Struggling to cope with feeling as though your existence is predestined and planned a long time ago by family members who left your decisions out of your control is a harrowing situation people are often forced to contend with during their lives. But once they find something that offers them fulfillment and purpose, especially when they’re least expecting it, they can finally undergo a satisfying period of self-discovery that allows them to achieve their own goals. That powerful exploration is grippingly chronicled in the new fantasy comedy-drama, ‘The Cobbler.’ the film, which was directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also co-wrote the script with Paul Sado, and opened in select theaters and on VOD nationwide this weekend.
‘The Cobbler’ follows Max Simkin (Adam Sandler), a fourth generation shoe repairman who runs his family’s business on New York City’s Lower East Side. The shy and reclusive middle aged man lives with his mother (Lynn Cohen), as his father, Abraham (Dustin Hoffman), mysteriously disappeared from their lives years ago. So Max spends his days tirelessly repairing the shoes of his customers from the neighborhood, who are all going places he’d also rather be at. He considers his neighbor, Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), who owns a barber shop next to Max’s shoe repair store, as one of his only friends.
When Max’s shoe sole stitching machine unexpectedly breaks down as he’s finishing an important job for a local gangster, Ludlow (Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith), the title character is forced to replace it with an old family heirloom that his father kept in the store’s basement. He then shockingly discovers that his father’s stitching machine isn’t an ordinary appliance; when he tries on the shoes after he repaired them with Abraham’s machine, Max inexplicably transforms into the shoe’s rightful owner.
As Max initially has fun living different lifestyles vicariously through the shoes’ owners, a personal tragedy further pushes him away from his normal reality, and his life starts to spin out of control. He’s only able to redeem his name and live up to his full potential through his growing friendship with a local civic activist, Carmen (Melonie Diaz). As he learns to embrace the courage he has mustered from his new stitching machine and growing relationship with Carmen, Max attempts to correct the misgivings he has experienced. He also aims to reverse the distrust his entire neighborhood has towards such menacing community leaders as real estate mogul, Elaine Greenawalt (Ellen Barkin).
Sandler, Buscemi, Barkin and Method Man recently joined McCarthy during a press conference at The London Hotel NYC in Manhattan to talk about filming ‘The Cobbler.’ Among other things, the actors and filmmaker discussed that although New York’s Lower East Side, which is where they shot the comedy-drama, is one of the few areas of the city that still features traces of its old personality, they find it upsetting that it’s now being revitalized, although they understand development is inevitable; and how people’s personalities and lifestyles are reflected through the types of shoes they wear, which can also help others relate to, and understand, them.
Question (Q): For the actors, you’re all used to trying out other peoples’ lives for a living. What was it like exploring other people’s bodies? Did you think about the idea of getting into another person’s skin?
Adam Sandler (AS): It was very easy because once I put the shoes on, another actor came into the scene.
Method Man (MM): I haven’t thought about it, but I’ve wanted to put on other people’s shoes before, especially Adam’s shoes. But Tom walked me through the process, and I came to the assessment that I wasn’t trying to be Adam’s character; I was trying to be Adam in my character’s body.
Steve Buscemi (SB): Well, one of the first things I asked Tom was, “How is this process going to work?” He said “It’s your voice, and the person who steps into the shoes inhabits the body of the character who owns the shoes.” I was very nervous thinking about it, so I just had to stop thinking about it. It was pretty fun watching these guys play around with, and think about, that in their own different ways. I think we all got confused a bit, especially Dustin.
Thomas McCarthy (TM): I think (actor) Fritz (Weaver) was the only guy who understood it all.
Q: What was the process of finding the film’s locations here in New York-were there any specific places you wanted to use?
AS: The overall Lower East Side was great to shoot in, as a lot of my family is from the area. There’s good food and nice people in that area, which brought back memories for me. During the shoot, we would drive around New York and hang out with my parents. During that time, we would always talk about our memories, like my Grandma living in the area.
Ellen Barkin (EB): I think it was nice to shoot downtown on the Lower East Side, because in some ways it is the last place in the city that still looks like the New York I grew up in. You go into a very different part of New York in the East Village, so it was nostalgic in a lovely way. But it also angered me, as I walked around and thought, why don’t I live here anymore?
Q: Tom, you were nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the animated film ‘Up,’ which is about a helpless person whose house was taken over by big corporations. Is the idea of people battling to save their homes a topic you’re continuously interested writing about?
TM: I guess so, but I haven’t thought about that connection too much. I live in TriBeCa right now, and they’re ripping down these little buildings and building glass towers. But Ellen’s right-if you walk around the Lower East Side where we shot, there are still vestiges of its old personality, and it’s sad to see the city lose all that.
I understand development is inevitable. But it is sad when you think that we are losing all of this charm and texture that is the very reason we chose to live here I the first place. It was fun working it into the story and have a context for it, so that we could be lighthearted with it. With all of these shopkeepers, there something in the geek side of me that really appreciates it, as well as the process of exploring that with these wonderful actors.
Q: How have your views on filmmaking changed, since people can now watch movies on a smaller screen?
AS: I’m just excited for people to see this movie. I saw the movie on the big screen in Toronto during a film festival, and there were a lot of people in the room. It was neat because it played like a comedy, and there were a lot of laughs. It’s always fun watching films in the theater, as you get to hear people laugh, be on the same wave length as them and have a great time.
But the fact that you can also see the movie at home is great. You work hard to make the best movie you can, so you just want as many people to watch it as possible. As an actor who works hard at making movies, I think it’s great there are more options for people to see a movie now, especially since it’s hard to keep a theater for long. But I never want theaters to go away, as they’re the greatest places to go.
Q: With the film in part focusing on tenants’ relationships with their landlords, have any of you had tumultuous relationships with your landlords?
AS: My current landlord is always yelling at me, saying “Pay up. Where is your 250 bucks?” I’m like, “My wife’s got it.”
SB: I actually once talked my landlord down from rent. I knew that he was overcharging me, because I received the previous tenant’s rent notice in the mail, and it was still a hundred bucks less than what I was paying. But I ended up making a deal with him because I had two roommates, and he said I wasn’t supposed to have two roommates.
EB: I live on 12th street, right across from where the old St. Vincent’s was. So when I read the script, I had a very personal connection to the story, because I am watching the entire nature of my neighborhood change with one building being taken down. I don’t know if you can stop it from happening, but it feels terrible.
Most of the people on the block are all trying to get out as soon as they get in, which is an interesting thing to think about. It’s like what Adam was saying about the VOD platform. Yes, going to the movies is a great experience, but you’re not going to stop the evolution of the movie-watching process, now that there is a new way to watch them. I saw the movie both ways-I also saw it in Toronto, and I also watched it in my living room, and viewing it on both platforms felt the same way. If there’s an IMAX movie you want to see, then you want to go to the theater. But this movie held up beautifully on VOD and in the theater.
Q: Adam, if your character were to ask you for advice on how to be happier with his life, what would you tell him?
AS: How would I try, as Adam, to cheer up my character? I don’t know. I like that he is good at what he does-I can’t cobble as well as that guy. He also has a loving mom and their house, but also had to deal with the bills that she didn’t pay. I think the best thing he’s got going for him is the plastic on the couch. He doesn’t have to clean up if he spills. I’d just tell him “Everything is going to be alright, Max. Believe me. You’re a handsome man in a beard. Enjoy it.”
Q: Do you feel shoes offer insight into a person’s personality?
SB: When I was filming ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ there was a big controversy about my character’s shoes, because the ones that were designed for him weren’t from the right time period. With the shoes in the opening credits, I still have people come up to me and ask, “How could you walk in those shoes?”
MM: In my culture, shoes are more or less the first thing women look at. Women look at the build, and then they look at the shoes. If you don’t have nice shoes, you don’t have money. When I meet a lawyer, the first thing I look at are his shoes. If he has good shoes, he’s getting my money.
EB: As an actor, the first thing I ask for is my character’s shoes. It’s the first thing I work on with the costume designer, because they help show how grounded you are. I think your personality is reflected if you’re wearing Aldo’s or a six-inch heel.
Q: Have any of you had custom-made shoes?
EB: It feels like the most indulgent thing you could ever do. But when you do it, I thought I could give up five winter coats to do this again. I remember my grandfather had a pair of custom shoes, because he had a cobbler. But they feel good, as they trace your foot on a piece of paper, and then make the shoes especially for you.
SB: I did have a pair of boots made for me when I was filming ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ and they did trace my foot on a piece of paper. But those things hurt more than anything else. I could only wear them for one season, and then I said, “Please, I’m tired.” I don’t know what happened-they just didn’t work for me.
AS: I have custom orthopedics, which work well-I’m wearing them right now. I actually have a question: when I was growing up, you just wore one pair of sneakers to shreds. When were you allowed to get the next pair? My parents were just like, once a year.
EB: I got new sneakers once a year.
SB: I remember my first pair of sneakers were Flyers. The commercials for those were great: you felt you could jump higher.
MM: My first pair of sneakers was a pair of Paul McClydes.
SB: Come on! They were your first?
MM: They were my first.
SB: You were cool at that age.
MM: Before that, it was Buster Brown.
Q: What do you all think are the basic elements that turn a comedy into a classic?
TM: I don’t know. If there was an equation for that, there would be a lot of classics right now. I think it has something to do with being original and how it connects with the audience. Adam spends a lot more time in the comedy world than I do, and I think he might have more answers on that.
Whether it’s comedy or drama, or in this case a combo of both, our job is to keep telling stories and see where they land with audiences, especially since movies and shows have long lives now. I like collaborating with people and I love sharing stories with audiences, but then I let go of the films once they’re released, and what happens, happens.
AS: To me, it helps to have Steve Buscemi here. Whenever I’m making a new movie, my mother always says to me, “Oh, is Steve Buscemi in it?” If I say, “Yeah,” she responds by saying, “Oh, then it’s going to be a good one.” But when I say Steve’s not in a film I’m making, she says, “Oh.”
Q: Tom, what message, if any, did you want to convey in terms of race in the film?
TM: Ultimately, I don’t know if I had a message to convey. I was just trying to reflect the New York around me. We had a light-hearted approach to a lot of the themes in the movie, in terms of development, race and heritage. So, I can’t say that I had a specific message, other than trying to represent a little bit of what’s around me. We all talked about who was playing other characters throughout the film.
But overall, it was really more about character and storyline than anything else. I wish I had a deeper answer to that, but it was really trying to be true to the characters as much as possible. So, when you live in New York City, that experience naturally comes out, which is one of the great things about living here. When you go to the Lower East Side, you see every race, sex, heritage and country represented, which is so great about the city.
Q: With so many diverse actors in the film, Dustin Hoffman has a reputation of being one of the eccentric ones. So who in the cast really made people laugh the most or goof off the most?
AS: Cliff (Samara) brought a great energy to the set. Ellen made me laugh all day-every other word was “f this” and “f that!” I loved it.
TM: Certainly, no one up here liked Dan Stevens. (laughs) No, he was a terrifically likeable guy. When you write a really wacky story like this, and get to call all these great actors and sit down with them and say, “Hey, let’s go try and do this,” it’s a great privilege. You really get to have a lot of fun, and we all worked really hard on it. We care a lot about the story, and I think we all feel lucky to have had the chance to work together on the film.
Adam has a way of quietly leading that way. He’s been doing that for a while, because he’s good at it and works very hard, so he sets the bar. Plus you have Dustin walking in being eccentric, but he only acts that way because he cares so much about everything. We had a day of rehearsal, and he just cared about every beat and moment. It was really inspiring to watch a guy who’s been working that hard for so long bring it to our film.
Q: Tom, what was the process of working with some of the women in the cast who couldn’t attend today?
TM: Well, we were a little restricted by how many women we could cast as characters who Adam switched places with, as the shoes were a 10 and a half in a man’s size. But we featured a few terrific actresses who were separate from that aspect of the story. One is Melonie Diaz, who’s from the Lower East Side-she grew up and started acting there. But she’s working in Boston today, so she couldn’t be here. They’re working actresses who we loved having on the set, as they’re a lot of fun.
Melonie’s character has a straightforward eagerness and relentless positive energy of really trying to fight the system, which I found very appealing. She certainly connected with that character, since she’s from that neighborhood herself.
Q: Steve, what was the process of stepping away from Nucky Thompson after ‘Boardwalk Empire’ ended last year?
SB: It was hard to say goodbye to that character, but I also feel like I don’t know where we could’ve gone if we shot more seasons. I felt like five seasons were just the perfect amount of time for the show. But I loved playing the character and I certainly miss him, but it was time to move on.
Q: After the series ended, have you deliberately been looking to play different roles?
SB: Well, I don’t usually get offered roles in that genre, so it wasn’t like I said, “No, I don’t do that type of character anymore.” It was a real privilege to play Nucky, but I like playing all kinds of characters. I was thrilled when I got the call from Adam and Tom star in this film, but I don’t really think about it what types of characters I want to play. I just see what kind of work my life leads to, and have fun.
TM: When I was casting, Adam, and Paul and I were talking about who we would pick for the role of Jimmy. Adam asked us who we were thinking about, and I said I was really thinking about Steve, not realizing that these guys had known each other forever. It really paid off because they had a history together, and sometimes you forget that these guys are used to working at such a high level. So it’s cool to see where their careers intersect like that, and it was fun to watch them act together.
EB: Tom sent me the script, and I said yes before I even read the script. I think there are certain directors who, when they approach you with a role, you automatically say yes because of the movies they’ve made in the past, as well as their reputation.
SB: Like what Ellen just said, it’s about the movies Tom has made in the past. I was also thrilled to work with this cast.
Q: The movie features very tight scenes. Were there any frames you wish you kept longer, like between Dustin and Adam?
TM: I don’t think we lost anything; I think we had a pretty tight script and story, which was what was represented on screen. I can’t honestly recall, but I don’t think there’s anything we lost. There are things you always have let go of in the editing room, and it’s hard because you really love the characters and the nuance. But the movie had its own unique drive, so I was just trying to remain truthful and faithful to that.
Written by: Karen Benardello