On the back of the door to the office of Elara Pictures, the production company created and run by fraternal filmmaking team Ben and Josh Safdie, is a one-sheet for their new film Good Time, with Robert Pattinson sporting a half-assed dye job and perched precariously on the lips of a larger-than-life bottle of Sprite.
The typography looks reminiscent of old VHS tapes—block letters with lines and slices through them—many of which line the wall-sized library of films. Ben mentions Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara being influences on Good Time, but suggests that the films the pair has ingested over the years have merely become a part of their vocabulary.
“We’re not trying to be nostalgic. This film is very much of the present. But it’s like when you learn a new word: It just becomes a part of how you express yourself.”
Their disinclination to be cinephilic directors in the vein of Quentin Tarantino or Todd Haynes (only excepted with a nod to Bresson’s A Man Escaped in their 2009 first feature, Daddy Longlegs, and a scene in Good Time that recalls Taxi Driver) has lent their films a wholly singular atmosphere. The grainy aesthetic of Daddy Longlegs had an improvised quality that felt like a slyly cruel joke; their elliptical approach to documentary in 2013’s Lenny Cooke was reminiscent of Robert Greene or Chris Marker; and the tale of—per the title of the memoirs the film is based on—“mad love in New York City” in Heaven Knows What was one of the most haunting experiences in film of the last decade.
The Queens-raised, Boston-educated sons of Syrian immigrants gained notoriety with that last film, released in 2015, about the tempestuous love affair between two heroin addicts. Their fixation on characters at the margins of society continues with Good Time, where Pattinson’s Constantine “Connie” Nikas sinks himself in a heist while his neurologically disabled brother, Nick (played by Ben), is caught and thrown in jail. Connie has nothing else on his mind but to get his brother out.
Pattinson devotes himself to the role to the degree that Good Time becomes one of his most unsettling and accomplished performances, walking the fine line between brotherly protection and self-interest. We watch as he manipulates a slew of individuals, including his on-again, off-again girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The film premiered to raves in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Currently the Safdies are working on their dream feature, entitled Uncut Gems, backed by Scorsese himself.
Kyle Turner, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How have you developed your sense of style and your process over the course of five films?
Ben Safdie (BS): Back when we made Daddy Longlegs, the idea of world creation was very interesting to us. After that, we were trying to make Uncut Gems, though in the process we would always hit some sort of roadblock, and we weren’t just going to sit still, so we would make other movies. With Lenny Cooke we learned the importance of certain narrative information. We were making a documentary but with narrative filmmaking styles and editing. But there were certain things that people needed to know, and that process was helpful to us. Like, you can’t have ellipses all the time. There are certain things that need to be in there, and that was important. Heaven Knows What was a fiction film based on reality. We took what we learned with Lenny Cooke and applied it to fiction film, and again, the narrative and editing and storytelling were heightened. Going into Good Time, we had the freedom of it being fictional again, but we had the knowledge to know how to work with that.
We took our ideas and scaled them in proportion to the budget. Somebody once asked us a long time ago, “What would you do if you had more money to make a movie?” This was about Daddy Longlegs, and there was a scene in that where we had a paper tornado. And I said we would just make a bigger paper tornado.
Another thing: Pace has become very important to us. Pace became a character in Good Time. We’ve realized that being aware of people’s attention spans, not wasting people’s time, is important. There’s no room for self-indulgence. We’re really proud of that Good Time is 100 minutes. We tried to get below it, but 100 minutes was the minimum amount.
MM: What’s your editing process like now, compared to earlier in your career?
BS: On Heaven Knows What, we did on assembly, [frequent collaborator] Ronald Bronstein and me. We edited together, and he and Josh wrote it together. Here we just worked to each other’s strengths. We’ll break up a film; it feels like you’re on a basketball court: Who will you pick for this? Then you come together at the end and work on the whole structure.
We took a break after the shooting of the film—a location fell through—and we edited the film and then came up with a different ending. We had to figure out a different way because of the direction the movie was taking us. Normally, when you have a genre movie, the genre or the narrative takes precedent over the character. Here we were trying to make the character as important as the plot, so we wrote something where the character and the narrative were so intertwined that logically you couldn’t do certain things because the character felt a certain way. It’s a film where the character is constantly thinking about his brother, and the moment he stops, the film doesn’t work. We were working within a certain genre of thrillers and bank robberies, but we were still trying to stay true to the character’s emotions, which guide the film and push it forward. The emotional state is also the driving state of the narrative, and those two things becoming inseparable is what makes it really special.
MM: You’ve mostly worked with nonprofessional actors in the past. Did you approach working with Robert Pattinson any differently?
BS: We like to think of them as first-time actors, as in, this is the first time they’ve been given the opportunity to act, as opposed to nonprofessional actors. But we approach each person like an individual. There’s a certain directing style that you use with a first-time actor because you really need to go out and show who the person is. There are certain people that just get it right away, and you can just tell them, and they’ll do it. Rob was so game to go the whole distance. He really wanted to dive deep. He gave us a lot of time before production started to develop the character. Josh had Rob write me an email, as Connie, from jail to Nick. So I responded in kind as Nick. We had this month-long back and forth of letters, developing a history between us, and Josh and Ronnie would take those and add them into the writing. And when Rob and I were acting together, we would have that to pull from.
Josh Safdie (JS): I wrote a biography for Rob, so he would know where Connie stood. We were thinking, if this person hasn’t lived this experience, how can we get them there? And Rob was really able to go the extra mile.
MM: Was you playing Nick always in the cards?
BS: It was our ace in the deck! Back in 2010, Ronnie and I were developing a character for a film he was going to make, which never ended up getting made. It was a similar character: developmentally disabled. As Good Time was being written, we thought maybe it fit to have this character as Connie’s brother. Once that was the case, we asked professional actors to rehearse—in order to play this character, you really had to think like him, be that person. Otherwise it would be fake. We did consider people with developmental disabilities. But the truth is, we were on a very tight schedule. There was someone we almost cast, but it just didn’t feel right, because in order to get them to do certain things, we would have to trick them.
MM: It would feel a little exploitative?
BS: Exactly. And that was the last thing we wanted to do. I got bigger for the movie, and when I saw a screen-test, I saw that this was a guy who could hypothetically get whatever he wants because he can physically take it.
MM: How were the therapy scenes that bookend the film developed?
JS: The brother has this important role in the emotional trajectory of Connie. So when we structured the movie, the Nick character ended up becoming an emotional arc in the film. It’s very vertical filmmaking, where everything is integrated.
BS: Nick is a grounding point for Connie and for the audience. After we came back from our break and regrouped, the ending became clearer: It needed to be about Nick.
MM: How do you think Connie and Nick fit into the narrative of the American Dream?
JS: We researched prison culture a lot, reading books like The Executioner’s Song or In the Belly of the Beast, and Norman Mailer’s writing on such; watching documentaries. You start to understand a parallel of prison culture and larger social culture. America lives under this prison ethos, not just the penal system, but also the isolation. We work across from this building and I don’t see that big of a difference between the day room in a jail and the living room here. So when we began imagining Connie as this ex-con, part of the thing that was induced into him was this concept of being truly free. And I think the American Dream is this concept of freedom, being free from the constraints of the world that you’re put into, and a lot the time that comes with money. For Connie, money is a gateway to a world of freedom where he owns a piece of land and lives in a cabin with his brother. In reality it would probably be a nightmare, because his brother needs care. The American Dream in this film is so unattainable. It’s no longer the sincere thing it once was.
MM: You’ve made three love stories now in different forms.
JS: Someone else once mentioned that to us, and asked us what other kinds of love we can look into. Paternal love, obsessive love, romantic love, now fraternal love. I don’t really understand what else there is to marvel at. There are people who marvel at hate; that is a very easy thing to do. Hate comes from the mind, and love comes from the body and the heart and the soul. I believe that film is the nexus of the two, of the mind and the heart. As a filmmaker, when you can tap into something like love, it’s unwieldy; it’s so much a spiritual thing. Love is not something you can put into words. I think we will always be interested in love. I don’t want to marvel at hate. MM