The Safdie Brothers' ‘Heaven Knows What’ Is the Most Powerful Movie About the Life of Addicts in a Long, Long Time


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The Safdie Brothers' ‘Heaven Knows What’ Is the Most Powerful Movie About the Life of Addicts in a Long, Long Time

We interviewed the filmmakers and actress

Often directors try to spin New York City tales that feel sterile and manufactured—not the sibling directors Joshua and Benny Safdie, whose potent and homespun movies go down easy but are impossible to forget. Their first two features, 2008's The Pleasure of Being Robbed and 2011's Daddy Longlegs concoct an askew, nostalgic, and ultimately humanist comedic sensibility that contains a bygone sense of the lower Manhattan depths. If their wandering and digressive narrative style is any indication, character interests them much more than plot. In Arielle Holmes, the young New York City junkie who stars in their newest and best film, Heaven Knows What, they have found their most compelling character yet. Based on her forthcoming memoir Mad Love in New York City, this stunning new drama explores the circumstances of her addiction, and the emotional manipulation of her lover Ilya, with unflinching panache.


Watch an exclusive clip here:

Earlier this month, we caught up with the Safdies and Holmes in the offices of the Weinstein Company's Radius imprint, which is releasing the movie this week. It's an unusual drug movie, but not without antecedents. Although not as baroque as The Man With the Golden Arm or as self-consciously stylish and tragic as Requiem for a Dream, in its treatment of an addict couple, the film does resemble Jerry Schatzberg's Panic in Needle Park. The immediacy of the performances, however—almost all by non-actors and real-life addicts—set this movie apart.

Holmes, who has already begun acting in other films following the movie's elite festival circuit that saw it travel to Venice and Toronto, New York and South by Southwest, is a tour de force. Her Raphaelite face, shot by Sean Price Williams with a jittery, colorful verisimilitude, gives the movie an urgency even when its focused on folks who have no goals but to get high at the very margins of society. And the film's willingness to find truth is equally unrelenting; where a lesser film would cop out and leave us with a glimmer of false sunshine for its young protagonist, Heaven Knows What uses understatement and irony to suggest just how strong the pull of community is for drug addicts as much as anyone else.

At the Radius office, Holmes and the brothers opened up to me about the politics of New York's Diamond District, addiction, and the death of Holmes's real-life former boyfriend.


VICE: You guys grew up in New York. I'm sure you've seen it before, but was Arielle your entry into the world of addicts?
Josh Safdie: We've had some stuff in our family. Grew up with it genetically kind of thing. It was around.

Benny Safdie: It's not something that's a foreign concept. But the important thing is that's not what kind of drew the project in. Josh saw her…

Where did you meet her?
Josh: I met her in the Diamond District.

While you were researching your next project?
Yeah, for the Diamond District movie we're going to do, Uncut Gems. I thought she was a Diamond-District girl.

Was she? Was she dressed like a religious Jewish girl or something?
No. The Diamond District now is changing. The Hasids have no hold on the Diamond District. Jacob the Jeweler changed the game there. So now there's a bunch of Bulgarian Jews who think they're black and roll around like Jay-Z.

Arielle Holmes and Buddy Duress in 'Heaven Knows What' (2015). Photo by Oscar Boyson. Courtesy of Radius-TWC

Benny: They want to get in on everybody's Instagram, they want to be cool.

Josh: It's just a different game and all the women who work there are these like Russian kind of ingénues. They're definitely bought and they work there. I thought she was one of them. I thought she was Russian. She was dressed really nicely. And I talked to her and immediately I could tell that she wasn't. Something else was up. She had this thick Jersey accent. I was just like, "What's your deal? You should really be in this movie, but I don't know if you're right for it, but we should hang out and just get to know each other." And then when I met up with her she was dressed like a street kid, and actually it was majorly relieving because I didn't know how long I could maintain my persona, the Diamond-District persona that I was living up, this loaded, throwing-money-at-stuff thing.


And that 's just because you want access to these guys.
Josh: Yeah, you have to pretend. Liam, our producer who produced Heaven Knows What, used to throw money at crazy scenarios. Like, we hired an architect to design an Uzbeki lounge. It was crazy. We told them we dropped like 15 Gs—we actually only dropped like 700 bucks—but it was still $700 on nothing. We had an architect come. We had hard hats at one point. We showed up with hard hats, and I brought a designer through. It was amazing and they were looking at me like, "Who is this guy?" So anyway, so I met up with her and I started talking to her, she told me she lived, I said, "Do you want to meet up for something to eat? Where do you live?" And she goes, "Chinatown." I was like, "Oh, where in Chinatown? I used to live down there." She's like, um, Essex. I was like, "Oh, I used to live on Madison, where on Essex?" "Um, Jefferson?" She basically told me the address of the library, and I'm like, "Oh, right next to the library." And she goes, "Yeah, right next to the library." I met up with her and she just was dressed totally different. She was moonlighting as a dominatrix at a place called Pandora's in Chelsea. You make good money doing that. She was basically supporting her and her boyfriend Ilya's habit.

"A lot of people from the street are usually great actors because they have to act. In that case, the failure isn't a bad review in a movie—it's a punch in the face." —Josh Safdie


Arielle, has making a movie about yourself and then writing about yourself changed how you think of yourself, or of the past?
Arielle Holmes: Well, first it was that, when I first saw the movie, it had been like three months since I had been kind of removed from New York and dope and all that, so that gave me like a new perspective on myself. It allowed me to see things from somebody else's point of view. But it also… I don't know, it kind of just confirms that I can do whatever I want really. [ Laughs] I can do whatever I want in life. I can make something out of everything. I can take shitty things and turn them into something great somehow.

This is was my life. Of course, it was repetitive. You know, I'd wake up, I'd spange, I'd cut dope, that was the routine. But if you look at it, you can say that about anybody. Stuck in routines. You get up, you need to eat, you go to work, you go home. It's repetitive.

You have to have a new strategy every day to score.
You had to see the new problems that would arise, the this and the that. It was so chaotic. At the core of it all, I had to wake up and make this much money so I could cut. But how I did it would be different sometimes.

Buddy Duress in 'Heaven Knows What' (2015). Photo by Oscar Boyson. Courtesy of Radius

The Caleb Landry Jones character is based on Arielle 's real life ex, Ilya, right?
Josh: Yes. He looked much different. He was really beautiful. He was actually kind of glamorous. He was really beautiful, but he didn't care. He was majorly into metal. He was on the street since he was like 11 years old. I speak in past tense because he died on April 12. It was actually really gnarly. I was with Ari. She was in town between movies, and we were in Central Park and she was like, "Yeah, I tried calling Ilya earlier and he kind of answered, his pocket answered, and I listened and he was being really weird with everybody that day." They found him in Central Park. No one really knows, but it was an OD. The family won't release the autopsy. It was a crime scene because he was found in Central Park.


Benny: Yeah, it was in the papers and stuff because that doesn't happen. I mean, it happens but in Strawberry Fields? To be found with a syringe? You don't see that.

Josh: He had gotten clean. His grandmother who I was in touch with got him, found him, brought him to Long Island where his mom just got out of prison, and was like… Also, the mom is dealing with some major guilt.

Benny: She kicked him out at 11! Look what happened to him.

Josh: We were at the funeral and it was gnarly, man. It was horrible. This woman is so young and his family was small. A lot of people from the Central Park scene were there at the funeral.

"You use the term addict as a label because you don't really understand your problem yet. So you call yourself an addict. But in reality, there's many different issues." —Arielle Holmes

It might not be the best way to process the grief.
Benny: Especially for the family. It was like, what is going on here?

Josh: A lot of people were really respectful, even people who were probably high. But there were one or two people who were just beyond obliterated and they just were not respectful. Ronnie [Bronstein, the film's co-writer] said it perfectly, because his grandfather died of cancer. He was like, "That's like cancer showing up to my grandfather's funeral." One guy [at Ilya's funeral] was like, "This is taking too long!" And like jumped into the mound of dirt and was pushing it into the fucking grave. It was gnarly.


Arielle: I don't believe in fucking addicts.

Benny: I mean, yes and no.

Arielle: There's no such thing as being an addict.

Benny: Really? Why so?

Arielle: It's not the drug you're addicted to. It's something else. It's other issues.

Benny: But it's still…

Arielle: You use drugs as an excuse.

Josh: Of course, it's medicating.

Arielle: You use the term addict as a label because you don't really understand your problem yet. So you call yourself an addict. But in reality, there's many different issues.

Benny: When you get physically addicted to it, that's what that term means, you get addicted.

Arielle: That's a physical sickness. But you don't get physically sick when you're addicted to coke or meth or weed. I mean, you can say that it is all physical you know, even the mental parts.

Did he see the film before he passed away?
Benny: Yeah, he loved it. He was at the New York Film Festival premiere and it was really something special. He sat in front of Jim Jarmusch at the premiere. Jim said Ilya spoke full volume the entire time, and was just like on cloud nine: "That's me, motherfucker!" It didn't matter how he looked at the time. It was like, "I don't care that's me!"

Josh: Beyond that Ilya was super smart and awesome.

Benny: He felt the movie. I wish I got to talk to him more about it, but I remember I had a very brief probably like ten-minute conversation with him a few days after the premiere. He just talked to me about how the movie nailed the feeling of the life. That meant a lot to me.


Arielle: He never talked to me about the movie.

The movie really captures in the most visceral ways the feeling of needing to use, regardless of what we call it.
Josh: We always wanted it to be more visceral. Sometimes when I would be around her, she would go into the junkie terror, which is such a terrible thing to witness and I've witnessed it way too many times in my life, when someone realizes you don't exist and all that exists is the drug, and it would exist in the same way with Ilya. I would see it, and she would get to be a certain way. She would get very manic. Sometimes she would get very loud and manic, but other times it would be bubbling underneath. So for the movie we wanted to externalize it a little bit more, and she knew that, and she'd say, "Well, this isn't exactly how that happened," and we'd tell her, "We know that. But in order to get at what it really felt like we need to kind of change things up a little bit."

Caleb Landry Jones and Arielle Holmes in 'Heaven Knows What' (2015). Photo by Oscar Boyson. Courtesy of Radius

What was emotion like when you finally saw the movie? Did you guys show her the movie when you were cutting?
Benny: She was seeing scenes.

Arielle: Parts of it.

Josh: Like chunks on her phone or iPad or something. We were editing while we were doing it.

Arielle: Apparently Josh showed me like the final rough cut of it, but it was pretty much the whole thing, in his car with Buddy. But I do not remember that at all.

Josh: This was her. She wrote the book that we adapted, and a lot of her friends are in the movie and in this world. This was her way of basically chaptering that part of her life. Ronnie would constantly text me on set and say, "This girl is acting circles around people." Every movie is different and you'd have to adapt to someone's style. She and I have such a close, weird friendship that I can sense when she's not vibing something and so I know how to kind of move with her and give her stuff that I know will inspire her. Sometimes she would do stuff that she just didn't want to do and even then she would still do it well, which is a sign of a good actor. A non-actor will be given something that they don't feel and they don't feel like they can do, and they just shut down. And she wouldn't do that. She would bring out the street side of her.

Arielle Holmes in 'Heaven Knows What' (2015). Photo by Oscar Boyson. Courtesy of Radius

Benny: She would do that and we would be able to watch and be like, "That's not as good as what we know you can do."

Josh: Do you know what kind of actor she was before I met her? She was working at Pandora's playing characters every single day. Before that she was working for some weird guy in the financial district doing the dominatrix thing except as a house call girl. And she was 17 years old, an underage girl doing it. And even beyond that, many times in her writing, I read about how she hustled someone off the street, pretending to be someone that she wasn't. She was an actress. I mean, a lot of people from the street are usually great actors because they have to act. In that case, the failure isn't a bad review in a movie, it's a punch in the face. You know what the Japanese title of the movie is? Fuck You, God. We didn't come up with that.

Benny: It's actually a good translation in a sense. There it's like, "Fuck you, God, I'm going to take this life and I'm going to live it," or "Fuck you, God, for making me have this life." But they got the energy.

The Safdie brothers' Heaven Knows What, starring Arielle Holmes, opens in theaters this week.

Brandon Harris is a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine. His directorial debut Redlegs has played over a dozen festivals worldwide and was a New YorkTimes critic's pick upon its commercial release in May of 2012. Follow him on Twitter.