The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers
And their movies might make them legends.
The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Benny and Josh Safdie at White Castle  

Before deciding he wanted to make a Safdie Brothers movie, the erstwhile heartthrob Robert Pattinson hadn’t actually seen a Safdie Brothers movie. It was one still image — of the lead actress from their 2014 addiction drama Heaven Knows What — that led him to pick up the phone.

“He said, ‘I wanna be on a movie set that had the energy that I imagine this had,’” Benny, 31, says.

“Little did he know, there was no movie set,” Josh, 33, laughs. Adapted from the street life of its star, Arielle Holmes, Heaven Knows What is a breathless, booming piece of work — somehow both a plotless character study built on mumbly dialogue and stolen shots, and a punch to the face. “We were just this weird little crew making this movie in a very serious fashion.”

For over a decade, that’s been the mission statement. The Safdies split a schizophrenic childhood on either side of the East River, with a dutiful mother in Manhattan and a reckless, hyperactive dad in Queens. They came up making shorts. It was proto-YouTube free-form stuff; weird little poppy experiments. Then they went to micro-budget features, flitting through form and genre. The only throughline was the seriousness, the intensity — these were pure and true reflections of New York City, their obsession and their home.

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The Safdie’s handmade cinematic world is full of characters that can be selfish, self-destructive, calamitous to anyone foolish enough to enter their orbit. And yet there is a pull to these people, a raw charisma from which it’s really goddamn hard to turn away. Often these characters have been inspired by, and played by, first-time actors like Holmes. (Josh and Benny reject the more widely used term “non-actors.”)

With Good Time, their latest, they break traditions. There is an actual budget. There is national distribution, via the revered boutique production company A24. And for the first time, their lead is not previously anonymous. Pattinson, international celebrity, plays Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a con stuck in an all-night swirl of violence and exploitation and redeemed only by an aching love for a brother he’s desperately trying to spring out of the infamous Rikers Island. All through the movie’s dark hours, and despite exponential evidence to the contrary, Connie never wavers from a fierce belief that he is doing the right thing.

The result is a screwy headlong rush toward disaster — a hot Corvette careening through lanes to avoid collision and still, inevitably, smashing fender-first into a brick wall. Much like most of the Safdie’s stuff, it is not a passive moviegoing experience. “You have to decide,” Benny says. “Am I gonna roll with this?”

The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Josh Safdie  
The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Benny Safdie  

Josh stumbled upon Arielle Holmes one day in midtown Manhattan and felt he’d discovered a movie star. Later, he’d find out she’d spent the last few dollars she had on the dress she was wearing and had recently showered for the first time in weeks. “I didn’t know anything about her backstory, what her real life was,” he says. “I met a persona she was playing.”

Quickly, he’d learn about her fitful transient existence on the Upper West Side, and her explosive relationship with a fellow heroin addict named Ilya. He’d encourage her to write her memoirs. Officially Heaven Knows What is adapted from Holmes’ Mad Love In New York City, a book that doesn’t actually exist.

Adapting the raw material of a person’s life to screen is not a simple thing: the dynamic can be fraught, and prone to exploitation. The Safdies understood there was a responsibility to be fulfilled. After shooting Heaven Knows What, Josh cleaned out his personal bank account to get Holmes into a rehab facility in Florida. He also helped her land a literary agent to publish her memoir. She’d go on to move to L.A., and turn in a memorable role in Andrea Arnold’s gorgeous American Honey. Since, however, she’s largely stopped pursuing acting or publishing. “She had a book agent, she had a manager,” Josh says. “She fired all of them. She just didn’t want to be a part of it.”

With other collaborators, the Safdies have had more prolonged relationships. Pattinson’s primary co-star in Good Time is a Queens local named Buddy Duress. The Safdies actually met Buddy through Holmes — the two ran in the same druggy city scene — and gave him a co-starring role in Heaven Knows What as a high-strung dealer and addict.

After working with the Safdies, Buddy began studying with the veteran character actor Clark Middleton; alongside Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson, he can be seen in this year’s ensemble comedy Person To Person. Josh says, “I really think Buddy could become the Joe Pesci of our times.” Of Josh, Buddy says, “I consider him one of my best friends.”

And then there’s Ronald Bronstein. In 2009, Ronnie played Lenny, the protagonist of the Safdie’s semi-autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, about a manic father with two young kids. Two years before that, Ronnie wrote and directed a discomfiting feature called Frownland. Josh caught him plugging it at some film festival or another. “He saw me from afar and determined, at that moment, that I was gonna be in this movie,” Ronnie says. “He tracked me down and bullied me into submission. You’d have to pick his nitwit motivations.” Ronnie, now 44, had never acted before and hasn’t acted since.

After playing their surrogate dad, Ronnie stayed their third co-conspirator. With practice, they’ve carefully worked out their roles. Ronnie co-writes the scripts with Josh. Josh co-directs with Benny. Benny co-edits the movies with Ronnie. “It’s one sustained argument,” Ronnie says, of the peculiar working relationship. “Two of us are constantly forming temporary mini-alliances around an idea in order to pummel the third. The arguing gets so vicious and hostile that I always worry they won’t want to be my friends anymore. But so far, that hasn’t been the case.”

Ever since Daddy Longlegs, Josh and Benny have been plotting to next make Uncut Gems, a project inspired by their father’s time as a jewel runner in the Diamond District, the counterintuitively grubby NYC neighborhood where priceless rocks are hawked. (The elder Safdie was also variously employed as a fishmonger, a painter, a gas station attendant, and the manager of an ice cream shop.) Then other opportunities kept presenting themselves.

Meeting Holmes led to Heaven Knows What. Similarly, contact from an old friend who had years-old footage of a failed basketball phenom named Lenny Cooke led, surprisingly enough, to a heartbreaking documentary about what it looks like to willfully squander potential. Initial screenings were held at the Tribeca Film Festival. After the trailer got posted on WorldStarHipHop, there were lines around the block. It would eventually air on ESPN and almost get the Safdies, they swear, nominated for an NAACP Image Award.

The latest detour was Pattinson. “This guy showed up out of nowhere,” Ronnie says. “We’d been existing like a strand of saliva hanging from a barnyard animal, blowing in the wind, waiting to snap.” Pattinson had an opening in his schedule, and desire. With his clout came solid financing. “There was a flavor of a work-for-hire project. It was more official than things we’d done before. It was a job,” Ronnie says. “We didn’t have two ideas to rub together, but that in itself was exciting.”

Josh and Benny and Ronnie leapt at the unexpected opportunity, pushing themselves beyond their natural aversion to plotting and structure. There was a sudden sense that it was time to go large. “We’re goal-oriented,” Josh explains. “In that regard, we think like criminals. There’s always a way to run and break free. There’s always the big score.”

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The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Benny and Josh Safdie  
“We’re goal-oriented. We think like criminals. There’s always a way to run and break free. There’s always the big score.” — Josh Safdie

They came up with extended backstories for Pattinson’s character, Connie, and the damaged relationship he has with his mentally handicapped brother, Nick, played with surprising agility by Benny himself. Then they shunted all that off-screen and let ‘er rip.

The movie kicks off with an intensely emotional therapy session, then a bank robbery. Soon after: foot chases, escapes, hospital breakouts, bodies flying through plate glass windows or over balconies, amusement parks, bottles of LSD. For seven or so minutes the eternally underrated Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up and dominates with a bizarre, nervy portrayal of a naive fortysomething rich kid still living in her parent’s penthouse. Ingesting Good Time, you don’t want to stop to take a breath.

The same scrappy, strange energy that’s in the movie burbled on set. Unsatisfied with the look of rentable fake movie money, and needing lots of it for bank robbery scenes, the brothers tasked their prop department with making their own. “Part of the production office became a counterfeiting mill,” Josh says. “This one guy, he literally didn’t say a word to anyone. He just sat there cutting money all day long.”

At one point Pattinson — who’d regularly take breaks in character and costume — accidentally used the counterfeit bills to buy a pack of cigarettes in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. “It seemed like they had a self-contained world that they were a part of,” Pattinson has said of the Safdies. “That they weren’t just trying to make a movie or whatever. It felt like an entire environment you could go into [and] it was impossible to not be forced to be propulsive.”

During post-production, for the first time in their careers, the Safdies had enough of a budget for a proper office and editing suite. But they never much made use of it. Ronnie continued part-time work as a projectionist, in part to maintain health care for himself and his daughter. Benny had just had a baby boy. “We would edit half the time with Ronnie in the projection booth with movies running and the other half at Benny’s house where I could only talk to him during naptime,” Josh says.

“I was editing overnight. For a long period of time, I was just so tired,” Benny says. “There was a time where I was eating only hardboiled eggs. It was all about speed: when [the baby] went to sleep, I had to hyperfocus. Had to have my coffee ready, had to have the eggs boiled.”

The Safdies could have made life easier on themselves by relying on their assistant editor to put together “assemblies,” or rough cuts. But after working for so long with miniscule crews and total control, that was anathema to the process. “We don’t do assemblies!” Josh shouts at one point. “We do fine cuts! No one is touching the movie but us! That’s the rule!”

He tells me a story about Ronnie, who’s currently engaged in working through piles and piles of never-published R. Crumb dream diaries that he somehow managed to get his hands on. “Someone had offered to transcribe them for him,” Josh says, “and Ronnie’s like, ‘No! A big part of it is, I’m looking and reading and feeling it. I’m in the shit.’”

Along with opportunism, a major influence on Good Time was the real life of Buddy Duress. In the movie he plays Ray, an aggressively befuddled young man who becomes something between Pattinson’s sidekick and archvillain. With his large features and thick black slicked-back hair, Buddy has a certain old-school New York City face, the kind you used to see more often (the character actor Richard Edson comes to mind). Competing for space with Pattinson and his beautiful mug, Buddy and his unhinged motormouth manage to steal scene after scene.

“I guess you could say it gave me confidence,” Buddy says one sunny day in Astoria, not far from where he was born and raised, over lunch beers and Marlboro Reds. “Rob’s cool. I just looked at him like a normal person. I don’t get starstruck like that. This is definitely a different role from him than Edgar. What’s his name? Edward? From Twilight?”

Before making Heaven Knows What, Buddy had been convicted on a drug possession charge. After a few months in prison, he was given the option to finish his sentence in an in-patient rehab facility. On the day of the planned transfer, Buddy took off. “I was gonna wait on the escort just so I could get a swipe on the train,” he says. “But the guy took forever. So I just walked out. Came back here. Went home, grabbed some clothes, showered, shaved, said hi to my mother and told her, like — I’m on the run.”

He shot all of Heaven Knows What while evading police. “Josh was really worried,” Buddy says. “He said, ‘You cannot get caught — it’ll fuck up this whole movie.’ I was like, ‘I give you my word as a man, I will not get caught while we’re making this movie.’ And I didn’t. The next day, I got caught.” Rehab was no longer a choice: Buddy had to finish out his prison sentence.

The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Buddy Duress  
The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Buddy Duress  
“I really think Buddy could become the Joe Pesci of our times.” — Josh Safdie

“But that was a big fuck-you to the system,” he says. “‘You caught me, but not soon enough. You guys let me run for a whole year. You let me do a whole movie.’ And it’s funny. Sometimes, a negative decision like not going to the drug program — look, it led to the most positive thing that ever happened to me.”

Buddy has done stints in several prisons in the tri-state area over his 32 years. He also spent over half of high-school in a controversial, now-shuttered “therapeutic community” called Elan; one form of punishment, he says, was being made to sit in a chair for weeks at a time while fellow students yelled invectives. “The whole house would just, like, scream at you, curse you out, spit flying in your face,” Buddy says. “One day I flipped out, broke a piece of wood off the chair, and broke it over this kid’s head.” Still, the months he spent in Rikers seem to have left the most severe mark.

He recalls a man climbing on top a sink fixture in order to attempt to hang himself with a sheet strung onto an exposed pipe. Corrections officers rushed in, cut down the sheet, and “Boom, he went headfirst off the sink. Like, the whole floor vibrated.” After a separate altercation, the officers released the chemical spray MK9. “I’ve never seen grown men hit the floor so quick,” he says. “Literally, for like a half-hour straight nonstop from when they sprayed it, I was coughing violently, trying to catch a breath.” This was all in the first 24 hours.

After Heaven Knows What, while he was incarcerated, Josh encouraged Buddy to write. “I would talk to him every single day,” Josh says. “I told him, the only way to make time go faster is if you have a purpose. So why don’t you treat every day in there like character development, or research. He was like, ‘For what’? I’m like, ‘For a movie!’”

In exchange for finished pages, Josh would put money in his commissary account. “He wanted the same rate that Arielle got [for Heaven Knows What],” Josh says, but “she was typing and he was doing them by hand. I told him, ‘When I get the pages I’ll type them, then calculate the rate.’ He was like, ‘You motherfucker!’”

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The journal pages, Josh says, became “the kernel of inspiration” for Good Time — “seeing the mentality of someone on the run, the prison ethos in general, and certainly the stories from Rikers.” Also used as raw material: a harrowing late-night Buddy anecdote, about a drunken night out and a lost wallet and an angry cab driver who refused to be ripped off.

“This guy just went ape shit,” Buddy says, telling it again for my sake. “He put his foot on the gas like, ‘Fuck this,I’m taking you to the precinct!’ He’s speeding, it’s the middle of the night, there’s no cars around, he’s whipping around corners and running red lights. I was on parole at the time and I was out past my curfew. I was like, ‘No way, I’m not letting this happen.’ I kept waiting for him to slow down but he never did. Finally I opened the back door and jumped.”

“That was no journal,” Josh says. “He called me from the cab and all I heard was this panic in his voice and then he hung up. The next day he has this huge bump on his head and his arm’s all fucked up and he’s limping. He’s like, ‘I don’t wanna go into it.’ And then he went into it. I was like, ‘What?! You probably have a horrible concussion, you should get an MRI!’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no.’”

One big change between Good Time and the real thing: in the movie, Ray, the character, actually meets the consequences of his actions. In reality, Buddy says, “I rolled a few times, got the wind knocked out of me, got knocked senseless. Then I got up off the ground and walked away.”

Before they hunted through the outside world for inspiration, the brothers looked a little closer to home. In Daddy Longlegs there’s a scene in which Ronnie, as the single father character, drugs his two young sons. The character, a film projectionist, is unexpectedly saddled with a night shift. He can’t find anyone to watch the kids. So he chops up the Ambien he usually uses to slumber past the sounds of trucks outside his claustrophobic midtown apartment. And he feeds the boys just enough, in his estimation, to make them sleep through his absence. When he returns, he finds he’s effectively slipped the two into low-level comas.

“When our dad saw it,” Josh recalls, “he was like, ‘Did I do that?’” Reflected within the chaos of their childhood, it was at the very least a plausible chain of events. “He saw the movie as a lauding of his parenting,” Benny says, assuming his father’s point of view. “‘Finally, you understand how hard it was!’”

Josh and Benny’s parents split up when the kids were babies. Benny has no actual memories of them together. “That was part of how we got close,” he says. “Whenever things got crazy or bad, the one constant through everything was each other.” Their father came from a traditional Syrian Jewish family and felt neglected in favor his elder brother, the firstborn. “He would tell us all the time, ‘This is your partner-in-crime in life, never ever do him wrong,” Josh says. “He would drill it into us all the time, ‘It’s just you guys, it’s just you guys.’”

Their times with him were strange, and indelible. Their father would have an alarm clock set to Prince’s “Sexy Motherfucker.” He’d let them watch hyperviolent movies like A Clockwork Orange and Running Man years before maybe they should have. He bought Josh a copy of Onyx’s Bacdafucup, then dramatically snapped it in half after hearing the contents; he’d tape the backwards bits on Beatles songs for Benny and play them forward, which freaked the kid out severely. One afternoon, he took them to Pulp Fiction in the theaters. As the lights came on, his questionable parenting methods got him booed and showered with popcorn.

He’d also purposefully fuse cinema and reality. Before returning them to their mother, he’d screen Kramer Vs. Kramer. “He’d say, ‘I’m Dustin Hoffman, she’s Meryl Streep,’” Benny remembers, grinning. “We’re 7 and 9 or whatever it is. We’re going back to our mom like, ‘You’re selfish and you just wanna live your life and you don’t wanna be our mom…’” Often he’d run around with a camcorder taping his sons, joking with pals “I’m Jean Luc-Godard!”

The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Benny and Josh Safdie  
“[Our father] would tell us all the time, ‘This is your partner-in-crime in life, never ever do him wrong.’ He would drill it into us all the time, ‘It’s just you guys, it’s just you guys.’”

“He definitely wasn’t thinking I’m gonna breed directors,” Benny says. “He was thinking, I need to cover up the bad stuff with this amazing stuff, so that they’ll remember the amazing stuff.

“Everything was full volume all the time,” Josh adds. “The records, the TVs, the amps. Everything was turned all the way up all the time.”

In high school, the brothers drifted apart. “I was gonna be a physicist,” Benny says. “I became obsessed with dark matter, and what happened before the Big Bang. I was like, ‘How can you define existence if you don’t know what happened in the beginning?’ It got to a point where I was like, ‘I’m gonna figure this out.’”

Meanwhile, Josh was developing habits that would serve him so well later as a filmmaker — namely, befriending interesting strangers. “I met this women at some thrift store and she was way older and kind of androgynous,” Josh recalls. “She was like ‘We should hang out’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, cool, whatever.’” Through her he met all kinds of characters, hopped-up twentysomethings who called themselves artists and showed him victimless ways to steal luxury cars for joyrides. “I would like, go out all night with these strange people.”

By their late teens, they came back together. Josh was already tinkering with shooting videos, and he needed an editor. “iMovie had just come out,” Josh says, of the first time he commandeered his little brother’s abilities. “Benny had always been much better than me at computers.” They’d go on to shoot QuickTime videos, strange bits, and post them online in the days when having a well-trafficked video meant paying extra for your website’s taxed bandwidth. They were working through how to work together, sussing out what each brought to the relationship.

“Benny’s a very solid thinker,” Ronnie says. “He takes his time to form opinions and then he locks those in and it becomes very hard to body check him out of those. Josh is like, constantly taking in the world faster than he can digest it and constantly shitting it out. No project ever really begins or ends. It’s like jumping on an escalator that’s constantly going to infinity.”

You can see the juxtaposition in their personal aesthetics. On the day I meet them, Benny’s in sensible slacks and a dress shirt, his hair trimmed neatly; Josh is in Ben Davis work pants and a thin gold chain on one wrist, his hair longer and wilder. You can immediately tell they’ve spent a lifetime together, too. Josh can be a voluminous talker, and it’s hard for Benny to break in sometimes. But he has years of training in waiting for an opening: Benny never gives up the thought he was trying to communicate.

Soon, there’ll be much more to handle: next up, the brothers are finally making Uncut Gems, with Jonah Hill starring and Martin Scorsese producing. But everything about this moment, with the A-list-cast Good Time, is already bigger than any they’ve had before. Plugging the movie recently on the late-night circuit, Pattinson passed off what was meant to be an obviously tongue-in-cheek on-set anecdote about the Safdies talking him into, well, helping a dog orgasm. The story hit tabloids internationally, with a rep for PETA moved to issue a statement comparing Pattinson’s attempted jokes about masturbating a dog to “child molestation.”

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The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends. Benny and Josh Safdie.  

Scorsese, talk-show hosts, money, tabloids, the rage of PETA — clearly, the Safdies have stepped forward into a heretofore unexplored plane. “A lot of people are like, ‘So this is your first movie?’” Benny says. “No! We’ve actually been working really hard making movies for the last ten years!”

Adds Josh, “Part of me is totally content with people asking if this is our first one because, in a lot of ways, it is. We’ve been incubating. It’s almost like, we’ve been developing behind closed doors.”

By way of explanation, Josh relays an anecdote about a friend of his who plays in a hardcore band called Talk Hard. “He was a real sicko,” Josh says. “He told me once, ‘When I have a kid, I’m locking it in a room. I’m not gonna speak to it for three years. I’m not even gonna look if it’s a boy or a girl. I’m just sliding food in there.’ I’m like, ‘What?! What do you mean?!!’

Josh pauses, smiles. Benny smiles too and respectfully waits for a punchline he’s surely heard his brother land before.

“He goes, ‘Then, in year three, I’m opening the door and I’m throwing in an electric guitar. Yeah. Yeah. Some sick tunes will come out of that.’”

Good Time is in theaters now. Read an interview with Oneohtrix Point Never, who composed the film's score.
August 21, 2017
The Safdie Brothers Are Classic New York Hustlers. Their Movies Might Make Them Legends.