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All Day and a Night: Josh and Benny Safdie on Good Time

Josh and Benny Safdie (Photo by Richard Koek)

I’m in the Safdie brothers’ office in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, looking at a giant Japanese King of New York poster, and we’re talking about fired FBI director James Comey, whose awkward dinner with Donald Trump has just hit the news. “The guy is 6 foot, 8 inches,” Benny says. Or maybe it’s Josh. My tape recorder isn’t turned on yet, and the two talk rapid-fire, trading sentence fragments and out-exclaiming each other. “And he refused to play basketball with Obama! The one president who played basketball, Comey would be the tallest guy on the court, and he didn’t want it look like he was compromised in any way!”

Trust Josh and Benny Safdie to find a unique angle, an original way in, to any story. Josh, the older of the two brothers, first appeared in these pages in our 2008 25 New Faces list after finishing his debut feature, The Pleasures of Being Robbed, in which he co-starred as the besotted suitor of an impulsive and charismatic young kleptomaniac (Eleonore Hendricks). Two years later, Benny joined Josh behind the camera for their first feature as a directing team, the beautifully wayward fatherhood story, Daddy Longlegs, co-written by and starring the director Ronald Bronstein. I last spoke to the Safdies three years ago on the release of Heaven Knows What, their idiosyncratic junkie drama developed from the unpublished autobiography of their astonishing protagonist, played by Arielle Holmes, who Josh randomly spotted on the street in New York’s Diamond District.

Heaven Knows What, which received major distribution from RADiUS-TWC and premiered at the Venice Film Festival, was a quickly conceived of side project put together when their larger picture, Uncut Gems, stalled out. And now, just as Uncut Gems’s production is finally announced — Scott Rudin and Martin Scorsese are among the producers, and Jonah Hill will star — the Safdies bring to theaters their boldest, most surprisingly entertaining picture yet, Good Time.

Starring a committed Robert Pattinson — this isn’t one of his kindly offered supporting gigs; Pattinson burns through the screen here — and Benny as brothers, the film is, as Josh quips in our interview, something of “a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Rain Man.” With a wiry, hectoring charisma, Pattinson plays Connie, just released from prison, who wants nothing more than to rescue his developmentally disabled brother Nick from the stultifying conformity of life in a government-run program. His solution is to involve Nick in a bank robbery, one that goes horribly wrong when a fleeing Nick crashes through a glass door, is arrested and sent to Rikers Island. What ensues over the next day are Connie’s frantic attempts to bail Nick out, which escalate from hustling funds from a rich, troubled girlfriend (an indelible Jennifer Jason Leigh) to bolder, increasingly crazy criminal acts that the Safdies — working with co-screenwriter Bronstein — dramatize with both shock value and the utmost believability. (Good Time is something of an “Oh, shit!” movie — every scene ups the ante before tumbling right into the next even higher stakes situation.) Yet what’s most amazing about Good Time is — amidst its movie-star turns and movie-movie thrills — how of a piece it is with their previous work. Working again with the gifted cinematographer Sean Price Williams (his first ever 35mm feature!) and production designer Sam Lisenco, the Safdies’s eye for forlorn New York street poetry remains undiminished, the supporting characters are hilariously, tragically real, and the film makes the same kind of imaginative leaps and surreal juxtapositions found in their earliest, scrappiest work.

Thematically, of course, it’s only natural to talk about this film as a story of a brotherhood made by two brothers, and there’s an inchoate fraternal wisdom underlying all of Connie and Nick’s interactions — a heightened and recognizable blend of love, self-delusion and exploitation. And as much of this film is a pure cinematic joyride, the adrenalized storytelling is all in service of this relationship tale, leading up to a final, gentle heartbreaker of a scene that turns this story of criminal life into a tale of, well, just life, in all of its fucked-up complexity.

After premiering in the Main Competition of the Cannes Film Festival, Good Time is released by A24 this August.

So when I last talked to you for Filmmaker, just before the release of Heaven Knows What, you spoke of the Diamond District film you were working on, Uncut Gems. Good Time is something different, so tell me how it came about. Josh: There’s a great story that Abel Ferrara tells about making Body Snatchers, about how he was so frustrated with the process of studio filmmaking that he ended up, as a frustration, running out and making Bad Lieutenant, which became his best film. (Either that or King of New York.) We couldn’t get the money we needed to make Uncut Gems, and we were kind of stagnant. So, we just had to do what we knew how to do best, which was pick up a camera and make a movie, and we made Heaven Knows What. It got great critical reception, and Rob [Pattinson] reaches out to us. He’s like, “I saw a still for your movie, and I already know I’m going to love it.” He saw a still! And then he saw the trailer, and he’s like, “Oh, fuck. Now I need to see it.” So, I set up a screening for him, and he [said], “Whatever you’re doing next, I want to be a part of.” But he didn’t fit into Uncut Gems at all — there was no part for him. We were chasing this other actor at the time, and we were in a spot, because [Rob] is saying, “I’ll do anything.” And even though Uncut Gems was still the thing [we were working on], and we were going to L.A. doing these table reads, I was also paying [Heaven Knows What] actor Buddy [Duress], who was in prison, to keep journal entries of his time in jail.

Sort of like what you did with Heaven Knows What, where you had actress Arielle Holmes keep a diary. Josh: Meanwhile, the Dannemora prison break happens in upstate [New York]. I was obsessed with these stories about how these two guys, Richard Matt and David Sweat, spent their time on the run. And I was reading Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song for the first time, and also In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott. These two guys were almost considered the same person but on different sides of the criminal spectrum. One, Gilmore, was like the romantic figure, and the other, Abbott, was this obsessive, purposed person. And Mailer was the glue between them. And then there also had been this Polish guy [Conrad Zdzierak] running around [Ohio] robbing banks disguised as a black man.

So, we met up with Rob. We knew with him we could get a nice budget. And we knew we wanted to take a step up and that we wanted to do something pulpy. Ronnie [Bronstein] and I were talking about this idea of doing a Thief, or an After Hours, or 48 Hours — like a Walter Hill movie. And there were all these ideas from reality, but when we sat down to write [the script for Good Time], we wanted to make a piece of pulp, like a Richard Stark novel. What attracted us to pulp was that pulp is truly dangerous. It’s without morals. We wanted to make a movie that was without morals. But then we took this idea of doing a genre film that is a pulp film and implanted morality on top of it.

What do you mean? Josh: You start the movie off with this intense morality that Connie has — like, [he tells Nick], “This [institution] is wrong, and I’m going to do good for you and take you away from this place and jolt you out of this stasis that this bureaucracy has you in. I’m going to inject into you this freedom that I want for myself.” But of course, his execution is fucking terrible — his idea is like, “Hey, let’s go put ourselves in the most metaphysical situation ever: robbing a bank!” And that’s why my favorite line in the movie is when Connie is robbing the bank, and he turns to Nick and he says, “What are you thinking about?” And Nick says, “Nothing.” Connie laughs. He’s like, “Nothing? This fucking guy is so free, he’s robbing a fucking bank, and he’s not feeling anything?” But Nick doesn’t give a shit. He’s just, like, at the bank. So, the movie starts off on morality, and then when shit hits the fan, morality is out the window. It’s just survival mode, and there are no more morals. Then, at the end, it anchors back into morality, but, if you look at it through Connie’s eyes, it’s almost a false sense of morality.

Benny: Speaking to the idea of pulp, it’s that the very simple idea of family is so binding, and it carries you through the film. You’re like, okay, he’s trying to help get his brother out of jail after he gets him in jail. “I look at you, and part of you is a part of me” — Rob was obsessed with this idea. It’s such a simple thing, and that’s what pulp is.

Pattinson’s been helping get a lot of movies made by playing key supporting roles, like in Lost City of Z or The Rover. What do you think attracted him to the lead in this one? Josh: He doesn’t need money — what he’s after is so much more existential, and he related to Connie in that regard. He felt imprisoned, and that he couldn’t be free because of the Twilight thing. That’s why he’s been making these interesting decisions. He wants to get at what makes acting acting to him. He wants to lose himself. So, for [the role of] Connie, he gave us four months of character development. He was traveling to New York, meeting people, going to jails in character. Ronnie and I wrote this insane [character biography], literally from his birth up to minute one of the movie. In it he had an uncle who had a car dealership where he worked. And there was this amazing scam that I learned about, where you can scan VIN numbers, the digital codes, and get car keys made. So, Connie would sell someone a car and then in the middle of the night steal the car from their garage. That was the back story to Rob’s character. He got away with it for a while, and then the uncle did the math, and was like, “It was my fucking degenerate nephew,” who he then had to pull away from the grandmother because he was fighting with his disabled brother all the time. So, we had this insane back story that Rob read. When it got to [Connie’s prison time] — there are a lot of people in prison who use the time to reflect, and suddenly they know their purpose. I saw this with Buddy, when he was in prison. Every day, he would call me, and he had such a specific plan of what he was going to do. Maybe the plans were never going to work, but it was beautiful that there were the plans, you know what I mean? So that became a thing that we talked to Rob a lot about, and that informed his character’s psychosis, that he was obsessed with this idea of freedom, complete and utter freedom with his brother, who he once maybe didn’t treat so well. You know, he doesn’t even really know his brother. He loves him, but they don’t really know each other.

Benny, were you always playing the character of Nick from the beginning? Benny: No.

Josh: Our original concept with Rob was, “We’re going to pair you with an actually developmentally disabled actor.” And we and [casting agents] Jennifer Venditti and Eleonore [Hendricks] met a lot of people. One person specifically stuck out to us, and we had three callbacks with him and did extended interviews on camera. It was very informative for the movie because this guy had an older brother. He’s actually in the movie — in the ending scene he was wearing a hat for 90 percent of it, and then he had this fit and wanted to take his hat off, but it would ruin continuity. And the person who ran the group [of disabled actors] couldn’t get him to put the hat back on. It was a Harvard hat — his brother went to Harvard, and he’s obsessed with his brother. So, I said to him, “Mikey, you’ve got to put the hat on.” He goes, “I don’t want to. It makes me feel hot.” “Mikey, if you don’t wear the hat, no one’s going to know your brother went to Harvard.” He goes, “Oh, my god! Give me the hat.” And the woman who ran the group was like, “How did you do that?” I said, “I’ve spent hours with this guy. I know how he thinks.”

Benny: In a weird way, it felt unfair.

Josh: Yes, exactly. [If we had cast him as Nick] I’d have been manipulating him the whole movie. Tricking him into doing shit, and that’s not what I wanted to do.

Benny: You don’t want to be seen as making fun of or falling into a stereotype or anything like that. We had thought, “Okay, if we pick somebody who actually has those disabilities, then it’ll be realistic, and we will say, ‘Oh, they have the disability.’” But in a weird way, it would’ve been more dishonest because we would be taking advantage [of the actor], tricking him into doing certain things he might not have thought he wanted to do.

Josh: And, we realized, this is a really intense 36-day shoot. Some days were 19-hour days. We had some action set pieces that we’d never really done before. Our AD was like, “It’s going to take a long time.” We said, “Well, we work fast.” He’s like, “It’s going to take a long time.”

So, at what point in the process, Benny, did you think you might play Nick? Benny: In 2010, Ronnie was trying to make this film with a character that was very similar to Nick. We did a lot of rehearsals, filmed rehearsals. The film never happened, but there was this character—

A similar disabled character? Benny: Yes.

I’m embarrassed to say that for the first 10 or so minutes of the movie, I thought, “Wow, they found some developmentally disabled guy who looks just like Benny.” And then the front credits come up, and I realized it was you. Benny: There’s something I’m doing with my face, where I’m numbing part of it. And I started doing a lot more boxing and exercise to get bigger. I knew that adding a physical component to this guy who’s such a live wire would make it that much more interesting. He’s physically capable of destroying somebody, but he doesn’t know that.

Josh: Benny was our ace in the pocket. We knew he could do it.

Benny: We even did a rehearsal with Jordan for the financiers. Jen interviews me on tape, and it got to the point where it got really intense, and I almost started crying in the interview.

Josh: “Jordan Weissman” was the guy we told the financiers we found — “this amazing kid who will play Nick.” We sent the audition tapes to the financiers along with a batch of other people, who all were developmentally disabled. And, don’t forget, we also opened up the casting call to professional actors. We got one tape, from an actor, and I don’t want to mention his name, but it was very good. It was tempting.

A name person? Benny: Yes.

Josh: Not a financing one, but an actor who you would know. So, we had a couple of people who got to callback stages — video callbacks. We had a very specific parameter for the audition tape — it wasn’t a scene. We gave the [auditioners] questions and we just had them answer them however they wanted. And one guy specifically had very interesting ideas. But when we pushed it to the next step, there was so many limitations. And I really genuinely believed that Nick is in Benny somewhere, and that’s why the character works so well. Do you know Allan Mindel?

The manager? Yes. Benny: I called him and said, “You need to meet this guy. We found somebody who’s really interesting to play Nick. Meet him at this restaurant on the Upper West Side — his grandmother will drop him off.” So Allan’s at the restaurant, and he’s waiting for Jordan to come in. I go in fully in character with my outfit on, and I stand there for 15 minutes waiting for Allan. He finally sees me — and I’ve known Allan for a long time. I sit down with him, have a full conversation. The [waiter] asks me what I want to order, and I say, “I’d like a chocolate chip cookie and an apple juice.”

Josh: Meanwhile, Allan is texting me the whole time. He’s like, “I’m here with Jordan. He’s incredible. He ordered a cookie, an apple juice. A really special guy.”

Benny: He had no idea that it was me.

Josh: But now he kind of claims that he did.

Benny: He claims now that he did because you don’t want to say that—

—you don’t recognize your own client. Benny: Exactly.

So, what was the biggest challenge playing the part? Benny: It was difficult playing the part because I had to physically shut off access to certain emotions and vocabulary. I couldn’t say certain words because Nick wouldn’t know those words. Nick wouldn’t know he was feeling a certain feeling. So, it was like I would create this funnel of emotions, and one would hit and try and get through and it couldn’t. And then more and more would hit, and eventually it would just kind of blockade. But I was aware of the emotions that I couldn’t feel. And if I didn’t know that I couldn’t feel those emotions, would I [as Nick] be upset? No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t know that there was another side. I would just know that that was the emotion I felt, and there’d be a little bit of confusion or something. But it wouldn’t go any further, you know what I’m saying? And then, I also didn’t know that I had the ability to express myself and couldn’t. “Can’t” isn’t part of the vocabulary of someone who is disabled. It was so frustrating [for me as an actor] because I knew I wanted to say so many different things, but what would come out was just this one thing. The best thing that I remember doing on the movie was when, [in the bathroom after the bank robbery, Connie] says, “Take off your pants.” And I say, “Why? I like these pants.”

Josh: That line wasn’t scripted, and it threw Rob. And he was like, “You’ve got to take them off!”

Benny: They’re covered in red paint, and they’re destroyed. But I’m just thinking about the fact that I like my pants.

Did you guys work together in preproduction? Rehearse? Benny: Josh would have Rob, as Connie, email me out of the blue “from jail.” And I’d have to respond to him as Nick. And then he responded to me as Connie. We had this whole correspondence.

Josh: I was bcc’d on them. They were the most entertaining things ever.

What was it like directing Rob when you’re also playing opposite him as Nick? Benny: Having this relationship with Rob as the director, and then being his brother on the film, actually helped the relationship feel very deep because he could say anything to me. And then, he sees me in the scene, and I’m Nick, and I’m not giving him the same access, and it was frustrating to him. It created an acting obstacle for him, a hurdle that he had to overcome.

With Rob, were you going in and out of character within a scene? Josh: No, he always stayed in.

You always stayed in and you’re still directing the scene? Benny: I would direct him as Nick, in a weird way.

Josh: It would be tough for Rob to understand, so I’d have to come in and interpret Nick for Rob.

Benny: Or I would say something to him as Nick, like, “Get close to me. It makes me uncomfortable.” And he knew, okay, I ought to get really close to Nick and make it strange for him.

Good Time is such a plot-driven movie. Each scene spirals into the next. Tell me about how you approached the screenwriting. Did you rigorously structure this before you started? Note cards on the wall? Josh: We didn’t do that. This was our first “movie movie.” And not to discredit the other things that we’ve done, but in Heaven Knows What, obviously, we had real people — we were using their real lives, and they could at any moment pull from their real lives and improvise. In Daddy Longlegs, we’re using two real kids and Ronnie, who’s our anchor in it, and these scripted scenarios. In the end, we could only manipulate these two real kids so much. But in this movie, we became obsessed with the idea of back story, obsessed to the point where we would walk through scenarios and know exactly what people were doing.

So, the action’s entirely motivated from an understanding of character? Josh: Exactly, 100 percent. We would get to a place in the screenwriting and be like, “Now what do we do?” And we’d literally be in their heads. We knew we wanted to get vaguely to a certain place, but it was free form, in that regard.

Benny: And then that same process was moved into the editing. We were very aware of what an audience was going to feel watching the film. That was a very big thing for us. How long are people going to be watching this, how long are they going to be able to stay in this specific location without needing to be reminded of what happened [earlier]? We had a lot of stuff that we shot that ended up being cut down significantly because we were now in service of something else, which was the pulp aspect of it and the audience, people watching it.

Josh: I’ll show you what was new for us. [Josh pulls out a huge pad of drawing paper with colored, multi-lined graph on it.] We were trying to do the emotional arc. Connie’s is green, red is emotion/narrative and blue is music.

Benny: The emotional and the narrative needs to be constantly going up. The moment it goes down is a failure of the movie.

And the emotional is which line, the green or the blue? Benny: Connie is the green emotions, and red is the emotions/narrative of the film. In order for the film to be successful, what had to happen, I thought, was that the emotional and the narrative both needed to be on a constant upward progression. And for Connie, that meant you needed to follow his emotional progression.

What’s amazing about the film is that it has all your stuff in it: all of your obsessions, your feel for texture and this vision of an out-of-date, stuck-in-the-past New York. And a feeling of scrappiness. But you shot 35mm, you have a movie star, and I don’t know what the budget was—  Josh: It was under five.

Benny: Somebody asked us, “What would you have done with more money on Daddy Longlegs?” And I said, “Oh, we’d probably have built a bigger paper tornado.” And that’s what we did here.

So, you tried to maintain as much as you could your old way of working despite the budget and larger crew? Benny: Yes, for example, in the mall scene, we had full permission to use this entire mall, and yet, we were like—

Josh: —sneaking around with the camera.

Like you were stealing the location? Benny: Yes, we’d be like, “Rob and I are going to go outside, and we’re going to wait for the cue, and then we’re going to run in. We’re not yelling action — we are going to catch everyone in the mall by surprise, and we’ll get everyone in the mall to react.” Meanwhile, there’s a cop with a cigar who’s paid to watch all these things, and we’re like, oh, we have permission!

And you worked with some of your old crew, like production designer Sammy Lisenco and DP Sean Price Williams. Tell me about how you collaborated with them on this larger-scale film. Josh: What was great about working with Sammy again is that we took a break from him, and he went and did a few other things. He worked with Barry Levinson. He did Shades of Blue. And now he knows how to do all this stuff. When Benny runs through that glass door, that was on a set, a studio in Brooklyn.

Benny: And that house Connie goes to in Queens, Annie’s house, it was completely transformed. I remember Sammy being like, “It needs to be a little bit more run-down.”

Josh: “Dysfunctional,” I think he said.

Benny: Dysfunctional. So, Sammy makes a water mark on the ceiling, which you never see. And then he was like, “Okay, where’s the shot.” And Josh told him where the shot was. And he just takes a bat and bang, into the wall. There’s a hole in the wall now.

Josh: The [character of the house owner’s] husband is disabled, and Sammy goes, “This is where the wheelchair always bumps into.” That’s Sammy. We had put the woman who owned the house up in a hotel, and she came by one night because she left something, and she was horrified. She was like, “What did you do to my house?” Literally, there are rooms that you never see on camera that we fully art directed, because the little girl is in the movie, it’s her first film, and we wanted her to walk in and be like, “Okay, I know this house.” We didn’t want her to stumble into another room and be like, “What is this room?”

Did you work with Sean in a different way? Josh: Sean has his ways, you know, and the one thing you can depend on him always for is poetry. He is incapable of looking at an image without that poetic lens. Now, you’re not going to sit down and run through the shot list for the entire film. You’ll do it ahead of the day. And he has his own interpretation of the movie, and it’s not from reading the script. But he was great because he would always question us.

Benny: “Why a dolly versus a Steadicam or handheld?” He would always ask us those questions.

Josh: He’s like, “Why a dolly here?” And if emotionally and intellectually, I’m thinking dolly, he will go, “Okay, you have an answer.” If I didn’t have an answer, he’s like, “We’re not doing it.” And Sean really is one of the greatest operators out there. He is a performer. And 35 millimeter was this gift to him because he had never done that before and he always wanted to. There was probably one shot in every scene that meant a lot to him. On day one, I was leaning on him for the emotional kickoff into the film. And it was the scene in the elevator, between Benny and Rob, right in the beginning of the film. I said, “Let’s do another take. Sean, do whatever you want.” And he just got within inches of them. It was so intimate. And I was watching the monitor, and I knew what the movie was. And I was depending on Sean to show that to me emotionally.

In setting up this interview, you and I texted yesterday, and you wrote to me, “We worked hard to make this one perfect.” Benny: Yeah, we spent 19 months on the movie.

What does that mean to you, “make it perfect?” Benny: Post. We spent a lot of time in post.

Josh: But also, for example, the costume department, right? We hired Miyako Bellizzi, who has done a lot of costuming. She did Patti Cake$. But we also brought in this guy, Mordechai Rubinstein, who’s never done a movie before. He has no idea how a movie is made, but he’s paid by Marc Jacobs to stand on the corner of Prince and Broadway in Soho and take pictures of people. He has the most encyclopedic brain of how personal style functions. So Miyako was incredible and Mordechai brought it to a place of like, autism, and beautifully so.

Benny: He would tell me, “Put on three hooded sweatshirts of varying colors.” I’m like, “It’s going to look ridiculous.” He goes, “Trust me.” I put on the three, and it looks ridiculous. He goes, “Now pull all the hoods up and then pull them down.” And when I pulled the hoods down, they all layered perfectly. He had that level of detail.

Josh: In doing research for the movie and getting to this idea of perfection, I sat in on probably 60 or 65 arraignments at 100 Center Street because they’re amazing. So, as I’m sitting there one day, I see this veteran photographer, and I strike up a conversation with him. He sends me his website, and on his site he had been obsessed with one guy, a low-level criminal, who was an incredible con artist. And he photographed all the evidence that was found in his backpack, and in his backpack he had this book, Disguise Techniques: Fool All Of The People Some Of The Time. I buy it on Amazon for 13 cents, and there was a whole section about municipality and bureaucracy, and if you disguise yourself as a bureaucratic person you can disappear into any situation. So, that’s how the main outfit gets built. If you think about it, if you did find this jacket of some guy who worked in air traffic control in the garbage near LaGuardia Airport, then you could probably walk into a hospital through an ER and no one’s going to stop you because you probably work for the hospital. You could probably get away in any scenario.

Here’s something I want to show you. [Josh pulls out a giant scroll of paper with a long quote on it.] We like to try and inundate everybody who works on the film, from the DP to a production assistant. So, we had these huge things printed on the walls of our production office in Queens, and this one was a quote from In the Belly of the Beast, a Norman Mailer quote. And it literally was the movie. It says, “We do not live however in a world that tries to solve its prison problems — even to assume we do is utopian. The underlying horror may be that we all inhabit the swollen tissues of a bodied politic, that is drenched in bad conscience, so bad indeed, that the laugh of the hyena reverberates from every TV set and is in danger of becoming our national anthem.” I talked about this all the time, about this idea that our prison ethos has now trickled down into the fatty tissues of the society. People today are so isolated in the same way that prison isolates you. We’re almost a caste system; Connie, a criminal who has been through the system, is never going to not be in the system. And that same thing applies to the white suburban people who decided to move out to their own prisons in suburbia. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character was so important to us because I didn’t want Good Time to be a movie about one specific milieu of people. Seeing a white rich woman, who’s imprisoned by her mother in a high-rise tower — that was what completed the vision for me, because the mind has no territory, has no boundaries. It doesn’t care if you’re rich, white, poor, black, Spanish, you know? Jennifer’s character is a tortured woman who has issues.

Where does the title Good Time come from? Josh: “Good time” is a prison term, where if you behave you get a shorter sentence — you get released on your “good time.” But if you fuck up once, they send you back to prison for the remainder of your good time. Buddy was telling me about some fight that happened in jail, where someone was like, “Fuck it. I’ll lose my good time. I don’t give a shit.” So, I was like, “Lose your good time? I love that.”

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