The Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, quickly emerged on the independent scene, specializing in eclectic, street-level NYC portraiture that incorporates non-actors and unexpected stylistic choices. After attending Boston University together, the Safdies made their debut with 2008’s The Pleasure Of Being Robbed (directed and co-written by Josh, co-edited by Benny), which tracks the compulsions of a curious thief. They followed that up the next year with Daddy Longlegs, a more ambitious attempt at comedy-drama. They also made the deeply unconventional documentary Lenny Cooke, which uses a jumble of new and old footage and a complex soundtrack to capture the essence of an NBA prospect whose hoop dreams were tragically derailed by personal mistakes and professional misfortune.
But the Safdies stand to break through in a big way with Heaven Knows What, a stunning impression of NYC heroin junkies, based on the life of its star, Arielle Holmes. Holmes plays Harley, an addict caught up in a volatile relationship with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), despite his own spiraling addiction and violent tendencies. When Mike (Buddy Duress), a dealer, takes a romantic interest in Harley, it sets up a rivalry that’s nearly as dangerous as feeding their insatiable drug habits. The Safdies recently spoke to The Dissolve about their blend of reality and fiction, the significance of time in capturing characters who live by the hour, and how they intuit whether a non-professional can act.
The Dissolve: Heaven Knows What played at the True/False Film Festival, which specializes in films—mostly documentary, some features—that confuse the distinction between reality and fiction. Where does the film stand?
Josh Safdie: Our intention was to fictionalize, and when I say fictionalize, I don’t mean just redo it on camera, but with all the nuance fiction brings. From the get-go, when we were talking to our sales team and original press, I always saw this film in a fiction context. So when Radius told us they wanted to do True/False… obviously, we work in the tradition of hybrid films. I’m very interested in those films. We took a class at BU with Ted Barron, who was a Ray Carney disciple, which was called “Pseudo Documentary,” with movies like Coming Apart and The Connection—
Benny Safdie: And David Holzman’s Diary.
Josh: These are movies that really shaped the way we make movies, so of course I’m interested in the hybrid. Of course I’m interested in reality mixed in with documentary. Because I think in 150 years, or 2,000 years, when we’re all gone, and all we have left are DVDs and files—hopefully without the “magnetic catastrophe”—some intelligent life force is going to come across movies, and they’re going to see Heaven Knows What. They’re not going to say, “That’s an actor, and that’s not an actor,” and “This is real and that’s not real.” They’re just going to watch it, and treat it with the value it has. They’re going to look at it for the value it’s worth, which is expressing what this type of life felt like. That there were humans on the planet that act this way and feel this way. When Radius asked us if we wanted to play True/False, we said, “Of course,” because we’d heard such great things about it. But my instinct was to kind of shy away, because I do really like framing this movie in a more fictional context.
The Dissolve: Lenny Cooke would have been perfect for that festival, too.
Benny: It’s funny, because we approached that documentary in the same way. We were fictionalizing reality. The documentary world didn’t jibe well with that movie. We were messing with the timeline, we were re-creating events. We were using multiple different takes from different times. It really did throw off the reality of things. But in the end, what you get is the true emotion Lenny experienced. And here, it’s the same kind of thing. Yes, some things aren’t exactly how they happened to her, and there were a lot of things that were made up, but what you’re getting at is how she felt. Yeah, Lenny Cooke would have been good there.
Josh: Benny has always talked about how the documentary community has ostracized Lenny Cooke for some weird, unspoken reason.
Benny: It kind of felt like we were hit by a documentary mafia in a weird way. It was like, “Look, we’re not going to let this one slide. You did too much wrong.” We don’t know why. If you go onto Twitter at any moment and search for “Lenny Cooke,” there’s a constant conversation happening about it. And black America has really taken to that movie, which is the beauty of it. It’s the online Twitter community, not the cinephilic community, where people talk about the filmmakers and auteurs. It’s almost primary-source moviemaking, and I actually think there’s a genre of films that Lenny Cooke falls right into. It’s this type of movie that gets uploaded in full to YouTube, despite the fact that Showtime and ESPN released it. People look at Lenny Cooke like it was literally an hour-and-a-half tape that somebody discovered, and it was untouched and unedited. People are like, “Amazing, I can’t believe this thing exists.” This subverting of reality makes people feel something even deeper.
The Dissolve: Let’s get into the new film. Josh, in the New York magazine piece on Arielle Holmes, you describe her as someone who “exists in hours.” Was that the prevailing aesthetic of the film?
Josh: The reason I think the film is a success as a viewer is the way we were able to temporally work. It’s the way time is felt in the movie, and the way drama actually induces and speeds up time. [Albert] Einstein has that incredible quote when he was describing relativity. It was something like, “The way I describe relativity to the normal person is an hour spent with a hand on the stove is a lot longer than an hour spent next to a girl you’re trying to hook up with.” When I first heard that as a teenager, that kind of flipped my wig a little bit, because I hate time. I really do. I don’t like being reminded of it. I try not to be nostalgic.
And this group of people that the movie focuses on, time is… that’s why the title is “heaven.” Heaven is an allusion to the future. It’s where you go when time is over. There’s something to the way these group of people decide to pass their time. They infuse drama into their lives in order to give their lives purpose. Arielle just had a way of treating time that was very, very refreshing. She acted like there was no such thing as time, and it was really just what’s happening right now. With drugs and heroin specifically, you have a four-hour window. It’s more like eight hours if you really want to get extreme, or if you have a really bad addiction when you need to cop again. It’s usually every four hours with a real dope habit. You’re shooting up every four hours. Or if you’re on methadone, the methadone lasts throughout the day. But there’s something about breaking your life up into these hours, and all that matters is what happens in the next hour. That was very interesting to me.
And then, if you look at a movie, which on average is an hour and a half, and you look at movies in general in terms of their purpose in society, movies are a really fucked up and perverted art form. We all love movies because we like to look at our own likeness, and we’re all voyeurs deep down inside. But movies also give so many people in life a sense of purpose, because we go and inject drama or maybe comedy into your veins, and into your brains. And we walk out, and we talk about the movies, and we think about the movies, and the good ones last for a long time, and the bad ones barely last the run-time. But there’s something to be said about an hour and a half of time. We actually wanted to make this one as short as possible for that reason.
Benny: There’s something very intriguing to being completely unshackled. I can live in the now, but my grandmother and her friend said they were very struck by how frightening it was that these people didn’t have any past or any future. I can relate to that in a way, because to me, it’s frightening to live with the idea of not having that. That fear is also baked into the film.
The Dissolve: When you discovered Arielle, how did you know she could really act? How did you find that out?
Benny: Josh actually showed me a video he shot of her. This wasn’t the first time they met. This was just one of the videos. He took pictures and videos. He shot a video at a Chinese restaurant, and he said, “You don’t mind if I film you?” and she kind of looked up, kind of smiled, and goes, “Nah, that’s all right.” And she just went back to what she was doing with complete disregard to the camera. She was so comfortable.
Josh: It’s a deeper question to ask yourself: “What makes a star?” It’s something we look for all the time when we try to cast real people, and give them their first acting role. There’s something completely ineffable that I can not sit here and describe to you, why I have an instinct that someone could be a good actor. I’ve only struck out once with somebody where I thought they had it, and they really did not have it. And it was actually because I met them when they were drunk, and then when they showed up to film a really small thing, they were sober, and they were horrendous. And I was just like, “Okay!” That was in Daddy Longlegs. But that was the only time. Actually, Abel Ferrara ended up playing that role.
I can’t tell you. I don’t know what it is. I think with Arielle, it was the way she carried herself. It was the way there was insanity around her, and she was just calmly leaving the Diamond District for the day, and swiping her Metro card. And the way she carried herself down the stairs. There was just something to her that reeked of composure, but mixed with this complete instability, so that there was a conundrum there, which really is acting, if you think about it. Acting is controlled chaos, because you’re talking about being somebody, but having order to that being. It’s completely ridiculous, but at the same time not. It’s just intuitive, I don’t know. Intuition is the short answer.
Benny: It can be seeing how they walk. It can be seeing how somebody lives. You can tell if they’re going to be a good actor just by how they relate and interact with other people.
The Dissolve: Given where she was in terms of her recovery or addiction at that point, how did you get to a point where you felt that she and the cast could deliver without risking the entire production falling apart?
Josh: This might sound crazy, but there was never once a thought process like what you just described. It never existed. It was not blind faith. It was just a cosmic faith that we could get it done. The only thing that I was afraid of while we made the movie was Buddy [Duress] being arrested, because I knew that he had a few warrants and was on the run. I just feared every day. We asked ourselves at the end of every day, “If he were to get arrested tonight, do we have enough movie of him to make the edit work?” In terms of everything else, I don’t know. I was friendly with these people, and everybody was so invested. Everybody was so genuinely invested in the project, everybody, that I didn’t ever sense it was going to falter in that sense. But I was concerned about Buddy going to jail. And he ended up going to jail about 12 hours after we finished.
Benny: Look, I don’t want to make it sound like this was easy in any way, shape or form. The whole thing was very difficult. But the movie would not have been possible logistically if it couldn’t have fallen apart at any moment. That energy plays into the whole thing.
The Dissolve: How does that work? We talked about True/False, and we talked about trying to find ways for real life to be blended into a narrative, which the film has to some degree. How do you work that out? How much do you have planned beforehand, and then how much do you let the actors and the environment and these sort of things bleed into it?
Josh: Because of the insane working conditions of the film, we had to have a very strict schedule. With some of the scenes, we had such strict blocking and parameters for dialogue that sometimes we were extremely rigid, and other times we were unbelievably free. A lot of the stuff isn’t in the movie, but we often allowed multiple cameras. We had two cameras shooting a lot of the time, and we often shot… I would go up to Buddy, and I would tell him during lunch break, “Go up to Arielle and call her ‘Harley’ when you’re talking to her, and talk about X, talk about Y.” That was purely documentary, and basically every time we did something like that, it did produced a very interesting piece of footage. But we never ended up using it in the movie, because we had a strict structure, and we didn’t really have the luxury of improvising.
Benny: And just to go back to that idea of time, because we were kind of picking this period of life we were going to be referencing, anything that felt emotionally out of sync with that immediacy didn’t work in the movie. Forty-five or 50 minutes of the movie had to be edited out because of that. It was good stuff. It just took place at a different time. Time became the weird narrative. Time and emotion kind of became one thing.
The Dissolve: At times, the soundtrack eerie and discordant. At other times, it’s quite beautiful. It’s rare for a film with this sort of realist bent to have a soundtrack that’s pushed so much to the fore. What was your strategy for the sound of the film?
Josh: Aside from the few, almost non-diegetic pieces of music—even though that really aggressive electronic hard-style music that they feature in the trailer isn’t diegetic—it’s diegetic in the sense that it’s in her brain. It might as well have been playing out in stone. That Hardstyle track and the Black Metal track she listens to when she’s checking her Facebook. Aside from those two pieces of music, Ronny [Bronstein] who’s one of the co-editors and co-writers of the movie, we sat down and talked about the music of the film, and when he started editing, he instinctively went to [Isao] Tomita, which was something we talked about. We talked about romance. The presence of romance in this movie is almost overbearing. It’s a danger. We wanted a really romantic piece of music. And we wanted something in a certain romantic tradition—which is most iconically Bach. To me, it would seem very maudlin to have a classical piece of music, but we wanted something classical in nature. So we turned to Tomita. He’s a Japanese electronic artist. His interpretation of Claude Debussy, which is the romantic music probably ever made, is almost unrecognizable. People recognize the “Claire De Lune” track. Frank Sinatra gave an interview with Johnny Carson and asked him what music he puts on to set a romantic mood, and he said, “Engulfed Cathedral” by Claude Debussy. That’s the piece of music that’s playing when Harley and Ilya rejoice, and they’re like basically fucking on the cement. Except it’s done through Tomita using instruments, which are like alien instruments. We wanted an electrified night-time vibe. We wanted Times Square. We’re slobs over snobs, always.
Benny: The other thing is that leading up through the hospital, there’s so much music. We scale back even a little in the beginning. There’s a moment right before Ilya comes back screaming Harley’s name and she’s lighting up her cigarette, you don’t hear music. You just kind of hear the city, and you hear some things happening in the park. Creating that kind of separation between when there’s music and when there isn’t was equally as important, because it creates a totally different mood and a completely different feeling.
Josh: The music becomes a fix in a weird way, just as Ilya becomes a fix.
Benny: It’s weird to see her running toward Mike and not have music. You can just hear her footsteps and the sound of the street. That becomes its own kind of music.