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How Josh and Benny Safdie Used Guerrilla Filmmaking to Hack Their Way Into Hollywood

The Safdie brothers spent a decade as American cinema's best-kept secret. With "Good Time," they're ready for their closeup.

Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie Directors Benny Safdie, left, and Josh Safdie pose for photographers during the photo call for the film Good Time at the 70th international film festival, Cannes, southern France2017 Good Time Photo Call, Cannes, France - 25 May 2017

Benny and Josh Safdie at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival

AP/REX/Shutterstock

Long before Robert Pattinson took a risk on them by starring in the gritty heist movie “Good Time,” sibling directors Josh and Benny Safdie spent a decade making scrappy, low-budget movies on the streets of New York. Now, they’ve been to Cannes three times, won fans from Hollywood executives and Martin Scorsese alike, and set up their own production company.

Just a few weeks after “Good Time” landed acclaim in competition at Cannes, a big studio project offered them a project. And they said no.

“It’s been a strange confluence of events,” said Benny in an interview a few days before the movie’s release in New York. “It’s just weird, because now there are a lot more people asking us questions—“

Josh, who’s a year and half older at 33, cut in. He does that a lot. “All of a sudden, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you speak our language. You’re interested in an audience!’”

With “Good Time” opening well in limited release and expanding nationwide this weekend, the Safdies are suddenly a hot item, but they took a roundabout path to get there.

A Slow Start

Not long ago, the Safdies were American cinema’s best-kept secret. The pair maintained a chummy film collective in lower Manhattan, where they grew up, producing irreverent shorts and cobbling together resources from commercials. Their first feature, the 71-minute “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” — which Josh directed and Benny produced — was a meandering 16mm narrative co-starring Josh and his then-girlfriend Eleonore Hendricks as a pair of two-bit thieves who just kind of wander around. “It wasn’t even really supposed to be seen,” Josh said. “It was just a total experiment that turned into this other thing.” The movie found some fans at SXSW, and then became the only American movie at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight in 2008.

The festival’s programmer at the time, Olivier Pere, saw potential in the Safdies’ work that even the brothers didn’t fully realize. “I was impressed by the poetry, the honesty and freedom of it,” said Pere, who now runs ARTE France. “They express something wild, intimate, and uncompromised about bohemian life in New York. It reminds me of neorealism and the American underground films of the ‘60s.”

“Daddy Longlegs”

They returned to Cannes the next year with “Daddy Longlegs” (initially titled “Go Get Some Rosemary”), a darkly comic tale about a dysfunctional single father (Ronald Bronstein) whose New York odyssey takes on a Kafkaesque dimension as he keeps screwing up his attempts to help his children. The movie crystallized their capacity to resurrect freewheeling, urban storytelling that faded from American movies decades earlier, but with a prankish edge. “Daddy Longlegs,” which the Safdies based in part on their own experiences with their divorced dad, also proved that they weren’t afraid to get intimate.

“What they say about childhood and fatherhood in their second film is very strong and emotional,” said Pere. “They find the right way to talk about their personal experience, like Pialat or Truffaut.”

The brothers landed on the festival circuit just as “mumblecore” became a buzzword for slice-of-life microbudget American filmmaking, but that wasn’t the Safdies’ aesthetic. Shooting without permits and capturing morally ambiguous characters enmeshed in ruthless schemes, they showed a penchant for toying with audience expectations. They also didn’t align with festival-circuit expectations: When “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” went to Cannes, Josh ignored emails from inquiring agents. “I never even responded to them,” he said. “I wasn’t interested.”

By the time they returned with “Daddy Longlegs,” cobbling together a movie with their own resources and no outside help, the brothers thought they had cracked the filmmaking formula. “We always thought it would be our blockbuster,” Josh said. “We figured, 50 perfect of America gets divorced.” They took one business meeting at the festival and still felt they had no need for commercial representation.

But “Daddy Longlegs” became a slow burn. It was shot in 2008, premiered at Cannes in 2009, then played at Sundance the following year. They were still promoting the movie in early 2011, when they won the John Cassavetes prize from the Independent Spirit Awards. In the meantime, they started writing a project set in Manhattan’s diamond district, “Uncut Gems,” talking up the project in interviews and considering how to take advantage of more resources. “It was a bigger world, and we wanted a larger-than-life actor,” Josh said. “We knew we needed an agency to reach certain stars — or so we thought.”

They signed with ICM in 2010, but “Uncut Gems” remained in limbo, and the Safdies found themselves at the start of even more unpredictable trajectory.

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