Josh and Benny Safdie Discuss ‘Heaven Knows What’ and the Real Life Inspiration Behind the Film

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The filmmaking duo of Josh and Benny Safdie, the brothers behind Heaven Knows What (opening in New York and Los Angeles on May 29th), have been receiving a lot of attention recently for the true story that surrounds their latest film. Heaven Knows What is based upon the unpublished memoir Mad Love in New York City by Arielle Holmes, who also stars in the film. The brothers met the young woman on the streets of New York City, where she was homeless, addicted to heroin, and in a destructive relationship with Ilya Leontyev. The filmmaking siblings then encouraged Arielle to write about her life, which ultimately served as the foundation for Heaven Knows What. However, the film avoids falling into the safety net of a redemption story, of triumph over adversity. The brothers instead have crafted a tragic love story, one that contextualizes the daily desperation of its characters. To include the redemption would undercut the emotional rawness of Heaven Knows What.

I recently had a chance to take with Josh and Benny Safdie in Los Angeles. We talked about the film’s backstory, its star Arielle Holmes, the unsettling music of the film, and more.

Sean Mulvihill: With your star Arielle Holmes, was there ever a fear that recreating these moments, due to the tenuous nature of recovery, might be triggering her?

Josh Safdie:        Yeah, that’s a little confusing for some people. It’s very important to remember that when we agreed to do the movie I paid her to write. Before that she was just my friend. Then I paid her to write her stories down because I had my own perspective but I knew that there was other shit that was happening that she didn’t even think was interesting, which I knew that if she wrote them down they would be very interesting. Which convinced Benny and [Ronald Bronstein], my co-writer, to want to make this movie. And then I paid her to do that, and I paid her to act in the film, and then she had expressed wanting to get clean and get out of that world. At the time she was on methadone, and then she’d fall off on dope, and then she was drinking. I dropped her off at detox once and she lasted, like, 12 hours. And then, I don’t know, there was just a desire to get clean.

So I said to her also as payment for the movie we’ll put you – look, there are places to get clean that don’t look like, you know, free detox centers in the Bronx, which are one notch above prison, which are also two notches above the corner where you can buy any dope. I was telling her there are these places where rich people can go to that, like, you read about in the tabloids all the time that are rehab facilities that are cushy, and in Florida, and on the beach, and are beautiful, and they make going through withdrawals an easy – I had to say something, you know. So the she’s ‘Oh that sounds awesome; I’d really like that.’ So we pay you to write, we pay to act, and in addition we’ll send you to this cushy rehab. Only because she wanted to go. But we weren’t going to send her to that rehab facility until we were done making the movie.

She was an opiate addict while making the movie. She was on methadone. Methadone is worse than heroin. There’s a documentary called Methadonia and it’s – it’s invented by the Nazis. Methadone is horrendous. And it was a very difficult creative decision to not include methadone in our movie even though it was a part of her writing, very much a part of her writing.

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Benny Safdie:    It just involved a whole other world of people. Like, the people who hang outside the clinics and take advantage of the people who were there.

Josh Safdie:        You gotta, with a movie like this, there’s so many peaks and so many valleys that you have choose your peaks wisely. To just involve methadone also was to insinuate a longer amount of time in that world. Because once you start entering the methadone world, that means you’ve probably already been a dope addict for at least a year-and-a-half. You get to this place where you’re, ‘Oh, I can’t afford that anymore so I’m just gonna go to the clinic where I can get it for free.’ But then you end up just combining methadone – Necro, who is in our movie, in his song “I Need Drugs,” there’s an incredible moment, a line that he wrote for his uncle Howie, who is a legendary New York City junky. He says, ‘I can go on forever mixing dope with my methadone dosage.’ And it’s like, yeah – I went into her methadone clinic once. They’re very private. I went in there once when we had it in the script to talk to them about maybe shooting there or whatever and they’re like, ‘You need to get out of here right now.’ Outside the methadone clinic is, like, the most insane scene. I mean that’s where you can buy anything you want. If I want a benzo, I can go – I know where all the methadone clinics are. I can just go buy a benzo right there.

Methadone clinics are disgusting. Methadone is a disgusting drug, worse than heroin. What it does to the body, goes into the bones. It’s more addictive. It’s harder to kick. It’s horrible.

Sean Mulvihill: It also seems like you dodge something that is in seemingly so many other films dealing with addiction, that moment of realization –

Josh Safdie:        That doesn’t really happen.

Benny Safdie:    It’s like what people watching the movie want to happen. And they don’t want to recognize the fact that it isn’t that easy to just take that turn and be at enlightenment.

Sean Mulvihill: Yeah, it’s like a never-ending process.

Benny Safdie:    Even when you’re out you constantly have to be concerned about going back.

Sean Mulvihill: You know, like that movie Fight? It’s just so disingenuous about addictions –

Benny Safdie:    Oh, with Denzel Washington. Oh my god. That movie’s ridiculous. I couldn’t believe it.

Sean Mulvihill: It’s like he looks out the window, cue classic rock, and everyone walks out with a smile.

Josh Safdie:        Oh, come on.

Benny Safdie:    No, no, it was out of control. The girlfriend and all of sudden – like the set was –

Josh Safdie:        Those movies have a purpose.

Benny Safdie:    But what it doesn’t do – for me, it’s we are making this movie about heroin. I want people to leave the theater and I don’t want them to ever –

Josh Safdie:        For me, I was always making a movie about love.

Benny Safdie:    I know but I’m saying I know heroin’s a part of it. There are movies that show heroin in ways that aren’t so – that are kind of a little bit positive. Like, oh, Lars Von Trier, he doesn’t do it about heroin but he does it about drinking, and goes out there, ‘I can’t make a good movie sober.’ It’s like there are all these stupid myths about drugs and they’re bad things sometimes and they can really fuck people’s lives up. For me I wanted to, like – okay, we’re gonna do this and that’s an important part of it. You need to feel. That’s an important thing, it’s not judging, but you’re gonna feel what it feels like to be in it, and in that cycle. And it’s not gonna feel good at times. It can make you feel really insane.

Sean Mulvihill: That’s one thing I was taken with by the film, it’s not judgmental. It’s more a portrait that leaves the moralizing out.

Josh Safdie:        Leave that to the viewer. You want to judge them? Judge them. I’m not gonna judge this person.

Sean Mulvihill: For me, for the people in my life, it helped contextualize their struggles.

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Josh Safdie:        That’s part of the reason why we made the movie. I mean, I got so close with Arielle as a friend. There’s only so close I can – I wasn’t going to do dope with her. You know how many times a full needle, a full syringe was extended to me? ‘Oh, just take it.’ I’m not interested. I’m just not interested in dope. I’m not interested in, you know. I’ve tried my opiates, but, like, I’m just not interested in that high in general. I’m more interested in getting high, you know, making things. It’s not corny. I mean that.

But there was a closeness – I could be very, very close with her and she’s one of my closest friends to this day, but there was a closeness I could never achieve with her because I wasn’t A) sleeping on the street and B) banging diesel 10 times a day or, whatever, 4 times a day. I wanted to make a movie that kind of, I don’t know, that showed this world in a way that allowed people to genuinely understand it. It doesn’t really come from, like, knowing where they come from and taking this analytical and almost academic approach to it, which is where most documentaries come from. It comes from understanding how it feels. Feeling how it feels. And knowing, like, how it’s actually like – even as a sober person, she’s like, ‘When I look back on that movie, people talk about how horrendous it made them feel and everything, but I watch it and I never even consider that movie to be horrendous feeling or dark or intense; I watch it and get excited.’ Because that feeling of being on your toes and not knowing what’s going to happen in the next 20 minutes or what happened an hour ago is something I always try to strive for in life. The moral of the movie is for me is that sometimes that present being is very dangerous. You might get stuck in something.

When she saw the movie for the first time and told me that, like, she’s like, ‘You showed me what my life felt like through your eyes and it feels more real than it was.’ Like in hindsight, stronger than memory in a weird way for her. That was to me when I knew that we at least did something that I can feel very proudly. I think we made a great movie.

Sean Mulvihill: The music in the film, that kind of like pulsating synthesizer, reminded me of like a John Carpenter horror film.

Josh Safdie:        Well we wanted a horror vibe.

Sean Mulvihill: You achieve this horror film without personifying evil, it’s just the nature of addiction as a horror film.

Joshua Safdie:   The romanticism of death. A huge inspiration for a wayward youth movie – any wayward youth movie can’t go without thinking about A Clockwork Orange. Now, Wendy Carlos, or Walter Carlos – what was it a guy or a girl who did that movie?

Benny Safdie:    I think it was Wendy.

Josh Safdie:        Wendy. Those interpretations of Bach or Beethoven, excuse me, or her album Switched-On Bach, that stuff is always very inspiring. Specifically, if you look at the Japanese counterpart to Wendy Carlos, Isao Tomita with his interpretations of [Claude] DeBussy. It’s this really romantic music that done at nighttime and electrified. This is the movie of the night. Even though most of the movie takes place during the daytime, it might as well be the nighttime.

Benny Safdie:    Yeah, like with Wendy Carlos it’s a little more smooth. Tomita is raw. There’s rough edges.

Josh Safdie:        It’s like you’re on Mars.

Benny Safdie:    There’s things that come out of nowhere. Like jangles that appear to be completely off.

Josh Safdie:        What’s interesting is what Tomita gets out a vibe that he found in other people’s music. That piece of music that opens the movie and closes it during the fire and the bus sequence. That’s this guy James Dashow, and that’s actually the only piece of music he ever did that sounded like that. He did that for a movie, an Italian movie that no one’s ever seen in, like, 1964. [Editor’s note: the song is from 1977’s Oedipus Orca] That song our DP sent to me. He’s like, ‘Yo, this is song is incredible, isn’t it?’ So we ended up using that song and he ends up getting people at his house requesting it.

The other music that we use, Ariel Pink does a track at the end of the movie and he wanted to do an electronic drugged-up version, romantic ode to the locked bathroom. And the Hardstyle music that happens in that dome that they party in. You know, that’s music that’s straight from Arielle and Ilya’s real life. That’s the music they turned to, Hardstyle. It’s like the Black Metal of electronic music. And of course you have [indiscernible], which is Arielle and Ilya. They were major Black Metal people.

Benny Safdie:    They weren’t actually part of that band.

Josh Safdie:        Ilya had a Black Metal band.

Benny Safdie:    I know, but he wasn’t a part of [indiscernible].

Josh Safdie:        Yeah, they definitely saw themselves as lords of Black Metal.

Sean Mulvihill: Now did you shoot the film in just natural room lighting?

Josh Safdie:        I would say that 60-70% of the film is lit naturally. But all the interiors we were adding practicals. So it’s like we’re lighting it but not really lighting it. And then I’d say we would very rarely bring out lights and plant lights.

Benny Safdie:    That party scene we had generators and giant lights.

Josh Safdie:        We did it occasionally.

Benny Safdie:    It’s weird. A lot of it takes place in the daytime because they’re living outside. And when it’s light out, that’s when the light’s there. When it’s nighttime, you have that kind of – you just go to sleep or just have the light from the streetlamps.

Josh Safdie:        You also have to remember that some of the lenses that we were shooting on were so long, very slow lenses.

Sean Mulvihill: Did I read it was a 200mm lens?

Josh Safdie:        2,000. Yeah, we were shooting very long lenses.

Benny Safdie:    It had like a periscope, like a trombone.

Josh Safdie:        I love that lens. But it’s very slow, so you need a lot of light for it. So the nighttime stuff, every once and a while, you need to help the image. But we were also pushing these digital cameras so far in terms of –

Benny Safdie:    But when we did go inside we used it as an opportunity to really –

Josh Safdie:        Expressive.

Benny Safdie:    — smoke machines. Really, it was pretty intense.

Sean Mulvihill: Yeah, like that flophouse apartment with the red-ish pink tones

Josh Safdie:        That was a big art department build that whole flophouse.

Sean Mulvihill: You just rented out an apartment and decked it out?

Josh Safdie:        We shot in someone’s apartment and added, altered it. There was a statue. We brought this romantic statue.

Benny Safdie:    A big giant statue.

Josh Safdie:        Neon lighting coming in.

Benny Safdie:    A ton of lamps.

Josh Safdie:        We had this concept of fish tanks lighting the scene. I don’t know. We had a lot of ideas for the interiors because interiors in this world are so rare.

Benny Safdie:    I just remember we had to open up some windows because we were going way overboard.

Sean Mulvihill: Beyond your relationship with Arielle, is there a more personal element? Do you know a lot people who’ve struggled with addiction?

Josh Safdie:        I know a handful of people and I grew up with it around.

Benny Safdie:    It’s always around.

Josh Safdie:        I really relate – I personally really relate to the love triangle element in the movie. I went through a pretty toxic love triangle myself that might as well have been drug-infused. It kind of was on one part of it. It definitely was very destructive. That idea of destructive romances is unfortunately very close to my own.

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