The Brothers Grit: An Interview with Heaven Knows What Directors Ben and Josh Safdie

Heaven Knows What has texture. You practically feel the coarse damp of rainy-pavement residue scrape between your fingertips as you watch the film, the latest feature from New York fraternal filmmaking duo Ben and Josh Safdie.

The film bristles with authenticity. Adapted from Mad Love in New York City, a memoir penned by the film’s star, Arielle Holmes, it’s a loosely biographical portrayal of her life as a teenage heroin addict on the streets of the Upper West Side. The Safdies discovered Holmes in the process of researching another project, but were so taken with her energy and fascinated by her lifestyle that making a film centered on her quickly became a priority. The film’s narrative itself is modest. It follows a few days in the life of Harley, a fictionalized Holmes, as she resumes her day-to-day hustle following a suicide attempt brought on by her emotionally sadistic lover, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). The relatively spartan plot allows characters to develop and interact naturally, creating a unique intimacy between viewer and subject.

Holmes is joined on screen by a host of fellow nonprofessional actors, many of whom accompany her in playing heightened versions of themselves. Even Jones, the only professional actor to appear in a major role, forwent the swanky hotel insisted upon by his representatives, and spent his nights in New York imbedded with Holmes and his character’s real-life counterpart. But no one embodies the film’s spirit of veracity better than Buddy Duress, who plays Mike, the protagonist’s dealer and companion. Heaven Knows What makes impressive use of Duress’ naturally magnetic presence, particularly in combination with Holmes’ fiery verve. Duress has been referred to as a “street legend”—a vocation of dubious parameters. Whatever the duties of a street legend might entail, they made an excellent substitute for formal training. Duress capitalizes on his scruffy mien and rough manner, emanating raw, street-smart charisma with impeachable conviction. As if to assuage any remaining doubts regarding his bona fides, Duress was arrested the very day after shooting his last scene, and was still incarcerated at Rikers when the film made its New York debut. (He’s out now, pursuing a career as an actor.)

Buddy Duress plays Mike in Heaven Knows What

Buddy Duress plays Mike in Heaven Knows What

The Safdies’ dedication to authenticity isn’t limited to their cast. With Holmes as his guide, Josh Safdie spent weeks charting the substance-fueled subculture into which the film thrusts itself. Much of the cast is composed of people Josh was introduced to by Holmes, and the film’s observational style feels informed by his hands-on study of her daily activities. He and collaborator Ronnie Bronstein wrote the script contemporaneously with Holmes’ memoir, guiding the trajectory of her writing into areas they found intriguing. Bronstein also joined Ben on the other end of production in co-editing the film. As with past Safdie projects, like Daddy Longlegs (2009) and Lenny Cooke (2013), the brothers shared the director’s chair.

This commitment to reality winds the film up with uncompromising organic tension which, melded into tight-framed shots and a hardstyle electro-classical score, brings the characters and their world into affecting proximity. Heaven Knows What is an oddly beautiful blitz of grit. It’s an abusive love story in which the object of devotion, whether human or heroin, cannot requite. Even as its sordid content and grimy aesthetic repulses, its makers imbue every scene with a seductive, urgent sincerity and mesmerizing, near-tangible realism. Just like the addicts on screen, you’re powerless to resist.

A great deal has already been written about the film’s unorthodox writing process and production. Our interview explores some under-examined aspects of the project, such as financing and editing, and expands the scope to include some context from the directors’ earlier work and their reflections on their career in general.

Kerry O’Conor, Moviemaker Magazine (MM): How did you finance Heaven Knows What?

Josh Safdie (JS): Well, we really wanted to work with Buddy Duress, but we knew that he was also on the run from the law. Around the one-year mark the warrant squad gets aggressive in pursuing you, and that mark was approaching for Buddy. So we knew we had to rush into production and couldn’t go about raising money in a traditional way. We had to find a partner in the film that would give us the money basically up front, and let us just go and make the movie. We kept the budget very low, because we knew we couldn’t ask a company to risk so much considering all the crazy factors involved. I had been in talks with Iconoclast to do a much bigger movie since around Sundance 2014. I presented an overview of the film to them, with a bunch of Arielle’s writing, and let them know a script was coming soon. At the time we had Caleb Landry Jones and Edward Furlong attached. They said, “Alright, we’ll give you what you want.” They took the risk. Everyone who worked on the film took a major risk, because everybody worked on it for free, except the actors.

MM: Was Daddy Longlegs financed in a similar way?

JS: Daddy Longlegs was produced by Casey Neistat and Tom Scott. It was a co-production with the French company Sophie Dulac, who released The Pleasure of Being Robbed. The whole film’s schedule was structured around making the Cannes deadline, because French companies are very invested in having a film at Cannes. But the Daddy Longlegs budget was definitely bigger than the budget for Heaven Knows What. I think the budget for Heaven Knows What helped us shape the film. I don’t think the film could have been made any other way.

Arielle Holmes, the dynamic force at the center of Heaven Knows What

Discovered at 19, Arielle Holmes, the dynamic force at the center of Heaven Knows What

MM: What was the editing process like?

JS: We had so much extra footage because our cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, comes from the documentary world. So he has a tendency to shoot a lot of in-between stuff.

Benny Safdie (BS): We shot a lot of scenes that didn’t fit into the final narrative of the film. Sometimes they made perfect sense—they were great scenes—but they maybe took place four months prior to when the movie happened, or didn’t match the flow.

MM: How did you make the distinction between what did and did not fit into the narrative of the film?

JS: From a writing point of view—and an editing point of view, since editing is really another form of writing—I think we were always looking to the emotional structure of the movie. When we were looking through all of [Arielle’s] pages, we asked “What is indicative of the bigger picture of this lifestyle? What are the details and nuances of this lifestyle that would speak to somebody who has never experienced it?” We were looking for an emotional guideline at all times.

BS: There were scenes in which people’s emotions just didn’t fall in line with the emotions of the overall story we were trying to tell. We were surprised certain scenes didn’t work. They ended up being great scenes that simply didn’t make it into the film. It was a process of trying to roll with the emotional frequency of the film.

MM: Was it helpful to have Ronnie Bronstein as a writing partner while Josh was immersing himself in this subculture of the street?

JS: Both Ronnie and Benny were like a distant land to me. I was a ship at sea and I would constantly come back to shore and report, and then the book was kind of like a message in a bottle. When we started making the film, Benny became very immersed in its world as well, and Ronnie, being the editor, became like air traffic control. He could watch what we were doing and give us pointers like a producer or a writer would. I even asked him a couple times if he wanted to stop by set—even though we all knew that wasn’t a good idea, because our set was such a fickle chemical balance—but he was very adamant about maintaining his distance all the way through the edit. He never wanted to meet anybody. He’s a very analytic thinker, so by removed from it, he could really see the aerial view of everything; he could see where things were headed.

MM: As far as working with that kind of set, one built on this volatile, organic chemistry, is that common to your process, or was it specific to this film?

JS: When you’re making a movie, you’re just trying to capture energy at any moment, so you want your set to be indicative of that energy. For Daddy Longlegs we cast two real brothers. They were six and eight years old; they had never acted in anything before and we projected onto them a screen father. In order to cater to that energy on set, we often had to get rid of everybody. Half the shoots had no crew at all, it was just me running camera, Benny running sound and our actors in the room. We literally had to build a separate room in the apartment for people to hide in while we were shooting. We don’t want anybody standing around without a purpose.

MM: How do you think increasing budgets and exposure will affect these creative spaces you build?

JS: I think as we move on, and our casts start to consist of more professionals than nonprofessionals, it will be a challenge to maintain. On Heaven Knows What, for example, there were a few times when a much bigger crew was necessary, and Daddy Longlegs had a couple days when we had a lot of extra hands on set. But all of the union restrictions, how much money you have, all that doesn’t really matter unless you allow yourself to be swallowed up by it. There’s always going to be a way to create your own world. So, is it going to get harder to keep it organic? Yes. But is it possible? Absolutely.

MM: How do you feel about the way the movie has been received and interpreted, thus far?

JS: I think it’s been received pretty well. It’s nice to see people tap into the same things that we were trying to get at—the idea of time, the distance and the closeness of the subjects.

BS: It’s interesting, I searched the film the other day on Twitter, and I saw someone ask, “Hey everybody out there, what are your favorite romance films of all time?” And someone chimed in “Heaven Knows What.” That to me is the great challenge of the movie. It’s a dark film, and it’s not necessarily a “romantic” film in the sense that it romanticizes drugs, but it is a movie about romance, about the dangers of romance. And I don’t know this person, so it was interesting to me that this unique sense we cast onto this world is actually translating.

New York

“New York is the embodiment of the 20th century,” says Josh Safdie

MM: New York City has always been your creative sandbox, but I read in Film Comment that you guys were thinking of doing something in the Everglades. What do you get from New York and how do you feel about future projects outside the city?

JS: I think New York is the place I can be happiest in, because it breeds this kind of mania that I thrive on. And whether that is sustainable or not will be determined. We grew up in New York. I have friends who grew up in New York and they’re ready to get rid of this mania, this speed, and move to a much slower place.

BS: It’s funny. We always say we’re not going to make our next movie in New York, but we keep discovering new things that are inspiring about it. There’re so many different pockets; so many different cultures and different people who are just walking around. It’s pretty remarkable.

JS: Having said that, I look at the projects that are on our horizon. They’re all New York stories, and I start to think, “Do we want to continue to do films in New York?” So of course we’d like to do films outside of New York, there’s a project that takes place in L.A., and, yes, the Everglades remain an inspirational location.

BS: It’s inspirational in a different way.

JS: I’d love to make a film or a T.V. show there.

BS: It’s the only tropical environment in the continental United States, and it’s such a crazy place.

JS: I think the Everglades has an outlaw nature, that’s maybe what we’re responding to. There’s nothing like it. I think America is the greatest country on the Earth, and in the parts of America that are representative of what makes it so great—everything is brand new. The past is completely ignored. There’s this sense that since America didn’t exist pre-1776, the land didn’t exist before 1776 either, and I think most people in America subscribe to that mentality. But in the Everglades you have an environment that is so mired in and tied to the land itself. It’s a swamp. There’s no second-guessing that this land has been there forever. Whereas New York is a creation of America. New York is the embodiment of the 20th century. MM

Heaven Knows What opened in theaters May 29, 2015, courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

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