In Ben and Joshua Safdie’s new movie, Daddy Longlegs, Ronald Bronstein plays Lenny, a father whose custody agreement allows him to see his two children for only two weeks out of the year. During this short period he tries to take care of them, but it’s perfectly clear from the bad decisions he makes that he has yet to grow up himself. Daddy Longlegs takes place in New York City, as does Joshua’s previous film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed. Daddy Longlegs had its US debut this past January at Sundance, and will be released in NYC on May 14th. Ben and Joshua answered some of our questions on the process of making Daddy Longlegs, Sundance and their future plans.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): You must get asked this all the time, but how much of the relationship between Lenny and his sons is based on your own childhood?
Joshua Safdie (JS): Well, the film is 100 percent emotionally autobiographical. The idea that there are memories you can’t shake really inspires us, but the reason you can’t shake them is because of the emotions. It’s not just a plain and simple reenactment of those memories. What does an emotional reenactment look like when it’s not factual?
Ben Safdie (BS): The relationships in the film between the father and his sons represent what it felt like for us as kids growing up. This film is our attempt to re-feel those emotions and freeze the mangled mutants of reality that our brain calls “memory.” Bresson says it best: There are two types of real, the “crude” one recorded by the camera and the “deformed” one mangled by memory.
MM: To what extent did the actors, particularly Ronald Bronstein as Lenny, improvise their performances? I’ve read that he stayed in character when interacting with Sage and Frey Ranaldo, who played his sons, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
JS: Improvisation was a tool for us to allow the performances to come from within the actors. We had the full film written but we knew we couldn’t micromanage the way people said words if we wanted the performances to be “real” and nuanced. Ronald was always in character with the kids and would pick them up from school as Lenny. He would have them change in the bathroom at school and then they would take a cab or the subway to the apartment. The purpose of this 40-minute incubation period was to have a blast on that trip up, to rile them up. By the time they got into the apartment—the set—they were no longer Sage and Frey Ranaldo, they were Sage and Frey Sokol. In a sense, the characters are molded by their father and managed by their mom.
BS: He was never allowed to show Ronald to the kids because the real Ronald has boundaries, while Lenny is a ball of confused fun. It’s almost pathological, and because of that he can’t have boundaries. Lenny doesn’t have the luxury of discipline because he is afraid that will push the kids away. His only responsibility is fun and we needed Ronald to always keep that up to get the performances out of the kids.
Ronald was the director in the field guiding the kids’ performances based on the endless conversations we had together the night before regarding the scene. The improv moments, those lightbulb moments that come after four minutes, are never included in the film. They would be rehearsed on set and then concentrated and structured during the shooting to highlight the key moments derived from the improv. That’s the key. Improv is never the end result. In fact it always bothers us to see that lightbulb moment. Like style in general, it is only a means to get at a greater, deeper end.
MM: How did you go about casting the two boys?
BS: It was a funny incident, Josh was walking down the street complaining to me how we would never find two real brothers for this other film we were trying to make at the time. But right at the peak of disappointment he saw Frey’s lost little face being dragged by his amazing mother, Leah Singer, with his older brother, Sage, reluctantly also following suit. He hung up saying, “I have to call you back, I see you when you were eight!” He stopped Leah, overly excited, and came on a bit too strong. But needless to say there were so many other accidental run-ins that it seemed fate and kinetics were on our side and we all agreed we had to make the film together.
MM: Joshua, you previously directed The Pleasure of Being Robbed, and this is the first feature that you’ve co-directed with Ben. How did you find the collaboration process different than working on your own? Was it more challenging? More rewarding?
JS: It’s funny, I almost consider Daddy Longlegs my first feature. Not that I’m not proud of Pleasure, it’s just that the film came about in tangent to this film. It was a beautiful jazz improvisational detour, it’s how I met [The Pleasure of Being Robbed actress and Daddy Longlegs casting director] Eleonore [Hendricks]. She was street casting two little brothers all over NYC.
Ever since we were kids we were cohorts and co-conspirators, from filling water guns with piss to stealing our dad’s camera and making fake documentaries. I remember when iMovie first came out, I was shooting a scene from the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; Benny and I had been pushing away from each other due to teen angst, and I asked Benny to learn the program while I shot. He did and then we edited together. That was the re-beginning of very important collaboration in life and one that we both learn from. So in that sense, working together is very intuitive; sure it’s filled with some of the worst arguments, but you need them. You need to be able to have them.
MM: Much had been said about this past January’s Sundance being sort of a return to the fest’s original indie roots. What was your experience at the festival? How was the reaction to your film?
BS: I think this past Sundance was really a search for something new. They threw all their weight behind our film and tried to get it seen by as many people, regardless of what festival it world premiered at. They loved it and that is what dictated the programming. It wasn’t political or motivated, and in that sense that is completely new to the festival and new to the American festival in general. Heck, I think it says a lot that our film was in Sundance. This is a place we never thought our films would play. I remember talking to [Sundance’s director of programming] Trevor Groth and him telling me that he and [festival director] John Cooper said, ‘Forget the past.’ They took the reigns to make the festival new and that is why they chose to play the film, despite the history of the festival telling them otherwise. In the end we were there with a beautiful introduction by Trevorand lots of laughing and crying Utahians and a new life for the film in America. It sounds kind of cheesy, but they really helped the film’s life. They helped it out of passion for it and you rarely see that nowadays.
MM: What’s coming up next for you both? Any plans for future films?
JS: There are always future projects in some form. It is like how galaxies form; you have little ideas and the more they slam together, the bigger they get until you have a center for all of them to coagulate around.
We are in the final editing stages of a short called John’s Gone: A fever dream bleak comedy about what it’s like to treat the real world as a memory-creating apparatus only to have the whole thing blow up in your face. Sometimes you’re just on your own. Sometimes you’re just gone. That’s going to premiere at a large international festival later in the fall.
The next feature we want to make is called Uncut Gems, about the diamond district and one gem distributor who works with a bunch of jokers. They’re the outsiders of the district, but the workplace is like an odd family home with smaller individual families orbiting around the center of this beautifully sleazy world. We are in the writing process now and surrounding ourselves to its world. We hope to be shooting this by the end of the year or early next.