Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie have been making movies together most of their lives, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of their father, a film fanatic in his own right. Their latest project, Good Time, follows a grifter, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson), through a harrowing night in New York City as he struggles to free his brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), who’s imprisoned after their botched bank robbery.
While promoting the film in Austin, Texas, I sat down with the Safdie brothers about how they mixed real-life with their unique spin on Hollywood movie magic to bring Good Time to the big screen.
Where did this idea come from, initially?
Josh Safdie: The movie wouldn’t have existed if Rob (Pattinson) didn’t reach out to us; that’s the first off. But the origins of the movie were definitely born in this kinda a confluence of Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott, Norman Mailer’s Introduction, and then, at the same time, downloading every episode of Cops.
And that was like those three things together, and then, of course, Buddy Duress’s (who plays Ray) prison journals. And watching him try to assimilate back into society after he got out of prison, and then basically going back to jail for three months when he violated. All these things together, combined kind of created this world. And that’s the origins of it.
There’s a real sense of claustrophobia that runs throughout, that’s contrasted by these helicopter shots of New York’s vastness.
Josh: We’ve been developing for the past ten years of our features and doing these more, these smaller character studies, and really kind of seeing the power of a close-up and what it does as a feeling. But when it was with these plot twist movies it was a different feeling. I so love the way it feels with the movies but then when we fuse it with a narrative, a thriller, a genre movie, all of a sudden the claustrophobia of a close-up. But we’re also channeling it within the scope, so it’s kind of like this strange thing that’s not really done ’cause scope wasn’t designed…
Benny: Yeah, it’s like a weird close up wide shot, and you have all this other space around it, it adds to this feeling of, “What’s going to happen next? I don’t even know, because I can’t see him.” And then when you’re filming a location with that kind of feeling, as an audience you have to piece it together, and kind of create this 3-D map, and you really get engaged in the narrative and the storytelling in a different way because you feel like you have to create this map. Then once in a while when you get a wide shot or a little bit more, you’re like, “Okay, that is where I thought everything was” and you’re doing this work almost subconsciously and then yes, those helicopter shots, it was always like okay, this is a moment where it’s like a transition to another spot.
Those wide shots are really the only chance we get to catch our breath when watching it, too.
Josh: Until that end moment.
Benny: [When] we show in the movie when they’re leaving the park, somebody ran to go use the bathroom and that was like the only time you could go the bathroom.
Josh: When we shot the second helicopter sequence, when they’re leaving the park, you know we have this freeing kind of guitar soloing that’s happening. But it’s also block by block of screen grabs from that, from the OJ’s chase, up from the helicopter, to show the photographer, because I remember as a kid when I saw that, it blew my mind, because we’re all watching this white car and we all know that there is such an insane scene that is going on inside of it. We know this guy has a gun, and he’s with his friend, and we all know who he is because he’s such a public figure, it’s so different from other car chases, where it’s just anonymous people in there. So all of a sudden they’ll like cut to this wide-shot almost shooting like OJ is literally in this white 4×4.
Benny: But it wasn’t because it also wasn’t a high speed chase. He was driving the speed limit, you know, or he was going kind of slow. So you are watching it from this gigantic perspective, but he’s moving at that speed. It’s like the car isn’t speeding in this movie, I mean it’s like speeding 90 mph, he’s driving with traffic but it has that same [feeling].
Josh: And it also brings this element of “Are the cops going to start coming into the frame at any point?”
Benny: I think that just kind of opening the movie like this helicopter shot into a character, like this intense character development, it’s really strong, like what this movie is going to be doing. It’s like we’re dealing with certain language, but we’re also going to deal with another language at the same time.
Well, and being a genre film, that kind of framing lets New York itself become a character in its own right.
Josh: Yeah. Definitely.
And, like you’d mentioned, these street-level shots, even when they’re outside, it feels like the walls are about to close in on them.
Josh: And that’s all a matter of how we film. You have to piece that all together, and you feel it.
It’s a little bit anxiety inducing. And I mean that as a positive.
Benny: Some of my favorite movies that I have seen, I scream at the screen. I’m like “What are you doing? Don’t do that! No!” Like that engagement is so guttural, and it’s like when you can get at that, I think it’s a really cool feeling for an audience, because you really feel like you’re a part of it.
Josh: I also just love when they leave the bank, and it’s like just down this alley, and then you see the alley. And then you see them open door, go through a club, go into a grocery store, then they come out of the other side, you see that whole process, but not like with one shot, you see it in these different sections, and it does build like, “Where are they going”. It adds on top of each other. It’s a cumulative effect.
You’d mentioned Pattinson’s involvement was crucial to the film, but he threw his hat in the ring in an unusual way, didn’t he?
Josh: Yeah, I was actually here [in Austin], on the premiere of Heaven Knows What and I just remember sharing this hotel room with my producer, with our producer, Sebastian Bear-McClard, and I got this email out of the blue, from Rob Pattinson, basically saying, “I saw this still,” and basically the way he spoke about stills was very much like Connie: it was such an important thing, it was tied to his purpose, and he feels like it’s exactly what he wants to do.
I was like, “Have you seen the movie?” He’s like no, I haven’t seen anything, all I saw was this still. And I was like, that’s a little bit insane of him, big movie star reaching out based on the merit of a photograph. But I liked that. I liked the insanity of it. So, yeah when we met up with him in L.A., we had no idea what to expect. He was very confident about trying to find something to make together, ’cause at that point he had seen Heaven Knows What, he’s like “I saw the movie and it’s exactly what I thought it would be, I love it, whatever you are doing next, I want to be a part of it”.
Benny: He wanted to kind of disappear into a world, and he’s like, “You guys can take me there.” And we’re like “Okay, but don’t tease us, cause we’ll go, and we’ll take you at your word for it, and we’re like times a thousand” and he did it. He never once complained. And like we were working really long hours, he was just amazing. You can kind of see the dedication that he brought. But we could sense that he wasn’t kinda bull-shitting us from the beginning. Because a lot of people say, “Oh yeah, I’ll do this, I’ll do this” but he meant it. And we could tell that he meant it. And when he left, we’re like, I think we can do something interesting because he was always slinking around, trying not to be seen. And there was an element of that, that we really wanted to bring to the character.
Well, and I’m not really in the Twilight demographic, but I’ve seen a number of his other films and knew he was a talented actor, but he absolutely disappears into the character of Connie.
Benny: Yeah, yeah, when that door opens, it’s Connie, it’s not Rob. It’s awesome.
You did some work off camera while in character, too, right? Working at a car wash together to develop your rapport?
Benny: Yeah, we went and there was a camera test and also a little character history building. You know for both Rob and I, it was almost like a tamer version of the beginning of the movie. Like, I’m going to take you to a car wash, and you’re going to work in here and drive the cars. And I’m going to give you this experience to show you that you can be like a real part of society, you don’t need to be where they say you should be.
So we went and we worked there, and the cars would come out and I would try to dry them, and of course, I would get distracted by something, or a car would run over my foot, and he would get really frustrated, as Connie he can get frustrated and be like, “Oh my God, why can’t you just do something so simple?”
And I remember there was like a wax scene that I got really obsessed with because it was this giant tub and you’d press that and the wax would kind of just squirt out all over on the floor and on the cars, and I just kept doing it and he wanted me to stop doing it. But I wouldn’t listen to him and he kinda grabbed me and put me in like this kind of headlock. And I was like, “Stop it! Stop it!” But then I seized up, and he sensed that. And I was thinking that to ad lib, as the character, as playing and actually being in that part, I’m just going to respond as Nick would respond. I’m going to throw this guy into the wall and it’s going to get really dangerous and that’s the way I wanted to start a relationship with Rob, but he felt that I was going to do that, and he backed off and said, “I can’t do that with Nick, I can’t make that step.”
And it ends up being in the film, when he grabs Nick and he kinda hugs him and gives him a kiss. That’s a risk that Connie’s taking and he’s really saying “I’m going to go out on a limb and I’m going to show you I love you in this sense.”
But that comes from building these characters. Josh had Rob send me letters from jail. Like when he was up when he was on the set and for The Lost City of Z, he said “Send, Nick a letter from jail right before you get out.” So it’s kind of like four months before the movie started he was starting to come back into contact with Nick. And it was just this back and forth relationship over a couple months where he would send me emails and Josh would say “Don’t answer and let’s see how Rob responds.” And he wouldn’t respond and he send like three or four more emails trying to really get an answer. And all that just helped build our relationship and it helped build the performances with us too.
You also mentioned Buddy Duress, who you don’t see at all in the previews or any of the other marketing, but when his character, Ray, shows up on screen he totally takes over the film.
Josh: Someone called him the neo-Joe Pesci. And I said that to him and he said, “So you’re saying I’m funny, funny how? I’m here to amuse you?” He went through the whole speech.
And he was obviously the guy you had in mind for that character.
Josh: Oh yeah, he was the only person that was attached when we approached Rob. I said: we want to make this movie, it’s called Good Time, it’s about a guy who thinks if he owns a piece of land he’ll be free. And he robs a bank, inspired by this guy in Ohio who was robbing banks, this guy is using the exact mask that he used, disguised as an African American, and those exact masks that were used, the company that makes them, the government said “Please stop making them because everyone’s robbing the bank with this mask,” so it was that idea and then Buddy Duress, that was it.
And [Rob] was like, “Oh, I loved Buddy in Heaven Knows What“, I want to work with that guy, I thought he was incredible. So, I was kinda sharing a couple of his prison journals with Rob, so he could see the inner mind of what its like to be locked up in Upper State New York, so the part was written for him. But he did that monologue in only one take. And Buddy has the unique ability to say anything and it sounds pure and real. And it’s very cool to see him working on other projects too, because seeing how other directors get to work with him because he did start to train as an actor after having worked on a few films. And seeing him in his acting classes and watching the auditions that he does there, he can’t help but bring so much life to any line. Like Ben was saying, it’s very cool to see the career that he’s starting.
Benny: There is a moment in the movie where they’re both talking to each other and Rob was like, “I really need the script and I really need these lines.” And he was using that as an anchor and we were also using that as an anchor in that moment, because he wasn’t really listening to Buddy, but he was listening to Buddy. [Then] he started to look at Connie like, “Fuck this guy,” you know he’s always giving me a hard time, he didn’t want to see him. And so he just let him have it in that moment. He was talking, from the heart in that scene. And he was just letting it all out and having that, the two of them, speaking from that mindset and Rob speaking from the other way. You could almost see this mirror, but they don’t acknowledge their own reflections.
And that line that Ray gives, the “I’m fuckin’ real” line. It spoke volumes about his character and his relationship to Connie.
Josh: Yeah, Lonnie our co-writer really loves that line cause it’s like he’s saying to the audience “I’m real He’s not!” You know what I mean? And it’s a cool moment.
Speaking of great character moments, I was so completely fascinated by the character of the bail bondsman, and then I later found out that he wasn’t an actor, he was an actual bail bondsman.
Benny: Yeah, that’s his office.
Josh: He is such a good actor that there is a moment where he is on the phone, and he’s talking to the guy and he says “Yeah, lovely” and he just dropped that line in.
Benny: He improvised.
Josh: But at the same time when he’s dialing that phone, when he’s dialing that number on the phone, he knows that number, you see it’s second nature, it’s muscle memory, and we wanted to kinda really capture that, because it’s such a narrative scene.
Benny: Originally we shot that scene with Eric Roberts, and he’s one of my favorite actors, but the scene was so much narrative and exposition in it.
Josh: You can’t add an element of artifice. It had to be the real guy.
Benny: You could just tell that he would be a good actor. It’s funny, so recently he wrote me saying, that one of his clients called him, and then wrote him this long text, basically his client’s girlfriend is a big Rob Pattinson fan, and was like, we’re going to see this movie tonight, and so he goes to the movie and watches it and half way through the overture he goes “That’s my fucking bail bond guy,” and he couldn’t believe it. Now he’s a huge Rob Pattinson fan.
Good Time is now playing in theaters everywhere. Read our review here.