An Element of Danger: Josh and Benny Safdie on Good Time

By Dan Sullivan

Cinema Scope: Good Time has a propulsive feeling of forward momentum, a kind of punchiness, which was also present in flashes in Heaven Knows What (2014). Your work has always been marked by a chaotic energy—but here it’s so consistent and sustained. Was that always the idea for the film, and how did you cultivate this feeling from the script through to the edit?

Josh Safdie: Take a look at a show like Cops. When they pull someone over or they stop someone on the street, those moments are totally propulsive. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You know something’s going to happen, you’re both suspicious and insanely engaged because it feels like it’ll take off at any moment. The subjects of Cops are not the cops themselves. That was a kernel of inspiration, but so were Gary Gilmore or Jack Abbott…a certain type of conman. But conceptually, when we started talking about the movie, even before we wrote the script, we wanted it to be an 80-minute movie. We wanted very badly for it to be under 100 minutes. We couldn’t quite get under…

Benny Safdie: We had other stuff that could’ve been in the movie that isn’t there. But when we were watching it after we shot it, we kept thinking about the audience: how is somebody going to take this film in, what feelings are they going to attach to it? More than in other films we’ve done. You have to subscribe to some aspects of the genre, and be true to them, because we’re actually making a film, it’s not an exercise. So pace has to become a character in the movie. We would sit down and say, “If it’s boring for us to watch, it has to be deleted out of the movie.” It was just a matter of focusing hard on to what’s elemental in the film.

Josh Safdie: To that point, in developing the character of Connie (Robert Pattinson), Ronnie Bronstein and I did an insanely—almost annoyingly—elaborate character biography that went from the first minute of his life to the first minute of the movie. In that meticulous, microcosmic writing of the character—which was almost more difficult than writing the movie—it put us in a hyperaware state of who Connie was. When you put someone in a scenario, the pace is born out of the relation between the scenario and the character. Here you have a scenario where it becomes difficult as a storyteller to say, “Then, an hour later, this happened.” Every moment counts. We’re obsessed with characters who live in the now, and the movie, as even its genre suggests, forces you to be in the now.

Benny Safdie: You can’t stray from Connie’s mission. If you veer away from it, the movie fails. You need to focus on that, you need to stay true to that. We would try to deviate, but the logic of the story would pull us back. It was almost like we couldn’t escape his magnetism.

Josh Safdie: Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of the Clinton Correction Facility in upstate New York while we were writing the movie, and I was totally obsessed with it. I couldn’t wait until I got my hands on the official New York State deposition, because it broke down, minute by minute, what these guys were doing while on the run for ten days. It’s incredible. I think they’re making a TV movie about it now.

Scope: The film doesn’t have a cut-and-dry relationship with this notion of the “genre film,” which I assume is quite deliberate on your part. How would you characterize the film’s status as a genre film?

Benny Safdie: It’s a genre movie with real emotions. Because Ronnie and Josh were so specific with the characterization, the characters themselves dictated the genre.

Josh Safdie: One major pillar of the “art film” as a genre is the character study (a lot of people set out to make “art films,” which is so terrible and disgusting, the same idea as someone setting out to make an “indie film”). This is a character study, but it happens to be filled with tons of action. It follows a character who is in motion, and it becomes vertical in that regard. The score is also a character in the movie…it’s not quite manic, but rather a fever within the movie. These parts are all working in tandem with one another. I would refer to it as a genre film to people to frame what their expectations should be, but only because I didn’t want to say anything else. There’s a bank robbery in it; the fact that in 2017, people still rob banks like it’s some kind of lucrative enterprise— you can’t make that much money doing that! But they happen all the time. The idea that you’re going to go and rob a bank is a very romantic one, and it’s motivated more by movies than reality.

Benny Safdie: Connie’s ideas are taken from genre movies. Like, “I’m going to rob a bank and then go and buy land…” It’s such a cliché!

Josh Safdie: But it’s romantic!

Benny Safdie: And that’s his deep-seated feeling. It’s a genre movie because the main character is trying to live a genre movie.

Josh Safdie: We wanted to make a piece of pulp, because pulp is dangerous. We wanted it to have an element of danger to it. Good pulp, like Richard Stark…

Benny Safdie: Stuff happens in it!

Josh Safdie: Stuff happens, and in Good Time morality kind of goes out the window after the robbery, but then comes flooding back in at the end. But ultimately it is a genre movie; it’s a one-night film.

Benny Safdie: You can explain exactly what happens in the film in one sentence. I love that.

Scope: Maybe as a function of the setting, your working methods and the particular kind of realism you guys have developed throughout all of your fiction films, Good Time is necessarily speckled with these however incidental sociological elements. Place and time are important for you. There’s class, of course: most of the characters have neither money nor overt political agency…

Josh Safdie: Except for Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character.

Scope: Right. But most of them are driven to desperate actions on account of their class status, they’re bound by certain codes of masculinity or of how to lead one’s life that are rooted in their economic standing. Race functions complicatedly in the film, too. Most of the characters to whom something truly awful and not self-inflicted happens are black, Connie and Nick wear African-American disguises when they commit the robbery, etc. It begs the question as to whether you guys sought to explore class and race relations.

Josh Safdie: The short answer is yes. Our friend Buddy Durress was in prison and kept a diary that I devoured, and in it what interested me so much, what was so loud to me, was the kind of role reversal that happens in prison. Everyone knows that in most prisons the majority of inmates are people of colour, and white people constitute the minority. In a way it’s an inverse of the racist, fear-based society outside. He described this entitlement and privilege a white person brings to prison, and the majority inside pushes them down. I think that’s fascinating. It’s kind of fair! Another story that the film was pulling from was about a guy in Ohio who robbed banks disguised as a black man, and he got away with it for a very long time.

Benny Safdie: He played off the idea that society has this inherent, systemic racism.

Josh Safdie: He did, but before that, it’s a very pragmatic idea. He’s a white man, he wants to get away with the crime, he needs to disguise himself to be as unlike himself as possible, so he found these very realistic masks designed by this company SPFX. We got the exact same masks that he used for the movie! We used the same warden in Riker’s Island to administer the exact same mace that we read about…

Benny Safdie: It’s about to be taken out of use, actually.

Josh Safdie: When you go and do tours of jails—I got very close with the commissioner, so he gave us these uncensored tours—and you walk into a bullpen, and you say, “How many people can fit in here?” They say, “Oh, about 15, but we actually fit in about 40.” That’s the mentality. Of course there are correctional officers who are not white, but we consciously decided to cast white correctional officers. Anyway, my point is that when we’re walking through the characters and the actions, Connie wants to get away with it so he disguises himself and his brother as black men. That works, and it would have worked if the dye pack hadn’t gone off and if he had communicated with the cops the right way. The cops are two white men, Connie and Nick are two white men—the privilege would have caused things break their way. But then as you move through the movie, you get to the scene with the security guard (Barkhad Abdi). When we were writing it, it was important to us that we made the security guard not only of colour, but an immigrant. Immigrants do the jobs that no one wants to do. This is a shitty security job in an amusement park in the middle of the night in Long Island. It’s completely coincidental and fortuitous that Somalia, where Barkhad Abdi’s from, ended up being one of the countries on Trump’s travel ban list. If that were in effect, he wouldn’t be allowed to enter this country! What happened is, and I think it’s one of the cooler parts of the movie, you have these two cops come in, and you have an African man lying on the ground unconscious, and you have this scummy white dude—and let’s not get twisted, I like Connie and think he has a lot of admirable traits, but he’s a scumbag and he does scumbaggy shit—who knows that most police racially profile. There’s going to be a level of racism that’s going to play to Connie’s advantage, and he knows that! He knows what it looks like. If there were a big burly white man lying on the ground, the chances that the cops would want to question the scenario a bit more would be so much higher—and in the film, they don’t ask one question! They just accept it. That’s where I think the movie becomes completely in line and vertically embedded with what’s happening in this country racially and why a movie like Good Time becomes plausible in the first place. Crystal (Taliah Webster) has a line when Connie knocks at her door… Her grandma says, “Who is it?” And she says, “I don’t know, some white guy.” White people coming to this woman’s home like it’s their right. The grandmother is one of the sweetest people in the whole movie. In terms of class, the Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character’s inclusion is very important because it shows that mental illness knows no economic boundaries. Just because you have enough money isn’t a guarantee that you won’t have mental illness in your family. She’s just as much in prison as Nick is. The prison ethos is dictating what’s happening in the movie more so than anything else. With prison culture—both penal society and people moving out to the suburbs and locking their doors out of fear of some imaginary Charles Manson type or due to anti-crime propaganda—everyone is so isolated, they’re in their own prisons. Connie is just barging around, across the boundaries, into a rich white person’s home, into a Haitian family’s home, into an African immigrant’s apartment, etc.

Scope: He has a key to every cell in the prison because he’s so brazen and cynical.

Josh Safdie: Exactly.

Benny Safdie: What I think is most interesting about the film is that it does answer the questions it poses in a way that a film normally wouldn’t do. People are realizing this while watching it. Like, “Oh, it’s bad that he did that!” And it is. The film is saying that it’s bad. I like that the movie is doing that, because if it didn’t I don’t think it would make sense.

Josh Safdie: I do believe that Good Time has a perspective on race—like, race on acid. You’re seeing race with this weird hyperclarity. When the cops come in to the amusement park, you want to be like, “Why aren’t they questioning him?” The fact that they don’t plays with the systemic racism of society. But I think the moment that actually, weirdly, has the loudest racial commentary in the movie, and no one is talking about it, is when Ray (Durress) is hanging out with his clique after he gets out of jail, with Necro’s character and Trevor, the acid dealer. He’s choosing to blot, of all things, a Pepe the Frog comic, with acid. The fact that a young black man is dropping, smearing acid onto Pepe the Frog’s face—to me, that contains everything this film has to say about race. And then going around and administering it, like, “Have some Pepe the Frog and turn your mind on.”

Scope: Benny, how did the Nick character grow out of another, aborted project with Ronnie?

Benny Safdie: Well, we did a bunch of work to try to create this guy, and I realized I could do this voice…It became this person, but that movie never ended up happening. He was just there, inside me, nascent in my brain. I went through changes in life, he went through changes in life…Whatever happened with me, I would tack onto this guy. When we started to work on Good Time, it was like, “OK, now I really have to think about what happened with him.” We went into the backstory of the characters, what happened to Nick. He had aged eight years from the film we didn’t make—and there’s a bunch of footage and rehearsals from that that were really intense. But over those eight years, he became stronger and bigger, and he became more aggressive because he got whatever he wanted. He was able to take whatever he wanted from his grandmother, he was able to not go and do the things that he didn’t want to do, so he hardened and became a much more fearsome guy. I was thinking, with his physical abilities and the developmental disability he has, plus the fact that he wants to do the things he wants to do and now he can actually take them for himself, mix those together—that became Nick. Nick became a new person. We did a screen test with the social worker (Peter Verby), and we were auditioning the lawyer character…

Josh Safdie: Who is a real public defender.

Benny Safdie: It went on for about two-and-a-half hours. But when I saw what I actually looked like as the character, I was like, “I’m jacked! I’m huge!” This needs to be a part of him, the fact that at any moment he could go crazy and attack the social worker, but the social worker is talking to him and trying to get inside, trying to help him. Nick doesn’t want that, he just wants to be detached and left alone. But I can say certain things that Nick can’t, I can understand certain emotions that he can’t. Sometimes when an actor plays someone who’s developmentally disabled, they play down to the character and you get a condescension there—and that’s the worst thing that you can do. Who am I to condescend to somebody like that, just because I’m capable of something? I just played the character as he would be. So I’m ignoring all of the emotions that I can access, I’m ignoring the vocabulary that I have, I’m just using what Nick has in his hands.

Scope: All of your films have explored disparate forms of love—paternal love in Daddy Longlegs (2009), catastrophically romantic love in Heaven Knows What, and now fraternal love in Good Time. What, if any, forms of love are left?

Josh Safdie: Well, there’s a very specific one that I want to do! In Uncut Gems, there’s herpetology—the love of reptiles. But anyway…

Benny Safdie: It’s not a matter of different types of love, it’s passion—what people are passionate about. If someone is passionate about something, then you’re going to get closer to their humanity, to real feelings. Trying is a really human thing, even if you don’t succeed. I love that. Our dad tried to raise us, you know?

Scope: But in addition to love-as-passion, there’s also love as the responsibility to care for someone else. Has that idea had a trajectory across your work, or do you think of the various forms of love as being distinct and separate?

Josh Safdie: It’s so weird, the French—Claire Denis said this on the Cannes red carpet when she was asked by reporters who Rob Pattinson would play in her next movie, and she said, “the hero.” In these questions Le Monde just sent over, they refer to Connie as “the hero.” That’s just what they do! I find that to be so subconsciously deep, and love plays into it. Connie is a scumbag, but I love him.

Benny Safdie: You can’t root for him at certain times.

Josh Safdie: Because we’re fucking with the concept of fraternal love, and everyone can relate to having a love of family on some level.

Benny Safdie: He wants to save his brother, so he’s going to do some fucked up shit to get his brother out of jail! In this case, his brother can’t do it himself. There’s another level, like, he can’t do it himself. He needs someone else to take care of him.

Josh Safdie: I don’t understand this certain type of acerbic ’90s non-mainstream movie which was very cynical…Everyone was very cynical, everyone was filled with hatred. I’ve never been able to relate to that. I could never make a movie like that. I wouldn’t say that our films are insanely hopeful, but I do see them that way, weirdly. The moments of glory are there.

Benny Safdie: In Daddy Longlegs, the father can’t do anything right, but he’s trying! Connie is a bad guy, but he messes up and tries to fix the mistake.

Josh Safdie: I remember when Frownland (2007) came out—I loved that movie. When I saw it, I was confused because it was painted out by people as something I didn’t think it was. I saw it as a very loving movie, I related to Keith (Dore Mann). This idea that you’re connected to somebody…Maybe I just don’t have that cynicism in me, I’m not a hateful person.

Benny Safdie: You can hate someone and as soon as they admit that they fucked up, there’s nowhere else you can go.

Josh Safdie: That’s why Lenny Cooke (2013) was so difficult for me, because it was this guy born with so much talent as a basketball player…but he didn’t love the game, and that’s why he didn’t make it. I love the fucking game of basketball! The number one thing I want to do in life is dunk. If someone told me I could give up everything just to be able to dunk, I’d do it. I’d give up everything that I had to dunk in a professional basketball game.

Benny Safdie: Just to rise and fly, reach up and dunk over somebody—it’s insane!

Josh Safdie: So when I meet this guy who had the NBA not just within reach but as an expectation, and people were already talking about his professional statistics, and he just didn’t make it, purely because he didn’t love the game, I was very conflicted.

Benny Safdie: That’s America! The worst thing you can do is waste an opportunity. Who cares if you love it or not—if you have the ability to do something, you better go out and do it. You’re born with that, that’s your ability. If you waste talent, that’s the ultimate American no-no. You’re basically taking a shit on the American dream. It’s absurd! That’s what’s so frustrating about Lenny Cooke. But then, that’s getting at something very human: he made this decision that he didn’t like doing it, so he wasn’t going to put any work into it. It’s touching as close as you can get to that vibration.

Josh Safdie: Someone told us we make great “apocalypse films.” But then you see something like 2012 (2009) and it sucks. Any movie actually about the apocalypse kind of sucks. When the apocalypse is coming, it’s like a free pass to be a romantic—what else are you going to do? Your life is about to be over!

Benny Safdie: But in those movies, romance is always in quotation marks. It’s not hitting at something deep within the characters. It’s just what’s expected in that moment, you know? In Good Time, you actually feel the connection between Connie and his brother, and even though he’s not doing the right thing by taking him out of the one situation and putting him into a worse one, he thinks it’s a good idea, and he really believes he’s trying to do something good. That’s where it gets confusing and that’s where the character’s psyche comes from.

Scope: To conclude: Do you know what the Japanese title is going to be? (The Japanese title of Heaven Knows What translated roughly to Fuck You, God.)

Benny Safdie: What’s the Turkish title again? Heist? I like the fact that certain people, certain countries say, “We can’t sell that movie, we need to change the title.”

Scope: It’s almost a form of film criticism.

Benny Safdie: Yes!

Josh Safdie: I don’t mind though! Someone told me about a filmmaker who would never allow distributors to change the titles of his movies, but I don’t think I call any of my friends by their actual names.

Benny Safdie: The Turkish title is Heist. They say they’ll be able to arrange more theatres for the release if it’s called that.

Josh Safdie: When I met with the Japanese in Cannes, they said they think Good Time could work. Sullivan Dan