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Interview: ‘Heaven Knows What’ Directors Josh and Benny Safdie Are Addicted to the Truth

Interview: 'Heaven Knows What' Directors Josh and Benny Safdie Are Addicted to the Truth

From the streets to the screen, the unbelievable story of Arielle Holmes  is a fascinating example of the rare occurrence when cinema and
reality blend almost unnoticeably. New York-based filmmaker duo Josh and Benny Safdie followed Holmes story from her days as a heroin addict living
destructively to her film debut starring as a version of herself in a film
based on a book she wrote about those very experiences. To call it a
miraculous story would be to minimize it, because it’s even more improbable than
it sounds. Once again, reality overpowers fiction.

Enthralled by Holmes, the Safdie brothers decided to make a
film about her life and have her star in it, a choice that might seem risky for
some but that felt absolutely correct for the filmmaking team. The result is
Heaven Knows What” an exquisitely raw and ferociously truthful film about
people lost in a corrosive lifestyle. Drug addiction and emotional dependency
go hand in hand as Harley (Arielle Holmes) tries to regain her boyfriend’s love
while finding ways to support her habit and stay alive. Humanizing
their characters while never condoning or passing judgment, the directors explore
the realities of their lives with a documentary-like visual style that is as
vivid as it is heart-wrenching.

An accomplishment both in technique and emotional power, “Heaven
Knows What” is an eye-opening experience brimming with unflinching truth.  We had the chance to talk to the Safdie
team about their latest film and how they manage to put so much of the real world into
each frame.

Arielle Holmes is evidently the driving force of this incredibly truthful and bold project. At what point in her journey did you meet her? How did you find her and her story and decided to make a film about it?

Josh Safdie: I
found Arielle, that’s what happened really. I was doing research in the Diamond
District. I was there for like a year and a half and I thought I knew every
person who was a part of the fabric of that street, which is 47th
between 5th and 6th, in Manhattan, New York.

One day at the end of the workday I went to the subway with
my producer Sebastian Bear-McClard and saw Arielle. When I saw her she was
dressed in a really nice dress, which I later found out she spent all of her
money on, and she appeared clean because she’d washed herself in a public
bathroom that morning. She woke up that morning on the steps of a Buddhist

At the time she paid for her habit and for her dress
moonlighting as a dominatrix at a place called Pandora’s box.  I knew none of this when I met her, all
I knew was this was a beautiful girl who had real composure to her and who had a
real star quality to her. I wanted to try to find a way to put her in this
other movie we were trying to do, but when I met up with her to get to know her
better, I soon realized that she had a very different life.

It was the one you see in the film, and we didn’t agree to
make this movie until months later. I knew her when she attempted to kill
herself, it happened in the time span of me getting to know her. I was just
trying to hook her up with other jobs and just be her friend, and I eventfully
asked her to start writing about her life. I directed the writing and I paid
for it. The book is pretty special, she wrote most of it in Apple stores.

Aguilar: Once you were so invested in her story, was it a
logical step to have her star in the film?

Benny Safdie: It
was logical

Josh Safdie: Yes,
we wanted to make the movie because of her.

Aguilar: Did you have
any concerns about the fact that she probably had never acted before?

Josh Safdie: No.
Never. That’s not unusual for us. She was a star, we just needed to figure out
a way to work with her star quality and find her greatest strengths during the
rehearsal period. We put her on camera a lot before we started filming to see
how she acted with the camera. We actually found that the more regimen we gave
her the better she was. If we just turned on the camera and have her improvise
it was OK, but she needed the structure of a script to be even better.

Benny Safdie: She
wanted to take her own emotions to another level.

Aguilar: She is
incredible in the film. Is this perhaps her first film of many to come?

Josh Safdie: She
did another film in the wintertime, a Sci-Fi, and right now she is acting in
another one, a big one.

Aguilar: The rest of
the cast is also outstanding. Was there a mix of professionals actors and non-actors? They are all so great is impossible to differentiate.

Josh Safdie: Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Ilya, is an actor. He’s been in “X-Men,” “Byzantium,” “Antiviral,” and
others, he is a young Hollywood actor who was introduced to me through one of
our casting directors Jennifer Venditti. He was by far the most professional.
Then there was Eleonore Hendricks who played a very small role as Erica. Buddy Duress, who played Mike, the dealer, was a real revelation to us. He blew us
away with his rawness and his energy. He got arrested the day we finished
filming the movie and he was in jail for a year, now he is out and he is in an
acting class and he is doing pretty great. He was like a street legend,
everyone knew him in the streets, and he’d been in and out of jail his whole
life. Oddly enough we had a similar upbringing, so I could have easily made the
left when he made the left, instead a made a right, and did what I ended doing.
Now I think that he will hopefully make the right. Necro, who plays Skully, is
a pretty big underground rapper, who I was a big fan of.

Aguilar: The entire
cast disappears completely into their roles. It’s hard to even
think these are actors playing a part.

Benny Safdie: The
goal is to make it seem like nothing has been done.

Josh Safdie: Testament
to the success of the film is when people see the film and think Buddy,
playing Mike, is the big professional in the movie. Everyone hears “Oh, there
is a big actor in the movie,” because Caleb has a real following, but when
people see the movie they think Caleb is the non-professional actor and Buddy
is the professional. That’s a real testament to Caleb’s performance as well.

Benny Safdie: It’s
a matter of complete immersion into the fabric of that world, and accepting it.
At the same it’s also about mixing the professionals and the firs-time actors.
We use improvisation as a form of getting the people’s language right. We use
it as a tool to get the dialogue perfect. It always sound better when it’s
coming from someone’s own voice as opposed to from above, from us. If somebody
doesn’t feel comfortable saying it a certain way we change it, and then that
makes that person more comfortable.

Aguilar: Surely
Arielle’s own experiences informed a lot of your choices. Did she ever come to
you and say, “This didn’t happen that way” or “This doesn’t sound right”?

 Josh Safdie: That’s funny because
when she said that, most of the time it was in accordance to whether or not
something happened the way it should have in real life, and we had changed it
because it needed to be changed so that somebody watching the movie could feel
how she felt. But then that actually helped her because when she started
understanding the reasoning behind it and it made her acting even better. She realized, “OK, I can
make myself emotional more extreme to get the point across.”

Aguilar: Shooting a film like this in NYC was probably a great challenge. Did you guys shoot inconspicuously or on the fly to get such a realist and raw visual style? 

Josh Safdie: No,
it was all very structured because we were shooting a lot of our close-ups from
a block away. There was not much freedom to the movements of the actors. Some
scenes we did like 13 or 14 takes, sometimes we shot scenes twice. We would
shoot them and then we would go back to the same location on another day when
we had some free time. We would reshoot the scene if after watching the dailies
we felt like it wasn’t quite right.

Benny Safdie: In
New York you are not allowed to shoot without a permit if you have a tripod. We
pretty much shot the whole movie with tripods or Steadicam, and if you have
something like that on the street you need to legally have a permit or you’ll
get stopped. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without it, so we had to be
very regimented with how we shot just based on the equipment we were using. We
had that restriction upon us and for the actors, like Josh said, they had to be
on their marks perfectly or else we’d miss it.

Aguilar: The constraints are definitley not noticeable, the city feels and the characters feel completely free.

Josh Safdie: We
did not block the sidewalks. we allowed the city to exist as the city, we were
just using it to our advantage.

Benny Safdie: At
some point you let the city live within the frame and let the actors live on
their own within that circle, and it all kind of folds into itself.

Aguilar: Tell me
about the film’s structure. The way it starts and the way it ends, it feels
like an endless cycle in a sense

Josh Safdie: That’s
the cycle of the lifestyle. You kind of can’t get out of it, it’s almost impossible
to get out of it. The reality of that lifestyle is that the two ways out are
usually prison or death, or you get cast in a movie and you make that movie
[Laughs].  Ariel Pink, a great musician who did a
song for the movie and who was also in the film at one point, came to the L.A.
premier at AFI Fest, and someone asked him about heroin and his reply was, “ You do
heroin and get a movie made out of you.” He said it as a joke because he is a
cynical guy, but it’s very rare to get out. Breaks don’t usually come, they are few and
far between, and there are a lot of people who are stuck in that lifestyle. It
takes a lot of courage to get out of it, and a lot of will power. It’s a trap.

Benny Safdie: It’s
a physical addiction to the drug, and then there is the mental addiction to
this lifestyle that you think you are living.

Aguilar: It is a
lifestyle. Even as chaotic as their lives seem, they do have a certain
structure and specific patterns and things they have to do to continue living
this way.

Benny Safdie: Exactly,
it’s just a different structure. It’s not the one that we follow, but it is a
structure. We were just talking about the rent that they have to pay, it’s only
$15, for the tow of them that’s $30 a night, that’s cheap, that’s nothing. But
$30 a night, that’s $900 a month, with that money you can find yourself a
pretty descent room.

Josh Safdie: That’s
without mentioning their habit, which adds to thousands of dollars a year.

Benny Safdie: And
also, who would rent a room to somebody like that? At the same time that’s
a lot of money that they are raising, that they are earning by having to get up
8:00 to make sure that they make the morning rush.

Aguilar: The music in
the film is something that I really enjoyed and that feels cohesive with the story being told, in particular the ominous track that includes the lyrics,
“explore the power of the mind.”

Josh Safdie: That’s
funny because there are two pieces of music in the movie that are from
Arielle’s life, which her boyfriend, the real Ilya, and Arielle turned me on to.
It’s hardstyle music, it’s from a very hardcore electronic scene, and it’s by a
very famous DJ called Headhunterz. There is also a big movement in Australia
called Melbourne shuffle, which is basically like punk and stomp out music,
except that it’s hardcore electronic, but it’s also very beautiful and
classical. I consider it to be “Invincible music,” it makes you feel like you
are invincible when you listen to it, it’s superhero music. The piece of
music you mention, we always say that is diagetic because it’s inside of her head, the movie
is just hearing what’s inside of her head.

Benny Safdie: When
that track comes in it’s very different than when the music is playing in the
beginning of the movie. It comes in and it’s so motivated by what’s happening
on screen. It might as well be the sound effects from the park, they are

Aguilar: Did you guys
look at any other films that depict addiction to see how it has been
represented before?

Josh Safdie: No, we
looked to that world itself. If we were looking for any inspiration or any way to be
guided, we looked to the world and the characters themselves.

Benny Safdie: We knew
there were some pitfalls that other films fall into not just by accident but by
the nature of making a movie about somebody who loves a drug. We had
conversations about how to film the shooting of the drug, and how to shoot the
drug in certain ways to avoid glorifying it, or fetishizing it.

Aguilar: On a more specific note,  the film premiered in 2014, but for the theatrical release you include a note in the credits dedicating the film to the real life Ilya, who sadly passed away this year. Is what we see in the film Arielle’s premonition?

Josh Safdie: In
her writings, Arielle mentions she had a vision in which he had died. She thought
he was dead, but in reality he wasn’t. He was in a fire, and he survived the
fire. The irony is that Ilya died on April 12th this year under different circumstances.

Benny Safdie: It’s
very strange.

Aguilar: The way you
approach the subject is so truthful and uncompromising, were you ever concern
about audiences having an uncomfortable reaction or that it could be perceived
as provocative?

Josh Safdie: I
never feel uncomfortable, or dark or heavy. I’m actually very excited by
everything in the movie because I kind of previewed a little bit of the mindset
that the characters have. I never saw the movie as dark. It is what it is.

Heaven Knows What” is now playing in Los Angeles at the Acrlight Hollywood and in NYC at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema

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