The Tokyo International Film Festival ended with a Grand Prix win for Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Heaven Knows What,” which, pleasingly, was also our favorite film from the competition. It happened to be the only U.S. film in the field (we discussed the reasons for its selection with Jury President James Gunn here) and features as probably its most buzz-worthy element, a breakout debut performance from Arielle Holmes. Mere months before filming started, she was living rough on the streets of New York City, a heroin addict involved in tempestuous relationship very similar to that we see documented in the film.
That’s because Holmes is not merely a nice bit of street casting for a pre-existing role, the film is based on her experiences. The Safdies, having approached her to potentially feature in a different project, gradually became more fascinated by her story, encouraging her to write it down (while getting clean), and then used those memoirs as the basis for their film. It’s a pretty wild rags-to-riches story (though by “riches” it should be noted we’re talking in relative terms—this is a tiny, micro-budget indie after all), and we were very happy to talk about it with her in Tokyo, along with her co-star Caleb Landry Jones, who takes the smaller but crucial and charismatic role of her boyfriend Ilya.
So Arielle, I hear you’ve just signed with ICM, congratulations. So you’re officially pursuing an acting career long-term?
Yeah, I’ve already got a couple movies coming up I’m gonna do. I don’t know if I’m allowed talk about them…
But are they on a similar kind of independent scale to this one?
Well, the third film is an independent but this next one that I’m gonna do first is not. It’s a science fiction movie. I mean, I don’t know, [“Heaven Knows What”] is the only film I’ve ever done, but it seems like a really fun role to play. It’s the lead female, a soldier, from the year 2307. [Holmes later mentions that the film is called “A Winter’s Dream,” but we cant find much news about it yet].
So you feel excited at the prospect of channelling roles that aren’t necessarily based on your own personal experience?
Yeah! Yeah, of course.
Because it’s a pretty unusual story, I mean, where do you think you’d be if Josh and Benny hadn’t spotted you on that train platform?
Same place I was, I think. Like in the movie, probably.
Right, because none of this is so very long ago for you. Surely reenacting scenes from your recent past was pretty surreal?
I had fun doing it and it felt all very natural and it was exciting, but Josh said to me “Ari, do you remember the time we started filming and you said, ‘This feels like a dream?’ ” and so I guess some of it was surreal. That is was happening at all was surreal.
And the finished film has something of a dreamlike quality. Did it turn out as you had envisaged it?
Originally we had a different ending, we had to change it because [in one of the closing scenes] I actually broke the bus window [and wasn’t supposed to]. So we changed the end, but I think all that happening was a good thing because it led us to an ending I think is perfect and everything ties in really well. The rest of it I had no idea how it was gonna come out, but I’m very happy with how it did.
How about you, Caleb, did the film meet your expectations? Did you have any expectations?
Caleb Landry Jones: I didn’t really know what to expect. I hadn’t seen any of their films before. I knew we were shooting from far away, but that was it.
So they used long lenses and stood way back from the action?
They were always at least a block away all the times. Even the close ups were filmed from across the street.
Perhaps they’d just gone for coffee.
CLJ: Ha! They hadn’t but they could have and we would not have known and just played the scene anyways.
AH: They probably did a couple of times, they were like, “Hey yeah, we need this one more time” and then they just went off…
It’s an unusual way to work, did you find it helpful in creating a rapport with your fellow actors that the crew were not in on top of you?
CLJ: I feel like you gotta do that to some extent anyway, you gotta leave them where they are but at the same time be aware of them. But what made it so different was working with real people who were playing themselves. The world was sort of our stage and so we got to interact with evereyone who was passing by at that precise moment, that’s what made it so different. And [indicates Arielle]—what she brought to this movie. Which was everything. I’ve never done anything like this before.
You’ve had a pretty big year, several big films, what kind of production do you feel most comfortable in?
CLJ: I feel like with smaller productions there’s more of an opportunity to get away with things that a union might not get away with. That gives you a freedom and it also gives you, what’s the word, it puts a web around you at the same time. You’ve got more restrictions because of lack of money. But in that way it’s very freeing and because it’s independent there’s not so much pressure on making 200 million dollars and so you can breathe and it can take on a life of its own.
So how did you get involved with this one?
CLJ: They sent me some of her writings. How many pages would you say?
AH: Probably 20 or 25.
CLJ: Something like that—just moments, and some ended up in the movie and some didn’t, but that gave me a sense of who this character was. But I didn’t take it very seriously at first because I didn’t know anything about them, but my agent told me that they were very, very talented, and to do it. But I was still very scared. Then after speaking with Josh on the phone, it seemed like I had to do it, and you’d be stupid not to, because it meant getting to do things that you might never be allowed to do again. And it’s true, and we did a whole lot of things you don’t get to do normally.
Arielle, did you have much say over the casting of the Ilya character being as he is a real person and really a part of your life?
Well, Josh showed me two pictures: one of [Caleb] and one of this other kid. They wound up picking him and I got along with him, and so I didn’t have any reservations. But I didn’t have much of an opinion based on a picture. And I hadn’t seen any of his movies, I had no idea who he was.
CLJ: So it was pretty perfect in that sense. You had no conceptions of me and the only conceptions I had of her was through her diaries. I think that was very good. And our relationship was slow, it started off slow. [The real] Ilya and I, we got together instantly and and I’d only see her every now and then. Then we’d slowly start to talk more and something was created from that.
So hanging out with the real Ilya was your research, I guess?
CLJ: Oh yeah, we were inseparable for the most part. I’m so thankful that we liked each other. He thought I was gonna kill him at first though. We thought day one that we were gonna get into it.
AH: What? Really?
CLJ: I thought that he was gonna be very upset with me just for coming in, and, like, playing him.
AH: I don’t think he was upset about that
CLJ: No, no, I was worried that he’d be upset. Because I’d be upset, if someone’s coming in… I’d be like, “Woooah, my girl? What? What are you gonna be doing?” I would not know how to take that so I thought we’d end up getting into some kind of row. But we ended up getting drunk instead.
Was it ever awkward that your co-star knew your character so well?
If anything it was helpful, because I could ask her anything. And she could go “No, no Caleb, that’s not Ilya enough.” Or, “Caleb, he wouldn’t do that.” And I’d get upset because I think that’s my right, but then it worked well, because we would get angry at each other.
You do have a very adversarial relationship in the film. Did it feel real to you, Arielle?
AH: It was pretty close. Pretty damn close. I mean a couple times during filming he got reactions out of me that only Ilya could get out of me before. Just very subtle things in certain situations, I thought it was amazing that that happened.
And you were basically reliving often painful moments that had happened not long before.
AH: I mean, most of those things that happened were in the past—not the far past, but to me they were. But I’ve been told I have a strange conception of time.
CLJ: Though I gotta say a day in the life of Ilya and Harley and everybody—one day feels like about a week. It’s packed with so much.
AH: Yeah, because so much happens
CLJ: And a week feels like several months.
That’s something the film communicates very well, this weird elastic time where overall there’s not some massive arc of change, but moment to moment it’s full of drama.
AH: And it’s interesting that in the movie but also in the writing I express a lot how I can’t handle repetition. I remember Josh pointing out to me once, “It’s funny that you say that because you were living repetition every day, the same thing, the hustles to get drugs.” But even though that’s true, the days were just packed with so much drama, that it was different everyday. Because everything was in the moment, everything was happening like that.
CLJ: And the shoot was like that. Something was always happening. I’d leave them and then Ilya and I would get into trouble somewhere else.
It certainly feels very loose and energetic. How tightly scripted was it?
AH: The script was more a guideline to what was supposed to happen here and there. That was scheduled, every day we’d meet usually 8 in the morning. And sometimes we’d film till 5pm, sometimes, till 4am.
CLJ: Maybe I was just too drunk sometimes, but I remember not knowing necessarily what we were gonna do that day. Although I was also in and out more [than Arielle]. It was a chaotic shoot, except then at the same time [the directors] knew exactly where they wanted the camera to be and how they wanted this scene to be.
Caleb you’ve a couple movies coming up too, right?
I need to ask Siri, I have no idea. I think Arielle’s got more work lined up than I do. But [Roland Emmerich‘s] “Stonewall,” I just finished that one a couple months ago, and then I did this other film that’s untitled right now by Gerardo Naranjo. It’s about a girl that gets obsessed with this band and comes to find out who she is, finds out they’re all assholes who are using her for this and that. It’s… interesting.
Have you seen Naranjo’s “Miss Bala”?
Yes, that was why… He’s got like a cat-and-mouse kind of game, he knows very well his drama mix, I really really like that—that’s why I wanted to work with him so bad. The first fifteen minutes of that film are fucking beautiful and then there’s that cat-and-mouse element, and that’s what this film does.
And your character?
I’m, well, I’m the main asshole. Like in this, though, I come in and out.
Finally, Arielle, how do you think this highly singular experience will color your future acting career?
AH: I’m excited to try new things, it doesn’t phase me. But I’m pretty sure that no other movie I do is gonna be like this one.
Radius has picked up “Heaven Knows What” for U.S. distribution.