'The Cobbler': Thomas McCarthy Reveals the Strategy Behind Adam Sandler's Magic Shoes
"We were constantly worried that someone was gonna find mistakes in the logic. People really geek out on that."
In The Cobbler, Adam Sandler plays Max Simkin, an unhappy man who inherits his estranged father's shoe-repair business and uses a magical machine to literally walk in someone else's shoes. That means dining in Harlem as a black man and strolling through Chinatown as a Chinese guy.
"I'm really proud that the movie does feel like the New York that a lot of us know, and is so quickly disappearing," director and co-writer Thomas McCarthy tells The Hollywood Reporter of the RLJE and Image Entertainment title, now in limited theaters and on VOD. "Yes, it is a melting pot, but we all know there are certain neighborhoods where everyone has their comfort zone. … And that's the cool thing about it too."
A jumping blend between drama, comedy and fantasy, the film also stars Steve Buscemi, Ellen Barkin, Dustin Hoffman and Method Man — many of whom portrayed each other's characters. While shooting, "Dustin and Steve kept getting confused, and then we had to do it all over again!"
THR spoke with McCarthy about finding when fantasy goes too far, keeping the Cobbler logic straight and portraying the New York City that its locals know and love.
How did you navigate the film's complicated fantasy aspect?
Paul [Sado, my co-writer,] and I were constantly discussing it: how far can we go? What we decided is that if the audience was invested in Max Simkin and the choices and the consequences made sense, then we'd be on safe ground. We focused on trying to find the reality in this, and not getting swept up in the magic. We were constantly worried that someone was gonna find mistakes in the logic. People really geek out on that. We filled in logic gaps by saying that with the magic machine, there's a lot more to get out of it if you know how to use it.
This movie jumps into different genres the way Sandler jumps into different pairs of shoes.
That's one of the reasons I was most excited to do the project. We didn't start with that intention, but we found that there were segments in the movie that, in tone and genre, were shifting suddenly, just as he was exploring his life and new ability. It made it a fun challenge for the cinematographer, the production designer and the actors, to find the truth in all these different moments. And when we screened this in Toronto, we had this great audience, and they just went with the ride of the movie. They were enjoying the turns and twists.
In one sequence, Sandler is ecstatic to dine in Harlem when he's black and stroll through Chinatown when he's Asian. Why include that?
He felt like he was part of something different in a way, part of a culture. I'm really proud that the movie does feel like the New York that a lot of us know, and is so quickly disappearing. Yes, it is a melting pot, but we all know there are certain neighborhoods where everyone has their comfort zone, and that can be broken down in a lot of ways. I thought, what would it be like to walk through Chinatown as a Chinese person? Obviously, a very different experience than mine; it just is. To walk through the tenements as an African-American as opposed to being a white guy — I did that with my DP and a couple other people and some of them walked up to us and said, "Are you guys lost?"
New York, it's an incredibly integrated city, but to a certain extent — there are still certain majorities in certain neighborhoods, and that's the cool thing about it too. There's a community in Queens that is specific to one African country — that's awesome.
What was the best and worst part of making this film?
The trickiest thing was at times just keeping track of it all. We shot the entire thing in the Lower East Side very quickly and really kept our budget down, but we rehearsed for a few weeks before shooting for a few reasons: so the actors could get acquainted with each other, and get it straight who is in whose body in a scene. Dustin Hoffman and Steve Buscemi kept getting confused, and then we had to do it all over again!
But a great thing was when we were shooting in the projects in the Lower East Side with Method Man. He's like a superhero there. Anywhere he would go, people just kept walking in the shot to talk to the guy, and because our budget wouldn't let us lock down the area to shoot, we just had to roll with it. Every other person was suddenly coming out and blasting Wu-Tang, and the energy on that day was great.