Isle of Dogs
As entertaining as it is to look at Isle of Dogs, I couldn’t get past Anderson’s usual clumsiness when dealing with minorities.
The story behind “Good Time” goes that actor Robert Pattinson saw a still from “Heaven Knows What,” the 2015 film by fraternal director duo of Benny Safdie & Joshua Safdie, and knew that he had to work with them. The project that came from this possibly fatalistic proclamation is no mere star vehicle to appease one of the biggest actors working today, but a full-fledged immersion of Pattinson into the anxious cinematic world of the Safdies, where characters hustle through a very non-flashy New York, often fighting for their freedom among neon lighting and synth music cues fit for “The Running Man.”
In 2015, the Safdie brothers adapted Arielle Holmes’ memoir, Mad Love in New York City, about being homeless and reliant on drugs for “Heaven Knows What,” which provided an unflinching look at people who live so far outside the system they hardly exist. The Safdies apply that same brutal energy to the original story of “Good Time,” about a con man named Connie Nikas (Pattinson) who will do anything to get his developmentally-disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie) out of prison after their bank robbery goes awry. Other lives, including that of a young woman played by breakout star Taliah Webster, "Heaven Knows What" co-star Buddy Duress, and "Captain Phillips" Oscar-nominee Barkhad Abdi, are dragged into his impulse-driven scheme. Written by Ronald Bronstein and Benny, the film is a genre thriller about brotherhood that is very much a product of their intense collaborative process and also very much a part of 2017, in particular with how Pattinson’s Connie utilizes his whiteness when eluding the cops.
RogerEbert.com spoke with the Safdies about how they're incredibly and uniquely hands-on with their filmmaking process, the choice to have Benny play a character who is developmentally disabled, the real-life inspiration "Good Time" received from a co-star's experience in prison and more.
I’m curious about the chemical balance of your movies, where they’re very stressful, and your characters are very impulsive. How does that reflect how you like to make movies and how you guys like to be on set?
JOSHUA SAFDIE: I think specifically for this movie, we had a big budget but the script was longer than the movie is, and we had a very aggressive schedule. We were constantly having to race against time, and that element really did kind of bring that energy to the movie in a kind of microcosmic level. Rob likes to talk about how chaotic it was, but it wasn’t. It’s all about finding the pocket of calm while you’re in the middle of shooting, but there was an element of, a speed that we had to make this movie. We would tell certain independent filmmakers it was 36 days of shooting, and then you tell certain Hollywood filmmakers and they’re like, “Oh my god, how did you do that?”
BENNY SAFDIE: And I think it’s just a matter of the way we’re approaching, and the way that the set is functioning. We kept having to add people as we were moving along, because we didn’t want too many people in our crew because we wanted to maximize, we wanted everyone to maximize their potential. Do everything they could to make the movie. Because the one moment you have someone sitting around like, “what the fuck am I doing here?” that would breed resentment. We didn’t want that, we wanted to have everybody feel like they were really a part of it. So, you’re creating this mentality of almost a construction site, and everybody is building and working towards it. And then that bleeds into performances and it bleeds into locations, and we had permission for almost all of the locations. The street stuff we would of course mess around with, most of the locations we had permission with, but we wanted to feel like we didn’t. So we would approach them stylistically with how we would make it feel like we’re doing something interesting here. So for example when we’re running through the mall, we set it up like we were going to steal the shot. The detail offer to our location manager is like, “What are they doing? They can have whatever they want here. You could close it down, do this,” but we wanted to keep it open. So he just says, “OK, just don’t hit anybody.” And that then becomes the direction, like, “OK, run through this massive crowd of people, but don’t hit anybody.” You really then have to think, and you’re so aware of your body and everything, that if you hit somebody it’s gonna be bad. So you’re not even thinking about the presence of the cameras or anything else except yourself.
As collaborators then, how do you guys resolve differences or ideas on set?
BENNY: Not on set! Sometimes we argue on set. But not as much.
I’m curious as to how you keep that construction site idea going.
BENNY: It’s vibe-based. We’ll just kind of feel it out, I’ll see if Josh is just rolling with an actor, I’ll just let him go and I’ll talk to him personally and I’ll pull him aside. And I’m running boom, and I know that he can hear me, and I can pull the boom down and be like, “Hey, come here, I noticed something was going on in this scene.” And I would tell Joshua and he’d relay it to this certain actor. Or other times, he’ll see that I am vibing with somebody and it’s just a matter of playing it out, and eventually, it kind of becomes this open conversation which is really nice.
Benny, you running boom is an interesting dynamic to your collective creativity process. Not many directors or even director duos are so first-hand with sound. What dynamic do you think that provides?
BENNY: Well, the guy who I did sound with was so excited, he’s like, “Nobody ever cares about this.” He’s like, “Nobody ever cares about sound, but I have one of the directors who actually cares about what things will sound like, and if it didn’t sound good we’d re-do it.” But just from a performative standpoint, the boom operator is someone who is almost in a way just taken for granted. They’re really close to the actors and they’re in the scene, so you can take advantage of that. And so, I like, and I consider myself good at it, we’re not taking the boom operator out, we’re putting in somebody who I feel can do it.
JOSHUA: Often it’s an overlooked job on set because that person is the most intimate person on set with the actors. They’re usually the closest.
BENNY: And while I’m there I can see a lot of other things that aren’t necessarily right on camera, I’m seeing hands and seeing how the emotions are going on in a different perspective. So then I can talk to Josh, who’s really dealing a lot with the camera. He has an ear piece.
JOSHUA: I have a direct, constant communication with the DP.
BENNY: “Go down to the hands, go down to the eyes.” How does it look? How does it feel? We can literally put the two things together.
You’ve found a way to get hands on even in the most intimate moments, where it’s much more than just your constant, claustrophobic close-ups. How many different cameras are you using when you’re filming different scenes?
JOSHUA: Sometimes it’s two cameras.
BENNY: We thought we’d do more.
JOSHUA: We thought for the sake of speed that we’d do more than two camera set-ups, and we found that it actually slowed us down to do two cameras. You end up hindering yourself in a lot of other ways. But the B camera operator, Chris Messina, is a great DP in his own right, and he’s an old friend of ours. So what we ended up doing is we would have two units. So there’d be A camera and B camera, and B cam, in order to maximize our time, we’d actually have B camera go set-up for the next scene, on a location, so that we could basically never stop, we’re shooting. We could shoot a scene, we don’t have to go stop and wait for a set-up, they’re setting up while we’re doing this other thing. It was very helpful, unless it’s whenever we were doing, when we’re in one location you can’t have a separate camera, but we would always have, “Alright, next shot is going to be on the 200m, let’s get that prepped” and then the 200m just gets walked in and Sean can shoot with that. Or literally, B cam will be shooting in Adventureland, and there would be a B unit getting shots of the rides. Benny would go, with an actor coming in, I wasn’t even present for when Rob goes in and turns on all of the rides inside the little hut. I was shooting something with Taliah.
BENNY: Literally to turn on all the rides in the park takes two hours.
JOSHUA: So that’s when having two directors is helpful, yeah.
BENNY: Because each ride is turned on individually. We had to literally have someone go around with each ride like, “OK, turn on ride A” or whatever and we’d get the shot. So we’d give the illusion that you’d just flip a switch. But that was an insane, that shoot was probably the hardest, because it was so cold and overnight and into the daytime. I remember there was this one time where literally we were so afraid that the light was going to come up. It was like, “Keep pushing!” It was the first time I ever looked at the lows of a forecast.
JOSHUA: No, the most fucked up thing is that anyone who shoots nights has to worry about the light coming up. That’s the same thing as the sun going down. But we would start during the day time, and we would do a split, where we’re already shooting basically shooting half a day’s worth of filming while it’s light out, and we’re chasing the sun. And then it’s like, “OK, the sun went down, let’s break for lunch.” And then we would shoot the entire night, and then the sun would come up, and then it was like, “I guess we’ll start shooting some of the stuff we missed from the daytime.” It was really intense.
With these movies, there’s an element that you guys love this city and you love these locations, but you're not using very large or specific NYC places either. Your films would make for one hell of an alternative NYC film tour. And it almost seems like people are trying to survive in the city. Do you guys love NYC but also want people to experience it as thunderdome?
JOSHUA: “Running Man” is … dystopia … look, we’re living in a dystopian time right now. Every day I wake up and there’s something more horrific crazy thing, or some photos that we see. There’s a website that I go to occasionally that my DP turned me onto that’s literally the most horrific, entropic place I’ve been to in my life. And I don’t even want to say the name because I don’t think anyone should experience this website.
Why do you go to that website?
JOSHUA: Because it’s human nature. I go there because it’s there, you know what I mean? And I hate myself when I’m there, because it’s so fucked up and horrific, and these videos that I watch are just so ugly and messed up. And it’s almost like, for a long time I would never want to see any of this stuff, and then Sean was always like, “No, you can’t avert your eyes, you need to see this stuff.” So for like the car crash scene, he was like, “We need to watch so many videos of cars.” And he was like, “Let’s shoot it from this place of a little bit behind it, but looking down on it.”
And we really kind of, I’m really interested in regional culture. If you want to know what a city is, you have to look at it as A.) it’s people, and the things, the regional lens of it. Because you’re not going to understand really, like there was a movie that I was excited about seeing, by a great filmmaker, “Shame.” Fassbender is amazing in it, and McQueen’s an amazing filmmaker, but that movie, there’s great scenes in it, but for the most part it really sticks to a hotel and like kind of an area that we’ve seen a million times, and it ends up not feeling like it’s anywhere. If you can get into the regional landmarks and the personal landmarks of somebody, “where does that person go everyday, why do they go here?” all the sudden you start to understand what the city is. Because the best way to understand the city is to work in one.
BENNY: And I think that some of the best compliments that we have gotten about that aspect of it is the fact that someone says, “I can imagine this being part of a city in Colombia, or a city in Mexico.” There’s an urban feeling to it, and this feeling of moving through a place that’s been lived in, and that just comes from the fact that yeah, we do live in New York City and we’re looking at it from the sidewalk’s point-of-view. We’re not looking at it with our heads up at the skyscrapers in awe. We’re just treating it for what it is.
And what did you mean when you said “Running Man” was an influence? Overall, or just for this film?
JOSHUA: In general, always. It was one of our favorite movies as a kid.
BENNY: The music is pretty good, too.
JOSHUA: Yeah, the Faltermeyer soundtrack was actually on heavy rotation when we were doing the score. But yeah, the dystopian view of society, the individual trying to break free of conformity, etcetera, etcetera.
That explains a lot about what you guys are jazzed about now with these past two movies. Like, “This is what life is like, this is Arielle’s story, this is fucked up.”
JOSHUA: Well, the crazy thing about this movie is that there was no Connie Nikas. He’s not based on one specific person. He’s basically an amalgamation of like a handful of people that I studied, and very much inspired by the journals that Buddy was keeping when he was in prison, that I was paying Buddy to write while he was locked up.
Was he locked up before …
JOSHUA: Right after “Heaven Knows What” he got locked up for about a year. And we spoke everyday and I visited him and I’d bring him books, and he was talking about how slow time was going, so I was like, “Why don’t you keep a journal? Treat everyday like it is research.” And he was like, “Huh.” So all of the sudden, everything he experienced felt like it had a purpose. And it was helpful for him. And when I was reading these things I was just like, I was really amazed because I had never done real time at all. I’ve done 72 hours in a booking thing, but that’s bullshit. You don’t really get to experience, so I would see these true colors of society through these journals, and I started to understand how someone like Connie would come to be. How someone like Connie would, there was a certain born-again element to people in prison, and there’s like a lot of people find Jesus when they’re locked up, and they have this really warped sense of freedom. In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott was a book that was inspiring, Executioner’s Song was really inspiring, the TV show “Cops,” doing research and meeting people, and a lot of sitting in on tons of arraignments at Hundred Center Street, witch is the courts in New York. And these things just start to bleed into who this person is, and I just started to write a very, and then your imagination turns on, and you’ll imagine this character and imagine in building this character from birth to the beginning of this movie.
That makes me think about the soul in these movies, because these last two have a very humanistic element. Where “Heaven Knows What" is basically a love story, or it’s about a relationship, and this is about brothers. I’m curious, did you intentionally want to create a story that’s about brothers, and the buddy system?
BENNY: It’s weird, it’s like we didn’t realize how powerful the brother … because it was there, and it was the driving force behind a lot of it. But we didn’t go into it thinking, Oh, this is going to be about brotherhood. But that’s just how we take our relationship almost, it’s like, “He’s my brother, that’s how it is.” But you don’t realize the lengths that you’d go to for that, and that just ended up being almost kind of bled into the movie, and we just couldn’t help but increase … the stakes for that were just so much higher. Because we were bringing, subconsciously or consciously, this weight to it, and it’s like, “OK, this is your brother. This is an important thing, you can’t mess around with this.”
JOSHUA: When we were developing the back story, like Benny’s character was from an aborted project that my co-writer and Benny were doing in 2010. And he didn’t have a brother, that character, his original name was Jordan, and then it turned into Nick. And when we were developing Connie, we’re like, “OK, let’s imagine, what if this guy Jordan had a brother? And his brother was the bad apple. And his brother was estranged from him because he didn’t treat him well growing up. And he had to go live with his uncle. And then he ended up getting arrested for stealing cars.”
BENNY: And at one point he was mean to Nick. They weren’t very close and then they became close again. And in a weird way …
JOSHUA: We can relate to that, on our end. It’s very easy for me to relate to that. Because you can see, often, in fraternal relationships, you can see the brother, because it’s your blood, it’s an extension of yourself. Now, when the extension of yourself is somebody who says … I mean, Connie has been discarded as well. But Nick is literally like a fourth-class citizen in society in America. The disabled are literally not even part of society. It’s messed up. But that’s something that he has had to wear his whole life, Connie. So that’s why he doesn’t ever want his brother to go into the system, because then it’s him saying “I’m accepting my place.” And the whole movie is about not accepting your place. But also using your place in society to your advantage at times.
BENNY: But we definitely did a lot of exercises with me and Rob where he would see what it is like, to have a brother in the world with a disability. We would go and I would be in character and he would kind of feel the weight of the exclusion of him from certain conversations. And it would be, “OK, what’s going on here?” And then eventually I would be sitting on the side while he was having conversation and he would try and include me but it wouldn’t work because nobody wanted to talk to Nick.
What … why do you play that character?
BENNY: It was based on a character that Ronnie and I developed in 2010. And then that backstory was brought to the film, but I wasn’t always going to play him. We looked at people with real disabilities, and they’re great people and really interesting. But just some of the action set pieces that we were doing, and the speed in which we would need to work, we realized it was going to get very uncomfortable and we didn’t want to take away their agency to decide what they wanted to do. Because we’d have to really be moving at a speed that was uncomfortable for us, so it would be hard to push them, and we didn’t want to make a movie where it was like, exploiting anybody in that sense, from that point-of-view. We realized that we can’t do that, and the actors were all, we had a lot of people who were auditioning for it who maybe the financiers would have liked, but they were performing. They were playing the character, they weren’t being the character. We asked them questions and we wanted them to respond, not from an actor’s standpoint, but from the character’s point-of-view. I could do that. And everybody I was watching somebody, I was like, “I could do this, they’re not getting it.”
So then it became, OK, I am going to play this role. I really did feel, I feel that he is a part of me, that character. Because whenever you’re acting you’re pulling from yourself, at least I feel. So in this case I really was pulling from, certain parts of my life where I kind of shut off society, or I had certain insecurities in social situations. Where if I was exaggerating them, maybe this would happen. I was just aware of that, and it just became, OK, now I’m like physically stronger and I had to get a little bit bigger for the role just to add this physicality to it, where this guy could actually hurt you. You don’t want to push him too far because he can be, he can take what he wants when he wants it, which is what he wants to do all of the time. So that element of it was really important. And then it was just like, yeah in the scenes where I am playing, I am the character, so I would differentiate what I would be able to feel and what Nick would be able to feel. And knowing that difference and not playing into it, and not playing down into the characters.
You talked about people who are in different places in society. With that, there are very intentional depictions of race in this story, like with Connie and Nick using the black face masks to rob a bank, or how you have an immigrant played by Barkhad Abdi who becomes a scapegoat. For you guys, what were you thinking about, and what were your goals when engaging race?
JOSHUA: So, like I said when you go into prison, the system pits the races against one another in there, and almost like the backstory of Connie is that almost sees the matrix of society. He can kind of see how it functions, in his pared-down state. And also from those prison journals, like literally our jail sequences are direct recreations of things that actually happened to Buddy Duress in real life, and seeing how the mentally disabled and ill are treated in jail, and also the role reversal, that the white man usually comes into jail with his entitlement, and it’s very quickly checked. It’s almost like Nick coming in [to the prison space] and being like, “That’s my TV.” Nick is in another world.
BENNY: He thinks he is at home watching TV.
JOSHUA: From the outside, it’s different. That’s why that white guy is just like, “Leave the TV alone.” And [Nick] is like, “I don’t know you, you’re not my friend.” Because race doesn’t exist to Nick, you know what I mean? Because that’s the reality, that I recently just saw a picture of a little KKK kid, whit kid, who is talking to a black officer in a friendly way, because I’m not saying that Nick, yeah he has developmental disabilities, but he’s stunted.
BENNY: It’s not even present in Nick’s head.
JOSHUA: Race doesn’t exist to Nick. But in those prison journals, there was a guy who was locked up with Buddy who robbed banks disguised as different ethnicities. And that was very interesting to me, it was like, “Oh, ingenious disguise. If you want to not get caught, just go as far from you as you can.” But then while I was writing [“Good Time”], there was this guy in Ohio who was robbing banks specifically with the masks that we used in the movie. The very specific masks. But also similarly there were tons of stories of black men using the same company’s white people masks. And these masks aren’t just generic masks, they’re molded by real people. So, this company in California was asked, “Stop making the masks, people are robbing banks in them.” But they’re so realistic. When I saw that I was like, “Oh, this guy, he definitely got what was coming to him when he got locked up. Because society has a way of being just in its own weird, fucked up way.” But Connie knows, OK, we want to get away with this, and they would have gotten away with this, if he took his hood off, then those two cops who drove by would have just seen it was two white guys, they’re not going to stop them. But because their hoods are up, it was like, “Oh, they could be two black men. Let’s go stop them.” But then they say, “Hey, turn with the hood,” and then Nick takes off. Nick doesn’t understand those things. Connie knows “Don’t worry about it, we’re two white guys, we’re not gonna get in trouble.”
And then later on, it was a very specific idea when we were writing the story, that OK, the security guard that catches them is not only of color, he’s an immigrant. Because immigrants do the jobs that nobody wants to do—who wants to work in the middle of the night in an amusement park?
BENNY: And then you look at his house in the end—
JOSHUA: And he’s the only one who has his life together. It’s a nice apartment! And even Ray walks in and he’s like, “This is a nice fucking place.” So Connie knows, in that moment, as writers, when you’re doing a genre movie, specifically a crime genre movie, plausibility is a big thing. And you want the audience constantly being like, “Yes, that could happen,” because we’re dealing with absurd scenarios so you have to constantly fortify them with reality. So when he sees that the cops are coming to the park, and he turns and looks at this guy on the ground, and he’s like, “let’s change into this outfit,” he knows what two white cops, or two cops in general, are going to think. Racial profiling is going to kick in. And just as the audience does, they just accept it. Because that’s the fucked up part of society. So when he flips that on its head, and all of the sudden they’re like, “Alright, this guy must be fucked up,” and then literally the scene after, and they catch this girl who’s at the park, granted anyone who is walking around the park in the middle of the night is going to be considered guilty, but the added fact that she’s of color, it’s like, “of course she’s guilty,” and the only people being detained are not white. All of the sudden it’s like, we want people to watch this movie and be like, “Well, this is fucked up.” What’s fucked up? Society is fucked up. And Connie, again seeing the matrix, knows how to play it. He knows how to play these things, and that’s why in that moment when Crystal is being arrested, Connie looks at her and he says, “No, that’s not who it was,” but he says, “I don’t know who that is,” and he has that exchange of where she’s looking at him, and she knows that this is fucked up, “I’m literally getting arrested for no reason, right now.” And he’s saying to her, “I’m sorry, I have to do this, because I have something else going on here. I’m in pursuit of my dream.”
BENNY: It’s important to recognize that yes, he sees the matrix, but you can say that he sees society’s prejudices and differentiators based on race or the disabilities, and he takes advantage of that. He takes advantage of the situation. Because he knows that I can use this, and it’s like, maybe you shouldn’t be using that kind of vision for that purpose. He does.
[Joshua shows me different mug shots of men next to pictures of masks]
So this is the same white mask from the company, and this guy robbed the bank like that. This is the guy from Ohio, that’s the actual mask that they used, that’s the exact mask that Rob wears and that’s the guy who did it. This guy robbed a bank like this, that guy robbed a bank with this mask. So we’re literally taking our movie and our plot points from reality. So it’s not like we’re even coming up with these ideas, we’re literally like stealing them from headlines.
BENNY: It’s a pure reflection of what is actually happening.
JOSHUA: Exactly. Especially if you look at what is happening now, it’s actually, I think that the media in purporting these stories and making these stories as such, they’re actually adding gasoline to the fire and they’re pitting races against each other even more so. I think that the racists of this country do need to be called out, you know what I mean? And I think that you could argue, that I don’t think Connie is a racist. I think that he just knows how society functions. He knows that society is racist.
BENNY: Somebody said to us, “Yeah, there’s a difference between a bad guy and a criminal.” That’s interesting, because that moment with Crystal, he knows he is doing something fucked up, but he’s doing it because he knows how to play the situation. He’s a con man, and he’s going to do whatever it takes, and that makes him a bad guy. But I don’t think necessarily in his head he looks at her and thinks, “I’m better than you because I’m white.” But he’s taking advantage of that fact in that moment.
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