"I thought maybe this was some political ploy for France to further embarrass America, but actually they thought the movie represented freedom. When we were making it, I never thought that this is going to be a movie about freedom, but they thought the film represented the American independent spirit of yesteryear."
This was not the director's first trip to the French Riviera. "I went to Cannes when I was 8 years old, with my father," Safdie recalled. "We ended up renting a Jet Ski, and we ran out of gas out in the middle of the Mediterranean, so my memory of Cannes was being stuck in the Mediterranean waiting for a boat. And it's pretty much the same experience going to the festival, being stuck in the middle of this big sea of people waiting for a boat to come. But it was nice."
"The Pleasure of Being Robbed" follows the daily exploits of Eleonore, a lost young woman who steals compulsively, seemingly without thought or reason. Whether it's purses, a bag full of kittens, car keys or grapes from a fruit vendor -- Eleonore feels compelled to grab it.
The 16 mm film is shot in a cinema verite style, much like the early films of John Cassavetes, and although it seems largely improvised, Safdie was working from a script.
"I had written a 40-page script," Safdie said. "It was mainly emotions, and where the movie lived and died. I didn't really know Eleonore as well as I needed to know her to make this, so I just wrote what I thought was her essence."
Eleonore Hendricks, who plays the kleptomaniac, has shared writing credit along with Safdie, but her collaboration was more inspirational than traditional.
"The way I make films is very intuitive; it's kind of like jazz," Safdie explained.
"We're not thinking about the academic side of it. Once we started shooting, we shot chronologically, and Eleonore never saw the script, but we came up with a lot of things together, and we'd talk about the scenes for the next day a lot. We thought about the ideas and what it means for her do to certain things. As we were shooting, I got to know her really, really well, and I fell more and more in love with her. It was really organic."
Safdie shot the majority of his film on the streets of New York City, where he lives. He and his brother, Benny, were raised there and in Queens by his father (and his mother on weekends) who he says kept not only a watchful eye on the two, but a Sony HI-8 camcorder as well.
"When we ate, fought, watched TV, cried, drew and even dreamt, tape rolled away." But his father, and his father's parents, traveled a long road to the far corners of the world before settling in the Empire State.
"Jews are very nomadic types," Safdie said. "My father's side of the family is from Syria, and they were pretty much exiled when Israel was created. I think my grandparents snuck out in the middle of the night on camels. They went to Brazil, and then to Italy. My dad was born in Italy, but then moved to France."
Safdie's father moved to New York when he was 20 and met his wife shortly afterwards. They moved to Queens to raise their family, but the marriage dissolved after the birth of Josh's brother. Josh is not the only member of his family to make his mark at an early age. His great uncle, Moshe Safdie, is the renowned architect.
For Safdie, filmmaking is an extended family affair. His brother Benny, whose own short film was screened at Cannes, is part of the merry band of movie makers at Redbucket Films, which Sadie describes as "kind of like a tree house for kids who wanna grow old together," adding, "We're all friends, just a bunch of jokers, kind of a safe haven for us to let ourselves know we can do this for a living. There's six of us and we all worked on the movie together. The movie had no more than six people working on it."
Out of necessity, the microbudget film was made in the hit-and-run tradition of guerrilla filmmaking, which Safdie sees as an asset.
"You have no time to think, and usually thinking is what sometimes kills the situation. We pretty much lived with this movie. The film wasn't improvised, as much as it was lived. Improvisation insinuates premeditated thought and actions, and this is all instinctual. So, it wasn't real, but real in the film sense. It was very intuitive, very quick and because we were literally living with the movie -- we had no jobs at the time -- actions and stealing shots was very quick and done offhand. We were stuck in a mindset where we were always thinking."
Working within the limits of a small budget, many directors would have shot in the more cost effective digi-video format, but not Safdie. "There's something about film. I love seeing the scars, the imperfections. I love digital formats, but there's something about using something physical that's very humanistic to me. It's like a trust factor; it involves a physical and emotional bond to the movie. [Werner] Herzog said it, and I'll say it, 'I'm a celluloid man.'"
"The Pleasure of Being Robbed," screens June 22, 24 and 25 as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival.