Directors Josh and Benny Safdie Show Audiences a Good Time

Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie made a big impression with their 2010 feature film debut, Daddy Longlegs, a look at the misadventures of an absent-minded divorced father in New York City. The film was typical of the deeply personal style they have hewed to since: an immersive, character-driven story shaped by a close attention to detail that immerses the viewer in an authentic, real-life New York far removed from the path of a tour bus. Their next two films were equally personal: the 2013 sports documentary Lenny Cooke, about a basketball-star-to-be who was never able to live up to his potential, and Heaven Knows What—based on the unpublished memoir of star Arielle Holmes, documenting her life as a homeless heroin addict. These previous films set the stage for their latest feature, Good Time, which will be released this August by A24 following raves at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Good Time stars Robert Pattinson as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, a Queens native who stages an ill-fated bank robbery with his mentally disabled younger brother, Nick (played by Benny Safdie). Their getaway is botched, however, leaving Nick alone and without any protection behind bars. On the run and unable to come up with the bail money to free his brother, Connie hatches an unlikely plot to break his brother from prison. Complications arise, and few things go Connie’s way in his desperate attempt to reunite with Nick. Boxoffice spoke with the siblings ahead of the film’s release.

Research plays a central role in how you set up your films. It shows a commitment to verisimilitude, to making sure every detail feels authentic. What role did that kind of research play in Good Time?

Benny Safdie: When you look at Heaven Knows What or Lenny Cooke, those were both based on reality. The importance of that research is reflected in real people, so that taught us a lot about narrative: you have to be true to certain things in order to understand what’s going on. Narrative films can be a bit weird because you can describe what happens in one sentence without necessarily having to describe the characters.

Josh Safdie: The project wouldn’t have happened if Robert [Pattinson] hadn’t reached out to us and told us he wanted to do something together. He wasn’t quite right for the project we’re currently working on with Jonah Hill (Uncut Gems). I was reading a couple of books at the time, The Executioner’s Song about Gary Gilmore and In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott, and that’s the same period when the David Sweat and Richard Matt prison break happened. Around that time I had a good friend in prison and I asked him to keep a journal—a day-to-day blotter on what was happening inside. I asked him to do that as a friend. A big part about doing time in prison is just passing the time. Having a purpose makes time go by much quicker, so he started sending me these journals and I got very interested in prison culture in America. I’ve always been into the TV show Cops, and I found a way to watch every single episode. I would look for specific characters whose story could be told. Our movies are a little like “termite art”—people watch them and are entertained, but the meaning creeps up on them later. I approach work the same way; when I get interested in something, I go very far down that path.

Benny: If the logic of the characters or the logic of the narrative feels bogus, you need to find a way around it—and that’s where all the research comes in. With the character of Connie [Robert Pattinson] in Good Time, you have to understand what it’s like to be in jail, understand the current state of America. The character of Nick is one we developed a long time ago—right after Daddy Longlegs. Due to the nature of the project, it became clear it would have been too difficult to cast someone with a disability to play the role, and that’s when I stepped into the part.

Josh: I ended up getting involved in this milieu in a way I wasn’t expecting. Through one of my friends, I ended up meeting the commissioner of jails in New York City and we became friends; I started going on tours of jails with wardens and running into people I knew inside, pretending I didn’t know them so as to not put them into an uncomfortable situation. The commissioner of jails is actually in the movie; we cast him after he stepped down from the job. The correctional officers and inmates in the film are people that I know who were recently incarcerated. One of the police officers is the lead sketch artist of the NYPD. The warden of the Manhattan Detention Center is the voice of Elmhurst Hospital in the movie. We originally cast Eric Roberts as the bail bondsman at the beginning of the movie. We shot it, and when we went into editing we realized that the movie was operating on such a realistic vibe that we went back and reshot it with the actual bail bondsman from that location.

You mentioned having to go back and recast Eric Roberts in a supporting role. Did you ever feel the authenticity you strive for was at risk in casting a major star like Robert Pattinson in the lead?

Benny: Rob gave us a lot of time to prepare his character. We would go to garages in Yonkers and hang out in character. He gave us the freedom to build his character’s backstory; Josh wrote a biography for him tracking that character from the beginning of his life to the first minute of the film. When you work with somebody that comes from that world, they can pull from those experiences at any moment—but Rob didn’t have that, so we had to create it. Directing-wise, nothing really changed for us, but we were very aware that he’s very famous and we didn’t want anybody to interrupt us filming, so we tried to stay one step ahead of that chatter.

The movie gets off to a fast start. It reminded me a bit of Mad Max: Fury Road, working efficiently to give the audience the necessary exposition, setting up the principal characters, and then launching into a story where you never really know what’s going to happen next.

Josh: I always try to remember that the origins of filmmaking started at a campfire. It’s very, very important that you can arrest people’s attention almost immediately. The very opening of the movie takes place in a psychiatrist’s office, which we use to establish this Frederick Wiseman, super-realistic feel for the movie. That scene, like much of the movie itself, is about breaking free. We have this obsessive desire to catapult people into a new world, to the point where—like Connie in the movie—you can’t see the exit anymore.

Benny: We knew we had to crank the movie up and let it go. When we got to the editing process it was all about the pacing. You have the slow burn [at the psychiatrist’s office], and then we speed up until we get to the bank robbery, which feels like slowest bank robbery ever. But that’s actually how you rob banks if you’re trying to get away with it—using gestures, so nobody else knows it’s happening. We wanted to turn it up and watch it unfold. That pace helped us establish the characters; you could tell there was something with the characters once the pace started dwindling. Those first 20 minutes set up the entire narrative, setting the story up to the point where the audience can step back, breathe, and move to wherever the story takes them. There can’t be any questions left open regarding the narrative in those 20 minutes. You can learn more about the character as the film unfolds, but the narrative has to be set in stone.

Josh: There’s a moment in the chase following the bank robbery where we cut to a spectator, and that was really important for me. I wanted the audience to see themselves in this frazzled spectator, even if it’s for half a second. The movie opens with a guy like Connie who jolts people into a story, into an experience. That’s what we wanted the movie to feel like.

The film consistently moves forward in the first half, maintaining a pace that keeps the viewer guessing. But then, around the halfway mark, you insert this monologue-driven flashback that breaks with that rhythm. Formally, it reminded me of the way Jean-Luc Godard plays with the pacing in Breathless, and it’s a big risk. 

Josh: That was one of the moments where we knew that we were taking a risk. I believe in showing and not telling. Buddy [Duress] is an incredible actor and he did that whole monologue in one take. We shot it and at one point even contemplated showing everything that we shot. It’s so important to understand who this guy is and where he comes from, and how the cyclical nature of his life might reflect on Connie as well. To show a guy get out of the way and almost immediately find himself back in jail is such an American story. That flashback is actually a very early version of this movie; the original intent was to open with the flashback and have the story evolve from there. It’s a story that is pulled from real life, based on things that actually happened. There are things about that monologue that the audience needs to see; you can’t just talk about a Sprite bottle laced with acid, about the amusement park—you need to see it. On a formal level, it’s the moment where the movie shifts to a comedy of errors.

Benny: It was always a question about pulling it off. What’s the most that we can learn about this guy in the minimum amount of time? We need the audience to know who he is, where he came from, and how he ended up in the story. That flashback is necessary for those narrative reasons but it’s also a jolt of adrenaline in the middle of the story. It’s telling the audience who the character is in a style they haven’t seen up to this point in the movie.

We were always balancing things very carefully; if it was an ounce over on either side, the edit wouldn’t work. While editing it, it felt like we were the ones robbing the bank. We had to be razor sharp with everything. We were trying to put across a lot of information through voice-over and imagery, getting our point across in half a second. It definitely was a risk, and we were conscious of it when incorporating it into the film so it wouldn’t wear off its welcome. When the sequence ends, I found myself wanting to see more of it. And that’s what we wanted to accomplish.

There’s an edge to your movies—a gritty feel that has brought inevitable comparisons to New York City filmmakers from the ’60s and ’70s. And while yes, New York City provides the texture for your work, I’m not sure it’s fair to categorize you guys as “New York City” filmmakers. These stories have a strong urban connection; I can see versions of Heaven Knows What and Good Time taking place in Miami or Mexico City, for example. 

Benny: It’s not like we’re showing the Empire State Building in all our movies. We’re going to the banks and stores that people go to in each of the neighborhoods we show. There are some cities that are alive and others that are dead; cities that are alive aren’t ones you can explore with a postcard. We like to explore what it means to live in a city. We made films in Boston in college, but I don’t look at them as “Boston films.”

Josh: I’ve never lived outside of New York, and every time I leave the city, I start to feel very foreign. That being said, there are stories that we want to tell on our horizon that aren’t urban. Our production company is releasing a nonfiction series about the future of cities, and I think we’ll see a growth in people flocking back to cities. Being in a city, you’re forced to remind yourself that we’re all human and we’re all stuck in this thing together. Our movies are hyper-American, and I think that’s how this movie plays in foreign countries—as a snapshot of America in 2017, of the current state of entropy and isolation.

Good Time stands out from everything else being released in theaters this season. How do you think the theatrical experience will impact the film’s reception among audiences?

Josh: I have a hard time seeing things at home, and I prefer going out to the theater as much as possible because it’s one of two places on the planet where you don’t have to answer your phone. The only other place is the bathroom. We’re so inundated by stimuli today, and I love the experience of sitting in a dark room with strangers to collectively experience something. I can see that movie theaters are following a more bespoke aesthetic lately, and I really love that. Our office is in Times Square and I love going down to the AMC there. When I went to Japan, there are movie theaters that are open 24 hours. They can do an entire retrospective in one night. I love that. I’ll always love the multiplex because I believe that film is the most important low art there has ever been. I’m proud to say that it’s a low art. Good Time is meant to be an entertaining movie, that’s what people are coming to the theaters for. It’s a movie that has a message, that has something to say—but it’s entertaining first and foremost.

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