Parental guidance suggested
The Safdie brothers examine their past and their pops in Daddy Longlegs.
Mon May 10 2010
“Ha, I remember when that happened...I was there.”
“No, you weren’t!”
“Yeah, Josh, I was!”
“You were not, man!”
The Safdie brothers are sitting across from each other in IFC Films’ midtown offices, and these bright new hopes of New York’s lo-fi filmmaking scene are arguing. Benny, 24, insists that he recently witnessed a woman approach Ronald Bronstein—the lanky star of their new movie, Daddy Longlegs—and start chatting with him as if he were the siblings’ own father. Benny’s 26-year-old brother, Joshua (the man behind 2008’s Cannes entry The Pleasure of Being Robbed), claims that his codirector was nowhere near either party when the incident occurred. Bronstein, who’s futily trying to talk over them, shoots both of his younger cohorts a stern knock-it-off look. The two momentarily stop, before silently continuing their bickering. Benny, exasperated, rolls his eyes. Joshua twirls his finger next to his head, the universal sign for “Dude, you are fucking crazy.” Suddenly, that case of mistaken identity doesn’t seem very far-fetched.
“The funny thing was, she’s known their real dad for ages,” Bronstein says. “But the minute this woman walks out of the movie, it’s like I’m him. I finally had to say, 'My name is Ronny, ma’am.... I’m not who you think I am.’ 'Oh, I know,’ she said...and then just kept right on talking.”
Given how much the lines between these filmmakers’ personal history and their latest collaboration become blurred, it isn’t surprising to find that even longtime family friends can’t pinpoint where one ends and the other begins. The story of a single Manhattanite named Lenny, who gets sole custody of his sons for two weeks, Daddy Longlegs charts a number of parenting do’s (goof off with your kids) and some drop-dead don’ts (medication is involved). Some scenes are hilarious, some are harrowing; one truly surreal sequence, which involves a fight with a Labrador-sized mosquito, is a singular mixture of both. But the movie’s overall tale of a patriarch with a knack for making bad choices mirrors, to an uncomfortable extent, the Safides’ own fractured childhood; Lenny’s less-than-stellar notion that he needs to go on the lam with his sons stems from the boys’ experience of being “kidnapped” by the paterfamilias during an extended stay with him.
“It is highly autobiographical, but only in an emotional sense,” Benny says. “We fictionalized a lot, but the feelings that we were dealing with are directly from the stuff we saw as kids.” Both had been thinking about their upbringing when their dad, a retired jewelry salesman, gave them a bunch of old home movies. “Watching these videotapes of us between the ages of two to 12,” Joshua says, “we started to see the sort of really treacherous, nasty, horrible situations our dad put us through. You can only hear them happening in the background, but as these unhappy memories flooded back, we became both horrified and oddly affectionate for our upbringing. We were like, How are we feeling these two totally contradictory things at once? The only way to understand these conflicting emotions was to make a movie about them.”
Though the filmmakers were lucky enough to convince Abel Ferrara to do a colorful cameo and found their perfect onscreen counterparts in Sage and Frey Ranaldo—the sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo—the real casting coup de grce came in the form of Bronstein, a fellow director (Frownland) whom Joshua met while making the festival rounds. Both Safdies credit him with steering the film toward, in Bronstein’s words, “that area between judgment and compassion,” while still giving them the distance to untangle their remembrances of past ugliness. “The movie started out about our dad and ended up being about Lenny, which is his doing,” Benny admits. Joshua takes it a step further: “Thanks to him, it’s not about our father...just our father issues.” They’re laughing so hard now that they don’t notice how proudly Bronstein is beaming, before he gives in and starts chuckling himself.
The Safdies on their influences:
Broadway Danny Rose
“It’s a movie with an amazing take on midtown...that, and it underwrites the entitlement of letting your characters sit in a diner for hours.”
“Mike Leigh’s first feature has it all: damaged female characters, Chinese restaurants and whistling. You have to have whistling.”
The Bicycle Thief
“Because you absolutely cannot embark on making a movie about fathers and sons without paying respect to the genre’s Holy Grail."