Josh and Benny Safdie are two of the best young filmmakers working in the United States today, and their new film, Good Time, is essential viewing. The movie tells the story of small-time hood Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) and his mentally-challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie), who are looking to make enough money via a bank robbery to be able to leave New York. The heist, of course, goes wrong, and Nick is arrested and sent to the lock-up. The film then becomes an overnight odyssey, as Connie tries a variety of ways to get his brother out of jail and gets into trouble himself along the way. It’s a gorgeously shot film, with an incredible soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never, and we’ll have a full review coming soon.
One of the best things about talking with the Safdies is how quickly these conversations spiral out of control and go to interesting places, and unfortunately, given a 10 minute time-limit by The Powers That Be, we were only able to ask a few questions before being hustled out of there so they could catch a train back to New York City.
Still, we had a great conversation, covering everything from Pattinson’s involvement in the formation of Connie’s character, to their research methods, and to their own crazy experiences over long nights when they were students at Boston University. But, the day before, Pattinson himself created quite a bit of controversy, and we wanted to let them know we didn’t care about that.
Nick Johnston: So, you don’t have to worry about me asking about dog dicks.
Josh Safdie: [laughs] I know, it’s so fucking crazy.
Benny Safdie: You are gonna ask us about Dog Day Afternoon, right?
Josh Safdie: Dog Dick Afternoon. How about Dog Dick Afternoon [laughs].
That’d be one hell of a movie. So how exactly did this come about?
Josh Safdie: It came about from Rob Pattinson basically seeing a still of Heaven Knows What on Indiewire, and [when I was checking] my email at South-By-Southwest, and receiving a super-cryptic kind of weirdly obsessive email from this guy named Rob Pattinson, who I — I never saw Twilight, but I’d seen The Rover and Cosmopolis at that point, and I knew he was involved with this musician whose work I really dug, and I realized that this guy was interested in cool things. His drive is not a commercial one. So I was like, “Okay, what does this guy want?” And basically, he wasn’t right for the project that we were looking to make, and I said to him, “Hey, I’ve got this deep well of interest and inspiration, and I want to make a thriller with you.” A crime thriller. So that’s where it started, with him. And Buddy Duress, too, to some degree.
Oh yeah, he’s fucking awesome in it.
Josh Safdie: Yeah, he’s amazing.
So you started with this spark, and then you went into the writing. Was he involved much in the initial writing process?
Josh Safdie: So, in order to write the genre elements of this thrilling narrative stuff, because this was by far the most plotty narrative movie that we’ve ever done, and we were excited about that, but we really needed to know who Connie was. So I wrote a very extensive character background that started when his character was born and ended when he enters the movie. And he was involved with that, not necessarily writing or bringing specific things [to the background], but he’d question these landmarks in his life in a very particular way that would force me to go even deeper into that digression, and then weirdly, it’d become really helpful when we’d get to the fork in the road of the movie and we’d need to know exactly what this guy would do or say because we’d developed exactly who he was. So he was very involved within the development aspect. When he was on Lost City of Z, we’d talk a lot, and I would send him script pages occasionally and then I sent him a first draft, and then I was like “hold on, I’m going to send you a new draft,” and basically change the entire movie, and then I’d send him another draft three weeks later. So, he was involved way more than he is in other stuff, because most of the time people just treat him like a name to get some cash. Not speaking [badly] of all the movies [he’s been in], but he was surprised to see how involved he was.
Benny Safdie: But also he gave us the time to develop his character [independently]. He came to New York and we did camera tests and character history-building, between him and I for the brother. We wrote letters — Josh had him write a letter to me from jail, and then I would respond in kind as Nick. And so, just having this ability to build this character kind of from the ground up really allowed it just to be real. You feel all that texture in everything, in the sense that when he enters the movie, he’s not entering as Rob Pattinson, he’s entering as Connie Nikas. And that’s something special.
What kind of research did Pattinson do here? Did you help at all?
Josh Safdie: Well, I guided the research. I completely guided the research. I sent him Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, I sent him In the Belly of the Beast, I sent him a bunch of documentaries by John Alpert, one of which we’re doing a Q&A for tonight called One Year in a Life of Crime. I sent him an insane amount of Cops episodes, where I pinpointed certain things, and then he came to New York, and I introduced him to our casting department who helped us find — I mean that’s the amazing thing about our casting department is that they not only were casting the film, but they would, through their casting tentacles, they would be like “Hey, we met this guy and he seems really interesting, like a Connie character, you should meet with him.” So then I’d meet with him and be like “Oh, this guy’s great, let’s have Rob meet with him.”
So we brought Rob to this place called the Fortune Society, and the three of us met for hours with a guy who taught us what it was like to do time at a medium and a maximum security prison. And we brought him to —
Benny Safdie: We played pool with this other guy.
Josh Safdie: Yeah, we were just hanging out with who we thought Connie would hang out with. Maybe not to emulate, but just to suggest to him, “Hey, this would be your friend. This guy would be one of your friends.”
Benny Safdie: “You knew these people.” Like I was saying before, this is like a history-building for this character. You knew these people, you spent time with these people, you maybe did time with these people, and it would build not his character, but an idea of who his character hung out with, which would then in turn relate to who he was.
Josh Safdie: Because with a lot of people, you are the company you keep.
Benny Safdie: Yeah.
Josh Safdie: So we would… I mean, we did something once. Benny and Rob were in character working a gas station, working a car wash, and we filmed that. I brought Rob and Benny up, and Benny stayed in character the whole time, which kind of forced Rob into being a prototype version of Connie as well, just at a friend’s car shop in Yonkers. And then we met this guy who said “actually, Connie’s very similar to my brother who died last year, tragically,” and then he told us this crazy story, and [we loved it]. And he said, “Why don’t you come out to Rocky Point and I can show you where all this stuff happened.” So we got this walking tour of this very local, regional story, but it was this awesome crime story too.
Benny Safdie: And he’d be like “And there’s the house,” and we’d be like “that’s the house?” It had such a huge attachment in his head, but here it was just like a little house in this neighborhood, but this guy had such a big attachment to it, and in the way he told it in the story, it made you go “huh.” So then this idea of these little regional landmarks meaning so much to these people, like it would for the people in the movie…
Josh Safdie: Furthermore, we brought Rob, when we were developing the look of Connie, to an active jail. I had become friends with the warden, this woman Raylene, who is actually in the movie as the voice of the operator at Elmhurst. And I befriended through this interesting character who I knew, the commissioner of jails. So we had this unfettered access, and I was constantly doing research by going and getting these insane, completely unauthorized tours of jails, where while I’m walking through, I’d always walk through with my hands behind my back in case I saw somebody I knew, who’d be like “Oh, he’s with the warden!” And I’d see this guy who’d be like, “Aww, man, this fucking sucks.” And I’d be like “I’m good.” The warden would ask “Do you know that person?” and I’d say yeah, and we’d keep walking through the jails.
So when I bring Rob there, you know, he didn’t say a word because his accent wasn’t down yet, but he’d be able to walk around and see what a real jail looks and feels like and what it’s like to be going through the system. The guy who plays the psychiatrist at the beginning, Peter Verby, he’s actually a low-end criminal lawyer, and used to be a public defender, and he’s represented a lot of people like Connie in the past. So he can sit and talk about his experiences with people like that. What kind of questions would Connie have [for a public defender]? I mean, we did this, and it went far and deep. You know, he had people who he’d heard their accents from Queens sit down with him and read the script and he’d record it so he could just listen to it when he was going to sleep at night. So it was very, very extensive research on his behalf. But we were going and guiding him through it because it was also helpful for us to see him learn and craft [with it].
Benny Safdie: Also, I guess it was helpful to build the relationships with the people outside of the camera, so that then you bring it in once the camera’s turned on.
Well, our time’s running out, but I just wanted to ask you one final question: You guys went to Boston University, and I was just curious if you’d had any crazy Good Time-like experiences while you were living in Boston.
Benny Safdie: I made a short film about a similar night, actually. I became friends with a guy who worked at a gas station next to where we lived, and this guy Ferris just kind of was a character — a performer — and one night I just spent all night with him, and I saw everything. It felt like I was working there, and then he left me there at one point, and I was dealing with customers and stuff. It was an insane night, and I met all of these incredible people so that was pretty close.
Josh Safdie: I had an all-night event with these kind of hacker guys who I knew.
Benny Safdie: Oh my god, I totally forgot about that.
Josh Safdie: I had a strange experience running with these guys — it felt more like After Hours via Boston [laughs].
Benny Safdie: The house, though.
Josh Safdie: Yeah, a very apocalyptic pl–
Benny Safdie: Now that he’s mentioning it, I had totally blacked it out of my head.
Josh Safdie: It didn’t really have any walls, but…
Benny Safdie: It was this huge warehouse, all with round corners.
Josh Safdie: And they had these rows of computers, and they were just — they were all hacking. I remember seeing them live-hack into banks and stuff, and then we went on this weird crawl where we went to all these different warehouses… Very scary. Now that I’m realizing it, it was very scary.
Benny Safdie: No, but it was scary in the sense that they had no windows. I remember that there were no windows in the whole apartment and it was just… you’d walk in, and it was just… it was insane.
Josh Safdie: Yeah.
Benny Safdie: I forgot about that. I don’t even remember where that was geographically.
Josh Safdie: I had some weird exchange with some guy out in like Ipswich. I had a friend who lived there, and I remember getting into some exchange with a guy, and I was like driving — actually, it wasn’t Ipswich, it was Swampscott. No, not Swampscott, it was Sharon, Massachusetts, which was where a lot of Eddie Coyle takes place. I was working on weekends as an art director for this movie that was happening in Sharon, and me and my buddy Sam Lisenco, who’s the art director for Good Time, we were working as the art department, and we were in a car, and, being a New Yorker, I was just like “this guy [in front of us] is being extra slow,” so I was laying on the horn and throwing my brights on. Then the guy pulled over to the side, and I was like, “Great, finally,” and then he decided to follow us, and we got in a high-speed chase in Sharon, Mass., which is a suburb, turning left, turning right and, you know, [makes braking noises].
They kept trying to pull up next to us, and at some point we realized it was a car full of these big jocks, who were yelling “We’re gonna fucking kill you,” screaming insanely racist shit towards me, and then they were trying to steer us off the road. Eventually, I was like “Fuck, what the fuck are we gonna do?” And [Sam’s] just like, “Let’s just go back to this guy’s Steve’s house.” So, eventually, we got to Steve’s house, and they just pull in behind, right? And we’re in the car they’re in the car, right? And we knew that the door wasn’t that far, and we were like “What do we do? They now know that we’re staying here.” So we open up the door, and they open up [their] door, and we close [ours]. And we saw all of them getting out, and they all had fucking bats in their hands. And we were both like, “Fuck.” So, what I did was I put it in reverse, and as they were out of the car, I peeled out and went around the car, and they were like, “Oh, shit!” and I kept pulling out. And we kept driving for like an hour going left, right, left right, left, left. And we were like, “Shit, now we have to go back.”
So that’s a good Sharon, Mass. story.
Featured Safdie Brothers photo by Elara Pictures, via Film Society of Lincoln Center. ‘Good Time’ hits area theaters this Friday.