Josh and Benny Safdie are brothers and directors whose films traffic in anxious realism, but also diverge into the hallucinatory. In one instance, a cellphone is chucked into the air and transforms into an exploding firework. Others involve anthropomorphic treatments of mosquitoes and polar bears. Josh calls them “Safdie moments.”
With Good Time, a race-against-the-clock caper starring Robert Pattinson in theaters now, the Safdies are having their own moment, one that could launch them to the forefront of American indie cinema.
Over 100 white-knuckle minutes, Good Time follows Connie and Nick Nikas, brothers whose bank robbery leads to Nick’s (played by Benny) detainment and Connie’s (Pattinson) antic attempts to free him from the authorities over a night spent dashing across Queens. The Safdies had screened earlier movies at Cannes, but this was their first entry shown in the illustrious festival’s competition section. The film received a six-minute standing ovation.
“We’d always walk by the big theater,” Benny, 31, told me two days before Good Time’s release. “It was just interesting to look at it and think, ‘Maybe one day.’ But you’re walking into it with a bullseye on your back. People don’t necessarily want to like your movie. I was nervous. The ovation was a very special moment.”
The response from critics along the Croisette has made Good Time perhaps the most anticipated indie offering of the summer. Viewers showered the Safdies with praise, with reviews noting that Good Time’s airtight genre framing only sharpened the duo’s signature gutter punk realism and serrated humaneness. Variety’s Guy Lodge wrote that the “breathless, battering pulp thriller… will attract more eyeballs than the rest of the Safdies’ oeuvre combined.”
The Safdies, like Connie, are hurtling toward a potential big score.
I first met the Safdies at an Upper West Side diner in December 2015, as they were navigating a circuit of critics’ societies and independent film award showcases honoring their film Heaven Knows What. They were a few weeks away from starting production on Good Time.
“Whenever [Josh and I] approach any movie, the thinking is it’s going to be a blockbuster,” Benny said then.
If Josh was the A/V club stoner (he entered the Metro Diner weighed down by a Criterion Collection totebag), then clean-shaven Benny, an Oxford collar emerging from a cable-knit sweater, was the bright, blue-eyed preppie who enjoys furtive weekend Visconti binges. He’s of sunnier disposition and more linear speech than Josh. But his lauded performance as Nick, whose learning disability threatens to make him a ward of the state in the opening scene, is founded on internalized despair.
“Connie desperately wants a connection,” he said. “And Nick won’t let him in. So I would hold back, which would make Rob go 25 times higher in energy just to get in.” It’s the yearning for connection between Connie and Nick, Benny said, that most compels the audience. As for the Safdies’ brotherhood informing the Nikas’, Benny said, “It wasn’t a conscious thing. We take for granted how much that bond means.”
Josh and Benny, whose parents split when Benny was 6-months-old, spent their childhoods shuttling between Queens and the Upper East Side. Their dad passed the movie bug onto his boys. Early camcorder footage of father and sons cutting a rug in their undies is a few clicks away on the web. Permissive to a fault, he only shielded the young Josh and Benny from one movie: A Clockwork Orange. An isolated weekend ski trip coincided with a blizzard that prompted their introduction to The Shining. Years later, they learned the mechanics of moviemaking at Boston University’s communications school and enrolled in, then swiftly dropped, classes on film theory. “No interest,” Josh says.
Their father’s cinephilia and fanatical videographing left enough of a mark for Josh to tackle a camcorder adaptation of Edward Albee as an unintentionally addled teenager. He cut his teeth in high school on a remake of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf aided by angel dust. “Someone who didn’t like me sold me weed that had angel dust in it,” he said. “I was dusted for three days!”
Josh made his directorial and screenwriting feature debut in 2007 with The Pleasure of Being Robbed, the story of a downtown kleptomaniac whose whimsy haltingly announces itself as madness. Two years later came Daddy Longlegs, an autobiographical family divorce drama that was Josh and Benny’s first feature film collaboration.
That film’s characters live in a specific kind of New York pseudo-creative class squalor familiar to the brothers. An epigraph reads: “For our father, for fun as a responsibility, for a… lost love but still something there, excuses, the fridge full of games, small apartments & our mother.” They went on to co-direct Lenny Cooke, a 2013 documentary about a basketball phenom undone by the hype machine.
Heaven Knows What arrived in summer 2015. The film follows a disheveled cadre of junkies wending through the Upper West Side and Central Park in search of the next fix and redemption through chemically misbegotten love. The film, made for under $500,000 and distributed in summer 2015 by The Weinstein Company’s Radius imprint, buoyed the Safdies’ career prospects.
The Weinstein Company’s imprimatur, and the film’s provocative subject matter, also led to bigger audiences. “I saw a new group of fans,” Josh said. “It’s not huge. But it’s definitely new. Before that the fans were super-cinephiles only.”
The Safdies’ empathetic, sociological interest in New York outlaws and outcasts endures in Good Time. The film sprung partly from Josh’s somewhat queasy affection for the reality TV forbearer Cops and the upstate New York prison break that captivated the state back in summer 2015. “I’ve always pretended to be something so that I can get in and experience a life that I didn’t really know,” Josh said. “That lends itself to movies about subcultures and hush-hush societies. Right now, I can’t make anything else.” It also led Josh to visit Rikers Island, where Nick may be heading, fatally, in Good Time.
Between trips to the clink came a more Hollywood moment in Good Time’s development: Robert Pattinson gave them a ring. The actor wanted to work with the brothers after seeing a single still from Heaven Knows What. Pattinson remains best-known for stirring millions of teenagers’ sexual awakenings in the $3.3 billion Twilight vampire franchise. He’s since committed himself to a thespian’s atonement by working with the likes of David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog.
The Safdies’ collaboration with a bold-faced name portends a career realignment, the kind of stepping stone met by directors after a buzzed-about feature. They realize it could carry both the promise of big-league success and the risk of lost autonomy.
“The trick was—the trick—the obstacle was to appease our financiers,” Josh said. “When we got involved with [Pattinson] I talked to some salespeople and I found out a specific number that he’s worth, internationally. Basically, if you make a piece of shit movie, this is the number you’ll make just because he’s in it. Still, with Good Time I’m going out of my way to be as staunchly independent as I can be.”
Pattinson’s devoted fans may not like to hear that. They expressed concern for his welfare under the Safdies’ stewardship before shooting even began. “I made a movie about drug addicts. And immediately [the reaction was], ‘Oh, Rob’s becoming a bad boy! Some director’s a bad influence.’ If they only knew some of the people I’ve put him in a room with.”
It remains to be seen how many Twilight groupies will line up for a grimy, psychedelic romp revolving around bureaucratic indifference to the underclass and a Sprite bottle brimming with liquid LSD. Regardless, the Safdies have already grown in stature among actors. Good Time is the first time the pair has worked with an established cast, which also includes Jennifer Jason Leigh and Barkhad Abdi. And even though certain sequences were shot without a permit, the $4.5 million production was a less guerrilla affair than Heaven Knows What. (When I asked Benny what he’d have done with a moderately bigger budget on that film, he said, “We’d have paid people!”)
The Safdies’ ascent comes with a tension familiar to scrappy artists flirting with the mainstream: preserve your grit (and anonymity) or take the money and run. Youthful directors with brief resumes have recently been making the quantum leap from small-scale indies to multibillion-dollar franchises. Of course, there are aspiring George Lucases who make shoestring flicks as calling cards and other directors intent on being the next John Cassavetes.
Josh and Benny squarely fit the latter mold. Heaven Knows What played like Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park in a contemporary, bowdlerized Upper West Side. Good Time has drawn comparisons to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, another kinetic take on a New York bank heist gone awry. Their vision also recalls that of a young Martin Scorsese, who will executive produce their next film, Uncut Gems, set in Manhattan’s Diamond District.
Good Time, and Scorsese, should help the Safdies break the low ceiling of an independent filmmaking scene decimated by the recession, a withered ancillary market, and the show business fixation on event films. Yet the brothers share a fealty to the pummeled movement. “The bigger the budget, the less freedom you have,” Josh said.
They want to be seen. “Whenever [Josh and I] approach any movie, the thinking is it’s going to be a blockbuster,” Benny said at the diner. But they are content to be in a position of outlaw artistic license. Paramount to their directing philosophy is an unflinching commitment to fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude.
“I think movies are at their best when you have a window into a world you know,” Josh said. “Not in an escapist way, but almost in an anthropological sense. Independence comes from amateurs. It comes from not knowing what you’re doing, but knowing it feels right. And that’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”