Fa­mil­iar ground

In­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing brothers Josh and Benny Safdie bring a New York hus­tle to the new break­out thriller ‘Good Time’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - steve.zeitchik@la­times.com

The New York City bor­ough of Queens has given the world an un­usual amount of larg­erthan-life fig­ures: John McEn­roe, 50 Cent, Howard Stern, Cyndi Lau­per and, oh, yes, the cur­rent White House oc­cu­pant.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, two lesser-known Queens na­tives, the in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers Josh and Benny Safdie, were walk­ing through their child­hood neigh­bor­hood mak­ing a per­sis­tent if in­ad­ver­tent case for that canon.

“You seemed to be the vic­tim of a lot of at­tempted kid­nap­pings as a child, Benny,” said Josh, 33, hir­sute and mis­chief­mak­ing.

“That time in the ar­cade the guy blocked the door and asked if I wanted free to­kens?” re­called Benny, 31, po­lite but qui­etly ec­cen­tric. “That was scary.” “You got out just in time.” “Hey, re­mem­ber the pass-out game?” “Where we would just choke each other un­til we passed out? Of course.”

Very col­or­ful, and pos­si­bly even ac­cu­rate, de­scrip­tions of their pasts come stan­dard for the Safdies. The brothers spin sto­ries of latchkey-kid ad­ven­tures at lo­cal video stores and on wrestling-filled school buses in this eth­ni­cally di­verse slice of outer bor­ough New York; the most telling thing that could be noted of the duo is that, had they not al­ready been mak­ing them, some­one might have come along and said they were per­fect for a Safdie brothers movie.

Fix­tures of the fes­ti­val world, the di­rec­tors have long re­lied on so-called street cast­ing and gritty ob­ser­va­tion to make ac­claimed neo-re­al­ism pieces

like “Daddy Lon­glegs” and “Heaven Knows What.” Now the brothers — Josh usu­ally writes, Benny of­ten ed­its and acts, they both di­rect — are set to be­come much more broadly known thanks to “Good Time,” a char­ac­ter­based thriller that A24 will re­lease this week­end af­ter its aus­pi­cious Cannes com­pe­ti­tion de­but in May.

The film has Robert Pat­tin­son play­ing Con­nie Nikas. A Queens hustler, Con­nie tries to pull off a bank rob­bery with his men­tally chal­lenged brother Nik (Benny Safdie), only to find Nik thrown in jail when the plan blows up. Much of the movie takes place over the course of just sev­eral hours as Con­nie — brood­ing star Pat­tin­son is un­rec­og­niz­able in street-jiv­ing mode — schemes his way into in­creas­ingly tense sit­u­a­tions to re­deem his sib­ling.

Un­usual up­bring­ing

Com­ing from mod­est means and a bro­ken home, the brothers are au­to­di­dacts for whom real-life ex­pe­ri­ence and ca­reer ad­vance­ment are im­pos­si­bly en­twined. Af­ter a child­hood spent shuf­fling be­tween their capri­cious fa­ther and aso­cial mother, they clawed their way into Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity. While there, they be­gan mak­ing movies about such fig­ures as a lo­cal gas-sta­tion at­ten­dant — then be­came good friends with them.

At a time when break­ing out as a young film­maker is of­ten about the right con­tacts and a hun­dred grand in tu­ition, the Safdies are a throw­back to when it was more about shoe leather and chutz­pah.

“I re­mem­ber when this friend of mine moved to (up­per-class) Great Neck and he ended up liv­ing next to Whitey Ford,” Josh re­called in one tale of youth­ful der­ring-do.

“Oh, the em­blem story,” Benny nod­ded know­ingly.

“And we started rip­ping em­blems off these fancy cars,” Josh said. “We didn’t know what we’d do with them — they were these great em­blems from the hoods of Mercedes and other high-end cars. We brought them to Whitey. But he wouldn’t buy them.” “No one would buy them.” “We buried them in the back­yard,” Josh said.

No base­ball Hall of Famer could match the im­pact of their fa­ther. Al­berto Safdie is a Peter Pan-ish dilet­tante whose ap­petite for wild and child-in­ap­pro­pri­ate ex­pe­ri­ences was matched only by his in­abil­ity to find steady work. The el­der Safdie, him­self just in his 20s when the uber-close brothers were young, would do things like leave his sons in the house to go fish­ing out on Long Is­land. Or, bet­ter, take them with him.

“We slept in the car while he was fish­ing,” Josh said.

“Did the cops ever no­tice?” Benny mused.

(As with many of their sto­ries, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. “A lot of times I’m like, ‘I know that’s not true! I was there and no one said that,’” said Ava Safdie, laugh­ing, in an in­ter­view later. “They’re just nat­u­ral sto­ry­tellers.” Ava Safdie is mar­ried to Benny; they have an in­fant son. Her life is never bor­ing.)

The brothers pointed to their child­hood apart­ment, a small unit in one of a war­ren of six-story brick build­ings found in far­ther-flung parts of the city. They grew up in the non-up­scale part of For­est Hills, a con­fus­ing den of streets many New York­ers know pri­mar­ily as the place they pass on the way to John F. Kennedy air­port. In­ci­den­tally, this is not far from where Bob and Har­vey We­in­stein grew up.

“He had these friends,” Benny said of Al­berto Safdie.

“There was this guy who al­ways went to a tan­ning sa­lon; this big, su­per wide guy who wore a bikini.”

“In the mid­dle of win­ter,” Benny added.

“And he had a red Corvette and was sleep­ing with ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing,” Josh said.

Josh paused re­flec­tively. “It was not nec­es­sar­ily the most healthy en­vi­ron­ment to grow up in.”

At Cannes, Al­berto Safdie showed up un­in­vited and, in a LaVar Ball-ish turn, started drop­ping his sons’ names, in French, to get into fancy par­ties. “It was like — what are you do­ing?” Josh re­called. “But it worked and no one seemed to mind, so in the end we were fine with it,” said Benny. (The brothers come from a Syr­ian Jewish back­ground, though they are out­siders in that her­metic New York com­mu­nity. They say they are dis­tantly re­lated to the ar­chi­tect Moshe Safdie.)

In dad’s foot­steps

Film­mak­ing was in fact im­por­tant to Al­berto Safdie, who would fre­quently take his kids to se­ri­ous if eye­browrais­ing cin­ema; he’s the dad you see at a mid­night show­ing of a Quentin Tarantino movie with his 9-year-old. The el­der Safdie also al­ways had a video cam­era in his hand, of­ten pro­vok­ing his sons for the sake of a shot. “We’d be sleep­ing and he would wake one of us up and say, ‘Fight with your brother,’ just to get it on cam­era,” Josh said of their “Glass Cas­tle”-style up­bring­ing, which was the in­spi­ra­tion for “Daddy Lon­glegs.”

Pat­tin­son had con­tacted the Safdies hop­ing to work with them off noth­ing more than a pro­mo­tional photo for “Heaven Knows What,” a 2014 quasi-verite hero­in­world drama. He found his in­stincts val­i­dated as he be­gan to talk to them.

“I think they’re just so into col­lo­quial de­tail and these mini-sub­cul­tures,” Pat­tin­son said. “It doesn’t feel like peo­ple who sat down to write a script for the sake of it, or so they can be ac­cepted at a café by their hip­ster friends in Brook­lyn. There’s a dif­fer­ent pur­pose in­volved.”

The Safdies be­gan writ­ing “Good Time” for him, us­ing their un­com­mon process of conceiving of char­ac­ters rather than con­struct­ing scenes. Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh, who stars as Con­nie’s un­hinged love in­ter­est, says when she was ini­tially courted for the part she re­ceived no script — just nearly 10 pages of char­ac­ter de­scrip­tion.

It’s tempt­ing to see the Con­nie char­ac­ter as an on­screen avatar of the Safdies’ own hus­tle, and the brotherly re­la­tion­ship as rep­re­sent­ing their own fra­ter­nal bond. But they said they didn’t make the movie for such per­sonal rea­sons. It was more a de­sire to cap­ture the off-kil­ter types, the un­der­class and the for­got­ten, in the city they’ve long called home.

“There are a lot more rich peo­ple here now but lives are still be­ing lived; char­ac­ters are ev­ery­where. The New York melt­ing pot has a soup qual­ity, and you’ll al­ways be able to find pro­tein in the soup,” Josh said, as he and Benny stood in front of the of­fice of a bail bonds­man they used for re­search and lo­ca­tional pur­poses.

“Some­one in­vites me to see Jay Z per­form­ing for 50 peo­ple, I’m not in­ter­ested in that, be­cause I know ex­actly what that ex­pe­ri­ence will be like. I’d much rather get in­vited to a bar­be­cue in Yonkers or an Up­per East Side meet­ing of fan­tasy-sports ob­ses­sives.”

The Safdiesphere in­cludes col­lab­o­ra­tors like Buddy Duress, a for­mer junkie who has done hard time. “I was locked up when Josh and Benny came up with [‘Good Time’],” Duress said.

Ac­tu­ally, Duress was locked up right af­ter they told their last story, “Heaven Knows What,” which he starred in. There was a war­rant out for him while they were shoot­ing. They fin­ished, and Duress was ar­rested the next day.

“Heaven” grew out of an en­counter the Safdies had with then-home­less drug user Arielle Holmes; they paid her to write her ex­pe­ri­ences and then turned it into a movie with her in it. The film­mak­ers used a sim­i­lar ap­proach for “Good Time,” ask­ing Duress to write a jour­nal about his time at Rik­ers Is­land, then in­cor­po­rat­ing it into the script.

“I think it would get a lit­tle dicey for him in prison be­cause it was like, ‘Why is this guy writ­ing all the time?’ ” said Josh. He vis­ited Duress reg­u­larly, of­ten bring­ing him books.

Some jail stints

The film­maker would re­turn to jail other times, some­times with Pat­tin­son, to do re­search dur­ing pre­pro­duc­tion. In the mid­dle of the “Good Time” shoot he ended up at a precinct for an in­ci­dent he sketchily de­scribed as in­volv­ing a bor­rowed car, a sus­pended li­cense and trunk con­tra­band. (Ava Safdie said she knows at least the precinct part is true.) By com­par­i­son, Benny Safdie’s gonzo ad­ven­tures, such as get­ting in­volved in the box­ing world as both spec­ta­tor and par­tic­i­pant af­ter re­search­ing an ear­lier char­ac­ter, seem bour­geois.

There’s room to ques­tion the Safdies’ meth­ods. Is this all a sin­cere de­sire to learn about other types of peo­ple or a fetishiz­ing pose? Gen­uine re­search or naked cul­tural tourism?

The brothers in­sist on good in­ten­tions. “We love cast­ing movies — it’s an ex­cuse to have new and orig­i­nal friends. But we also think it’s im­por­tant to get these sto­ries out there,” Josh said.

“Weird char­ac­ters are al­ways just or­bit­ing around,” Benny said. “We re­ally don’t know how they find us.”

‘I think they’re just so into col­lo­quial de­tail and these mini-sub­cul­tures. It doesn’t feel like peo­ple who sat down to write a script for the sake of it.’ Robert Pat­tin­son, on the Safdie brothers

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

JOSH SAFDIE, left, with brother Benny are Queens na­tives and draw in­spi­ra­tion for their films from life around New York City.

A24

ROBERT PAT­TIN­SON’S Queens hustler Con­nie spends much of “Good Time” schem­ing his way through in­creas­ingly tense sit­u­a­tions.

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