“You can ask any cameraman we’ve ever worked with – it’s not easy to work for us,” says Josh Safdie, the morning after “Heaven Knows What,” the latest film he co-directed with his brother Benny, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in the midst of a whirlwind fall for the pair and their star Arielle Holmes, who just returned from the Venice Film Festival and will next be taking the film to their hometown of New York for NYFF.
Still, their travels likely can’t compare with the sweep of what they’ve accomplished with “Heaven Knows What,” an exhilarating character study of Harley (Holmes), a tempestuous 19-year-old living on the streets of New York, fighting her own worst instincts as well as a heroin addiction while trying to reunite with an even more troubled ex Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). It’s a devastating experience that likely couldn’t be achieved if the two didn’t push themselves or those operating the cameras to find, borrowing the term from Werner Herzog, the ecstatic truth, channeling Harley’s fragile mental state with a mix of long steadicam takes and intimate closeups. However, “Heaven Knows What” wouldn’t have been possible at all if it weren’t for Holmes, a one-time addict in real life who Josh had met while doing research for another film and subsequently encouraged to start writing down her story.
After she gave the resulting book “Mad Love in New York City” to longtime Safdie collaborator Ronnie Bronstein to give it shape, the film emerged as a deeply entangled knot of reality and fiction that begins at Bellevue Hospital, where Holmes really did have a nervous breakdown, and follows her as she rips off mailbags looking for money or gift cards to pawn, hanging out at the fast food joints that won’t kick out her friends, and considers making an escape from the city. As much as the Safdies invite life into the frame, it is Holmes’ brave, unfettered performance that gives “Heaven Knows What” a beating heart and while in Toronto, she and the Safdie brothers sat down to talk about creating the fever dream of a film, how they pulled off the unshakeable tracking shot that plays under the opening credits set in Bellevue’s psych ward and how the reality and fiction have kept affecting each other in the lives of the filmmakers long after filming ending.
What’s this past week been like? Josh said before the premiere, it was a miracle this even got made.
Josh Safdie: We set out to basically tell this opera, using the fabric of life and showing it at Venice and now here at these palatial theaters, we’re dressing up in essentially black tie garb and [when the film starts] you have this arpeggio music and see these two people rolling around in love and then you see that tear fall from [Arielle’s] cheek and when you hear that audio cross over, you realize it feels like a night at the opera.
Benny Safdie: Just the speed at which we worked and did this very quickly… thinking back on it, it almost feels like a dream that’s happening. When Josh says [this film is] a miracle, it really is like there was some intervention of some kind where it was to made it happen. It was a crazy process.
Even before meeting Arielle, it sounds like you wanted to make a movie about life on the streets. Where did that interest come from?
Josh Safdie: The movie didn’t come about until I met Arielle. We were interested in a different milieu of street culture, which is on the Diamond District, the through way up between 46th and 5th on 47th Street, but that was a very different movie than this. But going back to being 14, 15, I’d hang out on the street all the time just because that’s the only place to hang out. Granted, I’ve never been homeless, but [I’ve felt] there’s a “freedom” to the street. It’s like your home on wheels in a way and I’ve always been interested in how that forces you to live in the moment and deal with things as they’re thrown at you. Everyone says take a walk in New York, it’ll help you if you’re feeling down because it forces you to move through different emotional, physical, and metaphysical obstacles.
You’ve always liked to shoot from afar, but was it even more crucial on this film to let the life into these situations with the mix of professionals and nonprofessionals that you were working with on this?
Benny Safdie: It was actually more to let the life of the city infiltrate the scripted scenes that we had done because everybody who was in it knew that they were in it. We were never hiding from them. We just wanted the city to live around the actors. By being far away and let that happen. To see, to have that, have a fight on the corner be something that people on the street would just be like, look, and then just keep going and just have those reactions in the foreground as work.
Josh Safdie: With Sean [Price Williams] and Ronnie [Bronstein], who’s the co-writer and co-editor, all these things were conceptually discussed at length. The movie is about surveillance because it takes place in truth, but it’s also extremely subjective and operatic, so you’re in this girl’s life. They’re at odds with each other, so how do you achieve that? We were shooting with two cameras a lot of the time.
Benny Safdie: Also, how do you achieve that without doing it handheld right up in there to make it feel that way, which is the typical way.
Josh Safdie: For practical reasons, a lot of the time we had to be extremely far away, which helps the actors too because the cameras aren’t right up in their face. Ari is an actual actor and a good performer, but some of the people we were working with, we’d put a camera right in front of them and they would clam up.
Benny Safdie: Because the cameras were so far away, Buddy [Duress, who played Holmes’ partner in crime Mike] would act for three, four blocks past when we were performing because he figured there are cameras somewhere, so “I’m just going to keep going and keep acting.” We’re like “Buddy, Buddy…” It was funny.
You refer to the film as an opera and musically, the film is so immersive from the start. Was that something you knew you’d be doing before shooting?
Josh Safdie: Actually, a really early idea that Ronnie and I were discussing was having mostly electronic classical music throughout the entire film, almost like it’s a musical. That arpeggio opening piece is by James Dashow, which reprises at the end. We knew music was going to be a major part of the movie early on.
Benny Safdie: Then in the edit, you realize we had more music in the section of the film [that features Mike] that just didn’t make sense. The earlier sections [had] music, but by the Mike section, the music was in the voices, so we didn’t want there to be anything else added to it, except for one moment where it reaches that musicality level.
There’s a remarkable four-and-a-half-minute tracking shot that plays under the opening credits as it follows Arielle through the psych ward. How did it come about?
Josh Safdie: When Ronnie saw that footage came in, he said, “This is the best film making you’ll ever do.
Benny Safdie: He’s like I don’t know how you guys did that. In the moment, I said I have no idea. It was just a room with 15, 20 people and [started with], “alright … Doctor, come with me.”
Josh Safdie: We’re talking about a closed hospital wing. We had to move the furniture in there because there wasn’t any. Our casting director casted remotely because she was doing another film in Florida, but she did an unbelievable job, [specifically with] Kate Halpern, the woman who plays [Harley’s] roommate. We respond to the energies that people bring – that’s how we work. And [Kate] was a Shakespearean actress, but she also had a horrible history of psychiatric help and drug problems. So she knew psych wards like the back of her hand, and when [our casting director] found this woman, she set the tone. Once we met her we were like okay, we’re going to start with this woman then we’re going to unravel and we’re going to end with the girl with the bleached hair.
We had three Steadicam operators on the film and this is the first time ever that I had a monitor – two monitors when we were doing two cameras, so technically, we were asking a lot of everyone involved and everybody really rose to the challenge.
Benny Safdie: Everything had to be perfect, people had to show up at the perfect time.
Josh Safdie: Conceptually, we were discussing that psych wards have been shown millions of times in movies. How are we going to show it? If you can close your eyes and imagine something, there’s no reason to make it. That’s the bottom line. Anybody can close their eyes and imagine it. If you can really do something with it, and it also grew from Ari, being able to just move through in one take and hold her own, going from calm to extremely frightened to extremely angry to in the middle of a fight. That was fun for us. I want to do more stuff like that.
Benny Safdie: It was also supposed to be a daytime shoot, then the entire thing took 12 hours to just get that one thing down, so we shot it at night.
Was that the craziest part of the shoot?
Josh Safdie: All the bus stuff [for the end of the film when Harley attempts to leave the city] was more insane. Our producers, Sebastian and Oscar, were amazing – they really made things happen for no money all the time and when we needed a bus, they booked a charter bus to take a group of people upstate. But the bus driver thought he was just shuttling a group of people. He had no idea that we were going to film on the bus while the bus was moving and that he was going to act in the movie. He had no idea that someone was going to break his window. We had no idea either! [Arielle] had no idea!
Remember the bus is going 70 miles per hour on the highway and she’s throwing her body into the thing — I kept showing her this one scene from “Possession,” [where] Isabelle Adjani is freaking out in the whole thing. I kept telling Arielle, “This is your dance, this is your freak out. This is when you have to express all of your inner frustrations.” We did this last take with the guy and she gave him hell. She was throwing garbage at him while he was driving the bus with all of us on it, ripped his microphone, then came back to the seat and I was like, “Alright, do what you need to do,” and she broke the chair and the window – that wasn’t scripted.
Then we decided not to shoot the scripted ending because we didn’t like it anymore and we thought we’d come up with the ending after we’re done editing, which we did, but then we’re like, “Okay, we need to get the bus back. All of a sudden, that bus was donated to an automobile museum in Pennsylvania.
Benny Safdie: It happened to be the one bus that they didn’t have in their charter bus museum.
Arielle, did you find acting difficult at all, especially these parts of your life that might not have been so pleasant? Or did that make it easier?
Arielle Holmes: Honestly, I didn’t feel strange. It was pretty natural to me, especially because what I was doing was so much of my life anyway.
Benny Safdie: It’s funny, you say you hate repetition, but you got it down pretty good.
Was it interesting to have the mix of people you had on screen as well, where some are professional and others aren’t?
Benny Safdie: We’ve done it before.
Josh Safdie: Caleb [Landry Jones] is the most extreme because we had some other actors in the film too who, this was either their first or second time acting. Obviously, Eleonore [Hendricks] has been in thirty movies, Necro has been in a bunch of movies. Tommy, the guy who plays the drug dealer they go to at the end, this is his second film, but he’s going on to be an actor now. Obviously, the real people who [Arielle] knows, those were some of the more challenging days because we were just asking people to say lines within their real life, but it was definitely different when [Arielle] was acting with Caleb versus other people. What’s weird is she became the professional.
Arielle Holmes: Working with Caleb, I fed off his energy the way he was performing, but with other people like Maynard, sometimes I felt like I was giving them direction.
Josh Safdie: Think about that conceptually though. When she’s with [Jones’] Ilya, she’s working with somebody almost being directed in a weird way by someone else’s leads. Then when she’s with the other people in the film, the non-Ilya characters, she’s directing them. I always found that to be very interesting because [Arielle’s] character has so much more power when you’re not with Ilia. That’s true in real life too.
Arielle Holmes: It is.
Josh Safdie: This is where the ideas came from. Conceptually, everything is in sync with one another.
Arielle, what was it like to see the finished product?
Arielle Holmes: I don’t really know how to answer it. For me, it did give me a new perspective on my life and myself. From that, I gained a new outlook on how to live my life. That’s what it’s like for me.
“Heaven Knows What” will be released on May 29th at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles and the Landmark Sunshine in New York.