When Josh and Benny Safdie Met Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Lauded Belgian masters talk sibling rivalry, shared hotel rooms and the art of collaboration with New York's rising indie auteurs.

Dardennes brothers NYFF
Julie Cunnah

From the brothers Warner to the brothers Weinstein, the movie business has long been a fraternal affair, though sibling director teams (Coen, Hughes, Wachowski) are a relatively new concept, and one that always inspired a raft of predictable questions: How exactly does a directing team collaborate? Does one concentrate on the visual elements while the other works with the actors? Do they stand side-by-side on the set like a mythological two-headed beast? It was in this gentle spirit of inquiry — and cultural exchange — that the two sets of brother directors with films in the main slate of this year’s New York Film Festival sat down to meet last Sunday afternoon, on a large yellow sofa in the patron lounge of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

At first glance, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne don’t have very much in common with Josh and Benny Safdie aside from the fact that they’re brothers who happen to make movies. They were born a literal and figurative ocean apart — the Dardennes in the 1950s in Belgium, the Safdies in the ‘80s in New York. Where the Dardennes gradually made their way to movies (Jean-Pierre, the elder by three years, aspired to be an actor, while Luc studied philosophy), the Safdies grew up making amateur videos and attended film school at Boston University.

Today, the Dardennes rival only the Coens as the world’s most lauded filmmaking team, acclaimed for their piercing social dramas about working-class life in and around the Belgian factory town of Seraing, two of which — “Rosetta” and “The Child” — won the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or. Their ninth dramatic feature, “Two Days, One Night,” starring Marion Cotillard, is Belgium’s official submission for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar and will be released in the U.S. by Sundance Selects on Dec. 24.

The Safdies, by contrast, are only just starting to find an audience equal to their considerable talent. Having made their reputation with a series of prankish short films shot on the streets of New York, they directed their first feature, the kleptomania romance “The Pleasure of Being Robbed,” in 2008, followed the next year by “Daddy Long Legs,” a semiautobiographical portrait of a divorced dad haphazardly struggling to care for his two young kids. Both films debuted in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and went on to receive limited arthouse distribution from IFC. Their latest and most ambitious feature, “Heaven Knows What,” screened in Venice and Toronto and was acquired by Radius-TWC in advance of its New York Film Festival screenings — the first time the Safdies have been invited to their hometown festival (where the Dardennes have long been regulars).

Yet, there are also certain affinities between these two bodies of work. Both sets of filmmakers favor shooting on real locations rather than studio sets, and make the city — be it Seraing or New York — a vivid character in their films. In addition, they have both frequently worked with children or other nonprofessional performers — in the Safdies’ case, almost exclusively so until “Heaven Knows What,” which seamlessly immerses the rising young actor Caleb Landry Jones into its milieu of real-life drug addicts and homeless youths. Similarly, “Two Days, One Night” marks the Dardennes’ first experience working with an internationally recognized movie star, Cotillard, who they had to give “a new body,” they have said, in order to make her seem an organic part of their cinematic universe. Oh, and the Safdies include one full-on homage to “Rosetta” in “Heaven Knows What.”

Asked to corral this historic meeting, this only-child reporter mostly sat back and let the conversation take its own course, with minimal interjections.

Josh Safdie: Being in America and being brothers, everyone always brings up the Coen brothers to us. And we always say, no, for us it’s the Dardennes.

Luc Dardenne: I have a good story about that. We were eating dinner once in a little restaurant in Brussels, and at the next table there were four older people watching us eat. When I left, I forgot my coat, so I came back to look for it, and one of these woman said, “Monsieur, monsieur, are you really the Coen brothers from Liege?” And I said, “No madame, we’re the Dardennes.” Then her husband said, “See, I told you, they’re the Dardennes from America.”

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Are there sisters in your family?

Josh Safdie: Just us.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We have two sisters.

Luc Dardenne: Between him and me, a sister, and then after me another.

Josh Safdie: And they make films together?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: No, they don’t.

Luc Dardenne: One is a nurse in Paris, and the oldest is a prop mistress in the theater.

Josh Safdie: Do you guys argue a lot?

Luc Dardenne: Not in the movies, but in life, yes, sure.

Josh Safdie: Our relationship is founded on arguing, artistically. He has different sensibilities than I do.

Benny Safdie: We pull each other in different directions. We move each other to the center. It’s a nice balance.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Give us an example?

Josh Safdie: The last film [“Heaven Knows What”] is a very good example, because I wanted to make this film about a certain milieu of people in New York City — young people who live on the streets, not so far from the milieu of people in “The Child.” He wasn’t so attracted to these characters. I wanted to be very romantic about it, this girl’s emotions, the sturm und drang of her life, the opera of it. He wanted more social realism, like Mike Leigh.

Benny Safdie: We had to have a distance [from the subjects]. If we got too close, it wasn’t going to work. Of course, I pull back, he pushes forward and we find the right balance.

Luc Dardenne: Like an accordion. The accordion brothers!

Variety: How do you create your scripts?

Luc Dardenne: We create the structure together, and we talk all the time, but I do the actual writing.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: And I am on holiday!

Josh Safdie: With us, it depends on the project. If it’s a project that I discovered, I’ll do the writing. If its’ a project he discovered, he does the writing, but we discuss everything. The gentleman you met earlier, [“Daddy Long Legs” star and “Heaven Knows What” co-screenwriter] Ronnie Bronstein, he’s become like a third brother for us.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Have you worked apart from each other?

Josh Safdie: Yes, and it didn’t work. We didn’t mean to work alone. It just happened.

Benny Safdie: It’s the age difference. He got out of college earlier.

Luc Dardenne: How many years?

Josh Safdie: Two years. And you?

Luc Dardenne: Three.

Josh Safdie: And you have a sister between you.

Luc Dardenne: Our parents were very active!

Josh Safdie: Did you share a room when you were growing up?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Our sisters had a room and we had a room. But in the beginning of our career, when we were making documentaries and we were invited to festivals, we had to share a hotel room.

Josh Safdie: The same bed?

Luc Dardenne: One time, in Berlin.

Benny Safdie: This is the first film we’ve done where they gave us our own rooms.

Luc Dardenne: We moved into fiction in order to get separate rooms.

Variety: You’ve both worked a lot with nonprofessional actors. Do you have to direct them differently than you do a professional actor?

Luc Dardenne: In the beginning, we worked with unknowns partly because the characters in those films were very young. Even in “Two Days, One Night,” the people who haven’t acted before are generally the younger ones, and we had to shape them. For example, the actor Serge Koto, who plays Alphonse, he had never acted before. He comes from Benin, and we worked with him enormously. We do a lot of rehearsals — a very long rehearsal process — and at a certain point something happens where the actor loses his or her inhibitions and begins to speak up, to make suggestions and isn’t afraid to seem stupid or ridiculous. Just like us, because we’ll often say to the actors, “We made a mistake” or “That wasn’t quite right.” Actors aren’t used to that. Once they start to be able to feel the freedom to do that, you know that you’ve broken through.

Josh Safdie: With this last film, it was the first time we combined professional actors with nonprofessional actors, and it’s beautiful. An actor is an artist who expresses the plight of life, right? That’s what their job is. And a non-actor is just a person living life. So when you put them next to each other, I was really amazed, because you’re kind of asking the audience to see where life begins and the movie ends.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: I wanted to add one thing to what Luc was saying. When we worked with young actors, like Jeremie Renier in “La Promesse,” Emilie Dequenne in “Rosetta,” or Thomas Doret in” The Kid with a Bike,” they didn’t have experience, but we didn’t have the feeling that we were working harder with them than if they had been professional actors. We spent an enormous amount of time in the casting process, so we knew we’d picked someone who was on target for that particular role. Jeremie was 13 when we cast him, Emilie was 17 and Thomas was 13, so they gave a lot that they weren’t even conscious they were giving, unlike someone like Marion, who’s very conscious of what she’s doing. And we have to be in a position where we can actually absorb those things and use them.

Luc Dardenne: We steal, like vampires!

Josh Safdie: What do you look for when you’re casting?

Luc Dardenne: When we’re auditioning a young actor before us who had never acted before, we often make them do the same scene. We tell them, “You’ve stolen something. I saw you. I want you to say you did it, but you’re going to resist my questions and make excuses.” And we’ve found that the ones who don’t speak very much, who keep their mouths shut, often turn out to be the best actors.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: On the set, do you use a playback monitor?

Josh Safdie: “Heaven Knows What” was the first time, but just for me. Benny doesn’t look at it.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: He stays on the set?

Benny Safdie: On this one, I was actually running our sound.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: When we were very young, on our first documentaries, Luc did sound and I did camera.

Josh Safdie: On “Daddy Long Legs,” because the kids were so intimidated by a big set, we had to tell the d.p., the sound guy and the lighting guy to leave, so it was just us two with me operating the 16mm camera and him on sound. It was really difficult.

Luc Dardenne: For us, an important thing we’ve observed is that when one of us is on the set with the actors and the other is in front of the monitor, the opinion of the brother in front of the video is different, and maybe better.

Josh Safdie: On our last film, when I was watching the monitor and he was watching the performances live, this was very new to us, and I knew that he was receiving something I wasn’t. For questions of performance, I kind of yielded to him, because he’s watching life and I’m watching a movie.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: For us, the monitor is better for judging rhythm, because the takes are long. If you’re at the monitor, you’re the first audience for the film, and you can see that maybe here or there we can improve something. When you are on the set with the actors, it’s more difficult.

Josh Safdie: I have a quick last question: Do you have other passions outside cinema that one of you does and the other doesn’t? Because Benny’s a photographer and I’m a painter.

Luc Dardenne: I read philosophy.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: I read a lot too, but not philosophy. I was an actor, and so I’m interested in speaking with filmmakers, like you. I’m available.