Ben and Josh Safdie Discuss the Making of ‘Heaven Knows What’

Heaven Knows What movie poster

Heaven Knows What” is a movie which takes us into a landscape alien to many of us: the world of a drug addict. Arielle Holmes stars in a riveting performance as Harley, a homeless addict on the streets of New York who has two passionate yet volatile loves in her life: her boyfriend Ilya and heroin. We watch as they struggle to survive one day after another on the mean streets of New York, struggling with addiction and each other as Harley attempts to prove her love to Ilya in the most passionate and dangerous way possible.

The movie was directed by brother filmmakers Josh and Ben Safdie whose previous credits include the comedy drama “Daddy Longlegs,” the documentary “Lenny Cooke,” and the crime-drama “Good Time” starring Robert Pattinson. I got to speak with them while they were in Los Angeles, and they described the various elements behind this movie’s making in great detail.

“Heaven Knows What” is based on the memoir “Mad Love in New York City” written by Holmes. I was eager to read it after watching the movie, but it hasn’t been published yet. Josh explained why.

Ben and Josh Safdie photo

Josh Safdie: She has a few publishers who want to do it, but she’s like rethinking about how she wants to release it now that she’s done these two other movies and is now in the responsible world.

Ben Safdie: There’s a beautiful rawness to it. If you were to read the pages, it really feels like you were right there sitting next to her all the time and it’s beautiful. That kind of immediacy is also what really attracted me to it because first you hear about, oh, homeless person addicted to drugs. We’ve heard that story a million times. How do you tell that story in a new and different way? Her voice was that new way.

I came into this movie not knowing anything about its backstory, and I honestly thought Holmes was a highly trained actress as her performance is brilliant and mesmerizing. This, however, is not the case as she is not all that far removed from the addict we see on screen. She was a homeless addict for years but has managed to get herself cleaned up, and her performance in “Heaven Knows What” has earned her attention from many who want to make her a star. Both Josh and Ben described what it was like working with her.

JS: Her performance is incredible. You have to remember when you live on the street you’re performing on an everyday level. Whether you’re hustling this person or trying to get this thing out of that person, it’s a performance and a performative life. She was also moonlighting as a dominatrix where she literally was performing as a different character.

BS: One of the most difficult performances you can give is as yourself because you need to be able to understand what makes you tick and then be able to put that out there without any inhibition. And then that’s how you build other performances because if you can get at your core in its ugliest form, or whatever its form, you can build from there.

JS: Acting is just painting your personality a different color. I really was amazed. When I watch the movie now, as I get more and more distance from it just in terms of just having filmed it with a sense of making it, I watch Ari’s performance and I’m really in shock about it. It would take like six or seven takes to get the performative level because it would often start out with her enthusiasm level and how enthused she was to do the scene. Sometimes she was really in it and she would give us this incredible performance. Other times it would take 12 takes to get it out of her. It’s really a beautiful performance from her. And the guy, Caleb (Landry Jones, who plays Ilya), is an actor in Hollywood movies. That’s like the craziest performance because people don’t even realize that it’s a performance and they learn his real story that he is a Texan and that he was in “X-Men: First Class,” he was in “Contraband,” he was in “Antiviral,” he lives in Los Angeles. This is not him at all. Maybe there are traces of him in Ilia, but no, that’s not him.

What’s fascinating about “Heaven Knows What” is how it combines fiction with a raw cinema verite. It’s essentially a fictionalized version of true events, and yet it feels like we’re watching real life unfold right before our eyes. I asked the directors what it was like balancing out the fictional elements with the real-life ones while making this movie.

BS: I think it was about putting them in a blender and not knowing where that line was because that was the only way to make it successful. We made a documentary before this, and that was a documentary. That was a real person and we were trying to tell his real story, but in order to tell his story most effectively we had to use techniques from fiction filmmaking, reenactment and changing the timeline. We were fictionalizing reality there to get the point across. So here we are making a fiction film with a kind of documentary base, and again we had to employ the same kind of tools. You have to make things up to really get at the true emotional core of things. (Werner) Herzog says it’s like the ecstatic truth once you get there.

The movie also features a brilliant electronic score which serves to illustrate just how alien the world drug addicts inhabit is to the rest of us. Along with movies like “The Guest,” “It Follows” and “Ex Machina,” electronic film scores are making a big comeback. Josh and Ben talked about the movie’s composers and why they chose that kind of music.

JS: There’s a bunch of things that are happening in music in the movie. For the most part, we feature the work of Isao Tomita and his renditions of Debussy. We really wanted to have a romantic score, but this movie is like a time squared, nighttime vibe. It’s like electrified and it’s kind of seedy, and it’s an alien landscape almost. We like to say the movie takes place on Mars which is where an addict’s brain goes in a weird way. Debussy music is some of the most romantic music ever composed, but when it’s done through this Japanese mind from the 70’s it’s different. It’s reinterpreted. It’s no longer really romantic but it has its core in romanticism.

BS: There’s other music that we use throughout the movie. There’s some original music by Paul Grimstad in the hospital sequence, and then there’s Ariel Pink who’s a Los Angeles guy who wrote a song for the movie called “I Need a Minute.” It’s electrified as well, and he wanted it to be a love song to the locked bathroom, being able to lock your own bathroom and needing another minute while people are banging on the door.

Watching “Heaven Knows What” brings to mind movies like “Kids” and “Requiem for a Dream” which dealt with lifestyles which were unnerving and at times horrifying to witness. We want to look away and these films dare us to, but in the end we can’t avoid the reality of what people do to each other and themselves.

“Heaven Knows What” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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The Infiltrator

The Infiltrator poster

It’s very tempting to call this movie “Breaking Bad” meets “Donnie Brasco” especially with Bryan “Heisenberg” Cranston starring in it. “The Infiltrator” is about a U.S. Customs Service special agent, Robert Mazur, who goes, as Eddie Murphy put it in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “deep, deep, deep, deep undercover” to infiltrate one of the world’s largest drug cartels. But more importantly, getting inside this particular drug cartel leads him to the money laundering operation run by the infamous Pablo Escobar who was once called “the king of cocaine.” Yes, this movie is “based on a true story,” but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing it.

“The Infiltrator” takes us back to the year 1985 when the internet didn’t exist, “Miami Vice” was on the air and the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was the subject of every other commercial we watched on television. Mazur has just come off a mission where he suffered a potentially career-ending injury, but he’s invited to participate in one more mission before retiring for good. Of course, we all know that the last mission will always be the most dangerous one that will test him more than ever before, and we do get the obligatory scene of the hero washing his face and staring at himself in the mirror as he silently questions himself. Also complicating issues is the fact that Mazur has his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) and two kids waiting for him back at home, and his wife can take only so much more of her husband’s work as every time he walks out the door might be the last time she sees him.

I couldn’t help but think of “Donnie Brasco” as I watched “The Infiltrator” as both films deal with undercover officers with families of their own who get so deep into their work that they cannot help but feel for the criminals they are trying to take down as they get too close to them in the process. This movie never comes across as the kind of undercover movie we haven’t seen a number of times before, but director Brad Furman still manages to keep the intensity strong and tight as Mazur and his colleagues face life or death situations more often than not.

Furman has previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” which starred Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney of many Michael Connelly novels, Mickey Haller. Now that movie managed to be a very entertaining legal thriller while bringing nothing new to genre, and Furman does the same thing here with “The Infiltrator.” There are scenes which remind us of many other movies we have seen before, but Furman manages to tweak those familiar situations to where we are forced to expect the unexpected. Just when you think you have seen everything an undercover movie has to offer, along comes this one which really fries your nerves at certain moments.

It also helps that Furman has quite the cast to work with here. Cranston has been on a roll ever since playing Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” and it is fascinating to see him play the kind of character whose mission it is to take down the Walter Whites of the world. It’s a complicated character as Mazur is dedicated to his job and his family, but not always in the same order. Cranston makes us empathize with a man whose priorities get tangled up as he descends deeper into the drug cartel world. Just watch him in the scene where he has to “audition” to meet one of the cartel’s leaders. Cranston makes you feel the frightening predicament of a man who may have gone one step too far, and he imbues the role with an integrity few other actors are capable of doing.

Cranston is also surrounded by a terrific cast of actors like John Leguizamo who brings his uncontainable energy to the role of Emir Abreu, Mazur’s partner. Leguizamo has one of the movie’s most unnerving scenes as he is forced to defend himself against another person who attempts to blow his cover, and watching the actor play it cool under such intense circumstances is thrilling to watch.

Then there’s Benjamin Bratt who plays Roberto Alcanio, Mazur’s contact and Escobar’s top lieutenant. Bratt makes Roberto into a man as charming as he is ruthless as well as someone far more interesting than the usual clichéd drug dealer we see in movies like these. You want to hate Roberto, but Bratt keeps you from doing that as you become as deeply involved in his family’s plight as he makes this character seem like a cool, down to earth dude even though he is also a vicious drug dealer.

There’s also Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) who plays Mazur’s chief officer, Bonni Tischler. She’s a real fireball from start to finish as she barks out orders at her colleagues and has no interest in wasting time on frivolous matters. Ryan makes Bonni into a no-nonsense character who you do not want to mess with as she is not about to let those who work for her take advantage of a situation unless it is for a really, really, really good reason.

Also terrific is Diane Kruger who plays Mazur’s partner and undercover fiancée, and she really hold her own opposite Cranston as her character of Kathy plunges headlong into an assignment she initially seems fully unprepared for. Much like the German actress she played in “Inglorious Basterds,” Kruger (no relation to Freddy) shows a fearlessness as she unveils the many talents Kathy has to get close to the criminals, and she also portrays the perils of undercover work as her emotions threaten to get in the way.

“The Infiltrator” is nothing new or groundbreaking in movies, but it does get the job done thanks to terrific performances and some truly intense scenes that really leave you guessing as to what will happen. It also provides us with a main character who is as interested in taking down bankers who launder drug money as he is in going after drug dealers. With the “War on Drugs” continuing to be fought in a futile manner, watching this movie made me think of something George Carlin once said:

“Drug dealers aren’t afraid to die. They’re already killing each other every day on the streets by the hundreds. Drive-bys, gang shootings, they’re not afraid to die. Death penalty doesn’t mean anything unless you use it on people who are afraid to die. Like… THE BANKERS WHO LAUNDER THE DRUG MONEY!”

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.