‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to get a movie made... you take on kind of a criminal mindset’ - ahead of Good Time’s UK release, Josh and Benny Safdie unpack their trippy new noir
“We don’t come to LA much,” says Benny Safdie in the back of a cab somewhere in Hollywood. “So when we do, it’s just wall-to-wall meetings. It’s a specific kind of insanity.”
“But that’s my speed,” Josh Safdie jokes. “That’s what I like to do.” Aged 31 and 33 respectively, Benny and Josh are currently staring down the barrel of moviemaking glory. Their latest release, Good Time, debuted to a six-minute standing ovation at Cannes in May, where it played in competition and won rave reviews – a rare distinction for American directors, especially ones their age. Critics praise the Safdie brothers for reanimating a bygone style of New York cinema, comparing their work to the early films of Abel Ferrara, John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese. The world they depict is a hallucination of urban grit, where shards of the uncanny lurk in the corners of every celluloid frame. In their short but smarting oeuvre to date, which includes the 2010 comedy Daddy Longlegs, the documentary Lenny Cooke (2013), and the breakout drama Heaven Knows What (2015), the Safdies train their focus on junkies, romantics, thieves and dreamers: outsiders struggling in the shadows of other people’s successes. There is the restless and stunted father failing to connect with his kids during a custody visit in Daddy Longlegs; the hopelessly lovestruck heroin addict who robs convenience stores in Heaven Knows What; and Cooke, a real-life, top-ranked basketball player whose multimillion-dollar prospects unceremoniously fizzled.
In Good Time, Robert Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, a convict from Queens who attempts to rob a bank with his mentally disabled brother, and then must embark on a minute-to-minute crimewave in order to break him out of prison. As Connie, Pattinson portrays an antic, charismatic swindler, turning in the type of performance that made legends of Hoffman and Pacino. For those only familiar with Pattinson’s work in Twilight, the transformation is astonishing. For those who’ve followed his subsequent roles in arthouse films, it’s easily the best work of his career and a harbinger of big things to come. Set to the pace of a ghostly and menacing electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never (with a notable feature from Iggy Pop), Good Time bristles with fluorescent intensity, harking back to the experimental soundscapes of the VHS era – think Wendy Carlos for Tron or Tangerine Dream’s definitive work with William Friedkin and Kathryn Bigelow.
Presently, as Good Time prepares to set screens ablaze with neon-lit brutality, the Safdies are performing double-duty, promoting the release as well as entering the pre-production phase of their next project, Uncut Gems. Set in Manhattan’s Diamond District, it’s a movie they’ve been waiting nearly a decade to make. Now, by some stroke of kismet – or perhaps an elaborate con – they are finally about to begin production with the help of none other than Mr Scorsese himself, who signed on to executive produce. What follows is a conversation about fantasy and reality, crime and punishment, the evils of cinema, and why filmmaking is a lot like a life of crime.
Good Time marks the first occasion you’ve worked with big Hollywood actors, and it’s also your first foray into genre. You had said that you were hoping to make your film about New York’s Diamond District, Uncut Gems, as your next project. How did this movie come about first?
Josh Safdie: We had written a short film, and we’d written Uncut Gems – the first iteration – in 2010. I’m so happy that version didn’t get made, but it took a long time to get off the ground.
Benny Safdie: And out of frustration, we made other films.
JS: While we were shooting Lenny Cooke, I was constantly embedding myself in the Diamond District. I was selling fake Rolexes, making strange Skype calls to China and London with the agents who sell them – and, meanwhile, the fake Rolex thing became a very minor subplot in the movie. My producer, Sebo (Sebastian Bear-McClard) and I were basically undercover in the Diamond District. We were talking about making this movie, but mostly we were interested in meeting people and understanding the fabric of that world. It got to the point where we hired this Harvard architect to design an Uzbek lounge on the roof of this building on 47th Street. We were taking tours with the building owner, saying we wanted to have a showroom over here, a basketball court over here, a sauna over here... It was insane. We were spending a lot of money just to get in with certain people. And we did. That’s how I met Arielle (Holmes, whose memoirs formed the story of Heaven Knows What).
BS: And then you fast-forward to Heaven Knows What.
JS: Robert Pattinson saw a still from the movie and just the colour scheme attracted him to it. By the time he reached out, I was dead-set on Uncut Gems. I had done a whole rewrite of the script that became the final version of the movie, we were heading to LA to do this table read with a bunch of actors, and we finally had the steam to get the movie going. Then Rob called. At first I was like, ‘Why should I call this guy back? He doesn’t fit into the Uncut Gems world at all.’ It’s kind of a sign of my old self... I had a fatalistic way of thinking about making one movie, like it was all that mattered. I’ve learned that you have to be open-minded because you never know.
BS: Rob emailed us and said, ‘Look, I’ll do anything. I’ll do catering on your next movie.’ So you could hear this insane dedication, and we thought, ‘We have to meet him.’ So on one of these LA trips when we were trying to get Uncut Gems going, we met with Rob and he said, ‘I just want to work together on something. I want to disappear in a world like the one you created in Heaven Knows What.’ And we said, ‘If you’re really going to do it, then you need to go all the way.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah!’
“Rob (Pattinson) emailed and said, ‘Look, I’ll do anything (to work with you). I’ll do catering on your next movie’” - Benny Safdie
Where did the story for Good Time originate?
BS: Josh had been obsessed with a lot of the stuff in this world already. It had been in his mind, but it wasn’t necessarily going into a project. With Uncut Gems, something would happen and it would get pushed, and the frustration of not making something would brew (until) we would say, ‘OK, forget that for now, let’s make something while we can.’ Then the process of Good Time started and the whole cycle continued.
JS: But I don’t think Gems would have been the movie it needs to be if we hadn’t learned what we learned on Lenny Cooke, Heaven Knows What and Good Time – (doing those films allowed us to) embrace certain things we had been stubbornly against, certain staples of filmmaking that we weren’t used to. For the first couple of features we never responded to an agent’s email because we thought, ‘We don’t want to be involved in that world.’ Good Time was our experience of learning how to work within the film world and we’re very happy with the results. Everything is born out of circumstance. The world pushes you in one direction, and if you constantly push against it...
BS: ...it will put you in your place. You could say that filmmaking mirrors the experience of being a criminal. You go wherever the money is leading you, and if you see a door open, you go through it.
JS: That reminds me of what Rob said to me the other night. We were talking about whether he is right for this other role (in Uncut Gems) and I said, ‘But your face...’ and he said, ‘But my face isn’t Connie’s face.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? Yes, it is.’ And he said, ‘No, it isn’t... I’m just doing some weird-ass version of you!’ And I went, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ (laughs) But you’re right, because the way we’ve established ourselves as filmmakers and producers is that we’re going to do whatever it takes to get a movie made, which does enable you to take on kind of a criminal mindset – and I do. As much as Connie is a scumbag, I relate to the guy. Of course, if there’s no money to make a certain movie then we aren’t going to make that movie. We’re going to move on and go make something else. Good Time was an idea on the radar, but it wasn’t a movie we were going to make. It just presented itself.
BS: But you do have an obsession, a lifelong attraction to a certain kind of criminal.
JS: Benny’s right; that goes back to when I was ten years old. There was an article written in the late 90s by Glenn O’Brien. It was about the myth of the ‘psychopath’ and how the American criminal had been co-opted by the fashion establishment. It had to do with a specific aesthetic, and how society ate the tail of that aesthetic and vice versa. And now, what’s happened to the beautiful psychopaths? Obviously, there is a very long lineage of handsome men who were deranged. It’s a particular type of handsome, where people find them attractive but some would say, ‘But there’s something going on with him.’ When Rob reached out, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, he’s good-looking? He’s a con artist. He can be one of those quote-unquote criminals.’ These are people I’ve had a strange attraction to my entire life. I don’t necessarily get involved with them. It’s just a lifelong obsession with certain (individuals), like Gary Gilmore or Charles Manson.
Benny, your performance in the movie as Connie’s brother, Nick, is so convincing. How did you summon such powerful emotions and character traits for the part?
BS: It’s an interesting story. In 2010, Ronnie (Ronald Bronstein, co-writer of Good Time) and I had talked about doing something. We had created this character that was kind of an early version of Nick. I figured out I could do this strange thing with my voice. The movie didn’t end up happening, but the character just kind of stayed there. It kept evolving as we were writing Good Time, though I was never supposed to play the part (of Nick). We were looking at a lot of actors and people with developmental disabilities, thinking maybe we could cast someone with a real disability. But something felt wrong. We had some supremely talented people, but to get the character where we needed him we would have had to trick people, and that was the last thing we wanted to do. Also, in my performance, the last thing I wanted was to act down to this character. I could have shot myself in the foot playing somebody like this. You really need to understand and think like this character. You need to understand the thought process.
JS: There was a militant workout (for us) in terms of the character development. In our previous movies, we were working with real people and casting them for their own backstories. You’re using them for how they carry 30 years of character development. Then you work with them to alter that and create something new for the movie. With Rob, he’s obviously not from Queens, he’s not a conman, he doesn’t have a brother. And the idea is, if he doesn’t have 33 years of backstory, we have to create that. Jennifer Jason Leigh (who plays Corey, Connie’s girlfriend) signed on to the movie without even reading the script, just the backstory we wrote for her character.
“The way we’ve established ourselves as filmmakers is that we’re going to do whatever it takes to get a movie made, which does enable you to take on kind of a criminal mindset” - Josh Safdie
BS: Rob would send me emails in character as Connie, from jail, at precisely the point that the movie begins. He was avoiding his grandmother, talking about plans for when he got out. I had to behave like Nick, and then Rob would realise, ‘OK, there is a certain way I have to address him. I can’t say things to Nick this way.’ It allowed a relationship to develop between the characters that extended beyond the screen.
JS: I’m having a really fun time writing the female lead in Uncut Gems. I’m pulling from a few different people we interviewed, but I’m also letting my imagination go wild. When I was a kid, I really got off on not just the lie, but on someone being invested in the lie. The way that people can get emotionally attached to a lie fascinates me. When I’m writing these character backstories, it triggers this weird and childish evil in me, where I think, ‘Ooh, I get to tell a lie and there are no consequences.’ There’s only benefit and reward. That’s why film is inherently evil. Not only is film storytelling, it’s also the most voyeuristic and narcissistic thing, as a race, that we could do. We’re looking at ourselves all the time. It’s not natural.
BS: If you look at our trajectory, it’s interesting how we’ve gone from fiction to documentary to fiction based on reality, then back to a completely fictionalised world. There are things in Good Time based on reality, but they aren’t tethered to anything like they were in Heaven Knows What. Making it, there was a freedom there that was beautiful.
JS: Very true. In Good Time, what you’re seeing is a tapestry – it looks like cotton and it feels like cotton, but then you look at the tag and you realise it’s completely synthetic. But what’s happening is that, between these synthetic fibres, we are weaving in the real warden of Rikers Island, or a real NYPD sketch artist playing one of the cops. (We had) one of the highest-ranking Bloods in New York; he plays one of the inmates and is just drop-dead charming. You see it on screen, but it also helped the actors, because on set we had somebody who was actually selling acid, or someone who’d just been doing time, or a correctional officer who was being a dick. I probably watched over 100 hours of court arraignments, and during that research I met a beat photographer from the Daily News who’d been photographing since the 80s. He’d worked as an NYPD evidence photographer for years. He had a photo of a backpack that belonged to a legendary New York City con artist, and in it was a book called Disguise Techniques: Fool all of the People Some of the Time. That book ended up informing so much of Connie’s character, and also the wardrobe, because it taught me about the appearance of municipality – if you’re wearing a post office jacket, you can basically do whatever the hell you want.
Right now, a lot of people seem to be looking for moral high ground in movies, and films about criminals tend not to be as embraced. But to me, watching Good Time reminded me of reading the crime blotter in the New York Post, and how sometimes you wish you could find out what really happened during a crime spree. This movie takes you on that ride.
JS: It goes back to the beginning of telling stories. People began telling stories because of the things that happened that shocked them. ‘Wow! This person didn’t abide by society’s rules.’ It was all about the spectacle. Of course, (Arthur Penn’s New Hollywood classic) Bonnie and Clyde broke it open and became a sensation.
BS: When we were in pre-production (writing the movie), two inmates, Richard Matt and David Sweat, broke out of prison upstate.
JS: I have the New York State deposition that is 150 pages long. It tracks their every move, starting 18 months before they actually did it, and ending with Richard Matt being killed and David Sweat getting captured. They figured out a way to track all of their steps while they were on the run. Where fiction begins and the tabloid news columns end is often very hard (to establish). By the way, the greatest American TV show ever made, COPS, was an unbelievable inspiration on this movie. Ronnie and I downloaded every single episode. It’s such a strange portrait of America because it positions the cops as good guys, but there are two ways you can watch it. There’s the cynical way, where you’re in the mind of the perps and you’re like, ‘Run! Get away!’ Or you can be on the side of the cops and think, ‘Well, this guy’s lying.’ I always try to stick on the right side... if you know what I mean.
Good Time is out in the UK on November 3.