Interview: Josh and Benny Safdie on 'Good Time'
The filmmaker brothers on working with Robert Pattinson and new career doors opening.
Good Time is the latest film from directors Joshua and Benny Safdie. It’s also, as I wrote in my review out of the Cannes Film Festival—where the film premiered to a six-minute standing ovation—“the cinematic equivalent to a 100-minute walking heartache.” That wasn’t hyperbole. Set in the streets of Queens, New York, the movie is drug-fueled and frantic, opening on a bank robbery gone awry. From there, the Safdies focus on a story of two brothers entangled in a co-dependent relationship.
Like much of the born-and-raised New Yorkers’ work, Good Time is equal parts heartbreaking and riveting. Since their debut Daddy Longlegs to Heaven Knows What (and several shorts in between, many of them available here on Fandor), the brothers have crafted memorable characters out of pain and realism. Even when the subject matter is unpleasant or repulsive, audiences can’t help but keep their eyes affixed to the screen.
When we spoke to the collaborators by phone, they talked about Good Time’s radical effect on their careers, casting Robert Pattinson, and why they don’t find their films to be gritty at all.
FANDOR: Ben and Josh, how’s life right now?
Ben Safdie: Life is moving fast so that means it’s good.
Is that true?
Ben Safdie: For me it is. I like fast. Sometimes you want it to slow down and it doesn’t. Like I have a son and it’s super slow and too fast at the same time and then you’re like, “Wait, where did that go? What happened?”
Does it feel like that happened in the few years since Heaven Knows What?
Josh Safdie: Absolutely, yeah. We’ve been making features for the better part of a decade now and all the sudden we’re starting to see invitations to things that we would never normally be…
Ben: You ask about a book and they used to tell us, “That book isn’t available, move on.” And then they’re like, “Oh, why don’t I get the real details on that.” We’re like, “The real details, what did you tell us a year ago?” So it’s a lot of information and new tables.
New doors have opened.
Josh: New doors have opened but you then discover new doors beyond those.
There’s always going to be more doors until you get to George Clooney.
Ben: George Clooney, yeah, I mean there are doors. It depends who you want to be behind that door.
Josh: To me, I got to the final door, it was Howard Stern and it was a life-changing moment for me.
Were you a childhood fan?
Josh: Yes, I was a big fan of his. Everything I wanted to know about sex but was afraid to ask I learned from Howard Stern and Al Goldstein, so I’ve been a big fan of Howard’s for a long time. Just hearing him say our names, you know, in a joking way. Joey Boots, rest in peace, actually attended the Heaven Knows What afterparty and he went on Stern the next day and told some story about how he found Rob Pattinson’s phone and took a picture of his dick and then gave it back to him. I don’t think that’s true, that story, but Stern was aware of us. I don’t even know if he put two and two together, but it was a milestone.
That’s such a specific story to not be true.
Josh: Well, Joey Boots was pretty specific. You learn that the more specific your lies, the more believable they can be.
Heaven Knows What received a solid rollout across the country, but it wasn’t like Good Time. Was there any added anxiety going into this new project knowing that more people were going to see it?
Josh: When we went into it we didn’t know that. We went into the movie to just make the movie. We did get distribution before we finished our additional photography, but we didn’t necessarily know what was going to happen with it. We didn’t know where or how it was going to get released. When we’re making the movie our only mindset is to just finish it alive. Finish it and get everything that we wanted out of it, to maximize everything. We’re not really thinking, “Okay, this is going to be bigger and reach more people,” but we’re aware of the audience and how we want them to feel. We’re not necessarily aware of the reach as we’re doing it.
Do you feel like you guys got through it unscathed?
Josh: I don’t know. We made the movie and we made it on the terms that we wanted to, so yes, I do believe we got through it. It was a very difficult shoot and it was very hard, and we don’t want our mistakes to shine through, although they do sometimes. We do want the kind of energy that we put into it to breathe into the film. If we didn’t make it through, the movie wouldn’t be done.
What was something you saw in Robert Pattinson’s work that made you both think, “Okay, this makes sense fitting into our filmography, our movies.”
Josh: We don’t think about our filmography. We think about every movie as it exists as we’re approaching it, and when we met Rob for the first time and he expressed this burning desire to get lost in a project and act alongside first-timers and really do the due diligence, I saw a mania that I hadn’t seen in the few things that I’d seen that he’d been in. I also saw the depths of a character that was like a Vietnam War vet—a very wounded someone who was dealing with some PTSD, some shock from a scarring experience. Then he walked around as if he was on the run all the time. He was constantly trying to avoid being seen. These elements we wanted to bring into this character.
Ben: Yeah, if we had been thinking about our filmography we wouldn’t have made a basketball documentary after Daddy Longlegs, you know? We’re literally just going where our interests take us.
Is that ever scary?
Josh: Now at least you can kind of see a little bit further into the future, but before it was just a matter of okay, ‘Are we going to be able to make the next movie?’ That’s the one thing that may have been scary. We know now we’re going to be able to make the next one but you’re always on the edge.
I don’t want to mischaracterize Good Time, but after re-watching the film it seems to be unpacking and exploring the realities of a codependent relationship
Josh: I think that Connie is an obsessive person. He’s obsessed with this idea of love, and usually the idea of love is what makes people codependent.
What does that mean?
Josh: Because it’s not an actual love. It’s a concept that you can’t actually get into love. It’s an idea of it that you are constantly trying to chase, and it’s the idea of it in your personality, something that exists in your head that’s almost a fantasy. You need it to be close to you at all times. That’s where codependence comes from.
And yet the closer it is, the more you want to push it way. The whole “familiarity breeds contempt” line.
Josh: Look, codependence comes from a relationship that is pulled on one side or the other. If it’s not balanced, like you’re saying, then you have an unhealthy relationship in some ways. With Connie and his brother, he’s forcing himself onto the situation that he may or may not want, Nick may or may not want that. Once you force yourself into the situation, you then have to take care of it.
Do you see any parallels in the dynamic you two have?
Ben: No, we’re brothers. There’s no forcing there. It’s just natural. Our relationship is such that you can have an argument but you can’t change the fact that you’re related, so you can always get out of it in some way.
I don’t think most brothers could (or would want) to make a movie together. That takes a certain amount of willingness on both ends.
Ben: Yeah, we definitely have that. It comes from our own past. The constants to our whole lives have been each other. We’ve always been there to help each other and that has given us a secret language in a way. You can talk without saying anything. You can feel something is off, and address it from there.
You’re each other’s stabilizing forces.
Ben: We do balance each other in certain ways. We tried to make movies just because we were separated, location-wise. I was still in school and Josh was making another movie here in New York, and once we had involved ourselves in each other’s work, it became something new and deeper because we were bringing different points of view. We’re not the same person, we have different lives and perspectives, but the overlap is important.
Speaking of perspectives, what were the films you two were looking at that helped informed Good Time?
Ben: Yeah, those movies end up becoming part of your vocabulary. There’s not a specific movie that you’re referencing. We’re not referential filmmakers in that sense, but you can’t help but be inspired by things and then that in turn informs your work and the things that you do. I think there is one slight reference in the movie and that’s in the score, to After Hours. You know, when they enter the park. There’s a little bit of a nod to it because it’s such a great movie.
Josh: When we set out to make the movie, we wanted to make a popcorn film. We wanted to make an entertaining thriller, a thriller that actually thrills in the tradition of a 48 Hours, in the tradition of an After Hours, but the inspiration for the movie comes from life and real characters and books like Executioner’s Song. Norman Mailer’s writing was monumentally influential for this movie.
It reminded me in part of The Fugitive.
Ben: Yes, Tommy Lee Jones in The Executioner’s Song, the made-for-TV movie was something that we watched, just because his performance was very interesting. The Fugitive, yeah, just in a sense of the propulsion of that movie.
Josh: I haven’t heard The Fugitive.
Ben: Yeah, it’s the first time we’ve heard that.
Josh: I mean, the only things that Rob really watched beforehand were Jon Alpert documentaries like One Year in a Life of Crime or Prisoners of Riker’s Island.
Something I’ve read in past interviews is this idea of authenticity. The grittiness of your films…
Ben: I don’t find it to be gritty at all.
Sure, I’m just relaying what’s been written. What do you two make of that?
Josh: People are responding to just the fact that, “Oh, I didn’t know a New York like that existed,” so they assume we’re making a movie that feels like a gritty ‘70s New York because those are the only points of reference you might have. The movies that were treating New York in the same way were movies that were made then. It’s just interesting when you’re working with the same level of propulsion you kind of get at the same thing. We’re treating it with the same mindset but we’re doing it now.