Director Duo Safdie Bros on Casting Real Junkies in New Film
In the history of druggie film, the dealer has never been one of the most likable characters in the movie. However, before now, none of those films were directed by sibling power duo Josh and Benny Safdie. The New York based pair has debuted their films The Pleasure of Being Robbed, a documentary called Lenny Cooke and Daddy Long Legs at SXSW, Sundance and Tribeca Film Festival respectively, and with great praise. It’s no surprise that people like Chloe Sevigny, Robert Pattinson and FKA Twigs rolled out for the premiere of their new film Heaven Knows What. The film is a honest and brutal look at the life of a NYC junkie trying to get ‘just one more bag’.
Its inception began when Josh met Arielle Holmes, the romantic lord of this subculture. Making her write down the tumultuous events of her life, he and his brother worked in tandem to create the film. With a mix of professional actors, and some of Arielle’s friends playing themselves, the true story of her life, from her drug use, to the abusive love of her life Illya, the Safdie’s took care to create a beautiful portrait of a bunch of romantics swinging from one high to the next. Milk Made’s Jordan Mack got to sit with the brothers, who effortlessly switched from thoughtful musings to bickering between each other, and talked about everything from what their next film might entail, to fights on the set of the film, even doing whippets while watching Kids.
So the film mixes professional actors with first time actors, a lot of Arielle’s friends. Arielle also plays herself in the movie, as Harley. Was that just a natural choice for the film?
Josh: We, myself and Benny, we’re interested in real life. I’m personally interested in this kind of middle ground where you have to shift the truth around to get at a greater truth. I think that surrounding first-time actors with professionals ones does something amazing. An actor’s job is to, through their training, express the plight of life. An unprofessional actor, a first time actor, they’re just living their life. So when you put them together in a movie, a viewer, who has no idea who this is or who that is, will subconsciously question where does life end and the movie begin. I do that with movies I love. Examining that question, that dynamic, will always fascinate us.
Benny: At the same time though, this movie would not exist without Arielle. The idea was always to have her play herself. Josh asked her to write down her story. He wasn’t saying, ‘Okay, write down your story so we can cast a movie star to play you.’ It’s a part of the movie. You can’t take it apart.
Josh: You know, when I first saw the movie Kids, I was 15 years old. I was in my friend’s house. We were doing whippets and we put Kids on, because that was the movie you had to see when you were 15. But I remember doing a whippet and looking up at the screen. It was the scene when they were doing the whippets and the camera was handheld and chaotic and off putting. It had a real knowingness to it. It felt known, lived in almost. So I had this moment where I had no idea what the fuck was going on. I was thinking, ‘What is that? what is this? And where does it stop and end?’ It really subconsciously changed my life. If you look at the way that Larry Clark did Kids, he asked Harmony Korine, who was in that scene, to write the script, because he knew those kids. It’s this idea of primary source. We wanted to get a primary source for this movie, really get it through their eyes. We weren’t like, ‘Oh let’s do a movie about street culture.’ It was, here’s this amazing girl. She’s resilient, she’s almost handicapped with how romantic she is, and she’s this kind of lord of the street. She’s this female knight, and I loved it. We had to go, and we had to make it quickly because Buddy Duress, the guy who plays the dealer in the film, was going to go to jail at any moment.
Oh my god. I didn’t know that.
Josh: Yeah, he went to jail 12 hours after we finished the movie. He just got out in February. We’re going to make a movie with him next.
Really? Following his story through prison?
Josh: It’s kind of a comedy, but it’s about a guy that gets out of prison. He has this dream, he wants land. A guy in jail told him, ‘you’re not free unless you own land.’ So him and his brother try to buy some land together.
That sounds sick! So how do you guys feel about-
Josh: Drugs? [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, about drugs, specifically how New York handles drugs and addiction.
Josh: That’s actually a really long conversation and our film doesn’t go into it because it was too much of a trap. It’s how the junkie uses what the city throws at them and exploits it. It’s the methadone clinics, the needle exchange.
Benny: We wanted to deal outside of those clinics. We just didn’t have time for that. It would have gotten confused.
Josh: Yeah, once methadone enters into your life, in hardcore junkiedom, it’s the beginning of the end. You become this numbed zombie, as opposed the beginning, where you’re just using and getting into heroine, like the honeymoon stage. That’s when it’s still romantic. You still get a rush. It’s not ugly yet. It’s still beautiful. We didn’t want it to become this ugly thing.
Benny: Well, we did want to show it as an ugly thing. You’re talking about before you lose the looks.
Josh: Yeah, I’m saying it’s still a period of bliss, romance. There’s a documentary called Dope Sick Love and that’s these characters 10 years later. It makes our movie look like a Disney after school special.
What is it like working with a sibling on such heavy material?
Josh: There’s a certain stress to confront on a day to day level. It was freezing, we never had enough resources. Naturally, some of the locations that we shot at and some of the people that were a part of it raised the tension level. It put a big strain on our relationship, on everyone’s relationship really.
Benny: Yeah, but should be a little fun in the moment, but it should be its funniest looking back, you know?
Josh: It was fun, because you don’t realize that we would wrap for a day, and then our actors would go and have a social life. They would get bogged down by having to act all day, so they would just go party. Every night was a wrap party for them.
So, I know Illya, Harley’s love interest, wasn’t played by the real Illya. He was played by Caleb Landry Jones. Was there any tension between the professional actors and their real life counterparts?
Josh: Well Caleb and Illya were actually very close. With that lifestyle, you can become very close to someone in like 3 hours. So they became best friends. I’d say the only tension really there was between Caleb and Buddy. Caleb is the kind of actor that just really gets so immersed in whatever he’s working on, so Buddy’s character is really at odds with Illya, Caleb’s character, and that translated to Caleb. They hated each other. They almost fought like 3 times. There was one night that Buddy and Caleb were near blows in the minivan and it had been a really long shoot day. So we had to separate them, but then me and Benny had a huge fight, huge! We were almost fist fighting. Buddy sees this and walks away from Illya, and bumps into someone completely separate, that he had problems with!
Benny: And the guy has a fucking pitbull!
Josh: Yeah! So we’re trying to pull all of these people a part, everyone is screaming and this pitbull is trying to fucking bite us! So it was just this really tense street corner that we were on, but we didn’t want to risk Buddy getting arrested, so put just threw him back in the van and had our PA drive around until things were quiet. It was wild.
Holy crap, that’s so intense. What’s ‘heaven’ to you guys?
Josh: I don’t know. Heaven for me is forgetting about where I am. Being locationless, timeless and limitless. That’s heaven to me. That’s why I really understand why people chase their high from a drug. I think falling in love is the exact same feeling. To me, heaven is a place where you don’t think, you just are.
Benny: It’s funny because to me, there’s a lot of importance to order. So I’m totally the opposite. If everything were completely disorganized, that would be my Hell [laughs]. If in “heaven” I have no sense of place or being, I would feel like I was in hell! That would be very scary to me.
Josh: I’m not talking about a sense of being. I’m saying you’re limitless!
Benny: Yeah! That’s scary to me!
Josh: You like to feel limited?
Benny: No! But the limitlessness is scary. When I think about the Universe expanding into nothing, that scares me. I need to be able to see the limit.
Josh: Well how about, ‘heaven is the eye of a storm?’ When I see videos of meteorology, and I see a hurricane with that eye, I’m not saying I want to be in a hurricane, but I want to experience the eye of a storm. That split second of order and bliss. I fetishize that.
Benny: What’s great about that is you don’t have that eye without the contrast. Without the hurricane happening all around you, you can’t understand the eye. You don’t see the peace and the bliss.
Is there anything else you want to readers of Milk Made to know?
Josh: Just know that we are the most important filmmakers working today. [laughs]
Heaven Knows What opens in theaters May 29th
All photos courtesy of Radius Press