With its raw depiction of young junkies looking for their next fix on the mean streets of New York, “Heaven Knows What” wowed audiences at the Venice, Toronto and New York Film Festivals earlier this year. Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie wrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein, the star of their 2009 film “Go Get Some Rosemary,” which was called “Daddy Longlegs” when it screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
It’s almost hard to fathom that “Heaven Knows What” even had a script since the film, which is based on star Arielle Holmes’ unpublished memoir about her life as a young addict and her obsession with boyfriend Ilya, blends documentary elements with fictional storytelling.
Though the film brings to mind Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 film “Panic in Needle Park” and was shot around the same locations, its authentic, observational feel is more akin to Larry Clark’s “Kids” from 1995.
With Holmes, in her debut role, playing Harley, a fictional version of herself, alongside actor Caleb Landry Jones as Ilya, art mimics life. Indiewire recently spoke to the Safdies about casting their lead, blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction, co-directing and working with non-actors (whom the brothers like to call “first-time actors”).
I realize this is not a documentary,
but obviously, it incorporates documentary style into it. How did you conceive
of the project and was that always the idea from the beginning?
Josh Safdie (JS): I would say that the interest in
making the film isn’t so different from the interest in making a documentary in
the sense that here is a real person with a real story and a group of
characters that surrounded her that we wanted to investigate and immortalize
with filmmaking. We were interested in the power of
fiction — or the seeming power of fiction — to get at the greater truth.
Benny Safdie (BS): Yeah, in documentaries the scary
word is timeline. Are you messing with the timeline? But that’s what you can do
to really help your story and tell it in the best possible way. With this, the story spanned a good period of time, and Josh and Ronnie (Ronald Bronstein) sat down
and made it not span as much time to have it make sense, and to allow audiences to access it. The editing process was the same thing. We realized we needed to
shorten periods here, elongate periods of Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) to keep the film moving along. The end result is [Arielle Holmes] can watch
the film and feel as she felt when she was experiencing those things, even
though it’s very different.
How did you meet Arielle, and was there ever any question
about casting her to play herself? Was that always part of the deal?
JS: The film was never a film without Ari.
When I stumbled upon her when I was in character and while she was in character working in the Diamond District I felt I’d discovered the next Julia
Roberts. Without her, there’s no film, and it was like so absurd to even think
about casting her because she was the film. She was what we wanted to
BS: And it was important that she would be
recreating this experience and reliving it, because that was going to add to
it. The movie would not be the movie if it wasn’t for her.
It does add that extra layer of verité.
And then how did you go about casting? I know there’s a mix of actors and
non-actors. How does that work in terms of integrating the two?
JS: Well, the real Ilya wasn’t interested in
being in the film even though he was like a Fassbender character; he was an
incredible person in terms of his energy and his magnetism. Because when I
first met Arielle, when she talked about Ilya, she was talking about him as if
he was this omnipresent person. Ilya this, Ilya that, there was no introduction.
It was just an assumed thing. Don’t you know that Ilya likes this, and Ilya
listens to that, and Ilya approves of this book and that book?
We really wanted
to conceptually bring an actor who can command a teenage young woman’s mind, so
we wanted to include an actor who was in that world of teen fandom, but also
someone who was very serious. Someone who would be as immersive as we needed
them to be because this film is dancing a fine line between reality and
fiction. Whoever was going to play Ilya needed to immerse themselves in that
role. We went through a handful of ideas and meetings and auditions, and ended
up with Caleb [Landry Jones], and he went the distance and we feel really proud
BS: The Ilya character needed to be somebody
larger than life, and it helped that he came from outside and had the ability
of an actor. It would also differentiate the scenes that he was in in the film.
It would make the world different.
JS: We had originally cast Edward Furlong as
the Skully character and then there was a lot of complications days
before shooting with Eddie, and then our casting director Eleonore Hendricks
suggested Necro, the rapper. He’s somebody who was a legend to me in high
school, and we had no idea how to get to him… We ended up having to go through our rapping friends. And then we went to Necro and I had to have like a middle-of-the-night
conversation with Necro while he was producing an album, convincing
him — because I knew he loved movies–to come and play a character named Skully.
BS: His song “I Need
Drugs” is a weird contradiction, so it only made sense that his character
would look at this world and kind of be in it and be outside of it at the same
time, which kind of represents the movie as a whole.
How did you go about casting
some of the more peripheral roles?
JS: Sometimes we would bring in
actual people who were written about in Ari’s book. Sometimes I would meet
somebody in the scene eight months prior to when we were shooting that I was really
intrigued by, who I really got along with, where I thought that they had a
quality to them that would be great on film, and I ended up asking them to be
in the movie. Sometimes our casting director would find someone on
the street and say “I think this person should be in the film. They have
an amazing face,” and then we’d bring them into an audition.
times we would meet with some actors and would talk to them. Like Buddy Duress,
who plays Mike in the film, he was a major revelation for us. He’s incredible,
and we’re going to be making another film with him. He really brought something
to the film. We knew that he held this quality from rehearsals and auditions,
but when we were shooting, when we actually were doing it, and were in the
moment and were in the game and you have possessions of the ball — when he had
possession it was marvelous. He really wowed us, and always shined.
BS: He needed to understand the logic of what
he was saying so that he could really believe it and then say it with
conviction. It was a strange feeling, because here was a guy who had never
acted before but yet had all the tools to be an incredible actor, and it was
just an amazing thing to witness. It was after this one monologue that he did
while we were shooting that you really realized what was happening.
Was improvisation part of the
JS: Yes, of course. We always looked to
improvisation. For this film, our script was not a conventional script. We had
just come out of writing a very conventional script — conventional in the way
it’s formatted — with all the dialogue and everything. This time around we
wanted to — it was more of a story with certain scenes of dialogue mapped out,
but most of the time it was an emotional map. So the way we used improvisation
was a tool during rehearsal. We would find out what we’d like, and
then we would focus on it and then we would hone it. It was never an end, it
was always a means, it was never the end. It’s a tool. Improv is a tool.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of working
BS: I find the challenges — at this stage in
our career at least — to be with working with professionals, which is a very
welcome challenge. I like any and all challenge. To me, working with
non-professionals — or first-time actors as we like to call them, because
they’re not non-actors, they just haven’t been given the opportunity to act in
JS: When you work with a first-time actor,
it’s less cerebral and more physical. It’s an athletic was of directing because
you have to really talk everything through. We approach everyone the same way.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in a million movies or if you’ve never been in
a photograph. It’s like you discover a rare stone in a planet, right, and you
unearth it and it sees light for the first time, it’s going to shine in a way
that a diamond that’s been on display for thousands of years isn’t going to
shine. There’s a certain excitement to putting someone on camera for the first
time, in my opinion.
And then what were some of the biggest
challenges during production in terms of locations? I mean, you were shooting
in New York City. Were there any challenges even just in terms of the logistics
BS: Well, it’s funny. Logistically, we had
permits to shoot on the sidewalk — you need permits for the tripod. But I think
it was just a matter of the congestion of the city, and the recycling of all
the people in the frame. We were shooting closeups from very far away, so they
had very specific marks that they needed to be on, and at any moment a truck
could pull in front of the camera and ruin the take. It wasn’t the actors, it
was the city that was kind of taking control. But we consciously allowed that
to happen. We wanted the city to exist in the foreground very freely to kind of
give the movie it’s energy. The whole movie was very difficult to make. I can’t
specify a moment — the whole thing was just a very big challenge.
JS: If your movie is easy to make you’re
making the wrong movie, in my opinion.