According to the people involved, it had been just one day since production had wrapped on Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What  when Buddy Duress—one of many nonprofessional actors featured in that picture—was arrested by police, who were acting on a year-old warrant. In a story published just this week by the New York Post, Duress explained the situation in more detail: He was busted for heroin possession in his native Queens in 2013 but had managed to escape custody while awaiting transfer to a drug treatment facility; his time “on the lam” eventually led him to the Upper West Side, where he found company with a number of fellow heroin users, one being a young woman named Arielle Holmes. Holmes, in her own time in that area, had previously met Josh Safdie, who was researching a film project set in the Diamond District (Uncut Gems, which is still to come.) The director would commission Holmes to write material about her life as a so-called street kid, and those pages would go on to form the basis for Heaven Knows What, which both Josh and Benny would direct, with Holmes and Duress in lead roles, despite the warrant hanging over the latter actor’s head. After the shoot finished, Duress was apprehended and then incarcerated at Rikers Island prison—while there, he kept diaristic notes for the filmmakers, just as Holmes had before. And with an assist from one of the planet’s more recognizable movie stars, all these various events would lead the Safdie brothers to their next film project.
“Robert Pattinson saw a still from [Heaven Knows What], got my email through the grapevine, and sent me an email, like, I saw this image, and don’t know what it is, but it feels tied to my purpose in some way,” explained Josh, the elder brother by about two years, speaking from the stage of the Brattle Theatre. He’s at a Q&A session following an early screening of that “next project”—it’s called Good Time , it co-stars Pattinson and Duress, and it opens in Boston this Friday. At the Brattle, he’s joined by Benny, as well as by the film’s composer, Massachusetts native Oneohtrix Point Never (the brothers are based in New York City and have made all of their feature-length narrative films there, up to and including Good Time.) “I had seen Cosmopolis  and The Rover ,” Josh continued, on the subject of Pattinson, “but I hadn’t seen the Twilight movies, and I didn’t really know who he was as a person, so that email already stuck out to me. Then he saw the movie, and we met, but there was no Good Time, there was no movie whatsoever. I just had this lifelong interest in a specific type of character—the American criminal—and I had been reading The Executioner’s Song for the first time, and In the Belly of the Beast. The first thing I said to him was that I wanted to do a movie that takes place in this milieu—about the American criminal, about the prison ethos in America, about what’s going on in America in 2017. And the only other person I want to be in it is Buddy Duress.”
“He can say whatever and it sounds real,” Josh told me a couple hours earlier. Josh, Benny, and I were seated at a table overlooking the lobby of the Liberty Hotel, where we were excitedly speaking about the line deliveries of Buddy Duress. In the two films he’s made with the Safdies, they have a speedy, drug-addled musicality to them, so that his words seem to trip over one another. If the “street kids” milieu of Heaven Knows What and Good Time feels authentic, that’s in large part due to his performances (as well as due to his personal history: his flashiest scene in Good Time sees him deliver a monologue, which becomes narration for a aesthetically-frenzied flashback, and the whole scene is “very tied to a real-life event”, according to the filmmakers.) “I’ll tell you where that comes from,” Josh continued. “When I met him, he’d never acted in anything. He’d never even thought about acting. But every single day of his life, he was acting. He had five different identifications in his wallet, so he was constantly different personalities—it’s the opera of the street, of the city specifically. Yeah, he was a con man, but he was a genuine performer. He loved to perform for people. You can see that quality in certain people. And if you can tap into it and mesh it with reality, then all of a sudden you can make an everyday performance look like a [movie] performance.”
Buddy Duress is hardly the first nonprofessional actor to give an “everyday performance” in a Safdie brothers movie. At the start of our interview, we spoke at length about the brothers’ time as students in Boston—and even when going back that far, most of their stories still end with “so we put him in a movie” (the two are lifelong filmmakers, having started with camcorders at a young age, before studying at Boston University). Benny tells me about Danny, from Millis, for instance, whom he met at a painting class at the university, “who’s probably 70 years old now” and framed houses for a living. Josh tells me about Peter Rand, an author and journalist who still lectures at the university, and who indulged the young filmmaker “at my most pretentious state.” And Benny tells me about Ivan Gold, another author/professor, whose works include the novel Some Friends, who had once invited the younger Safdie over to talk writing and to watch baseball, and who died just weeks after playing a role in Benny’s short film The Acquaintances of a Lonely John . In fact all three of the men, along with countless other acquaintances, filmed roles under the Safdies’ direction, for one project or another. This tendency of “personal” casting, I think, is essential to understanding what they’re are chasing after as filmmakers—that being a particular kind of urban texture, a specific type of street charisma, and perhaps most importantly, a certain kind of face.
JOSH: I got into South by Southwest with We’re Going to the Zoo , and when I was registering, this guy walked out of the convention center. I didn’t know who he was. But like Benny’s teacher Ivan Gold, he was just a face. I was like, this guy’s incredible. But I was very intimidated by him, so I didn’t want to introduce myself. And then I heard he made a movie called Frownland  … at the festival’s awards ceremony, [Frownland director] Ronald Bronstein won, and a programmer came up to me, saying, “I want to introduce you to Mr. Bronstein, because your short and his movie have something in common. I don’t know exactly what it is, but you need to know each other.” So then Ronnie and [cinematographer] Sean Price Williams, actually, went to go see We’re Going to the Zoo that next day, when I was already out of town. They wrote me an email, and then I saw Frownland in New York, and he’s one of my best friends now. With Daddy Longlegs  (which stars Bronstein), we wrote this crazy thing, and we went through it all scene by scene, and he was like, “No, I think this should happen,” or “This is how I could play it.” And we realized this was the start of a very fruitful relationship. At this point he was 36 years old—I’m 33 now, so even then he was ahead of me—and he could bring what I’m only now starting to see. He was jump-starting vision for us.
Ronald Bronstein would indeed become their next “face”, playing a fictionalized version of the Safdie’s own father in the aforementioned Longlegs, which was the first feature-length film the brothers directed together. Bronstein is now an essential part of their filmmaking troupe: He’s co-written two of their narrative features and one of their short films in the years since Daddy Longlegs (usually with Josh), and he’s co-edited many of those projects as well (usually with Benny). The aforementioned Sean Price Williams would also join the Safdie team, albeit later, working with the brothers on short film The Black Balloon  before returning as director of photography on Heaven Knows What and Good Time. There are other recurring figures on the Safdie cinema machine, including production designer/art director Sam Lisenco, camera operator Chris Messina (who’s credited as a gaffer on many of their student films), and Eleonore Hendricks, who has worked for the brothers as both an actor and in their casting department (on Good Time, she’s credited for “street casting”). Now Duress, with his second major role in as many features, seems the latest addition to the group, adding a texture all his own, far beyond just his “face.” As a performer, he maintains that abrasive lyricism, but can also modulate it according to the scene—depending on where the script is emotionally, and also on what his character has ingested physically. He’s got a command over a particular kind of diction, one that innumerable professional actors have struggled with or succumbed to. And that quality, all by itself, may well justify the very practice they call “street casting.”
Heaven Knows What was and is, thus far, the Safdies’ most ambitious pass at that practice (it’s also, to put it bluntly, one of the very few truly great American movies of recent years). Taking Holmes’ journals as its guide, the film stages a melodrama on the sidewalks of New York City—with Harley (Holmes) alternating between her passionate love for pseudo-nihilist Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) and her more economical partnership with her dealer and fellow junkie, Mike (Duress). Adding to the street authenticity, numerous scenes take place in or in front of chain stores, like a Dunkin’ Donuts or a White Castle—and to continue the authenticity kick, those scenes often end with the addicted characters getting kicked out, whether that’s necessary or not. It is a vaguely true story being dramatized by the individuals who inspired it, and who are performing it now in stolen, unpermitted, “nonfiction” settings. It keeps one foot planted in fiction, and the other hidden away.
To achieve that, Heaven Knows What frequently utilizes a trademark Safdie composition: a shot of a city street, captured from the opposite side of the block with a long-lens camera, and with the actors mic’d up—so that we’re seeing them, and hearing them, and watching people walk past them unfazed, but all from the safe distance of a curious bystander. This composition is present in The Pleasure of Being Robbed , the first feature-length movie directed by Josh, as well as in Daddy Longlegs and in many of their shorts. But in Heaven Knows What, the editing provides a stronger contrast to that composition than it had ever received before, at least from the brothers. Heaven Knows What alternates between the faraway bystander’s gaze and more intimate close-ups—usually of Holmes, but also of Jones, Duress, and other performers—in a way that intuitively suggests a changing of perspective. Comparable schisms also well up in the film’s soundtrack, which alternates between electronic recordings of classical pieces by musician Isao Tomita and hardstyle tracks preferred by Holmes and her friends—the former seem to align with the voyeuristic long shots, and the latter with the intrusive close-ups. All these contrasts, visual and aural, are emphasizing a gulf between the characters in the film—the people who inspired the film—and the filmmakers who are gazing at them, whose perspective often seems to be far away. Which is a way of saying that the Safdies’ films now completely acknowledge the fact that they need help in capturing the texture of a city, the texture of New York City—the filmmakers, and the film, are bystanders, and they want to find the characters, the texture, the “faces”, they want to steal them, record them, from whatever street corner allows them to do so. And the films themselves, to their immense credit, seem fully aware of all these dynamics.
One particular short feature by the brothers, the Seattle-set piece Straight Hustle , lines up with Heaven Knows What, and with these concerns, more than any other. Straight Hustle documents the process of a panhandling con—a young woman and an older man, both presumably locals, are essentially playing good cop/bad cop, working to trick bystanders into thinking they’re stranded travelers collecting bus fare to leave town. It’s all seen from that trademark Safdie composition—from the voyeuristic safety of the other side of the street—and in one unbroken shot, too. The couple try to find a mark, failing at their first try, then succeeding at their second. And the first man, who saw through their con—who is not a performer, but a bystander, a part of the “nonfiction”—begins narrating their scheme to his own friends, giving commentary while the other pair run it a second time, speaking so loudly that the microphones pick up his every ecstatic word, which he doesn’t even seem to realize himself. In just four minutes, this short provides a microcosm of everything the Safdies have set their camera on in recent years: their focus on the narratives of people making livings on the margins of the lower classes, their interest in the cons and hustles that can become necessary to maintain life at that economic level, and their use of unknowing bystanders as visual texture. They’ve been making movies about the people most filmmakers don’t notice, casting the people that most filmmakers don’t notice—and texturing the films themselves with the populace of the cities they’re set in, because the people in the locations they steal don’t seem to notice that anyone’s making a movie at all.
BENNY: Straight Hustle was this perfect confluence of reality and fiction and the one-shot, and characters embedded within it.
JOSH: On Straight Hustle, we wanted to tap into a certain kind of movies, many from the ’90s, where they were messing with reality in a way. Close-up , or The Mirror .
BENNY: The across-the-street shot from Close-up.
JOSH: There’s a lot of them. And obviously in Heaven Knows What, we took that to an almost perverted level.
With Good Time, the Safdies have created something decidedly poppier, leaving behind the melodrama of Heaven Knows What in favor of something more like a crime odyssey. The picture follows Connie (Pattinson), who starts by breaking his developmentally disabled brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), out of a psych center, then commits a bank robbery in Flushing, gets foiled by a dye pack, and ends up leaving Nick behind to be arrested by the police—at which point, wracked with guilt, he begins chasing down the $10,000 he needs to bail Nick out of Rikers, doing so by running scams on his own marks (the privilege that allows Connie to get away with these schemes in plain sight—his being a white man, and a pretty one at that—is a constant and explicit factor in the narrative). And the film that follows him, as shot by Williams, scored by Oneohtrix Point Never, and edited by Bronstein and Safdie, is an anti-city-symphony. Its depiction of the outer boroughs is something like a living nightmare. And that perspective seems to come from Connie himself, as his only stated goal is to get out of there—”let’s go to Virginia, man” is the plan he sells Nick on before the robbery. That dictates a film that’s built of anxiety-inducing urban signifiers, and the filmmakers oblige: neon signs, red headlights, police sirens, carnival attractions, heart monitors, they all bleed together into a arrhythmic shriek. And that seems to press down on Connie, who’s quickly seeing his options shrink down to “hiding” or “prison” or “homelessness” (if he’s not there already), just like they seemed to for so many of the characters who populated the Safdies’ last film.
“The movie is really about time,” said Oneohtrix Point Never, after the screening at the Brattle. “Because until there’s a threat, you don’t worry about time. But once there’s a problem, it’s oh shit. And this movie brings that to a crazy level. Intuitively, without really working it out, the music embodies that stress. With simple formal things, like pulsation, we really work on the stress.” The soundtrack achieves the task, because Good Time, aesthetically, is a film of sheer propulsion: Lights and sounds seeming to motivate one another, each pushing further as the film plays out; scenes are occasionally staged entirely in alternating close-ups, to keep you unsettled spatially; and Scorsese-style swoop-in close-ups arrive to wake up any scene that’s been static for more than a minute. That, all together, has got to be the stress that Oneohtrix is talking about—the stress of constant sensory overload—the stress of “what’s going on in America in 2017”—American life in 2017 being an existence that, like Good Time itself, often feels like it’s careening between the rules of realism and those of genre.
But even as its aural and visual elements dip into excess and abstraction, the authentic texture of Good Time holds together. It’s not just Duress’ vernacular that does it, but also that of Brooklyn rapper Necro, another veteran of Heaven Knows What, who can weaponize his diction similarly. Plus there’s the work of first-time actor Taliah Webster, playing a 16-year-old girl at a Queens home that Connie manipulates his way into, who is as striking and surprisingly vulnerable as Duress was in his film debut. She’s yet another character in a Safdie film, presented with essentially no exposition, who immediately gives the impression that she could hold up a movie of her own. This is part of the beauty of their filmmaking, going back to their earliest features: they may not give their performers a developed character in the screenplay, but their close-up’s and editing, which are nothing less than generous, work with the performances to imply one anyway. In terms of Good Time, that means that each of the actors who stick around for a scene or two—be it a debut performer like Webster, or one of her more seasoned co-stars, like Jennifer Jason Leigh—gets an opportunity to leave a wound on the movie. They usually do so in those close-up’s, which, thanks to the charisma and expressiveness of those performers, are all the exposition you’ll ever need.
Which is a necessarily economical choice, because for the most part, Good Time is always running to its next location: not since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  has an American film been so dedicated to images of people sprinting. The brothers, of course, have their own reference points.
JOSH: The nonfictional elements of Good Time are in the casting, and in some of the screenwriting … but it’s a highly scripted movie, by far our most plot-driven thing. We went crazy with this narrative … It’s very much Through the Looking Glass.
BENNY: There is something about that way of storytelling. Like even Gogol, Dead Souls, that constant movement.
JOSH: Which we’ve been doing with character-based stuff. But now we were like, we have all these tools that we’ve refined, let’s put them into genre. Let’s make a popcorn movie. Let’s make a thriller. This idea of constantly pulling the audience forward—but also infusing that with a character study. So there’s two different types of viewings of Good Time. There’s the normal moviegoer, who just goes to the movie to be entertained and who will be. But we’re also doing this thing that genre movies have been doing ever since they came to be, where you’re infusing social commentary within the guidelines of the genre.
BENNY: Someone asked us if there’s an appetite for this movie. There’s always an appetite for these movies, because there’s always going to be a craving for pulp. It is a classic form of telling a story. This idea that you go to the movies to escape, then you leave the movie and you can’t stop talking about it, because there’s little things you catch up with.
JOSH: All of that stuff comes from someone like Sean Price Williams, in a weird way. We grew up idolizing these movies like 48 Hrs.  or The Running Man . And there is a movement among cinephiles, where you’ll see the same person at a Wiseman [nonfiction] movie that you’ll see at, like, Shakedown , which is a pulpy 42nd Street grindhouse movie. Sean would do that. He is the master of high and low. He will revere a Fassbinder film, but he will also revere some blockbuster from the ’80s that is ostensibly a piece of trash. He sees the importance of them both. We made Heaven Knows What together, but [on Good Time], he would say, “Now we’re making a tapehead movie.” A movie that is like the VHS tape where people are like Oh, shit! Put it on! Put it on!
It’s taken almost a decade of professional filmmaking for Josh and Benny Safdie to get to their genre movie—their tapehead classic—but it’s good that they got to it now. They’ve slowly transitioned away from a predilection toward abstract and dreamlike characterizations, which were present in their student films, their early features, and even in their documentary film Lenny Cooke . Those first two narrative movies each built to unreal moments where the lead character essentially confronted a symbol—in Pleasure, when a recently-arrested woman passes through a zoo and plays with a fellow caged animal, and in Longlegs, when a beleaguered father imagines a human-sized mosquito squatting in his apartment, yet another domestic quandary he can’t quite figure out. Scenes like that place the weight of subtext, even cosmic significance, onto individual characters, and with a heaviness those films risk buckling under. But in the films that follow— in some of the shorts made after Daddy Longlegs, in Heaven Knows What, and in Good Time—you see the directors grow past that tendency. They’ve reached a point where they can find their symbols inside the reality of the people they’re depicting: in Good Time, that includes a Sprite bottle loaded with acid, which for these characters might as well be a bucket of gold. And of course the constant sprinting, from potential target to potential target—from job to job—brings its own deeper significance. These are the kinds of symbols that never throw off the film’s rhythm—they never interrupt what Benny called its “constant movement”. So even when hinting towards the cosmic, Good Time is keeping its eye trained on the specifics of its situation: focused on what’s valuable in this milieu, or on how the people in this culture talk and communicate and manipulate, or on how they look and dress, or on Buddy Duress. Their films now seem invested in the textures of people, moreso than in whatever those people might represent. Even while Good Time treats lights, sounds, and places with expressive abandon, the Safdie brothers manage to present their characters as nothing more than who they are.
JOSH: I think you could attribute that to the fact that, starting as teenagers, we were literally hustling on the side to make these movies. And as we began to be more and more in the real world, where we’re getting beat down by it, people saying no to us all the time, having to do shitty commercials to make ends meet, you start to get a little hardened. Things become less representative, and more real.
BENNY: You look at John’s Gone , and it’s the same character as The Acquaintances of a Lonely John. And we always say it’s just John after life put him through the motions.
JOSH: … There is a level of joie de vivre when you’re younger. And I don’t think we’ve lost it, but I think we’re seeing it in different places.
GOOD TIME. RATED R. OPENING FRI 8.25 AT AMC BOSTON COMMONS, COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA, REGAL FENWAY, AND SOMERVILLE THEATRE, “PLUS SUBURBS.”
HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. RATED R. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON NETFLIX AND CAN BE RENTED VIA OTHER VOD OUTLETS.
STRAIGHT HUSTLE. ALONG WITH MANY OTHER SHORT FILMS BY THE SAFDIE BROTHERS, CAN BE STREAMED ON VIMEO OR AT FANDOR.COM.