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How the Safdies Made Verité Drug Drama ‘Heaven Knows What’ with a Real-Life Ex-Junkie

How the Safdies Made Verité Drug Drama 'Heaven Knows What' with a Real-Life Ex-Junkie

Josh and Ben Safdie burrow into “Panic in Needle Park” territory with their raw-nerved heroin addiction drama “Heaven Knows What.” Star Arielle Holmes lived this life, and wrote a book, “Mad Love in New York City,” about her experiences kicking it on the streets of New York as a homeless drug fiend after the Safdies found her and put her in front of a camera for the very first time.

“That’s her life we recreated,” Josh Safdie said of star Holmes, whose memoir is the basis for the film’s script. Now she has signed with an agency. “She’s doing another film right now, which is very beautiful.”

Caleb Landry Jones, the only professional actor here, also anchors this suffocatingly powerful work as her on-and-off and also drug-addicted boyfriend Ilya, a stringy-haired transient who is barely tolerating the needy Harley’s (Holmes) excesses, from her toxic infatuation with him to her scratchy need to get high. This hairsplitting, tense, invasive but never exploitative junkie docudrama, which RADiUS picked up after its rapturous Venice premiere, shadows the nervy Harley — whose movements very closely mirror Holmes’ own — as she trawls the mean streets for a fix, a favor, or a place to crash.

The Safdies, with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (who has closely captured faces on gritty 16mm for the indie likes of Alex Ross Perry and Kentucker Audley), all but smash their camera up against the actors, a cast of street kids and former drug-doers including Buddy Duress, whom Josh Safdie calls “the soul of the film” and who has the air of young Pacino. Duress, who plays a streetwise dope pusher, was arrested 12 hours after filming wrapped and, according to Safdie, just got out of prison. His parole officer wouldn’t let him come to Texas, where “Heaven Knows What” screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival.

READ MORE: Junkie Drama “Heaven Knows What” Is Convincing as Hell

Josh Safdie, whose brother and co-writer/director Ben was not in town, chatted with SXSW Film Festival audience members following a screening, which he introduced via voiceover from backstage: “Beware the power of the mind.” “Heaven Knows What” opens May 29.

On why “love is a drug”:

“Getting high is a very interesting concept. We’re not romanticizing heroin use at all. I find it to be a boring drug, but it’s so subjectively romantic. We all want to get high in our way, we all have our own ways of getting high. That was part of my attraction to Arielle in the first place, her resilience and dedication to constantly hustle life for happiness. Love, I think, is the greatest drug we have. It’s the only socially accepted drug. We all know somebody who falls in love or is going through a breakup and is acting extremely irrational, incredibly moronic and dumb and beautiful yet it’s excused. ‘Oh, they’re in love.’ It’s beautiful but what is that? Love is a drug.”

On how the Safdies found Arielle Holmes and the film’s nonprofessional cast.

Producer Sebastian Bear McClard chimed: “Josh and I had spent about two years undercover on one block in New York City, Double D, the Diamond District on 47th between 5th and 6th, where we were trying to infiltrate another subculture of New York [for a documentary], diamond dealers, so we were very much playing other characters. We were leaving work one day and this beautiful office girl was also going into the subway with us and she caught Josh’s eye. He said, ‘Oh my god, look at her.’ I said, ‘Go talk to her.’ We followed her down to the subway platform and Josh gracefully introduced himself and took a picture and their platonic romance started from there and he discovered that she was not who she seemed to be, and she discovered that Josh was also not who he seemed to be.”

Safdie continued: “I was pretending to be a Rolex hustler and in the Diamond District, there are a lot of very tough Russian showroom managers who don’t speak a lot of English and only respond to money. She looked like one of them. I didn’t even think she spoke English when I met her. But a week later when we began our big friendship, she was dressed very differently. She was saying, ‘I live in Chinatown’ but she couldn’t place it and then she said, ‘I’m homeless’ and she was kind of telling me about this kid Ilya like I knew him. Very cult-like mentality. Any type of personal propaganda, I’m into.

I started a friendship with her, got her a job and then she flaked on the job three months into our friendship. Her phone disconnected. I just thought, ‘This is what happens, people come and go through people’s lives.’ Then she phoned me from a pay-phone and was like ‘Hey Josh, it’s Arielle.’ I said, ‘What the fuck happened to you? I got you this job. I thought you were responsible. I told everyone you were responsible. You made me look like an asshole; you look like an asshole.’ She said ‘Alright, alright, I’m sorry, I just got out of the hospital. I killed myself. I tried to kill myself.’ I was like ‘Oh man, let’s meet up.’ 

READ MORE: How a Rikers Island Inmate Became a Star at the New York Film Festival

“We started talking and I said ‘I hope you’re not going to see this kid Ilya anymore’ and strangely enough the real Ilya, which Caleb Landry Jones’ character is based on, was street-casted by our casting director 10 years before I saw Arielle, who was his girlfriend. So there is some strange shit going on in the cosmos if I’m going to be gravitationally pulled toward this girl and our casting director was pulled toward this boy, whose hero is Diogenes and who lives on the street because that’s where you think. I became really deep in this social circle and started hanging out with these people as friends without the intention to make a movie, and the deeper I got the more distant the other project became– the Diamond District film– and eventually a friend in LA basically said, ‘What are you doing worrying about this Diamond District film? This is the star right here.’

And that’s when I asked [Arielle] to start writing about her life and when she started writing, I really saw the film because her writing is so resilient, so unique, so beautiful, so immediate and when I say unique I mean unaffected. She dropped out of high school at 15, learned how to read and write by stealing textbooks from NYU dormitory garbage cans and she wrote her entire book standing at an Apple store for nine hours at a time without glasses. So she’s standing six inches from the screen and she got banned from the Apple store, so I gave her my laptop. Then I got a phone call from McDonald’s, because I have my phone number on my laptop. She was with a bunch of her friends and someone was like ‘That’s a stolen computer.’ So I called her and was like ‘Who has my computer right now?’ She’s like, ‘I do.’ I said ‘Well someone thinks you stole it.’ And she said ‘Fuck them.'”

On riffing on Jerry Schatzberg’s “Panic in Needle Park”:

I saw an Al Pacino quality in Buddy Duress. Jerry is a fan of some of the other movies I’ve made and I was adamant about getting his blessing on this movie because “Panic” takes place in the same zip code as our film on the Upper West Side, where people are more liberal and more inclined to give people money. He said, ‘Hey you have my complete blessing. My only recommendation is don’t hire any real junkies.’ I said, ‘Okay, we’re making a different film.’

On filming guerrilla style with “non-actors”:

“A lot of our close-ups were shot two blocks away with lenses that are used for safari photography which made it very confining to some of these first-time actors. I don’t like to say non-actors because that means they’re not an actor, when really this is just their first time acting. Believe it or not, Caleb who is our most veteran actor, became kind of unwieldy and tough to photograph and act with — and did a beautiful job — whereas somebody like Buddy became super professional. ‘I need my mark! I need my countdown! I need my 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 or else I’m not doing my scene!’

We did a lot of rehearsals. Sometimes we shot a scene four or five times throughout shooting. When you’re shooting a super long lens through pedestrians — all the exterior stuff we never blocked out, all the interior stuff was locked down with corporations, if you’re from White Castle I love you — you’re talking about six feet of movement. It’s very confining. You look at Hollywood film and you have five inches of movement, but you’re forgetting about the hundreds of different people who can come in and out of our shot, which made our DP’s job very hard. We would do a lot of war scouting, we felt like social terrorists. We did a lot of single camera and two camera stuff as well.

“The beautiful thing about some of these first-time actors is that if they’re coming from a street background, their lives are very performative as they are. Living on the street, hustling, you’re constantly enacting a personality, cheating and deceiving, and for them, doing a scene was like a luxury. The consequences are a bad review, not a knife in your back.”

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