Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran November 2014 during the Tokyo Film Festival.
When we met Josh and Benny Safdie in a plush bar in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills (it’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it) they were fresh off the stage having just picked up not only the Grand Prix of the Tokyo International Film Festival 2014 for “Heaven Knows What,” (review here) but also the Best Director gong too. (This meant that, happily, as we discuss below, in addition to other prizes, they got two fancy watches from sponsor Seiko and didn’t have to work out how to divvy up just the one). The two have worked together on and off, but mostly on, for nearly a decade. Their first co-directed feature was 2009’s “Daddy Longlegs,” and since then they’ve become well-known on the festival arthouse circuit, mostly with a series of short films.
“Heaven Knows What” marks their first narrative feature together since “Daddy Longlegs,” however, they also collaborated on 2013 doc “Lenny Cooke,” which our Tribeca reviewer loved. “Heaven Knows What” is a gritty yet lyrical look at a group of homeless heroin addicts on the streets of New York and was based on the experiences of its lead, Arielle Holmes, whom the brothers spotted by chance on a subway platform. We talked with them in Tokyo about the film, its relationship to Japan, its extraordinary soundtrack, and the practical issues that being a fraternal directing duo can lead to, issues they’ve discovered they share with the Dardennes.
So, your first time to Tokyo?
Josh: Actually second. I came here to shoot my one and only music video, for Shugo Tokumaru — it didn’t work out, but the footage is amazing… it’s a long time ago, like 8 years ago.
And coincidentally you use a Japanese composer’s music in this film — even James Gunn in his award speech mentioned the music, calling it “disruptive and shameless… in all the best best ways”
Yeah, Tomita. He’s like the Mozart of Japan.
His stuff is great, I was listening to him as I wrote about the film.
I saw that in your review! I don’t really read reviews, because I get self-conscious and my first film got really weird reviews. And when I say weird I mean… panned, and I hated that feeling and never wanted to feel it again, but I saw that you liked it, and I saw you had that “it’s all up in my Spotify.” I really want Tomita to hear that someday.
So tell me what this award means to you.
Benny: It’s definitely a huge honor to get such a big award. And especially two of them [the Safdies also won Best Director] … it’s crazy.
This way they had to give us two watches. And for a while it was just one — we did a talk with the Dardenne brothers and we had similar issues, like hotel room issues. So the next time I email them I’ll be like, you ever gotten a watch [to split between you]? How do you deal with that? 12 hour shifts?
What are the hotel issues?
Oh it’s like, same room? Two beds? Two rooms? At some point you get to the stage where you get two separate rooms.
But then there’s the problem that one is better than the other?
Josh: Sometimes one of you gets the view. [Benny] has a view this time. I have no view.
But back to the award…
Benny: Well, especially here in Tokyo we were talking about how much we felt this country would respond to it.
Josh: My friend Maiko Endo — she’s a filmmaker who used to live in New York and got very unjustly banned from America — I don’t get to see her much. And so I said, “I’m coming to Tokyo!” And she said, “I had a dream” — she’s very clairvoyant — “I had a dream you were gonna win the Grand Prize.” And when she says that, you listen.
Like we went to Mount Fuji today and she drove us and the clouds are completely covering the sky and I’m, “Where is Mount Fuji? Where is Mount Fuji?” and she’s “There it is!” And the clouds dispersed for five seconds, and then went back, and then the festival rang and were like, “You have to come back here right now.”
So she’s basically like a freaky rainmaker type person?
Josh: And a great filmmaker: “Kuichisan” was her last film. But you know, our cinematographer Sean [Price] Williams, he’s a Japanophile, he shot “Kuichisan” here, he shot “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo.” [Chris Marker’s] “Sans Soleil” — I know he loves that film — is an example, there’s just a fanaticism and an extremism to Japanese movies. We showed one of our short films with Sion Sono’s “Cold Fish” at Venice in 2010 and with him too, there’s just an extreme admiration for all things human.
We went to a café here where they have a custom hi-fi set up. They play Bach music and you just sit there and you don’t say anything — if you talk to somebody that’s a violation against your human rights. There’s an extremism to everything, they appreciate every single little thing, there’s a store for this, for that, a shrine for this, for that.
Benny: Like there’s a cat café. At first you think it’s funny and interesting but then there’s that thought for other people, who can’t have a pet in their building, so they can go there and pet a cat and experience that… and then on the other end you can go to the 6th floor and witness the most insane boxing match.
Josh: This is an obsessive culture and ours is an obsessive movie. Also drugs are really, really illegal here, so the Japanese are really curious. I had to jump through hoops to get an aspirin.
But, like, the music of Tomita, he took Debussy, one of the most romantic composers of all time, and interpreted the way that he did — that’s extreme. It’s visceral and visionary, he turned it into Sturm und Drang somehow, I don’t know how he did it.
He turned Debussy into Wagner.
…by way of Mars.
It lends drama. And the way the drama happens in the film is interesting, so moment to moment.
Benny: Thing is, if you’re given context to a certain argument or situation, that kinds of eliminates some of the drama and some of the confusion. Here you’re seeing it as you would see it one the street, and you have to be as fast as possible to pick up everything — to pick up peoples’ mannerisms, what they’re saying, are they telling the truth, are they lying, who should I trust? There’s a lot of stuff going on there and we just wanted to replicate that. And we just wanted it to move like a rocket.
Josh: And drama is a drug. Drama is one of the the greatest escapes that we have, that’s why I always equated it to a drug. Sometimes it can be an unhealthy one.
It’s like our grandmother’s friend said: these are characters of no past and no future. And when you only have the now, what do you do with that? You’re just trying to create meaning, create future, create past, and that’s drama.
There’s a definite sense in the film that tomorrow will never come, it might as well not exist.
Josh: That’s addiction. Theres no such thing as tomorrow. In fact maybe a good title would have been “Tomorrow is Dead.” Do you know what the title is here in Japanese? “Fuck You God.”
Wow, maybe you should change the U.S. title to that…
Benny: We’re thinking about it, but I don’t like titles with asterisks in them.
Hmm, “Darn You, God”?
Both: Ha! No.
“Heaven Knows What” lands in New York and L.A. theaters this weekend, starting May 29th.