The idea of a Hollywood star getting some indie street cred by taking a massive pay cut to support the work of an edgy, up-and-coming auteur is hardly a new concept, but describes at least half the films at Sundance. However, the films of Josh and Benny Safdie are more than their somewhat simplified reputation as gritty New York filmmakers, and the decision by Robert Pattinson to star in the pair’s new film isn’t your run-of-the-mill case of an actor looking for street cred.
The Safdies’ distinctive guerilla-style approach to filmmaking on busy streets, often with amateur performers – who embody the underbelly of the city – is a cinematic world based on complete authenticity and the product of an immersive creative process that requires, as Benny described it, “being put through the ringer.”
When the Safdies recently programmed a Metrograph series of films that influenced “Good Time,” they titled it “NOW” — a reference to what they deem the “hyper-now” of their films and the unique brand of immediacy they bring to their filming process. While guests on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, the born-and-raised New York brothers compared their approach to storytelling to riding a local subway train alongside another one going express.
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“You look into that train and you can see the narrative of that train,” said Josh. “You make eye contact with someone, someone gives you the finger. When we try to make a movie, we are trying to catch up to the express train with our local train and we just get that little moment where we are just looking in and the express train takes off. That’s all you can hope for.”
To capture these bursts of story and movement the Safdies are careful to maintain an extremely lean crew in which everybody on set is hustling to get the job done and no one is ever sitting. “If you didn’t bring that energy or vibe to it, it would not fit, it would hurt everything,” said Benny. “That feeling is there, that energy.”
That’s also why the Safdies try to shoot on real locations, but whereas most filmmakers try to control the environment and obtain permits to close down streets, the “Good Time” directors want their story world to mesh with real people and activity of the city.
“Whenever someone watches a documentary and an element of thrill joins into it, it’s ten-fold because it’s happening in real life in a weird way,” said Josh. “So [the challenge was] how do we do that with movie stars.”
The Safdies like to populate their films with non-professional actors, people they meet who are performers and stars of their own worlds. For example, their last film “Heaven Knows What” was based on the life of Arielle Holmes, who stars in the film and the filmmakers met on the street.
“I’m always just after the now and there’s certain people who embody it really well and I just want to get very close to them and I just want to revel in it with them,” said Josh. “Usually casting a first time [performer], who has never even thought about being an actor before, there is an element of documentary in there. You are casting somebody who the audience has no preconceived baggage of… There’s are purity to that.”
As the Safdies’ films have increasing caught the attention of Hollywood they have been approached by a number of notable actors, but they’re often suspicious if established actors are really willing to give themselves over to their unique approach to filming.
“There’s a lot of people who [say], ‘Oh, I want to do this, I want to do this,’ and they don’t actually want to do it,” said Benny, who emphasized they ultimately trust their intuition when they meet with an actor. “But we kind of got the feeling that he [Robert Pattinson] definitely wanted to do it, he wanted to put himself through the ringer.”
The brothers believe that the strongest performances come from trained actors when they take on roles where they are tapping into who they are as a person. With Pattinson, they were intrigued by a side of him they hadn’t seen publicly.
“When we met him for the first time, what we were interested in this mania that we saw that I had never really known about, it’s not a public part of who he is,” said Josh. “Another part that was really kind of exposing was this element – he had like this Vietnam War vet quality, like he had been through something very traumatic. If you put duck-tape on a cat they think they are up against a wall, he kind of walks like that. He thinks everybody is watching. He has this on-the-run quality to him and that was like, ‘OK, we can definitely work with that and work that into the character.”
The Safdies liked the idea of building a fast-paced narrative around what they were sensing from the famous actor in real life. First, though, they let Pattinson know what would be expected of him, by describing what actor Caleb Landry Jones went through in preparing and filming “Heaven Knows What.”
“I was like, ‘Listen, if we’re going to agree to do a movie right now, I’m letting you know we’re going to leave here and in six weeks we’re going to be getting ready to make this movie,'” said Josh. “He told his agents, his manager, don’t counter, just take the offer. I’m doing this movie, I don’t want to hear anything. You can’t slow it up in any way.”
That was the ultimate sign for the Safdies that they had found the the right actor to build a movie around — because the one thing they won’t tolerate is sitting around.
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.