Josh Safdie doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would make an advertisement. Hiding behind an untrimmed beard while discussing his abstract cinematic ambitions, the twenty-four-year-old filmmaker radiates an endearing scrappy artist vibe. However, Safdie’s first feature, a surreal romp called “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” that opens this week at the IFC Center and becomes available through the company’s video-on-demand service later this month, originally took root as a commercial.
In the summer of 2007, Andy Spade and his creative partner, Anthony Sperduti, hired Safdie to make a short film featuring Kate Spade Handbags, promoting the successful label Spade co-founded with his wife in 1993. It was a process Spade has implemented for over a decade, hiring independent filmmakers such as Mike Mills and Talmage Cooley to produce short narratives that can play at film festivals while simultaneously pushing commercial products.
But Safdie decided to take Spade’s basic concept and run with it. Working with his younger brother Benny and several other longtime companions from his intimate production collective — a tight-knight group of twentysomethings calling themselves Red Bucket Films — Safdie devised a concise story about the whimsical adventures of a lonely kleptomaniac named Eleonore (co-writer Eleonore Hendricks), whose nasty habit leads her across state lines and around the Central Park Zoo in handcuffs.
That unexpected expansion of Spade’s original outline lead to screenings of the film around the world, including a glamorous overseas premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival. Rather than complain about the change of plans, Spade, who left his company in December, embraced the opportunity to finance an independent production. “All of it was a happy accident,” Spade explained. He noted his early career experience writing advertisements. “I always wanted to get into that world,” he said, “but Josh is a better director.”
Safdie was introduced to Spade last year by the visual artist and filmmaker Casey Neistat, famous with his brother Van for raising the ire of Apple with their online video “iPod’s Dirty Secret” in 2003. Neistat knew Safdie needed financing for a film he wanted to direct called “Yeah, Get on My Shoulders,” and figured Spade might be interested in helping out. “Andy is pure, raw, unadulterated creativity,” said Neistat, who directed Kate Spade commercials with his brother several years ago. “If he had never bought a suit, he probably would have ended up as a really successful artist. I just thought it would be a good fit.”
The fashion industry veteran was impressed with Safdie’s lo-fi, guerilla approach in his earlier short films. As a result, Safdie abruptly found himself spending a warm summer weekend at Spade’s home in Southampton, casually pitching “Yeah, Get on My Shoulders” in between informal chatter. “That was so crazy,” said Safdie. “We were just talking about life.”
At the conclusion of the visit, Spade agreed to finance Safdie’s project, but only if he directed a commercial short for Kate Spade Handbags first. Safdie eagerly accepted the offer.
Back in the city, however, he found himself in a quagmire. He still didn’t have a cast lined up for “Yeah, Get on My Shoulders,” and now he was obligated to direct an unrelated project. Still, the filmmaker wound up enjoying the assignment. Titled “Ice Cream Soup,” it featured Safdie and his friends wheeling around a cart filled with melted ice cream during Fashion Week (a Kate Spade sign adorned the side of the cart). The short was posted on the company’s site.
Satisfied, Spade quickly formulated the idea for another commercial short film. Along with the handbags, this one featured an alienated woman obsessed with stealing the identities of those around her. It also involved a whimsical trip to the Central Park Zoo. (Among the many possible titles, Spade favored “Stealing and Swimming and Polar Bears.”) Safdie took the outline and developed a far more complex, deeply unhappy protagonist.
The director had his own plot twists in mind, including the tranquil drive to Boston that Eleonore takes in a stolen car, accompanied by Safdie, who plays her male acquaintance. Over the next several weeks, “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” (as it was now called) came together in bits and pieces.
Hendricks had been helping Mr. Safdie seek out the cast for “Yeah, Get on My Shoulders,” and she was hesitant about committing to the project until Safdie assured her it would not become a commercial. With nobody to stop them, Safdie and his tiny crew kept shooting new scenes. “These guys took their time to make it right,” said Neistat, who shares executive producer credit with Spade. “They made it good because nobody was looking over their shoulders.”
When Spade and Sperduti found out about the evolution of the project, they didn’t protest. “We were totally fine with it, because it’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” Spade said. (He identifies himself, not his old company, as the primary benefactor for the film.) Spade even has a cameo in an early scene, with his 3-year-old daughter Frances, when Hendricks’ character steals a bag from them on the street.
Finally completed, the movie was accepted to the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, where it premiered in March 2008. (The filmmakers had to slow down the end credits to meet the requirements for a feature-length narrative.) Safdie worried about sharing with an audience what he felt was an extremely personal work. “It got really weird,” he said. “I didn’t even want it out there.” He considered declining the invitation.
Convinced by his colleagues that Spade’s investment left Safdie no choice in the matter, he eventually went along with the plan. A month after the sparsely attended Austin premiere, the filmmaker learned that his movie would serve as the closing night feature at Directors Fortnight. It took the sole American slot in the prestigious Cannes sidebar, screening alongside Benny Safdie‘s short film, “The Acquaintances Of A Lonely John.”
Spade was in the audience last May when Safdie took the stage to introduce the film at a lavish two-floor theater a few feet from the French Riviera. A Cannes programmer stood by his side and translated the director’s every word. “It was amazing,” recalled Spade. “They wanted to make the film they wanted to make. It got into Cannes, so what do I know?”
By that time, IFC was already in negotiations to buy the film, and Safdie had extinguished his initial fear about crowds of people viewing his accomplishment. “I won’t sign anything unless it plays in a theater,” he told representatives from IFC after they initially offered to distribute the movie exclusively through the company’s video-on-demand service. They listened: The movie first opens at the IFC Center for a limited engagement, and each day it will screen with a different short produced by Red Bucket Films.
Meanwhile, Safdie has moved on to other things. He recently began production on his next feature, “Go Get Some Rosemary,” which stars “Frownland” director Ronnie Bronstein. Safdie continues to make some money on the side with other projects. “We’re like a media company,” he complained. “People come and hire us for things. I don’t really like depending on that. I would be more than happy to make a film every few years and have some basic job for pocket cash.”
In the final deal for “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” Safdie split his ownership of the film with Spade. “All I cared about was Andy being happy, and that it was my cut,” Safdie said, visibly energized as he came around to the point. “They approached me with a very basic concept, but I wrote that thing. I gave my life to it.”