Heaven Doesn't Care: A Conversation with Josh and Benny Safdie

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Heaven Knows What, the latest film from brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, is an engrossing true-story depiction of heroin addiction and romance in New York City—and its origin almost seems too unbelievable to be true. While researching for a different project, Josh befriended a 19-year-old woman, Arielle Holmes, who he soon learned was homeless, involved in a destructive relationship and addicted to heroin.

As Josh got to know her and her world even more, the brothers agreed it was her story they needed to tell. After convincing Holmes to write her soon-to-be-published memoir, they adapted it into a screenplay, and cast Holmes as a fictionalized version of herself alongside Caleb Landry-Jones (Antiviral, X-Men: First Class).

With their film recently finding wider distribution after a successful festival run, Paste was able to speak to the Safdies about working with Holmes to capture the authenticity of her circumstances.

Paste: By now, people know the story of how you found Arielle and began working with her. Were there any points where you had doubts about her, knowing her background and her lack of experience?
Josh Safdie: Well, the more projects that we work on, the more we get to continue working with new people. And once you become established and gain recognition, bigger names start to become interested. When you start working with actors and quote-unquote celebrities, both sides start to think, “Oh god when you’re working with them you want to maintain your confidence and you don’t want them to have any doubts in you.” And that’s also kind of the vibe that permeates with any star, whether they’re on the covers of Us Weekly or using the covers of Us Weekly to cut dope on. (Laughs)

But with Arielle, it was more of the opposite. I didn’t want her to ever have doubt in me. I was so honored to be able to collaborate with her from the get-go. Her world and her vibe were so unique, and that’s all that you want movies to do. I mean how many people have been on camera in the lifespan of moviemaking? And here we have someone we can put on camera who is so unique in her own world yet she knows that she is representing this entire world of faceless people. The other day on Huffington Post Live, she said the most incredible thing, and this speaks to exactly who she is. She doesn’t give a fuck about anybody because for forever nobody gave a fuck about her. She said, “I was part of an elite group of society that no one cared about.”
Paste: Wow.
Josh: It’s incredible! And she’s completely right, it is an elite group! When I was in the process of meeting her friends, before I wanted to even make a movie, when I was just kind of hanging out with her friends and you meet these people, they are very quick to judge. Even though it’s a completely gritty kind of society, they are very quick to cut you out of it, like “You can’t come into my world.” I definitely felt that elitism vibe when I got ushered into the world and confronted these people and became friends with these people and became more and more interested in making a movie about it. It was more: “How do I make a movie with this world?” as opposed to “How do I make a movie about this world?”

Paste: Like when she gets the $20 and instead of using it for rent buys alcohol to replace or repay some other members of her group. When you’re struggling to survive and find shelter, you’re buying booze for yourself and some other people that got you drunk the day before?
Josh: And that was so important that she gets it for that one guy, Mike, who’s just kind of pulling her along, that’s all she’s supposed to do: get that $15. But at that moment, she knows she can play him and get a little bit more. In this world, there’s no such thing as six hours ahead; there’s one hour ahead. It might as well be next year, it doesn’t matter. So she’s not gonna save that! Are you kidding me? She’s gonna have a good time and go out in the park!

Paste: So after immersing yourself in this world, what did you come away with as the biggest misconception that the general public has about heroin addicts and that community?
Josh: Well I haven’t quite been able to figure out how other people feel. Me personally, these types of people aren’t new in my life. I’ve had friends at points in my life that grew up around it. Benny and I have both seen it. So it’s not that it was something that was eye-opening for us. I do think that the movie successfully portrays what it feels like to exist within the hour-cycle as opposed to a life cycle. Time becomes this whole new concept. Romance is a completely new thing; it’s almost a danger, romance.

And that I think is a misconception: It’s not a boring lifestyle. It’s everything but boring, which is weird. Heroin is a very boring drug. It’s not like that movie, I never saw it, but that movie Spun. That movie is about meth, which is not a boring drug. I mean that’s like the opposite. …But all of a sudden, there’s articles and articles being written about this enormous influx of heroin into the United States, how many people are using it, and it’s kind of all culminating at once while we are making this movie. I think that a lot of people did think that it was not enough, but it was kind of was a good thing they tied up well enough to keep moving forward.

You don’t see the anti-drug commercials about heroin the way you did like I remember growing up. Same thing with smoking; they are just bringing back more smoking commercials because they said, “Uh oh, people are smoking again.” I think we kind of got comfortable, in a weird way, with not talking about the dangers of the drug, and the movie shows you just how dangerous it can be in a way that makes you feel it.

Paste: And the longer the film goes on, it seems like there’s no escape. No matter what you try to do, whatever ambitions you may have had, you’re stuck in this cycle.
Josh: Yeah. The more we were making it, the more we were in that world, the more we saw that it’s almost impossible. It’s so hard to get out, once you’re in it, to break it. I mean it’s a physical addiction, you know? There is something where society could maybe get better: Treating people who have that is more of an issue, but they still throw people in jail for drugs. It’s still a problem.

Paste: In that respect, I feel like you guys captured the authenticity of her world really well. Is that more challenging working with non-actors, or how does it influence your process?
Benny Safdie: Yeah it’s definitely part of the process we enjoy, but it’s [about] weeding out the non-actors from the first-time actors, is the way we look at it. These people just haven’t been given the opportunity to act… I remember Josh showing me a video of—I think it was a short video of him filming Arielle outside a restaurant. He said, “Do you mind if I film you?” She just looked up, and on the spot was like, “No.” And you could just tell that she was perfectly comfortable in front of the camera and she was going to be a great actor.

The same thing happened with Buddy [Duress]. There were a couple things that Josh filmed with him, and they just oozed something. And when we finally got this going, he’s like, “How am I gonna get to act? When am I gonna get to act?” And when we shot him, he just blew it out of the water. There were people that had never acted before, but were always going to be good actors. And going back to the movie, I don’t know if you remember the guy who talked about where McDonald’s is? One of the most difficult performances to ever get, and that’s because he is not an actor. At the end he gets there, but that was probably the hardest directing we’ve ever had to do.

Paste: The cinematography is tremendous. Sean Price Williams did an amazing job with all those different kinds of shots you guys got. What went into some of the choices between going long-range and going tight and close up in certain situations? It felt like you never knew which shot you were going to get from scene to scene.
Josh: Well that’s very fitting. I think filmmaking is very akin to architecture. When you build a building, usually the architect will go to the build site, look at the layout, look at the situation that they’re building within, and then look at the land itself and say, “Well this calls for a tall structure, this goes here, that goes there.”

With this movie, our core was this vibe, was this feeling, was this character with Arielle: What’s her story? You just want to build out from that, you want anthropogenic function. So with an addict, you can always be so close to them but at the drop of a hat be very far away from them. You never know what’s going to happen next. I said to Sean from the beginning, this needs to be an opera in long lens. This needs to be something that you’re so clouded in glass. And part of the time the filters are transparent. It’s not like we’re putting cotton [in front of the lens], though Sean wanted to shoot through cotton at one point. He did, but we didn’t end up using it at the end, we changed to diffusion glass. But yeah, [there were] plastic bags and things he would train the lens through the center. There was an interest in space and filtration, and don’t forget we had times we’re shooting at near nearly 2,000 millimeters in length, while we’re almost a block away.

And that puts a certain challenge onto you which I think demands a certain level of performance from you aesthetically. It was very difficult to make the movie. We shot I’d say 70-to-80 percent of the film with two cameras. And the second camera was the cinematographer also, his name was Christopher Messina. Sean was kind of directing Chris’s work, I was directing both of them through these two monitors we had, that I had always on me, wireless monitors. The camera crew, we were tight-knit and were always aesthetically tight-knit. We always had a strange bible to adhere to because we wanted there to be this romance with the image but at the same time lack of romance, this kind of lack of color.

It was important to not look at this world, which to me makes sense, to be handheld and be in there with them and kind of really feel what it’s like. But for us it’s the opposite. We didn’t want to be that close; there needed to be a distance. It would have been much easier and we’d have been able to shoot it much quicker if were had done with that kind of style. But you can’t if you want to get the execution of their reality.

Paste: About romance, the soundtrack and the sound directing really added that feel. What went into the choices to score the film?
Josh: Ron Bronstein, who I co-wrote the movie with and was a co-editor on the movie, he was the one who introduced me to [Isao] Tomita years ago, actually. Tomita is the music that we kind of feature the most, Tomita’s renditions of Debussy. I really wanted to have kind of a very romantic score, but we knew that we needed it to be electrified. We knew that it needed to have a more nighttime vibe, and nothing is more nighttime than electricity, you know what I mean? So we wanted to electrify tone to the movie, and we knew that we were going to use a few pieces that came from their world. Namely, the hard-style music that’s playing when she’s threading the needle and the Ariel Pink track at the end of the movie.

But for the most part, I think it’s all in the use of that “Clair de Lune” rendition by Tomita when [Harley and Mike] are walking down the street and we’re seeing it from the rooftop. Then you see that very unrecognizable New York skyline. It’s form following function, where really the romance is almost unrecognizable. You have this electronic, Japanese version of a French Romantic artist Debussy, and then you have this skyline of New York looking north from 71st Street—no one ever looks north. So it’s very unrecognizable.
Benny: And at the same time, when the music drops out and is absent, that’s almost as big in the beginning and the ending. These scenes start with music and then it just stops—almost. The music kind of [works] in the [same] way that everybody is talking.

Paste: Out of all the actors that you worked with on the film, who surprised you the most with his or her performance?
Both: Buddy Duress.
Josh: I knew he was just this force to be reckoned with and just this beautiful poet with the way he speaks and the way he is. He’s just a classic being. But our producers had a real inclination that there were a lot of really good actors who wanted to join the project, and there was maybe a push to try and include them, but we just said, “You’ve gotta trust Buddy.” He did a really incredible job.
Benny: And part of it was they were skeptical of actually having him play that role. But once they saw him, they were like, “Alright. I’m on board.” They didn’t even bat an eye after that.
Paste: Yeah, I was definitely transfixed by him. He was something else.
Josh: I know. We knew what to expect from Caleb because he’s a professional, but Buddy brought a professionalism to it that was completely surprising. And you know what? We were so impressed we’re probably—no we’re going to make another film with him.

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