“Making movies is the most healthy addiction I’ve been able to land on,” says Josh Safdie, whose new film Heaven Knows What rolls into theaters tomorrow.
Co-directed with his brother Benny, the Safdie brothers’ latest film began when Josh discovered a young woman named Arielle Holmes working in Manhattan’s Diamond District. After approaching her, he soon realized she was a homeless heroin addict, living on the streets and working odd jobs to get her fix. Immediately fascinated by her life, he asked her to start keeping a diary of her daily activity, which would eventually turn into the memoir Mad Love in New York City before becoming the basis of the script for Heaven Knows What.
Starring Holmes as herself in a frighteningly visceral and possessed performance, the collaboration is a strange and rare hybrid that may be indebted to the raw and haunting drug dramas of cinema’s past, yet has elevated those influences to craft an emotionally potent and unflinching film entirely its own. As a cutting look into the world of drug addiction on the streets of New York, the gritty drama meets comic book romance meets “opera of long lens” photography. It premiered at the New York Film festival back in October and has since stayed under our skin.
Costarring Caleb Landry-Jones as Holmes’ obsessive love Ilya, the film also features intense and impressive performances from “street legend” Buddy Duress and rapper Necro. The Safdie’s fourth feature together, Heaven Knows What is as masterfully composed as it’s starkly natural in its approach, enhanced even more by an effervescent and sonically pleasurable synth score by pioneering avant-garde composer Isao Tomita. From its explosive beginning to its elliptical end, there’s an ethereal and dreamlike quality to it that draws you under its spell. It takes you inside a never-ending nightmare where nothing ever feels quite real and the only tie to reality is the gnawing itch for more.
I sat down with Josh and Benny earlier this month to learn more about their immersive filmmaking process, the art of blending fact and fiction, and the danger of being so present that there is no future.
You’ve said that making movies is a way for you to have life experiences. So how does that factor into the films you make and the kind of projects you choose to work on.
Josh Safdie: Making movies is the most healthy addiction I’ve been able to land on. Movies are an excuse to rub elbows with corners of the world, or people, you don’t normally get to experience on a personal level. So making movies is basically an excuse to go out there and befriend these subcultures and know these people I really want to know as a person. Then you make the films as like these reports for yourself, but then they end up having some type of social value. I’m not a journalist, but I think subjective journalism is awesome, and objective journalism doesn’t exist in my mind. I’m not interested in objective journalism, I’m only interested in subjective, totalitarian expression and making movies is a really great excuse to do just that. My research wasn’t research. Certain friends of mine, when I would not see them for a long time, would be like, what are you doing? I’d be like, I’m just hanging out with my friends, but I wouldn’t tell them who my other friends were, I would just say it was research because they wouldn’t understand why I’m actually attracted to and want to hang out with all these different walks of people. Certain friends would call it research and other friends would just know it’s me.
Benny Safdie: It’s not an approach that we take that’s always going to be the case, but it happens to be a lot of the time that you have to dip your toes in the water.
JS: Making movies is a horrendous experience, there’s nothing fun about it, nothing. It’s a nightmare. It’s a lot of arguing, a lot of preparing—it’s war; it’s not anything but that. Filmmaking, for me, is the side effect of being who I am and who I want to be. I’ve always been interested in knowing subcultures or knowing friend circles to the point where I can understand their nuance. I just want to know everybody.
The small details and specificity of the film—like when Ilya is sitting the library listening to black metal music–obviously comes from your own immersion into that world mixed with Arielle’s experience. In the writing process, how much direction did you give her?
JS: I gave her a lot of direction for the writing. In the beginning it started off as a very broad assignment, I just said, at the end of each day, whatever you did that day—even if you woke up and sat in the same place for 12 hours and did nothing—I want to know what happened every hour. If nothing happened, I want to you to describe exactly how nothing happened. So the first four or five pages that she brought in were very basic, but her attention to detail and the way she was communicating those details was very interesting and nuanced. I thought, okay, here is the world I don’t see when I’m hanging out with her. It was eye-opening, and then she started to recap stories and I started to ask her to write about Ilya because I was most intrigued by him as a person for many reasons. I wanted to hear the way she wrote about him, and a lot of that exact writing shows up in the film in terms of her voiceover. Every time she would send me pages I would immediately share them with Benny and Ronnie [Bronstein] and we would constantly be like, this is where we start, and it was a new beginning every time. Then when she wrote about her wrist-slashing, but because I knew her when that happened, I had my perspective of it. I wasn’t there that day, but when she wrote about it that day that’s when everything changed we realized that’s where the movie begins and this is where our axis point will be and we’ll go from here. We knew that we were really intrigued by the Mike character and we wanted Ilya to be this like drug that popped up when we needed to and was an ultimate mystery.
The opening of the film is incredible — between the camera work, the music, and the intensity of everyone in the scene, it gives you a total rush. But I’m curious why you chose to begin the film there and not give us a deeper look into Arielle and Ilya’s relationship; we only see him as a menace to her.
JS: We’d shot a bunch of stuff, stuff that showed what happened and why shot got so angry, but it was strange. Those scenes we great, they were filmed beautifully, they we acted impeccably, the vibe was great, but when it was in the film it took away the romanticism of being angry with somebody and why Arielle is attracted to someone like that.
BS: It just took away the enigma of it all . Also, just the idea also of just seeing these people for the first time and knowing nothing about them, everything they do will be interesting from then on because you’re learning about them.
It’s very sad and surreal that the real Ilya passed away just a few weeks ago.
JS: When he died on April 12, it was really fucked up. He died in Central Park, in Strawberry Fields and I didn’t know how to place that death. I didn’t know how to place it because it was really sad for me. I was with Ari and we buried him a few days later. The whole thing, I didn’t know what it meant and I still don’t know what it means. He was so powerful. He changed my life to some degree, she did for sure, and he turned me onto so many great books and so much great music, but towards the end he was so fucked up. Of course, it was the only way out. The only way out of that lifestyle is death or prison, that’s it and it’s so obvious. Well, that or you get discovered and you make a movie. Buddy, who was in that lifestyle, we always thought he was going to be the first to go, which was really sad to us. I cried all the time thinking about Buddy because I love him, and he got arrested twelve hours after we finished. Now he’s out and if he didn’t get arrested he would have died, no question about it. That fetishistic view of death is really dangerous.
BS: Also everybody say they’re not afraid of it but they don’t think it will ever happen to them.
JS: When someone ODs in that lifestyle, the first thing people want to know is where that guy copped; they want that “hot shot.” Everyone wants the hot shots. I talked to Ari about it because it was a presumed OD the way Ilya went. No one revealed the autopsy but his liver was fucked up. It would have a been a number of things.
BS: The newspaper story said: “Man, 25, Homeless, Died in the Park”—
JS: Which was so strange to read. It was so distant and so impersonal. I didn’t even see him as a man, really. I talked to Ari about if it was an OD what that means because it’s a very vague death because it’s not really death, it’s more like kind of an eternal sleep in a weird way, you know?
How did Ilya respond to the film?
JS: Did you go to the NYFF screening in Alice Tully? Jim Jarmusch was sitting directly behind him and he spoke at full volume throughout the whole thing. He loved the movie. My only regret is that I wish I got to talk to him more about the movie. He showed up, he walked the red carpet, and he was the biggest star there. He kept telling me, “Don’t make me look like a pussy.” I kept trying to get him to be in the movie but he didn’t want to be in the movie. We shot a little scene with him and —
BS: He got up in the middle and was like, “I’m not doing this!”
So he was happy to be immortalized in this character?
BS: He didn’t care the fact that it’s sometimes negative, he didn’t care.
JS: Negative, he didn’t see it as negative. I remember when he was walking Caleb through the day with the wrist-slashing, he rarely had regrets, but he had regrets that day. He was like, “I pushed it too far.” I’d heard his name a bunch, and I would listen to music he loved through Ari, and then when I finally met him it was incredible. I had an immediate connection with him, and our casting director, the first person she ever street-casted was Ilya ten years prior to me finding Arielle. So whatever, it was all in the cards.
The film itself has a dreamlike feeling, where nothing ever feels quite real. No matter what happens, life just continues on.
JS: It’s a mobius loop. Someone saw the movie and had a really interesting reaction to it. They said that they think the Ilya character actually dies in that bathroom and that’s why the girl leaves and that everything after that is like a dream. It’s dream logic and it does entail dream logic at that point after, but I really enjoy that reading. I talked to Ari about it. She said that she sees it that way too because there was some dreamlike quality whenever she would engage with Ilya. Even the last time they saw each other a week before he died, she was in New York between jobs and they spent the day together and I met up with them at the end of the day. He was sober for the first time ever since I knew him and I saw the real Ilya for a moment and even then it was very dreamlike.
That fantastical element was especially highlighted by the music of Isao Tomita.
JS: I love that stuff. Ronnie introduced us to that music. He said this is the strangest and the most beautiful music you’ll ever hear, and it’s just that. It’s like sci-fi. The movie’s like a sci-fi horror to me.
BS: What do they send out into space? They send out Bach. Sagan did because it’s the most complicated we’ll ever get.
JS: And then space would send back Isao Tomita.
What was Arielle’s reaction when she first saw the film and how does she look back on it now?
JS: She wanted to wait to see it. I would meet up with her and show her things before she went to rehab, but then after rehab she wanted to wait for the Venice premiere. She’d seen stretches and blocks of it.
BS: I just remember she said she watched it and couldn’t believe that’s how crazy her life was because it’s so different now. She just couldn’t believe that’s where she was at. To be able to have the movie be from her point of view and yet have a perspective that she can view it from that place was great.
JS: Have you ever had an idea in the middle of the night, or you’re in some weird mind derail, and you think to yourself, I should write that idea down, but you say, I don’t need to write it down it’s in my brain, but then the next day you absolutely cannot remember it? The power of the mind is so scary, but then you have to remember every once in a while to record and examine or you won’t understand what it meant. She’s on another film right now and I spoke to her the other night and she said, I’m so happy that this movie exists. She doesn’t give a shit about what it’s done for her career because she’s just a badass like that and doesn’t give a fuck, but she does care what it means to her humanely and socially.
She has this incredible document of her life.
JS: I really hope 20 years from now she’ll be able to look back on this life and tell her kids like, yo you want to see this I was crazy. You want to see what I was like at your age? She was 19 when I met her, man. It’s crazy, I was looking at this picture from the beginning and she’s matured so much now. She was such a little kid and now she’s becoming a woman.
Will you all collaborate again?
JS: Absolutely, although I don’t really know to what degree. We’re doing another film in the fall and there’s a very small role for her, but I always want to collaborate with her. There’s an Ariel Pink music video that he did for the original song for the movie and we shot the video with her and Ariel in LA and I didn’t even give her any direction when we shot that. I gave her zero direction because I really wanted Pink to dictate it all because it was his world, but the second I hit record—the same thing with Buddy—there’s just this thing that turns on in them, it’s inspiring.
Did you two and Arielle look at anything outside of her world for inspiration? Were there any films or books you talked to her about?
JS: The movie was pretty insulated. We never really talked about Possession with Ari in terms of certain scenes where I needed her to be very performative. We talked about schlocky stuff. Movies weren’t really a part of it, everything came from her life and from the book itself. Oddly the most inspiring thing of all was probably the Mad Love episode from Batman. The original title of the movie is Mad Love and like that animated show is so dark and awesome. Weirdly I think that’s the only thing I sent to Iconoclast, like check out this cartoon this is the movie. We were going to reference Harley Quinn more often. When she got an agent I was like you guys have to get her on Suicide Squad. She specifically loved the Suicide Squad versions of Harley Quinn, the new 52 and like I’m not a huge fan of the direction they’re taking it in, although it makes sense. That tatted up kind of underground. Me and Ari would read comics together a lot. Music was a big part of the film, black metal and hard style and Debussy.