knicks fan.  I’m no longer a Knicks fan.  I kind of root against them and take pleasure in rooting against them.  I think that the team might be cursed.

Benny Safdie: Whenever we were watching while filming during the playoffs and the Knicks had forty points at the half we thought, let’s just wait we’ll come back, and then Shumpert gets injured.  Then we thought it’s still the 4th quarter, we’re only down by 30, if we cut it to 20 with 5 minutes left we still have a chance.

Adam Shopkorn: I’m a little older than these guys but the Knicks kind of lost me as a fan.  Just the way it’s managed where they expect you to pay higher ticket prices for a poorer product.  It’s completely dysfunctional; it’s dysfunction at its finest.  You look at some organizations and they’re run like well oiled machines and the Knicks just don’t.

Lenny Cooke:  I’m a Bulls fan.

What was your foul shooting percentage Lenny?

Lenny Cooke: Probably 90 percent. 

Adam Shopkorn: Who cares about free throws when you have all these mix tapes on line with everyone dunking. 

Occasionally when I watch a documentary I can see right through the director’s manipulation of his subject matter.  I never once felt that way about Lenny Cooke.  How did you approach the filmmaking and editing segments of the film in order to render such honesty and authenticity to Leonard’s true story?

Benny Safdie: We wanted it to come from Lenny’s perspective and we tried hard to not have that sort of God like narrator and not just have people looking back and telling you about him.  We wanted Lenny to tell us about him and that was the driving force of that.  In order to feel that we need to live it the way he did, chronologically.  It allows you to have new perspectives, new emotions because even though you know what’s going to happen you don’t know what feeling you’re going to have when you react to certain situations when Lenny is seeing them.  So when he hits the wall, you hit the wall and you must deal with it in the moment.

Josh Safdie: Someone once asked this sort of fiction question of who’s in control the director or the actor or the subject.  And everyone who was around us said of course the director, they choose what happens in what scene and what is said.  And then my instinct was to say the same thing but then I thought this was onto something, and that it didn’t really matter who you are but what the subject wants to give to you.  You can manipulate somebody to feel comfortable but that’s about all you can do.  The number one philosophical question in 2013 is, real or fake?  If you watch any YouTube videos people blog and ask is it real or fake?  Real sense is real, people understand authenticity and that’s what we were after.  All of our subjects in all of our movies, whether documentary or fiction, are all Gods to us.  Lenny was a God to us.  Lenny is this Greek God, this story that the Gods decided that this guy right here is going to be the best until they decide he isn’t the best, and then we’ll see how he deals with the kind of trauma of falling from grace.  That’s his purpose and that’s what we put him on the pedestal for.

Benny Safdie: Even the scene where we have him at the end where it’s clearly a decision that we made has to feel right.  If it didn’t then you’re not going to be able to have that scene. 

Looking back on your career, when you were in high school, I know you were heavily recruited, as you were the best high school player.  Any colleges that you considered going to?

Lenny Cooke: St John’s.  But then they fired coach Jarvis at the time.

Did anyone give you any advice?

Lenny Cooke: I made every decision on my own.  I didn’t have that mentor or that first basketball coach that was always around.  I played for every AAU team; I didn’t have that mentor that guided me in the right direction.  Everything that I did I did because I wanted to do it.  I didn’t allow anybody to make a decision for me and I don’t have any regrets about anything I’ve done. 

You held off of an education and you say that you don’t have any regrets but do you really feel that that was the right decision?

Lenny Cooke: For me at that time, I feel like it was the right decision for me to provide for my family.  $350,000 was a lot of money for me at nineteen.  I jumped on it and I ran with it.  I had a child at the time and I had to provide for my child which was one of the reasons I decided to bypass college. 

Looking back on your decision would you say it was the classic case of too much too soon?

Josh Safdie: You look at someone like our executive producer Joakim Noah, he didn’t have much talent, he didn’t have raw talent so he constantly tried to get to that raw talent.  Lenny didn’t start playing organized ball till he was sixteen years old.  I mean he was playing in a playground and someone came up to him and said here’s some money and sneakers and come and play for my team.  And then everyone was saying oh my God this guy is really good, he’s insane, I’ve never seen anything like this before. 

Adam Shopkorn: Lenny and Joakim also come from completely different environments.  Joakim was protected; people knew that his dad was a star tennis player.  You couldn’t get to Joakim the way you could get to Lenny.  At that time in 2001 there was a real market place for high school kids to enter the NBA.  Guys have been leaving high school and going into the NBA; Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby but those were one offs.  But all of a sudden the tables turned, they were coming out in batches.  There were coming out in twos, fours, fives, sixes.  These kids were thinking oh if that guy can go, I can go.  Lenny rolled the dice and for one reason or another, we might never know why, we didn’t hear his name called.  And he had to sort of adjust.  He played basketball all over the world but you didn’t hear about it in every newspaper.

Lenny what do you want people to walk away from this film with?

Lenny Cooke: As far as these kids, I want them to use me as an example.  I would tell them to stay focused and work hard because those are the things I didn’t do.  I didn’t work hard, I didn’t go to practice, I hung out all night.  These are things that are not going to help you succeed.  Just use me as an example.  I was in your shoes ten years ago to be the best basketball player I could be and the choices that I made, well, I don’t want kids making those same choices.  I have a son that’s thirteen, he’s my motivation to tell this story to as many children as I can cause if he makes any mistake that I made then we’re going to have a problem.

Adam Shopkorn: Yeah, we are trying to put the film out far and wide and as a producer I am trying to gage the success of the film based on how many kids are seeing it.  If we show it to eight hundred kids I feel like it’s a failure.  If we show it to eight million kids across the world I think it’s a success.  The film is raw, Benny and Josh created this real film that might not have found a happy ending but it has a real ending.  It’s life.  I keep talking about it but we need people to come out and support this film.  It’s a film that needs to be seen.  It should be a required film for rookies.  I was talking to the NBA, Nike, and Adidas and these corporations should make their kids watch this film.  It’s educational.  I guarantee you that if you show this film to a high school basketball team on Wednesday night, Thursday practice is going to be pretty good.

Living this story and seeing it are two different things, so when you saw the final product of the film what did you think about your journey?

Lenny Cooke: Looking back on it, it was a long journey.  I had fun.  I enjoyed it.  If I had done something different I would have listened to the coaches a little more at the camps, but other than that, I enjoyed life.

Watching the NBA games now and seeing Carmelo and LeBron play, is that a constant reminder of I didn’t make it?

Lenny Cooke: No.  After my car accident I lost the passion for the game because they wanted to amputate my leg and told me I couldn’t play ball anymore or maybe even walk, and I recovered from that.  But other than that I’m proud of those successful NBA guys because they worked harder than I did and they were more motivated than I was.  Sure I’d love to be playing at 3 o’clock on Sunday, but it’s an honor to be able to say that I busted Carmelo Anthony’s ass.  I drive off of that still to this day.  These guys will soon be hall of famers.  My son is a LeBron James fan and I’m honored to be able to say that I had the opportunity to play against these guys. 

Lenny do you still go back to the old neighborhood?  If so, what is that like?  You were going to build a YMCA there, what happened?

Lenny Cooke:  I’m always going to go back there whenever I come home.  I love it and people that are there love me too.  I blew money is what happened.  It would be nice to have that YMCA.

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