‘Safe Spaces’ a movie for post-#MeToo times

From left, Josh Cohn (Justin Long), Evie Cohn (Emily Schechter) and Jackie Cohn (Kate Berlant) in "Safe Spaces."
From left, Josh Cohn (Justin Long), Evie Cohn (Emily Schechter) and Jackie Cohn (Kate Berlant) in "Safe Spaces." Photo Credit: Library Hotel by Library Hotel Collection

In "Safe Spaces," adjunct professor Josh (Justin Long) finds himself navigating a post-#MeToo world following a controversial exchange he has in the classroom. In the midst of this, his grandmother’s health is failing and his estranged relationship with his father (Richard Schiff) worsens. But the biggest challenge he faces is getting out of his own way and letting his defensive nature go.

For writer-director Daniel Schechter (“Life of Crime”), this "quasi-autobiographical" film was an opportunity to dive into his own behavior amid this climate.

"It feels good that I wanted to have some voice in it [even] if it’s me finding a flaw in my own behavior," Schechter said. "…I hope to keep doing stuff that might touch on this in a way that feels authentic and honest to people. And not just sycophantic."

amNewYork sat down with Schechter, Long and Schiff to discuss the film, currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

A lot of men have said that this is a time to reflect, examine their behavior and most of all listen. Has this specific time changed what stories you want to tell as artists?

Daniel Schechter: I think this movie is a good example of that. It was interesting when we were interviewing people to work on the crew. … There was a lot of white guys who came in and they were mad. They thought the movie was a takedown of anti-white male culture. I said, "Man, I don’t want to be like those guys." It was a good mirror that got held up and made me say, "Okay, I want to distance myself away from that kind of defensiveness as much as possible…" I am proud that I made a movie about this subject matter.

Richard Schiff: I always want to tell stories that are truthful to this odd world we live in. I don’t find “Raging Bull” any less informative than this movie. “Raging Bull” changed my life. Why? Because I saw the behavior of a man that was out of control with jealous rage that made me look at myself in a way that made me change. Watching characters who are steeped in the swamp is informative because it’s behavior that’s truthful. These men exist and they can’t escape the capsule that they came into the world with. Most of us are stuck and that’s why we can’t figure out how to navigate the changes that are happening in this world.

Justin Long: So much of it has to do with a lack of empathy. I’ve been very lucky because I was born a white guy and am privileged enough to not have to struggle to eat. You have to have empathy. It’s not what the movie has taught me but I hope that’s the take-away from the movie.

We live in a society where sometimes nuance does get lost in the conversation, especially when discussing topics like #MeToo and diversity. Do you worry about how you’re seen in these little sound bites of time?

Schechter: I think we live in a society where you just can’t give Twitter or audiences the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to be pumped to have a really gray, nuanced view about something. We didn’t want to spoon-feed the movie either because that does a disservice to both sides. So yeah, I think our backs are up a little bit. It’s not a world where it seems like people are excited about a middle ground.

Long: Twitter also relies on fewer words. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance in the Twitter-sphere or sound bite culture, so yeah, I think we’re all aware of that.

When you were writing this were you going against the impulse to shy away from those gray moments?

Schechter: Obviously, this is some version of who I am. So, I don’t want to stack the deck too heavily in his favor, although you want to consciously monitor your character [as] lovable. I wanted to give the students or his colleagues or family members moments of perspective that he wouldn’t have. It was hard to walk that line — I didn’t want it to feel like, "Oh, this poor well-meaning guy." I wanted to acknowledge in myself how defensive I can be and explore that and say I think that’s something that’s relevant and helpful to look at.

Long: That was a fear of mine as well that it would be, "Oh, woe is me" with this straight white male.

Josh, for the most part,isn’t having many productive conversations because he’s defensive. How was it to play a character like that?

Long: I tried to approach it the way I would any other part, which is to find the truth in it and play the intentions as truthfully as I could. I like in the beginning the audience sees what a good teacher he is and that’s also his downfall. He is so eager to express these ideas to these kids and to create an environment where ideas can be freely discussed and cultivated. And I think that’s how he gets in his own way when it comes to stepping back and being empathetic to whoever else was exposed to those ideas.

The film shows the little rituals that New York provides for people going through grief. What are your New York rituals?

Schiff: I grew up here and I’m a walker, so I walk everywhere. I always am like a magnet drawn to Central Park because my childhood and my early adulthood, I played softball. There are some guys that I played with and are still out there. I went on Thursday with the Broadway Show League, which I used to be a ringer for, and sure enough, I see six, seven people that are still playing, so that was my subculture. You know, like some people roller-skate to music in the park and there are all these little subcultures in the city that I love.

Schechter: I have a Citi Bike rack and I take it up First Avenue and I go to the AMC, park the bike right there as well, and I go see movies. That is a routine that I adore and feels like such a special part of my life. This exact perfect route door to door using what modern New York is. It doesn’t have any of this ancient ritual of the greenness of what the city has to offer but for me, it’s pretty fun.

Long: I love food so much. I love soup dumplings so I go to Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street. It’s an excellent dumpling house.


"Safe Spaces" screens at the Tribeca Film Festival on Tuesday, 9 p.m., and Friday, 6:30 p.m., at Regal Cinemas Battery Park; Saturday, 9 p.m., at Village East Cinema | tribecafilm.com