Lenny Cooke, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (Daddy Longlegs), is an astonishing documentary centering around promising basketball star, Lenny Cooke, who in 2001 was the highest ranked high school basketball in the nation, ranked above even Amar’e Stoudemaire, LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. Through happenstance and perhaps Cooke’s lack of motivation, Cooke was never drafted into the NBA, and now lives in obscurity in Virginia, overweight and struggling to get by financially.
The impetus of Lenny Cooke came with the film’s producer, Adam Shopkorn, who was followed the headlines about Cooke in 2001 and convinced the rising star to be the focus of his documentary. When Cooke didn’t make it to the NBA, the project was temporarily shelved, but then Shopkorn approached the Safdies to help finish the film. The Safdies and Shopkorn then went to Virginia to film Cooke in the present time, and they bridged the older footage with the new to create a meditation on Cooke’s life trajectory.
Per my review, I loved the film and was excited to sit down with the Safdies and Shopkorn to discuss bridging Shopkorn’s footage to the Safdies’ new footage, and the Safdies’ transition from narrative to documentary. They also go into great detail over one of the film’s standout scenes: Cooke celebrating his 30th birthday party at home in Virginia, during which time he drunkenly and tenderly serenades his fiancée with a Mario song. That scene is devastatingly powerful, for you almost forget that a camera is even present. It’s Cooke at his emotive core.
Adam, when you first approached Lenny with the prospect of the documentary back in 2001, was he super open to the idea, or did it take a lot of convincing on your part?
Adam Shopkorn: No, he was really into it and I had the right connections at that moment – I had the point guy who was going to get me into Lenny’s life. My style [of convincing] wasn’t too aggressive and maybe I could have lost [the opportunity], but I was the only one there in this gym at Fordham University and it sort of started from there. I don’t remember it exactly, but I was like, “I’ll come to New Jersey with a camera,” and he kind of started liking the camera and I started liking the subject.
Well, what was your pitch to him?
AS: I was like, “I want to watch the process of you deciding whether you want to go to college or go to the NBA. And if you go to the NBA, I want to spend a year with you at the NBA.” It’s kind of amazing because it was going to be a two-year process and the one-year process of the decision making in high school would have been easy. But once he got drafted? Once he made all that money, was I really getting on a plane and moving to Denver or Sacramento with him in a palace? And like, what, sleeping on a cot? I guess that’s what was going to happen, right? So that was the plan, yeah. And then obviously things changed.
Josh and Benny, were you familiar with Lenny’s story before Adam came to you with the project?
Josh Safdie: I will say that Adam’s this crazy sports junkie and Benny and I are very obsessed with the NBA. I’ve been a Knicks fan since I was eight years old – I’ve always loved the Knicks – but I only knew about Lenny because of Adam. I was a senior in high school and Benny was a junior when Adam was filming this and he was showing us some of the footage [later on] and I just realized in this moment that making this movie was almost like mining. I remember that Adam would go out and he would have these expeditions. We would go to Virginia and he would be like, “Yeah, I went to Virginia, it was crazy – you should see all the footage!” And this is true for fiction too, but a documentary is much more blatant. You go out and mine and you just collect all this stuff. And you come back and you just sift through it all. Just this idea that [all the footage] sits in a box and it’s very physical and it’s something very overwhelming to think about.
I remember thinking, “Wow, this is wild.” It was like Adam was showing us the future, like this guy was going to be the next Michael Jordan. It felt like a time machine situation.
Benny Safdie: And what’s crazy is if you fast forward to now and all that footage just stayed where it was because it was the past. It’s not going to change. So, we as filmmakers were able to look at it as fiction, in a way, because it was unchanging and it was set. We could look at all this footage and say, “Okay. The scenes in which I liked certain aspects of his personality. Where can we look in this set group of archive footage that would highlight the film?”
And when we were shooting more footage, it was much more complicated because things were changing. You couldn’t really get a grasp of the whole story until [the filming of the new footage] was done. There was this “done past” that you could go back and change, look at, and understand, and it was very nice to know that it wasn’t going to change. When we were going to film in Virginia, Lenny would ask us to come film this, but it was because he wanted to change the movie. There was a lot of stuff from the first year we were with him in Virginia that wasn’t in the film because Lenny was just getting reacquainted with the camera and reacquainted with just being around so he needed time to just become himself, as he is in the film now.
AS: And I was getting reacquainted with Lenny and they were getting acquainted.
AS: So there was a lot of push and pull. Because I was like, “No, we have to go down [to Virgina],” even it wasn’t completely necessary, for the mere fact that it was important for them to develop a rapport with Lenny. And that’s the difference, I think, between fiction filmmaking and documentary filmmaking is that sometimes you have to drive the seven hours just to show up, just to let them know that you’re serious about the craft and serious about making the film. Yeah, Benny’s right, a lot of stuff didn’t make it in and over time we sort of learned… I would call and say, “Benny’s doing this, this, this, and this” and they would choose their spots. And I think we picked and chose them wisely.
[From left to right: Benny Safdie, Adam Shopkorn, Lenny Cooke, and Josh Safdie]
Going off that somewhat, Josh and Benny, what were the biggest challenges of transitioning to documentary filmmaking from narrative filmmaking? I watched Daddy Long-legs last week, and I was really struck by how that film had such a similar look and feel to Lenny Cooke – you could tell they were made by the same filmmakers.
JS: That’s great to hear. We really love working with non-actors, so to us, Lenny was like an everyday performer. And we love mining characters, with their quips and perspectives and their nuances. In terms of production, it was just me being with Lenny, and Benny and Adam would always not be that far away. They’d be at the car or the Cracker Barrel. [Laughs]
And we would have these discussions – it was like a writing session. We would talk, and it was just like we took all the perspectives that we got from watching all of the older footage. I would walk into filming the new footage with Lenny with all these conversations we were having. So for a documentary, it was like we were writing the film as we were shooting it.
BS: And I think Josh was shooting it with the idea that “I was going to be cutting this like a narrative film.” And [in the finished film], it feels like there are six cameras in the room because of the way it’s shot and you just kind of forget that there was so much editing going on. That’s part of where we took the fiction, because we used the same style when shooting a fiction film. I think a lot of it was that we sort of had to be led into Lenny’s world and usually the other way around. [In a fiction film], you lead people in to the world you are creating – the production design – but we had to be brought into Lenny’s. And once we got in, and could understand and look around, that’s when we really started to go to work.
It’s strange, because when Josh would go in, literally we would send him off. I remember when we shot Lenny’s 30th birthday, we had no idea where [the party was] and it was so dark… and finally we found the place and Josh gets up and ends up walking a mile.
AS: We would throw flares up to make sure that he was still alive. And we would do animal calls.
BS: And then I would go into the hole and import the footage and mark the shots, mark the close-ups.
JS: But I think the biggest, most important overlapping trend – and I am sure this will continue as we foray into using professional actors – is that we are interested in reality, in the way it makes you feel. And I think what’s interesting about this documentary is that we try to be spectators of it ourselves. Some reviewer, I read this last night, said that in a film were some people would drift toward the macro, we went micro. I think that the only way to understand who we are as people is to look at the intricacies of what we do and why we do them. If I were to come across an alien from another planet…
BS: …even the way he would eat breakfast would be interesting.
JS: If I could figure out the impetus of why [the alien] was doing a specific action I would learn so much more about their entire culture than if I found some box of newspaper clippings.
Yeah, especially in said scene of the 30th birthday party, for me, that was the emotional climax of the film. When Lenny realized that his success happened over ten years ago and had to throw his own birthday party… and then when he drunkenly sang the Mario song…
JS: I love that so much.
AS: Yeah, Benny and I threw Josh in [the birthday party] and that was one of the intense moments where Josh sort of went in solo. And after a few hours, Benny and I would sort of work our way in but [Josh] didn’t need to be distracted and [Benny and I] were busy doing other things, whatever they were. We were always doing something.
BS: I think it’s important, to go off of what Josh was saying, the movie looks at Lenny the way the world saw him – in the beginning and where he is now. We follow him along that path without straying is what allows you to feel what he felt. And you watch the film and see that he didn’t want to go to stretches [at basketball camp] at 6:30am – that’s such a small incident in his life.
That’s a huge moment in the film, yeah.
BS: It’s a huge insight into his character. So you’re thinking back and you have these memories of these [basketball] players and they become your memories. Watching Carmelo Anthony on the court, you feel so close to this guy, you know? Why do I feel like I know him? But you feel very separate at the same time. But with Lenny, it’s different in this film because you’re living with him.
JS: The big triumph is when [Lenny] sees LeBron [James] after his 30th birthday party on TV. That moment, and when he goes to the Knicks game and he’s seeing all these other people. That fact that…
BS: …you feel something!
JS: Yeah, and when we were getting to know Lenny you didn’t necessarily feel that. But when watching the film I realized that, “Oh my God, that’s what it feels like!”
I forget which player it was, because I really don’t know anything about basketball…
JS: [Laughs] That’s good!
[Laughs] …but! The player didn’t recognize Lenny when he walked up to him.
All: Oh, Amar’e Stoudemaire.
And he had to go, “It’s me, Lenny!”
BS: Yeah, it’s crazy.
JS: [Stoudemaire] was like, “Oh, what’s up?” And Lenny was like, “It’s Lenny Cooke!”
AS: At first, You saw Amar’e's security guys flex up, and he was watching, watching, watching. And what was so amazing and so poignant and so powerful about the way [the Safdies] shot the 30th birthday party scene is because it was like pure fantasy for Lenny. And it’s so sad because if you listen to the lyrics of the Mario song [he was singing], it’s basically like a guy talking to his girl, telling her that he is going to give her everything. Like fistfuls of diamonds, handfuls of rings, which is very “NBA bling.” That’s really what Lenny wishes he could provide for [his fiancée] Anita. But he can’t. So how does he provide it for her? Through Mario’s songs, while he is crying, drunk, at his 30th birthday party.
JS: That’s all of America, that’s everybody. That’s so human. That’s why we live fantasy through these lyrics. That’s why “bling culture” is so big. That’s so “I pull up to the club with my ceiling missing.”
BS: Living vicariously!
JS: You listen to these songs, and you’re like, “Yeah, I could pull up to the club with my ceiling missing!”
BS: It’s rare though, to have someone sing along to those lyrics who knows what it’s like. And who can remember what it’s like to buy out the bar. And now he can’t.
JS: I just watched this morning, the “Trade It All” video that Fabolous did and Lenny’s in the background.
JS: Yeah, walking in his throwback. We would have liked to use it, but we would have had to pause [the video] and say “Look behind Stefon Marbury” and put a little spotlight on Lenny. But yeah, it’s amazing, because he really was hanging out with Fabolous, with Puff Daddy. He was part of that culture, he was still wearing that “Adidas Big Time” chain – that’s a couple thousand dollar chain. Minimum.
BS: Yeah, in the earlier footage, [Lenny] is wearing that chain and [Carmelo Anthony] is wearing his jersey. And Lenny was next to play! And he wasn’t even dressed to play.
AS: That’s another thing we always talked about, when Lenny was in a doo rag and his street clothes and was talking about what club he was going to go out to with Foxy Brown’s brother, while Carmelo was sitting there with cornrows, staring at the game and just waiting to see when he was going to get on the court to do some work.
Two questions, I guess: first, about how much footage did you ultimately end up with, and was there any footage that Lenny refused to be in the film?
BS: Yeah, he would say all the time, “You know I’m going to be at the edit!”
AS: [Lenny] was directing, producing, and editing the film.
JS: Yeah, when he went to the Knicks game, he was the director and I was just the cameraman. He had that air, his ego was still very much alive. It still is – you’d hope so! But yeah, he would say all the time, “You can’t include this, you can’t include that.” But when we got into the edit we didn’t focus on that.
BS: And some of the footage just wasn’t important, you know?
JS: Yeah, to me, when watching the film the only footage I think we maybe should have included was the fact that he got into this car accident, but the reason why we didn’t is because it wasn’t a reason why his fate is what it is. It’s unfortunate, it was bad luck, and he had a couple of injuries…
AS: …but he was already far removed from the NBA at that point. And I guess we shot a little north of one hundred hours?
BS: Yeah, if you include the old and the new.
AS: I had a good handle on the early stuff and I couldn’t keep up with these guys on the last fifty hours, which drove me a little nuts because I like to be familiar with everything. But yeah, you’ve got to relinquish control and let the creative guys do their work and bring in a fresh set of eyes. Well, two pairs of eyes.
Another thing that struck me about the film was how the cinematography of the older footage matched so flawlessly to the new footage. If you could just talk about what that process was like – was it labor intensive?
BS: The fact that it feels so connected is because the film maintains its focus. Because I actually look at the two as very different, in a way. [To Josh] You were filming it to edit, right?
JS: Yeah, I know for a fact that I shot more wide shots, thinking in my brain that I had to get wide shots because the older footage was only wide shots. My inclination is to be close up, to inspect, to see what people are feeling, and I find that’s difficult to get in a wide shot. The last thing I’m doing when I’m shooting is trying to be showy – I’m just trying to get at a feeling of something that makes me feel. Our initial frustration with the original footage was that it kind of lacked an emotive force, it was just documenting. But I did consciously shoot wide shots, even though there’s not that many, I went out of my way to shoot them because [the new footage] had to somehow match. To be honest, I was actually okay with just being myself with the camera.
BS: Yeah, it becomes about Lenny’s journey, who he is as a person and why he made the decisions he made. And to go back and look at the old footage and re-edit it, to re-purpose it to fit with the film, we’re focusing on the same things that is in the old footage and in the new footage. Both are harkening back to each other, the memories, so it does have that feeling that it’s all the same. It’s perfect, that that happened, that means we did something right.
Lenny Cooke is currently playing at the TriBeCa Film Festival