With certain [actors], you have to kind of beat the careerism out of them. You have to beat the professional out of them. You work backwards.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s combined talent is intimidating, unapologetic, and electrifying. Heaven Knows What secured a main slate slot at the New York Film Festival last fall following its world premiere at Venice and the brothers continue to make strident steps forward as scrappy, fiercely independent filmmakers. The duo’s latest offering is an intense ride, continually contorting itself with off-the-rails moments that make the all-absorbing drama leap from the screen. This is top-of-the-line stuff and destined for cult status. It’s also not for the faint-hearted.
Calling Heaven Knows What an autopsy of the junkie subculture would be easy. Is this a sinister look at human dilapidation? Yes. A scathing attack on living the high life and its evil twin, addiction? Perhaps. It’s a magnified look at tortured souls living on the streets, morally repellent behavior, and extreme violence tied to drug abuse—there’s no question about that.
Heaven Knows What grew out of the Safdies’ discovery of Arielle Holmes in the New York subway while conducting research for an entirely different film set in Manhattan’s Diamond District. They began meeting on a semi-regular basis and Holmes let her freak flag fly early: She was a then-homeless heroin addict engulfed in a violent and unstable relationship with her fellow addict boyfriend Ilya (played by Caleb Landry Jones), which led to her own failed suicide attempt. With Josh’s encouragement, Holmes put in marathon writing sessions at the Apple Store around Manhattan and put her story down on paper, now her soon-to-be-published memoir Mad Love in New York City. Transfixed by the astute intimacy of the material, the Safdies decided to put the Diamond District project on hold and, together with long-time collaborator Ronald Bronstein, began to conceive of a film in which Holmes would play a version of herself.
Heaven Knows What opens in select theaters on May 29.
I first saw Heaven Knows What at the New York Film Festival last fall and it’s my favorite film of 2014. I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass.
Josh Safdie: Thank you! Didn’t you guys take pictures at our premiere?
At the afterparty, yeah. We blinded everyone. I’m sure you guys have discussed this in great length already, but what was really going on between you and Arielle outside the film?
Josh: It really started off as a friendship. Like with any friendship, I was intrigued by her personality, the world she was in, and I just had a really good time hanging out with her. I was inspired by, you know, the provincial qualities to her and her friends. There are zillions of her out there and I liked the fable-like quality of—
Benny Safdie: You should say it was important that you didn’t know she was homeless.
Josh: Yeah, when I met her I really had no idea she was homeless.
Benny: When you showed me her picture I was like, “That’s insane.”
Josh: I took my first picture of her and showed it to everybody. It was like, “Oh my god. I saw this incredible girl on the subway and she’s so beautiful.” And beautiful in a unique way, which is why I felt the need to share it. It wasn’t like a pervy thing. This girl was Illuminati.
Benny: It was: “Can you believe I saw this person on the train?”
Josh: Yeah, so temporally I met her in May 2013 and I didn’t even meet the guy who plays Mike, Buddy [Duress], until the end of September. He had gotten out of jail on September 2nd. At that point in time, I knew we were definitely going to make a movie. But we went to L.A. to make this different film—
Benny: When did you ask her to start writing?
Josh: That wasn’t until the end of October. But we were going to make this other film with Arielle and another actor, a radical person, out in Denver. We were going to shoot that over Christmas. When we went out to L.A., we were two weeks away from going out to Denver to get started and the whole thing fell apart.
Benny: There’s this one video you shot of her, filming her as she’s getting stuff out of her bag. It was like, “Do you mind if I film you?” With these saucer eyes, she was like, “No.” We saw how comfortable she was in front of the camera.
So the movie that fell apart was completely different?
Josh: It was a completely different movie. She was the star in it and she did play a homeless junkie, but it was very different.
Benny: It was not as based on her.
Josh: No, it wasn’t personal. It wasn’t her story.
Did she have any reservations about revealing so much about herself?
Josh: No reservations whatsoever. Not a hint of reservation.
There were no parameters?
Josh: I remember when I commissioned her to write about her life. The writings were so inspiring, so detailed, and so cinematic. She knew what was going on the second she started giving me pages. I would then regurgitate stuff to her that I liked in a way like, “This would be great for a movie.” Then she would write more and more, and even begin to write it in a cinematic way. It was a very raw script in a strange way. So there was never even a conversation of like, “We’re not going to show this. We’re not going to show that.” With Ari and everybody in that lifestyle, there’s no pretension and that’s attractive to begin with. Basically, real recognizes real. There was no caution. And she knows things about me that nobody on this planet knows because I can confide in her. There are things we didn’t include in the movie, even though she was totally okay with including it. In life, clichés exist for a reason because there are only so many formulas to the way life can be lived. When you’re living on the streets and you’re a young beautiful girl, naturally, some things will happen that are very cliché. Ronny [Bronstein], the co-writer, said, “There’s no reason for any of that stuff to be in the movie.”
Benny: We’re talking about sexual stuff, Kee.
Josh: Ari was okay with it being in the film, but we all just decided not to go there.
Benny: It was already at first like, “How do we make this different than other stories that have been told? How are we going to make it more personal?” Her point of view added that, but still, it was treading on territory that’s been treaded on before and you don’t want to step in the same footsteps. If we did that, it wouldn’t have felt right.
I had a chance to revisit Heaven Knows What at a press screening recently and this older lady next to me turned to me and asked, “Hey, what’s this movie about?” I thought it was hilarious. She had no idea what she was getting into.
Josh: Was she like Dr. Joy [Browne]?
I was surprised that she liked it so much afterwards. I guess in my own narrow-mindedness, I was expecting the opposite reaction from her.
Josh: [Laughs] Right, right.
Benny: It’s funny because we had our grandmother’s friend, who’s also very old—
Josh: She’s not very old! She’s like 75.
Benny: Right, because people live to be 250.
Josh: That’s not old anymore. Come on…
Benny: Anyway, we were very interested in what her reaction would be. I thought it would be the same way I felt. She sent me this text: “The portrait of these young people without any future and without any past—so powerful. It will stay with me for a long time.” It really affected her.
It is a very powerful movie. So at what point did Caleb [Landry Jones] enter the picture?
Josh: I’ll be completely open about all the people we talked to. We basically had Jennifer Venditti doing the additional casting. She did the casting for Ryan Gosling’s last film and this Andrea Arnold film that’s happening right now. I sent her the concept of casting the film for Ilya because the real Ilya wasn’t interested in being in the film. We thought it would be more interesting if we got this person who had a star quality about them. The first actor I talked to was Ezra Miller. Ezra and I had been talking for a little while, but scheduling made it impossible.
That would’ve been so different.
Josh: I know, right? There were a couple of names that were brought up to me by Jen Venditti. She told me there’s a handful of young actors out there right now who would be willing to go deep into this role. She mentioned Caleb Landry Jones, Rory Culkin, Ezra Miller… I had a connection to Ezra already so I could give it directly to him. I liked him. I thought he was alright, but Caleb was the most interesting in that group, even though we knew we would have to go through the agent, and this and that. Before everybody, it was going to be Edward Furlong, but he was too old. We needed someone younger. We did end up including Edward in the film, but he couldn’t leave California and that’s where the Necro role came from. I spoke to Rory’s people as well, but once I spoke with Caleb for the first time, it was obvious that he’s the one.
Benny: There’s an audition tape he did for The Last Exorcism. You don’t really know what’s going on and it’s an amazing thing to watch him audition because he’s clearly very uncomfortable about the fact that he’s being filmed. He’s in the part, ready, and—
Josh: It’s hyper-real.
Benny: It’s a hyper-real act that he’s putting on. It gets so uncomfortable you don’t know if the people on the other side know what he’s doing, but you know he knows what he’s doing.
Josh: The best part is that the only way you can see it, unless you own The Last Exorcism DVD, is on YouTube where someone filmed it off a screen. You can hear their voice and they’re commenting on how unbelievable it is.
Caleb is notorious for really going there with roles.
Benny: I heard that on Contraband he got arrested and cost production a lot of money because he was sitting in jail for three days. For Heaven Knows What, he was upset that we gave him a hotel room. He wanted to stay on the streets immediately with everybody. He’s like, “If I’m going to be playing a kid on the streets, I want to be living with them.” Eventually, he found them and hung out in the streets. But when they found out he had a hotel room, everybody went back to his hotel room and he kind of fit in perfectly. You could see him observing and understanding everything.
Josh: I’ll have to show you a video of that.
As directors, do you ever feel compelled to shield your actors from going too far in their preparation?
Josh: In the first conversation we ever had, I told him, “Look. You’re going to be working with mostly first-time actors.” I shared with him a lot of the documentary footage I shot, Ari’s journals… He knew everything already on a very private level. He told me, “The only way I’ll be able to make this film work is under two conditions: My relationship with the real Ilya is everything. If I can’t bond with him and get along with him, we’re not going to have a good movie.” He said that from the get-go. He also said, “My relationship with Ari in the movie will come through my relationship with Ilya.” He knew he had to get very deep in it and it wasn’t like a chore for him because he was attracted to these people. He really loved Ilya and Ari.
What’s the real Ilya like?
Benny: He actually just passed away.
Oh fuck… That’s rough.
Benny: It’s really tragic. Caleb did a really good job at portraying both sides of Ilya—it’s what makes you drawn to him and pull away at the same time.
Josh: Kee, I was going to show you something, but I don’t have it on my phone anymore. Damn it!
Benny: Is it the footage from McDonald’s?
Josh: No, it was the one at Erica’s. So the real Erica had this tiny little room in Brooklyn where Ilya happened to be staying and no one really knew that Erica and Ilya had something going on between them. We all showed up there and Caleb had just gotten his extensions in and we were going to trick everyone. I was going to ask Ilya to leave and have Caleb come in. So Caleb came in and everyone was like, “What…?” They were touching his hair and it turned into an insane brawl where everyone’s on top of his tiny little bed, listening to Heartstop music. And Ben was there. This kid had just gotten out of prison—a really beautiful and sweet guy—and he had this long metal hair. It was this long, Metal Machete Band-hair and Caleb’s long hair before we cut it, and Ilya! Everyone was really fucked up and it was amazing.
Josh: The crazy coincidence with everything is that the first person our casting director ever stopped on the street was Ilya when he was 11 years old. Ten years later, I stop his girlfriend, completely randomly. It’s pretty insane. Ilya was a really special guy.
Did Ilya see the finished film?
Benny: Yeah, he was at the New York premiere. You probably saw him at the party!
Josh: Were you there when Necro performed? He was onstage.
Benny: If you go online and look at the red carpet photos—
Josh: Ilya was the biggest movie star on the carpet.
Benny: [Laughs] He found his way onto the carpet.
Josh: If you type “Heaven Knows What” into Google, it’s one of the first images that comes up, with him on the red carpet, because he has that quality where you look at him and he has such a history to his face. You kind of feel left out, really. It’s like, “How am I not a part of this guys history?” I mean, it’s sad because he’s 24 years old and he looks fucking haggard, but—
He has a star quality.
Josh: Oh my god, Ilya? He was like the lord of the Upper West Side. You could not walk the streets beside him and not kind of know who he was. Even though he had an anonymous quality, too, but when he was in a good mood? Forget about it. Everyone knew who he was.
Where do you go from here? I’m so curious to see what you guys do next.
Josh: Filmmaking is, as a profession, a major hustle because you have to constantly outdo yourself. Each film is a completely different world, so you approach it in a completely different way, which is psychotic! You’re constantly shifting your mind around. Right now, we have three or four projects where they’re all sitting at the racetrack, waiting for someone to shoot the gun off.
Benny: You basically need to have the ability to just jump on the horse and run.
Josh: But you know what’s good is there are actors who see your film as you make more and more movies, your films get wider and wider, a film will reach a handful of actors with their “star power” get our movies financed. We’re still trying to make our Diamond District film that we were originally intending to do. This one kind of feels like The Last Temptation of Christ.
Benny: [Laughs] In 15 years, we’ll be like, “We finally get to make the Diamond District movie.”
Josh: I was just reading about [Martin] Scorsese and how he wanted to do The Last Temptation of Christ, but he had to commit to like 4 projects before he could do it.
Benny: And he had to do another one after that like, “We’ll give you this one, but you have to give us a really commercial one, too.”
Josh: I’m okay with that. [Laughs] We’ll probably do a film next that’s sort of an addendum to Heaven Knows What in the fall. It’ll be a different movie, a comedy, but it will be with the guy who played Mike, Buddy Duress. He’ll be the lead character. He went to jail 12 hours after we finished filming and got out in February. He’s, you know, very full of energy and life. I’ve become very, very close with him.
Does your approach change at all when you work with professional actors as opposed to non-professionals?
Josh: Well, working with Caleb was a transition for us. He might not be Brad Pitt, but he was coming from the world of X-Men, Byzantium, and working with people like Neil Jordan and John Boorman. Most importantly, I’d say, it’s the fact that he had a career.
Benny: You look at Buddy and he’s someone who has never acted before. This was his first time acting, but we were able to give him direction as if he was a professional actor. And I mean in the sense that you could tell him an emotion or a set of feelings that he needed to feel in the moment. He could internalize that and put that into his speech and his gait. That’s what a professional actor can do. When you’re working with a non-professional actor, you have to “perform” more on your part to get that information across. It’s just interesting to see that in different people. With Caleb, that was already built in because—
Josh: In the end, we won’t change anything. Everyone’s the same. Everyone’s human. It’s not going to change the way we approach something. But with certain people, you have to kind of beat the careerism out of them. You have to beat the professional out of them. You work backwards.