I Want to Take You Higher: Josh and Ben Safdie on Heaven Knows What
New York these days: There’s a chain store on every corner, Times Square is a paved-over pedestrian mall with $6 hot dogs and, if you want voyeuristic thrills, you peer into the bedrooms of the luxury condos flush against the beautifully manicured, elevated High Line that’s transformed the West Side.
No one wants to reflexively cling to a misplaced nostalgia, but given the blanding of the city’s physical landscape it’s not hard to imagine that the number of urgently jaw-dropping stories in the Naked City is decreasing daily. Fortunately, for those of us who associate New York with subcultural energies, emotional collisions and boundary-pushing artistry, we still have Josh and Ben Safdie, whose observant cinema, filled with tales of marginalized characters and desperate passions, harkens back to the great New York location films of the ’60s and ’70s.
In Josh’s 2008 debut, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Eleonore Hendricks plays a beguiling kletopmaniac on nighttime thrill rides. In 2009’s Daddy Longlegs, directed by Josh and his brother, Ben, Frownland director Ronald Bronstein acts out a bittersweet and somewhat troubling comedy of errors involving a divorced Lower East Side film projectionist’s annual two weeks with his young children. The brothers’ authentically delightful 2012 short, The Black Balloon, takes their storytelling to the skies as a lost birthday balloon connects a group of disparate and idiosyncratic Gotham characters. More recently, the Safdies have explicitly ventured into the world of documentary with Lenny Cooke (2013), which subverts the typical sports-movie arc by focusing on minor celebrity and professional near misses.
The line between fiction and real life has always been a bit blurred in Safdie productions, employing as they do a loose-limbed shooting style and streetwise physical production drawing on real locations and, sometimes, unsuspecting passersby. But this elision is particularly acute in their latest film, Heaven Knows What, which was literally borne of a chance encounter. While researching Uncut Gems, a larger-budget film set in New York’s midtown Diamond District, Josh spied on the street the 19-year-old Arielle Holmes. She had giant round eyes and high cheekbones, was wearing cut-off jeans and a comic book T-shirt, and seemed somehow different from the street kids he’d normally come across. She was also a heroin addict in a tumultuous relationship with another homeless youth, Ilya, and, upon hearing her tale, Josh encouraged her to write it down. Those pages — an unpublished memoir titled Mad Love in New York City — became the basis for the brothers’ quickly realized Heaven Knows What, co-scripted by regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein and shot by Sean Price Williams. At the film’s start, Holmes’s character Harley is goaded by Ilya — played with a brooding, chilling intensity by Caleb Landry Jones — into the ultimate gesture of destructive romance: suicide. Her attempt fails, however, and when she’s released from Bellevue, she returns to her habit, this time with a new supportive friend, Mike (Buddy Durress). The volatile Ilya, however, is always somewhere around the corner.
With a trippy, audacious score and a bravura, long-take sequence that’s the Safdies’ boldest filmmaking yet, Heaven Knows What is a realistic, wisely observed, piercingly authentic look at drug-addicted homeless youth. It’s also deeply empathetic toward its characters, infusing their lives, lived in pockets of the city New Yorkers walk by every day, with a near-operatic intensity. Heaven Knows What premiered at the Venice Film Festival and, following stops at Toronto, the New York Film Festival, True/False (a selection that speaks to the film’s hybrid qualities) and SXSW, arrives in theaters from RADiUS.
I met with Josh and Ben at an Upper West Side restaurant and flicked on my recorder in the middle of a conversation about drug movies and the rise of heroin use.
Josh Safdie: I do think that, as a society, we’ve forgotten about how dangerous a drug [like heroin] can be. There used to be movies and commercials about it all the time. You just knew: you don’t fuck with heroin. They used to [spout] this racist bullshit that it’s “the minorities Uptown” doing it on the corner, but now it’s everywhere. It’s a suburban thing. In a weird way, it’s beautifully democratic, but it’s also extremely hellish. We can thank the pharmaceutical revolution in the ’90s for that.
Ben Safdie: There are so many movies about drugs, and there’s this idea that living that lifestyle could be so free and easy. It’s like, [drug addicts] have got nobody to answer to. But they have the drug to answer to. They need money to get drugs. [Addiction] is like this weird job.
So you’re not romanticizing heroin use in Heaven Knows What? Ben Safdie: You could look at this movie, and [think], “All these [drug users] are so interesting.” You could very easily romanticize that point of view. For me, it was important to not go down that path [of romanticization] but also not to judge. And by not doing those things, I think we’ve created this kind of “this is it” feeling. This is what it looks like, and it’s not pretty. By not taking that crazy “no drugs!” [position], it’s somehow even more effective. You’re witnessing what feels like a documentary even though it was heavily scripted.
Josh Safdie: Yeah, but putting anything in a movie is a romantic gesture so … Someone asked me, “Are you anti-drug? Is that what this movie is, anti-drug?” And I said, “I’m not anti-drug. I’m anti-drug if it fucks up your life.” If you can do a drug and still maintain a healthy life in terms of your personal relationships and your actual physical health, then, fine, do that. But if it’s ruining your life, then there’s no reason for you to do it. Getting high is a very interesting concept. “To get high” — what is that? We all want to get high, no? What I relate to in the movie most is the addiction to drama. I’m horribly addicted to drama, to this desire to live entirely in the moment. If you’re an addict, you’re always trying to score, time becomes meaningless and everything at the same moment. Everything is truncated, and on a very human level, that’s very exciting.
Okay. So, let’s go back to the beginning. It’s funny that we immediately jumped into talking about Heaven Knows What in the context of drug movies. Did you start out thinking, “Okay, we’re going to make a drug movie?” Josh Safdie: No. I originally was intrigued by meeting [Arielle Holmes], who was working unpaid as an assistant in the Diamond District. I didn’t meet her in any street context. I met her as a Diamond District apprentice, and she met me as a 47th Street hustler. We were really both fallacies of our real selves. Then, when I met her out of that context for the first time, that’s when I gathered that she had a drug problem. I also learned that she was actually, also, at the same time, working as a dominatrix, and of course really into Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend. I started hanging out with her a bunch; I really liked hanging out with her. I always had fun. Then during one trip out West in a last effort to raise some money for Uncut Gems, I showed her picture to Vinny [Gallo]. Being the radical thinker that he is, he said to me, “You should make a movie with her, screw the other film!” Just by looking at her.
Harley Quinn, from the comic book? Josh Safdie: Yes. Whenever we hung out, she’d show me new drawings of her renditions of Harley Quinn. Now, as she’s meeting with agents, they’re asking her, “What do you envision doing in your career?” She’s like, “Oh, I want to play Harley Quinn in the Hollywood version of the movie. I can do it.” I think she could. She knows that character really well.
How did Arielle go from someone you met on the street, to someone who isn’t just an actor in your film but also a collaborator? Josh Safdie: The whole real intrigue with Arielle started after I got her a job in a Richard Kern music video. Richard loved her. He was going to pay her nicely for one day. I said to her, “You are so beautiful and unique, you should be doing stuff. You shouldn’t be wasting your time sitting on the street.” So, I got her the job, but she didn’t show up. That was weird, because she has an ambition to her, a seriousness to her.
Ben Safdie: If she didn’t show up, it was for a reason.
Josh Safdie: I didn’t hear from her; her phone was disconnected. I thought the worst. Maybe she died. I didn’t know. Three weeks pass. Finally I get a phone call from a pay phone number. “Hello?” “Hey, Josh, it’s Ari.” She sounds like Rosanna Arquette. “Hey, what the fuck? I got you a job. You didn’t show up.” She’s like, “I know, I’m so sorry. I can explain it all. I just got out of Bellevue. Can we meet up for dinner?” I met up with her at some diner downtown, and her arm was bandaged up. She tells me that she was at Bellevue for an attempted suicide. She said, “I tried to slit my wrists,” and she went into the story about how Ilya goaded her into doing it. He wanted to see how far he could push her. And I thought, “Wow. What a crazy relationship. What a lunatic, and what devotion.” And that was really the seed of it. All the other stuff became background and color and fabric.”
Ilya was her boyfriend? Josh Safdie: Yeah. Caleb based his whole performance off of this real guy named Ilya Leontyev. I didn’t meet him until two months before we started shooting, though I knew so much about him. He liked me a lot because I wasn’t sexually trying to come on to Arielle. We bonded over this dark classical Polish concerto I had in my car. He knew that I was a good person, and I was not judgmental. He would stay at random places, and I would drive him around, and he would talk. He was such a mystery to me, and that was what Ronnie [Bronstein] and I were really intrigued by, his mystery. He was an evil, evil mystery beautiful super villain.
Ben Safdie: In her writings, the things you would read that he would do to her were so horrifically abusive.
How did Ronnie Bronstein enter the mix as a screenwriter? Josh Safdie: We were writing [together] for Uncut Gems. That was the other movie set in the Diamond District.
Ben Safdie: We just had that constant working relationship, constant. Whatever we would do, we would pass it to him.
Josh Safdie: I originally said, “Ronnie, I really want to do this project with this girl in this milieu of people.” And he was like, “Street kids, ‘fuck the world and society’-type thing, I’m not really interested.” But he hadn’t read the pages yet. I was like, “I’ll send you the first page. I’m telling you there’s something here.” And then he read it, and he admitted, “Sorry, I was so wrong.” And thus began the insane writing process where we desperately and eagerly awaited page after page she’d send me. We wanted to really preserve the melodrama, the opera. We wanted the loudness of [Andrzej] Zulawski and the reality of Mike Leigh. Heightened emotions mixed with the repetitive life of being a junkie.
I’m really interested in biography right now, and there’s a lot that I personally can graft onto. I see myself in a lot of the characters. I showed the movie to two exes. One said, “Oh, you’re just like the Mike character.” And the other said, “You’re just like the Ilya character.” I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m a psychopath. What’s wrong with me?”
But I’m very interested in taking a life and speaking of the nuances within it. Film is a capsule of humanity; it’s a documentary of how we act, how we feel. I said to Ronnie from the get-go, “I want to make a young movie.” Uncut Gems is about an older businessman in the Diamond District, and at the time I grew so sick of that. I mean, I think this movie is the most mainstream thing we’ve done in terms of structure.
At the same time, it’s kind of the bleakest or the darkest movie. Josh Safdie: Funny, I only recently have come to terms with the fact that it’s considered dark or intense. To me, it was just what it was, and I was only able to see the beauty in it. The intensity of it really spiked my hairs. Yes, it’s dark in a curious way.
Ben Safdie: You look at Lenny Cooke, and it’s the same type of thing. People were like, “Nobody’s going to want to see it. It’s too sad.” Yet it was this big hit on Showtime. Especially in documentary, we’re told, “There needs to be a happy ending. You can’t have a movie end with a guy being like, ‘Me, I ain’t shit. I’m tired as a motherfucker.’ That can’t be the ending of the movie.” But people walked away feeling something. So, this was kind of like a direct line from that. We were fictionalizing documentary with Lenny Cooke. This was like fictionalizing documentary in the opposite way.
Okay, so what happened next? Josh Safdie: I commissioned her to start writing about her life. She would write at an Apple store — she didn’t have a computer until I started to lend her mine — and then I would meet up with her at night. She would give me the pages, I would pay for them, and then, as the pages came in, I would obsess with Ronnie: “Is this the entry point? Or is this here the entry point?” There was one segment, 70 pages, that was all about how she got to be with Ilya. It was the beginning, but we knew we couldn’t make that movie because then we’d be making a period piece from three years ago. You could make [that film] today — things look the same — but you would have had to cast [a different] actor. [Arielle] couldn’t access those emotions in the same way she could access the ones that were happening right now. We were interested in psychodrama, allowing Arielle to act out her feelings without real consequence.
Then, when she submitted those pages about that whole day leading up to the cutting, that was when we knew, “This is a movie. We have very distinct archetypes. We have the evil guy; we have the girl.” It just became obvious.
Ben Safdie: And in the pages after that, [Ilya] would always find a way to reinsert himself just when Arielle was starting to move on. Right when she was about to move on, he would always put up a roadblock.
Josh Safdie: You’d see Ilya’s name in the paragraph, and you’re like, “Oh, shit.”
Ben Safdie: “Something’s going to happen.” [Laughs]
Josh Safdie: “Something bad is going to happen.” It was exciting; I would find myself scanning the pages as they came in looking for Ilya’s name.
Okay, so she’s writing pages. How long did it then take for the movie to go into production? Josh Safdie: She started writing in October.
Ben Safdie: End of February, we were doing heavy preproduction. We were doing little test shootings. Though we did do some test filming over Christmas … We started real production in March 2014.
And what was her life like when you were making the movie? Was she basically living the life of her character? Josh Safdie: Well, that was interesting because I said to her, “Look, I’m not interested in you playing yourself.” And this is why we called her Harley. I said, “I’m more interested in you being this weird heightened version of yourself, this patron saint of the street.” And she didn’t really know what that meant at first. She thought, “How does that manifest itself?” I said, “You know, they can be archetypical things that you’ve done — just exaggerate them.” And she was like, “Okay.” Then we filmed over Christmas with Ariel Pink [as Ilya]. He came in, we screen-tested him, and he was great on camera but not really right. We did some scripted scenarios with him, but [Arielle] was still too much “Arielle Holmes” around him. That’s when we started to discuss what it means to act. When Caleb got involved is when everything changed. He had a very loud way of acting, which was awesome for us, because that was new. And he brought something out of her. And then Buddy, who plays Mike, he would probe her emotionally and he would get at psychodrama, almost. He would get her.
What’s his background? Josh Safdie: He had never acted before. He’s from Queens. He loves movies and secretly always thought he’d be a good actor. He just never actually tried it. He’s a street legend, kinda, a criminal. I had heard tons of stories about him before I met him, and when I finally did, I was smitten. Still am.
Ben Safdie: There’s a scene they filmed. Josh told them, “Buddy, probe her this way.” “Ari, don’t resist in that way.” And it kind of devolved into this weird emotional argument. They weren’t arguing about what they were talking about; they were arguing about something else completely different. I remember watching them and being like —
Josh Safdie: “Buddy is awesome.”
Ben Safdie: Yeah. He’s got something other, you know? The way he says a certain line, the way he’ll look at somebody, you feel it.
Josh Safdie: We would play games with him. We would give him the phoniest lines, just to see if he could say them real. And he would just internalize them like I’ve never seen before. He was a lot of fun to work with. He got held up in some crime that he did, and he’s in jail now. I went and visited him at Rikers the day of the press screening, and he was so pissed. He’s like, “I don’t think I’ll get out of here for the premiere. I finally got my break to be an actor, and I fucked it up.” [Buddy Duress was released from Marcy Correctional Facility in Upstate New York on March 20, 2015, and is currently enrolled in Clark Middleton’s acting class.]
Your shooting style on this film marks a change; you’ve moved from the handheld style of Daddy Longlegs to shooting from a tripod. Josh Safdie: I don’t mean to sound compromising when I say this, but I know that the camerawork in Daddy Longlegs was an obstacle for people. But that movie needed to be handheld because it couldn’t have worked any other way. Physically, there was a pragmatism to that. The style of the film came from the function of the film. Form should always follow function.
Ben Safdie: But going in, we knew we couldn’t shoot this movie handheld, even though it would have made our lives so much easier.
Josh Safdie: The [test shoots shot during Christmas] were shot handheld, and it was just so wrong.
I don’t think I consciously thought of this film as having all been shot on a tripod while watching it. I was a little surprised to read the press notes. It’s a pretty aggressive use of the camera on the tripod. Josh Safdie: I think that’s because of the lenses mixed with a loose fluid head.
Ben Safdie: Big lenses.
Josh Safdie: Yeah, the lenses were as long as a Steadicam, so we just couldn’t handhold them. I talked to Sean [Price Williams] in the very beginning; I said, “This is an opera of long lens.” There’s one lens we dubbed “Fat Boy,” it’s a gorgeous lens, but it’s really heavy, hence its name, and Sean refused to shoot it handheld.
Ben Safdie: We really wanted an aesthetic of shallow focus.
Josh Safdie: You’re talking about a 60-pound camera all built out.
Ben Safdie: It was a decision, a decision that instilled in us and a lot of people who were acting for the first time a kind of discipline. There were so many times where we were like, “Fuck, can’t we just take it off the tripod, and we’ll get the scene done?” But we couldn’t.
In the press notes, you refer to your approach as formalist. Josh Safdie: We did not write the press notes, but I was thinking about that yesterday at the Met. I went to see the Garry Winogrand show. The greatest films in our city right now are on the walls of that museum. I was watching these movies, these pictures on a wall, and I’m thinking that you hear people use the word “photographic,” like, “The movie is very photographic.” And usually you think that that’s synonymous with wide lens, a locked off [camera], still in nature. But movies and pictures — obviously, we all know that they’re not the same. Film is a present art form, you know what I mean? You’re moving things. You’re moving with it, as opposed to photography, which is stopping, and you’re looking at it, and you’re thinking with this still moment. But there’s a way to achieve that thought with movies. And I think it’s through a long lens and through movement … Does that make any sense? They work against each other but in the end for each other.
The early long, single-take Steadicam sequence at Bellevue is visually the most audacious thing you’ve ever done. There’s something so trippy about it. I mean, every film fan loves scenes that play out in long choreographed master shots. But there’s something else about this one, a real craziness. Tell me about how you put it together — both the shot and the casting of the patients and guards at the hospital. Josh Safdie: The camera movements had to be perfect, you know? I said to Mike Klein, the Steadicam operator for that scene, “You got to be long on the Steadicam.” He asked, “How long?” “100mm.” Like a soldier he said sure, but he was skeptical and worried about movement and normally doesn’t Steadi at that length. Blocking and art took forever as we shot in a closed-down hospital floor in Queens. We rehearsed a couple times, and then we nailed it on the fourth take. Eleonore did the casting from afar, all those extras. They were people from Bellevue and methadone clinics, friends of people she got to know in her casting and friendships. Some of them were actors from Craigslist, but largely they were real people. [Laughs] Some of the actors that day were telling the art director, “I have to take all my jewelry off. They usually don’t let me have jewelry in Bellevue.” And I’m listening, thinking, “What have we created?”
Ben Safdie: One guy said to me, “Look, I know you want that guy to get angry, but I can get really angry.”
Josh Safdie: You know the famous Stanford experiment, the one with the prison guards? One guy, who was from a clinic, we said to him, “You need to be an orderly because this other guy didn’t show up.” And he took it so far. He got so aggressive. And I was thinking, “Oh, my God, the Zimbardo experiment is true.” You put people in places of authority and let it fly and it flies.
Ben Safdie: After the fifth take, he was running into that room, grabbing people.
Josh Safdie: These were his friends.
Ben Safdie: He knew them, and yet they were frightened of him.
Tell me how Caleb Landry Jones got involved, and then how you made that mixture of actors to work. Josh Safdie: From the get-go, reading the pages, I said to Benny and Ronnie, “The Ilya character needs to be a known entity, somebody who teens have pictures of on their walls and want to make love to.”
Ben Safdie: Jennifer Venditti sent us that audition tape of his.
Josh Safdie: She sent me his audition tape from The Last Exorcism, and it blew me away. I mean, I didn’t even know if he was an actor or what. She had said to me, “There is this one guy who Ryan Gosling was very curious about [for Lost River]. He went really far in the auditions. But you might not like him as a person. Is that okay?”
Why didn’t she think you would like him? Josh Safdie: She just thought he would be a guy who I wasn’t going to get along with. I spoke to his manager, and he said, “He’s really hard to get in touch with because he doesn’t have a phone.” I was like, “Ugh,” because the other kids I was meeting with were the same way. They were like, “Oh, I don’t have a phone.” Come on, man! It’s 2014! Stop. You’re a Millennial. You were born with the Internet. You were born with a phone.
But he wasn’t that way, and he did have a phone. I talked with him, and he was like, “Can you send me the script?” I said, “Nope, not sending you the script.” He said, “Why not?” I said, “I’ll send it to you when you fly, so that’s the first time you read it.” He said, “What can you send me?” “I’ll send you 70 pages of her writing, and you’ll get to know your character that way.” And I sent him these little video portraits of the [real Ilya]. He said to me, “This guy is something else. I don’t know if I can do it.”
Why do you think he signed on to such a small film after doing the big Hollywood stuff? Josh Safdie: If you look at his credits, he’s done huge stuff, but he had said to his agent that he wanted to do art films. And he was interested in experiences. And he knew, just talking to me, that this was going to be an insane experience. He agreed to do it, but, he said, “I can only arrive 10 days before. Is that going to be enough time?” And I was like, “To be honest, Caleb, after two days you’ll know these people.”
So you met him in person for the first time when he arrives for the shoot? Josh Safdie: Yes. His agent asked us to put him in a fancy hotel and stuff. We rolled up to the hotel [that first night].
Ben Safdie: Everybody [from the cast] ended up staying at that hotel soon enough.
Josh Safdie: Yeah, he had a lot of people in that room. Everyone from the street was in his hotel room, they were throwing bottles out the window. So, we pull up to this stoop, and he was sitting in front of the hotel and asked immediately, “Why am I staying at this hotel?” And we were like, “Well, because your agent said…”
Ben Safdie: He said, “I thought you guys were real.”
Josh Safdie: “I thought this was going to be like a real situation. Where are Ari and Ilya staying?” It was about five degrees out, and I said, “Well, because it’s so cold, they stay at this Internet café on Eldridge.” He goes, “I’m going there.” I said, “Well, let’s hang out first.” We took him over to Sean’s house, and we watched a bunch of movies. And then I dropped him off back at his hotel and said, “Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to Ari and Ilya.”
But he didn’t go back to his room. He went and found the Internet café and got time on a computer, and stared at Ilya, the real Ilya, while he was passed out. He had known what he looked like, so he just stared at him and watched how he slept and everything. Arielle wasn’t there that night … Then the next day, I introduced him.
Ben Safdie: That first meeting, we were all sitting at a McDonald’s, and Caleb was just kind of witnessing Ari and the real Ilya. He was very careful not to say anything or do anything — he was just watching them. And, for me, that’s when I realized that he was going to be able to do it, because of the way he was watching. Every once in a while he would say something; he knew what to say to get Ilya on his side, not that it was phony in the slightest — he just knows people. That’s what you’d hope from an actor. He would say things and slowly work his way into the world.
What was Ilya’s role in the movie? Josh Safdie: Ilya? Forget about it, I wanted him to be in the movie forever. We even tried to shoot one scene with him, but he didn’t want to do it. He doesn’t want to be on camera. He’s not interested in that. His nose is really broken, so he’s a little self-conscious. He used to be gorgeous; I still think he is in a way. But now, because of drugs, and because he’s a bad alcoholic, he looks pretty fucked up. He’s from Russia, but he grew up in Queens, moved here when he was nine. He’s a really dark guy, very dark. And he’s very mysterious. I still feel like there’s a ton more to know about him, even though I’ve really spent a lot of time with him. But the crazy little fact is that Eleonore street-cast him when he was 14 years old. And Jen knew him, too. They tried to get him to be in so many things from when he was 14. How crazy is that? Eleonore stumbles on him in the Bronx 10 years before I do with Arielle in the Diamond District?!
Ben Safdie: It was funny, though, because he actually kind of took on the same role in the production as he did in the story pages.
Josh Safdie: We’d be making the film, and then, all of a sudden, “Ilya’s here.” He’d show up with a bloody hand or some shit.
Ben Safdie: “How did he find us?”
Josh Safdie: We’d be in the middle of shooting, and he’d be running at [Arielle]. At one point, he was trying to get high — he was like on a suicide mission, because he was dealing with a court date that was coming, and he thought he was going to get put away for a while. I stole the dope out of his hand, and I put it in my pocket. He goes, “Give it to me now.” And I said, “Nope, not giving it to you.” He’s a tough kid. I mean he’s 24, but he could fuck me up. And so, he was like, “All right, I’m going to have to kill you for it, then, Josh.” And I was like, “Still not giving it to you,” because, two days before we started shooting, he OD’d in a McDonald’s, with Caleb sitting right there.
Just like the scene in the movie? Josh Safdie: There is a scene in the movie, as you know, where the Ilya character ODs. Eleonore, Ari, that character who was playing Evan, Caleb and I were waiting for Ilya to get out of the bathroom at McDonald’s. We all begged him not to get high because he was on methadone and trying not to. We were all supposed to go do a little rehearsal for the first scene we were shooting. At this point, Caleb was fully in costume, looked a lot like Ilya. He showered once, the entire shoot, maybe. He smelled horrible. Anyways, Ilya comes out of the bathroom, and he looked like a ghost. I was like, “Ilya, you don’t look good.” And he goes, “What are you talking about? I look fine. I look the same.” He walks over to the mirror and looks at himself, at that point the actor playing Evan said, “Yo, he’s about to fall out” — and he falls on the ground, not breathing. Blue. People in the McDonald’s don’t even give a shit. Eleonore, Caleb and I pick him up and put him on the table, and we’re like, bam! We’re slapping him as hard as we possibly can. Eleonore was crying, we didn’t know what to do. I go in to get ice water. I had read all about this. And I was like, “Who has a Narcan shot?” We’re dumping sugar out on the table thinking we’ll shoot him up with sugar water. Nothing, nothing.
Eleonore starts giving him CPR. We’re holding him, slapping him, spitting ice water on him, slapping him. Finally, his eyes open. The ambulance finally arrives. As Ilya was getting into the ambulance with Ari and Caleb, I asked Caleb, “You all right?” to which he said, “Am I all right? Is he [referring to Ilya] all right?”
It was so dark. It was the first time where I was really confronted with the way they fetishize death head-on. They talk about it all the time — murder, suicide. I said to Benny, “I don’t want to make this movie.”
Here’s another story. The real Ilya was trying to get syringes, and they wouldn’t sell them to him at CVS because “he looks insane.” And Caleb was there — and some paparazzi guy saw him and recognized him. Caleb’s manager called us kinda pissed off, “You’ve got our client in a CVS screaming about heroin. What the fuck are you getting him into?”
I know your roles shift sometimes from film to film. Benny, what was it like for you as a director of Heaven Knows What? Ben Safdie: It was weird. I was always watching it from this kind of “outside” perspective.
Josh Safdie: Benny was the quiet director. Some of [the actors] didn’t even know that he was also directing. You would hear me on the headset.
Ben Safdie: Yeah, because I was doing the sound, so I would hear everything. We had plenty of lavalier mics on actors, so I could hear them all. Josh had monitors on, so he could hear the entire mix. So, as he’d be giving direction to certain actors, I’d chime in via the directional microphone on a boom that I had on me, which I knew Josh could hear. I’d then hear him integrate my added directions into his own. We formed together in a way. I remember sometimes I’d hear Arielle scream at Josh, like, “This isn’t how it happened!”
Josh Safdie: I’d yell back, “This isn’t real life; this is a movie. Sometimes to get at truth we gotta lie a little!”