In Josh and Benny Safdie's neon-soaked drama, Good Time, a sense of discontentment dooms the characters to countless bad times in spite of how hard they try. It's why Constantine "Connie" Nikas (played to the gills by Robert Pattinson) believes that finding his way out of a life of crime involves robbing a bank with his mentally disabled younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie); it's why Ray (Buddy Duress) hops into the story after a case of mistaken identity of After Hours–level proportions; and it's what 16-year-old Queens girl Crystal (Taliah Lennice Webster) sees in Connie's deadly serious blue-gray eyes while she's along for the ride.
While talking to the Safdies about their sensational film, I get the sense that they're only ever relaxed when they're filmmaking—but the vertigo-inducing view from the Midtown skyscraper where we conduct our interview is enough to keep them at bay. "There's that great quote: 'If you love what you do, you don't have to work a day in your life.' [Press] is the only time where I feel like I'm working," Josh says.
"You were working all the other times," Ben interjects. "Yeah, but I love what I'm doing—except for an occasional assignment—so, it's always… Alright, I'm done," Josh cuts back in. And, we're off:
VICE: Are there ever any moments where you're making a film that you're dreading doing press for it?
Benny: Not really. When we're making a movie, all we're thinking about is that we have so much on our plates—we're not really thinking about the "after." With this film, we were lucky to have the distribution finalized right as we were doing our additional shooting, so we didn't have to worry about that.
Josh: We had a traditional still photographer on set, and it drove me crazy. We got rid of that person. There's an innocence and a sincerity to just being present in that world, you know?
Benny: You don't want to let the outside in.
Josh: I like to try to be as present as possible all the time. We're producing stuff now, too, and [on] one of the projects we're producing, another filmmaker was talking about the marketing. I was like, "What are you talking about? There's no movie yet!" We're not Don Simpson. We're not making the poster and the tagline—
Benny: And then making the movie next! But when we're making something, we do have an open mind to things on the set. Certain things do shift and move; you might not get all the coverage that you want based on the timing, and have to just make do with it.
There was additional shooting on this film.
Josh: We shot about 85 percent of the movie, and then a massive location fell out, so we were like, "We don't even like the ending, so let's not shoot it!" It's a blessing in disguise: put that money aside, let's edit the movie, and then we'll write the ending.
Benny: We'll see where the movie wants to go.
Tell me about the significance of the film's name.
Josh: I learned the term from [Heaven Knows What and Good Time actor] Buddy Duress. While he was locked up, I had him start keeping a prison journal. He did a "state bullet," which is the term for a year, upstate, and he was like, "If I behave well—and I'm behaving well—if I don't get in trouble, I'll be able to get out on my good time." I was just like, Whoa, I've never heard that expression before. Basically, when most people get released on their good time, they're out but on parole for the remainder of their sentence. You're still basically serving your time, but you're serving it in the world. People get released on their good time, then they violate and have to serve the remainders without any ifs, ands, or buts. The movie was originally more of a prison movie—
Benny: Isn't Connie out on his good time?
Josh: The backstory is that Connie behaved well in prison, got released on his good time, and this is how he spends it. Buddy Duress's character, Ray, as well.
Benny: People refer to it in jail as their good time; even when they leave, there are such strict rules and opportunities to get caught up; you're not having a good time when you're out on your good time. Which is so strange. But it's better than jail, that's the one thing.
You did a ton of work writing your characters' biographies, but did you ever think about what happens to the characters after the film?
Josh: [Co-writer Ronald Bronfman] and I talked about it. We've even joked about what the sequels would look like. But not nearly as much.
Benny: Because it's wrapped.
Josh: Well, no; it does get wrapped up, but the characters' lives keep going, and we did have some ideas of what Connie would be doing in prison. We actually even thought about shooting some stuff because [Robert Pattinson] had shaved his head right after we finished the movie. I think a better answer is that you make movies to catch up with people, and then you say goodbye to them, but you've established such a relationship with that the character can live on in the audience's imagination. I can't take much ownership over that—I have ideas about what these people do, but only the audience can really know that stuff.
Other directors I've talked to take a hard line between "Well, the film goes on" and "The second it's over, it's the end."
Well, that's ridiculous, unless the character's dead. Even then, how does that affect the other people around him or her? Conceptually, that's impossible to even entertain. Maybe to a filmmaker, a character can just be gone and dead, but I don't [think so].
Benny: We didn't tell anyone we were running through the mall [in Good Time]. We had permission to shoot there, but we didn't make an announcement to everybody in the supermarket area, "Hey, we're going to be running through, we're making a movie." We just ran through with the idea of, Don't hit anybody. So everybody that was in that mall just saw two guys run in getting chased by the police. We did it like four or five times, and when we did it again, it was a new group of people, and they saw the same thing. But they left with something: this theater of what they saw. They'd be like, "It was the craziest thing, I was checking out, and there was a police chase in the middle of this mall!" Part of it is that we want to give stories to people that have nothing to do with the movie.
Did Benny's performance in the film change your working relationship with each other?
Josh: I actually recently found a video from when we were shooting jail sequence stuff, where Benny comes up to me and he's talking in character about understanding what I was doing with the tracking shot. But he's talking like Nick. We've been doing this since we were kids, too.
Benny: We'd made a bunch of shorts that I acted in.
Josh: I have this really weird thing I do when Benny acts. He's very in touch with his emotions, so he can tap into them really easily, and in the first scene of the movie—which was the first thing that we shot—I started hysterically laughing. Since we were kids, every time Benny would cry, I would laugh. But it's a really nervous laughter. I remember the script supervisor was looking at me like, why are you laughing? And I was like,"I'm sorry, I can't watch my brother cry. It fucks me up."
Benny: It's real—they're real tears.
Josh: Because I know where it's coming from, I get this really bad nervous laughter. It was the only time that I actually couldn't watch, because it would distract me. But that's the only time that it really affects us.
Benny: This was such a deep character that I had the ability to go even further knowing that Josh was there. It was like doing a trust fall, and it was very helpful in that sense. He would tell me to do certain things, like, "Hold back. Don't answer Rob for three lines so that he really has to push you and get you."
Your movies seem to focus on these characters who are just so close to breaking free but can't. Do you fear that, with the success of Good Time, you might lose your connection to these kinds of people?
Josh: Someone else said that to me the other day! No, because breaking free has nothing to do with it. I want to break out of my skin all the time—it's a philosophical thing. For the first time in our lives, we actually can see that we have multiple projects that we can do, for a year and a half almost, but I have a feeling you can't run away from your attractions. I mean. I want to make other stuff, too, but…
Benny: The movies that I find myself relating to are about somebody who tries and doesn't necessarily succeed. I don't think that I'll ever really lose that, because it's such a human emotion to see that.
Josh: You have to remember, we've been making feature films for ten years and barely scraping by. I mean, I'm 33, he's 31. I made my first feature when I was 23. I don't know that I'll lose that in a weird way. I hope so, actually!