Josh and Benny Safdie make singular movies about singular people. The New York-based brothers and filmmakers take a vérité view of life at its most volatile, making films of both unbearable pain and irrepressible joy. Their breakthrough second feature, Daddy Long Legs, gave us two tumultuous weeks in the life of the world’s best single father who can’t help but be the worst—or maybe it’s the other way around. Their latest, Heaven Knows What, is the partly fictionalized account of Arielle Holmes, a real-life homeless heroin addict playing herself in what may be the acting discovery of the year. I talked to the Safdies by Skype from Venice following the film’s world premiere to discuss the genesis of the project, the challenges of working with a nonprofessional and how they avoided charges of exploitation.
[Editor’s note: Josh and Benny Safdie are FIX-featured filmmakers and Heaven Knows What plays the New York Film Festival, which begins Friday, September 26, 2014.]
Calum Marsh: How are you guys?
Josh Safdie: Okay, you know. Venice is such a grand place as a city, and then the festival…it’s strangely overwhelming, but also strangely intimate. You get to touch Al Pacino and bump into Tim Roth. It’s a strange experience, always. And, uh, really decadent and expensive. The celebrity culture here extends to all the filmmakers too, it’s weird: everyone’s got photographs of you and they want your autograph, and you can’t even tell if they really know who you are. It’s very strange — humbling but also extremely unhealthy to the ego. I think the most surreal experience for people here is seeing Arielle walk the red carpet with Caleb. It’s a really strange experience for her. It’s beautiful, is really what it is. She’s a star, man. And seeing the way she’s handling herself…even our press people out here are saying that if you didn’t know better, you’d think Caleb was the nonprofessional and that Arielle was the superstar.
Marsh: She’s an intense screen presence.
Josh: She’s a very intense person.
Benny Safdie: It’s her eyes—she says so much with a look. There’s moments in the film when she’ll just do something with a look, or a smile, and it’s like she’s said thirty thousand words. I’m thinking in the ATM scene in particular, she just looks at him and smiles and it’s like, ‘You don’t even know.’
Josh: Calum, also, thanks for your kind words about the film.
Marsh: My pleasure.
Josh: To be honest, Calum, all I really want is for people to see this movie and say, ‘Holy fucking shit.’ That’s what Kent Jones said when he saw it for the first time. Benny just almost broke a table. Of course the deep readings are obviously welcomed and that’s an important part of this process, but I’m a guttural person and I want a guttural response. If it was negative, Calum, I would never talk to you again. But seeing what you wrote felt good so I wasn’t angry about it.
Marsh: I’d seen and liked all of your films, of course—I love The Black Balloon especially. But this feels like a step forward.
Josh: This is a huge step for us. We wanted to make an opera, and I think we succeeded. The risk was unbelievably huge, though. I consider myself a gambling man, and when you hit it it’s a great feeling. Whenever I play the craps table—and I love to play craps, it’s like that Woody Allen line, ‘I look really sexy shooting craps’ or something like that—I always bet hard eight, because four is my lucky number, and I always hit. And I definitely feel like we hit it here.
Marsh: So I’ve been told that the story of how this film came together is really something. Do you want just run through that for me?
Josh: I’ve been asked that question many times, and there’s a long version and an abbreviated version. I’ll try to something in the middle. So we were developing for almost two and a half years a film that went through a couple of producers’ hands in Hollywood, and they were trying to get us to work with certain stars we weren’t inspired by. It was a very frustrating experience and process. To maintain sanity, I was going about things the way I go about them, which is immersing myself in the deepest possible research. Last summer, I had been in the Diamond District in New York five days a week. I dressed differently, I wore jewelry, I palled around with some pretty scummy people. I was even pawning Rolexes at one point. I was there a lot, doing some heavy, heavy research. Very deep in it. Some of them knew it was for a film, some of them were sorta skeptical and didn’t really know it was about. As part of the research, I would go at the beginning of the work day and experience it as it unfolded and then I would leave at the end of the workday.
One day I was leaving the Diamond District and I was walking into the subway with the masses of people, and I was with (producer) Sebastian. I turned to my right and looked and saw this girl trying to swipe her Metrocard in. She was dressed in a really nice dress. I said to Sebastian, ‘That’s the most beautiful girl in the world.’ He said yeah she’s pretty great looking. And I said, ‘No, no, that’s the most beautiful girl in the world, period. That is a star, right there.’ But I didn’t know what role she could be. I could already tell she was too young for the lead role, and Hollywood was always telling us, ‘You have to put a name, it has to be a name’. So I gathered up enough courage to talk to her, and I swear I thought she spoke Russian, so I was ready to speak broken English. I grew up in a home of broken English so it wasn’t hard for me to speak that way.
So I went up and I said, ‘Oh, excuse me, I just wanted to talk to you for a second,’ and she responds with her harsh Jersey accent, ‘What? Excuse me?’ And I said, ‘Oh, you speak English?’ And she said, ‘Of course I speak English.’ She said her name is Arielle. I told her my name was Josh and that I was making a film in the Diamond District. I told her I didn’t know what role we’d have for her but I knew we were gonna find something for her to do. I said do you wanna talk more about this?’ She said she had to go downtown now, to run to a doctor or something, but that we could talk next week and figure something out. She said she’d always kind of thought about acting. So a week passed and she called me and said, ‘This is Ari, who you met on the subway.’
And I said ‘Oh hey, what’s up. I’m so glad you called me.’ She asked if we wanted to get together that night for some dinner. And I was like, ‘Oh sure,’ but I didn’t quite know if she was asking me romantically or what. But I knew I wanted to get her involved somehow. I asked her where she lived and she said Chinatown. I said, ‘Oh I used to live in Chinatown, where in Chinatown?’ She said, ‘Oh, Essex Street.’ I said ‘Oh I used to live on Madison and Rutgers, where on Essex?’ And she’s like, ‘uhhhh…,’ she kept pausing, and then she’d be giving me a street name: ‘Hester,’ and I’d say ‘Oh I know Hester, what building?’ And so on. We agreed to meet in Chinatown, but at the time I assumed she was a Diamond District assistant, and they like to be wined and dined—money means a lot to them.
So I showed up, again, in my character, with jewelry, ready to spend money that I don’t have. I show up in my car and I see her on the side of the street, and I was like, is that her?! She’s dressed completely differently. Something was fucked up here. She looked like a street kid, and immediately I knew something was up here, that she was some kind of weird girl who leads a double life. She was kind of standing there and nodding a little bit, and I thought, well she’s either tired or she’s a drug addict, a junkie. I don’t ask and I take her into the restaurant. And we’re talking and we’re talking. She keeps telling me about this kid, Ilya: Ilya this, Ilya that, as if I knew him. And I could tell already there was a sort of cult at play. I was intrigued already, because I’m into this Manson family crap.
Eventually she says, ‘Look I’ve got to admit something to you. I don’t live on Essex street. I’m homeless.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, you’re homeless, that’s something.’ But I could tell she was so smart. She was also obsessed with the Joker, and I’ve always been in love with the Joker character. We were able to bond over the Heath Ledger performance. She’d never seen the original Batman, the Tim Burton version, which was incredible to me. So I said, ‘Look, Ari, I want to keep meeting with you. We’ll figure it out.’ I immediately took a picture of her and told her I’d try to get her some work in the meantime. Because she told me she wasn’t making money in the Diamond District, she was just an apprentice doing jewelry design. She was nineteen years old and not earning any money. She had told me a little bit about her mom, who had just died. So she wasn’t one of these kids who choose to be on the street—she had no other options.
So I decided to show her picture around to get her some work. We meet up again and I keep learning about her and about Ilya. I got her a job in Richard Kern music video that paid $300 or something, a lot of money for anyone really, but for her a huge amount of money. Richard calls and says, ‘Hey, she never responded to me, I emailed her a bunch of times.’ Which was strange because she told me she was going to do it. But she never showed up. I tried calling her but she never answered, her phone was disconnected. And I thought, well, I guess this is how it is with these people, sometimes they’re up and sometimes they’re down.
Two or three weeks passed and I finally get a call from a payphone. She says, ‘Hey Josh, it’s Ari.’ I asked her what happened with the job. ‘I know I know I know’, she says. ‘I just got out of the hospital.’ I met up with her and she had a huge bandage around her left wrist. I said, what happened? And she said, ‘I tried to kill myself.’ And I was like, ‘What?,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, and Ilya basically made me do it.’ She had just gotten out of Bellevue. That’s when the focus of our movie started to change from this Diamond District movie. In the fall we were doing one last push to raise the money for the movie we were working on, Uncut Gems. I was talking to an actor, a friend of ours, Vincent Gallo, and he was trying to convince us that we’d never get the movie made. So I showed him this picture of Ari, who at this point I’d known for a few months. He said, ‘This girl is incredible, you’ve got to make a movie around her.’ And I said, you know what, you’re right, you’re absolutely right. So we started to commissioned her to write about her life. I’d already heard all of her stories verbally, but I wanted to see her perspective, her insight, what she romanticized, what she didn’t, what was horrific to her. We got the first ten pages of her memoirs, and we knew we had it, something very cinematic on our hands, an opera. So we started adapting.
Marsh: That’s incredible.
Josh: [Laughs.] Yeah. I had done little filmings with her here and there and she was very natural around the camera. I remember setting up the first shot and asking if she minded if we filmed her, and she just threw these eyes at the camera and I was like, nope, she does not mind.
Marsh: What was the process of working with Arielle?
Josh: The real process began when we started to give her little scenarios to act out. We started to fly in actors from L.A. to see who would play Ilya, because we knew from the get go that we wanted to put a real actor in that role. It was that cult element, that idea that everyone knows him. And I don’t watch a lot of teen movies, but Caleb was considered a teen actor. I was on all the blogs reading about all the boys these kids love, and Caleb kept popping up. But I really didn’t notice him until our casting director suggested him to me. We’d been meeting with a lot of teen actors, but even though Caleb was twenty-three years old she said that we really needed to meet him. He had a reputation for obsessively immersing himself into roles. Luckily his agent was very aware of Daddy Long Legs, and Caleb had told his agent that he wanted to do strong-minded films, he didn’t want to do Godzilla. It was funny, at a screening in Venice yesterday Frances McDormand and Joel Coen were sitting ten seats away from us. Joel reached over and grabbed Caleb, and I’d totally forgotten that Caleb was in No Country for Old Men—that was his first role. It kind of came full circle for me, we have one half this brother directing team that we can’t avoid comparison to looking at Caleb and congratulating him. But I’m sidetracking myself. The process for Arielle was really introducing elements of the fiction into her life.
Benny: It started out as a kind of reality, documenting her life. That was part of the reason to use tripods and long lenses and everything, to add this element of hyperfictionalization of everything that was gonna happen. She was gonna have to really act and do things that never really happened to her, but that resonated emotionally with the story. The process really stemmed from that idea, of making the world seem hyperreal.
Marsh: How receptive was she to that fictionalization of her own life?
Josh: She was interested in what we were trying to do. Sometimes, she’d say ‘But it never happened like this,’ and we’d explain to her what we were trying to do, to say something bigger about the world.’ And she’d be like, ‘Oh, okay.’ The only movie I showed her before making the movie was Zulawski’s Possession. That was the only movie I’d showed her. She strangely had a very vast film knowledge, but when it came to drug movies I wasn’t going to show her Panic in Needle Park or something. I showed her Possession because I wanted her to understand that we wanted to show how her insides feel rather than how her outsides are.
Marsh: Were you ever concerned about the danger of exploitation?
Josh: No, because that wasn’t our concern. You have to remember, by the time we started filming, all these people knew me as Josh, the guy who lives in Harlem. I would be on the streets so much. By the time we started filming I was basically one of them. Obviously that’s an obnoxious thing to say because I have a fucking home and I have a life too, but there was no exploitation.
Benny: We’re not looking down on them, and we’re not judging them. By not making any judgement, you’re putting the view of the world as it is. It can be a dark place. And it can be a hard thing to see at times, and the thing is that it comes from not having that exploitive, judgmental view. We’re not going in so far the other direction that it doesn’t come off like a complete hellhole, or an extreme romantic view of the drug. We’re not doing it in those extremes.
Josh: I’ve never had a substance abuse problem, but I’m completely addicted to drama, just like the film is addicted to drama. The film kind of makes you jones for drama, and then right when you’re jonesing, boom, here comes Ilya to give it to you. I very much related to these characters of the street, because of what’s happening to them temporally. Because time is kind of stretched out temporally for them—an hour can be an eternity, but it can also be a second. I related to that. And I think that’s how they related to me. Growing up in New York, I’ve always kind of had friends in the street. It’s just the milieu of people I’m attracted to. For that reason, I considered it a matter of us, not them, in a weird way. Two days before production when the real Ilya OD’s in McDonalds in front of Caleb and myself and the actors. And we were reviving him and his face is turning purple and blue, and we’re trying to shoot him up with sugar. We’re pretty much in it there. I wanted to quit at that point, but we had no option. The regularity that I sensed among these people, hearing that Ilya had OD’d again, that was the ultimate initiation into that world: the true relationship they have with death. You’re constantly flirting with it. You’re constantly flirting with heaven.