Few films in the main slate of the 2014 New York Film Festival matched the sheer rigor of the fourth feature by the Safdie Brothers, Heaven Knows What. Singularly committed to plumbing the depths of its subject, the semi-biographical film chronicles the life of Harley (Arielle Holmes, in her first screen performance), a street kid adrift in New York, madly in love with black metal misanthrope Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), addicted to heroin and entangled in a volatile milieu of fellow itinerants. The Safdies have taken a decisive step with Heaven Knows What, radicalizing their best qualities (like their nose for melodrama and humor on the street) and yielding a work that is at times frightening and always wrought with emotion.

For FILM COMMENT, Dan Sullivan interviewed the Safdies a few days before the U.S. premiere of Heaven Knows What at the New York Film Festival.

Heaven Knows What

At this point, the story of this film’s origins is…

Josh Safdie: I don’t want to talk about that anymore!

But there’s one aspect of it that I’m still interested in, which is the research that you two did. How did you familiarize yourself with this milieu?

JS: Well, it’s simple. We use the excuse of research to experience life outside of our own houses, so to speak. I personally have always been attracted to the milieu of people that hang out on the streets. I was initially attracted to Arielle, but I didn’t know she was a street kid. Once I found out a little bit more about her, I thought she was an interesting person and I wanted to be her friend. And I just hung out with her and kind of wanted to see the room behind the room behind the room. I needed to see it firsthand. I would tell Arielle, “I need you to show me this. I need you to take me to these people. I need you to introduce me to this person.”

Benny Safdie: At the same time that she was writing, we would meet these people and ask her to write more about certain people, to understand their pasts. So it was like Josh was kind of…

JS: I was directing the writing through the research in a weird way.

In shooting, did you often feel that you had touched a nerve with Arielle or that she felt uncomfortable?

JS: No, not once. She’s a really strong person and she’s also kind of sadistic. So she would always look for us to push it farther and farther and farther. The hardest part emotionally, I figured, would be the wrist-slitting scene, because we had a certain attachment to the way the action unfolded and there were four different versions of the story I’d heard. And the only one I was interested in was hers. Caleb did extensive research to figure out where his take was and we ended up editing it to fit her account. But she always wanted things to be darker than they were.

BS: She was attracted to it.

JS: The farther away we removed the scenarios from her actual experience, the better performer she became. When we would do a straight re-creation, she had a much more difficult time accessing it.

Heaven Knows What

How did you guys come to meet and cast Caleb Landry Jones? Did he meet the real Ilya?

JS: We had exhausted all these different routes of talking with other young actors. Jennifer Venditti, who’s a casting director, suggested him to us.

BS: She sent us this audition that he did for The Last Exorcism. It was a very strange audition tape where they’re filming him and he’s getting very annoyed and aware of the camera.

JS: Caleb can do naturalism easier than most people could play themselves, but he’s also extremely interested in insanity and melodrama. So when he met the real Ilya, which was the second day he was in New York, he knew a lot about Ilya through Arielle’s perspective, and as a result, he was very nervous. Ilya was basically a celebrity to him, and he didn’t know how to handle that. But they immediately became friends and are still very close. Ilya’s idol is Diogenes. He is a very well-read, smart, dark, misanthropic nihilist—except that he cares a lot about black metal, and love. So he’s not exactly a nihilist, although he claims he is. If you get close to Ilya, if he likes you, it’s a really amazing experience. He is a pretty wild guy, and he has substance problems, and it’s tough. It’s tough how drunk he gets. But, Caleb got very close to him, very quickly.

BS: If Ilya had sensed from Caleb that Caleb was really only trying to get pieces of his personality and then be done with it, he wouldn’t have given him anything.

JS: Caleb basically spent the first week with Ilya demonizing Arielle, and they wouldn’t even talk to her. Caleb became worried that if he got close to Arielle, Ilya would be upset. But they needed to have a relationship before we started filming. Caleb finally told Ilya that he needed to step away and spend time with Arielle. And then we spent the first three days of shooting with them at the tail end of their getting to know each other.

Did Ilya visit the set?

JS: He did, a lot. I don’t even know how he found us. All of a sudden he would just show up, and literally we would have to stop filming because he said he’d just beat the shit out of somebody. He was like a tornado.

But your relationship was complicated by the fact that you two were fictionalizing him?

BS: It actually wasn’t. He loved it. In fact, he was our first choice. We weren’t going to cast an actor.

JS: He’s a very melodramatic person. He’s unbelievably charismatic in a very strange way. So I asked him over and over again to play the role. But he didn’t want to be on camera. Yet he was very attracted to this idea that he was a character. He was never uncooperative.

BS: Ilya knew that Caleb was going to add parts of himself to the role so it wasn’t exactly him.

I found the film to be incredibly stressful from beginning to end. How were you two able to access and maintain that intensity throughout?

BS: It’s funny, I don’t consider the movie dark or intense. I know that we cut out all of the dead spots. We definitely wanted it to feel like condensed time, just because that’s how their lives are.

Heaven Knows What

The big cliché is that the life of a junkie is incredibly boring. But regardless of how much is happening on a narrative level, the film is so dense with psychology and affects.

JS: From the get-go, Ronnie [Bronstein, the film’s co-writer and co-editor], me, and Benny talked about Sturm und Drang, and emotions, and, you know, Beethoven, Bach…

BS: And there’s little plot stuff that should be in the movie—it doesn’t need to be, because if its only job is to move the plot forward, it’s pointless, you know? We tried not to contextualize things, because if you run into somebody in the street, you don’t know everything about them.

JS: We just kind of were running with Arielle’s friends. They’re the busiest people I’ve ever met. But what do they do? I mean, they don’t have jobs, they have no obligations.

BS: Their obligation is to the drug.

JS: But they decide not to sign the social contract. I don’t want a job, I don’t want to pay taxes, I don’t want to pay rent, I want to do whatever I want to do. But it’s strange because they end up succumbing to it, due to the bedbugs of that culture: drugs.

Ronnie was involved in your last fiction feature, Daddy Longlegs [09], in a radically different capacity. What was it like working on this longer, more ambitious project with him as a co-writer and a co-editor rather than as an actor?

JS: I don’t know which film was more ambitious, Daddy Longlegs or Heaven Knows What. With Heaven Knows What, there was much more at risk, just because of the nature of the film and the performers we were working with. With Ronnie, in Daddy Longlegs, he’s such a great actor, and he’s such a radical thinker, that it was very helpful. It was comfortable for us to have someone we were so close with to be this soldier in the field, if you will. Not having that in Heaven Knows What was challenging. It was very new. But Ronnie was involved in a different way in the writing process with Daddy Longlegs.

BS: Also, because the kids in Daddy Longlegs were not actors and were completely combustible, Ronnie had to be on his feet all the time. He had to have the freedom to be able to do and say whatever he felt was necessary to get the kids to do something.

JS: He would read something and be like, “I can’t do that. I can do this, I can do this better so we should go farther with this idea here.” And that’s where his writing came in. And he helped out a lot in the editing. Here, it’s all about his intellectual and personal interests. The melodrama of the mind, the psychodrama—he was interested in that, and he really liked Arielle as well, so our collaboration was based on figuring out what makes her tick.

BS: I would say he was a bit freer on this film. He was under the hood. He didn’t want to meet anybody. It allowed him to have a certain amount of freedom of thought. Later on, during the editing, we just needed to make sure we were speaking the same language.

Heaven Knows What

The film has an incredibly unique look, especially in the context of NYFF, where we’re seeing it alongside films shot on 35mm and 16mm—including one film that was shot by your cinematographer, Sean Price Williams (Listen Up Philip). Josh, you’ve talked to me about the hazy image of this film, which could perhaps be opposed to the grainy 16mm image of Listen Up Philip. How did you and Sean achieve this look?

JS: Our collaboration with Sean is unique, but we also had a second cameraman a lot of the time, Chris Messina. He just shot something that was at BAMcinemaFest this year…

Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s For the Plasma.

JS: Yes, which was actually supposed to be shot by Sean, but Sean couldn’t shoot it so he suggested Chris. Without Chris, this film wouldn’t have existed. He was our anchor. With Sean, I would let him have a lot of freedom. We knew from the beginning we were talking about making an “opera of long lens.” We wanted there to be so much glass in front of the lens that you don’t even know what you’re looking at times.

BS: We experimented with that in The Black Balloon. We were testing the waters, but it’s not quite the same.

JS: At one point we were going to shoot on MiniDV, but then that was too lo-fi, and we wanted to have a clean HD quality to it.

BS: It was also the decision to shoot on tripods. The world we were filming would lend itself to this gritty, handheld, lo-fi quality, but we wanted to go against that.

JS: I really, really pushed Sean sometimes. Asking him to shoot a close-up a block and a half away on a crowded city street is not an easy task, and although we had an insanely complicated communication system via walkie-talkies, it was very difficult. The actual look of the film is a byproduct of the filtration that we did, that we committed to on set. There are certain times when the light flashes the glass, it creates a haze when our actors were outside, which shouldn’t necessarily have the same effect as when they’re inside. If it’s nighttime, if it’s daytime, it feels different. If it’s freezing outside, you really feel that.

Do you have any interest in making a film outside of New York?

JS: We’ve been thinking about that a lot. The short answer is yes. The larger question is, are we interested in working outside of an urban environment? We were thinking about doing a film in the Everglades, and I was very interested in that. But right now on our horizon are a lot more urban movies.

BS: It’s difficult for me to even think about because I get so much just by riding the bus or taking the train. You see people, you hear conversations. Just by walking for five minutes, there’s such a density to that experience.

JS: The short answer is that we’d love to make a movie outside of New York, but I’m petrified of leaving New York City.