A Special Kind of Hell
Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie liken their latest film, Heaven Knows What, to a hurricane. The film engulfs audiences in its grating emotional veracity. Its star, Arielle Holmes, playing herself, brings considerable truth to her role as Harley. Although the film is considered fiction, its essence is based on her upcoming nonfiction memoir, Mad Love in New York City, which owes its existence to the Safdie brothers as well, who urged her to keep a diary.
In describing the film, Benny also explains addiction; “Do you want to be able to experience what the eye [of the hurricane] feels like? Because if you do, you need to experience the hurricane.”
The film’s plot mirrors the reality Arielle was living only weeks prior to beginning production. On screen, her unplanned life is motivated only by two stimuli: her need for heroin and her pining for a devious and erratic lover, Ilya (played by Caleb Landry Jones), who is also homeless. Arielle’s authentic accounts of transient instances in the city—day to day, drifting in and out of highs—intertwine with input and direction from the Safdies to help piece together the vérité.
You discovered Arielle while doing research for another film in the Diamond District. What was it that made you approach her?
Josh: I don’t know. Why is one person attracted to another? She was a star and I wanted to know her. It wasn’t until months later that I realized that we had to focus on her and make a movie about her.
What would you each say was the most difficult part of making the film?
Benny: The entire movie. [It] was so difficult to make; it was just a culmination of the process.
Josh: I don’t know if I can pinpoint one specific thing that made it very difficult. I’d say that the subject matter was very dark at times, and tapping into that frequency was difficult.
Benny: And living in that frequency.
How would you describe the film’s blend of fiction and nonfiction?
Benny: It’s all about emotion. The emotional truthiness is a hundred percent, but there’s a lot of fiction in there to make it make sense.
Josh: In order to tell the truth, you’ve got to lie a little bit—the ultimate truth. Figuring out when we had to mix and mash characters and events and move timelines around in order to get at a greater point: that was the tricky part—that was what made structuring it so difficult. But I’d say that I think that the play that’s happening on camera, on screen, for an audience, is interesting because it forces an audience to ask when life ends and a movie begins. And actually, a thousand years from now, when all that’s left is movies, an intelligent life form is going to come across them, and they’re not going to be like, "Well, that’s real and that’s fake, and that person’s an actor and that person’s not an actor..." It’s just going to be, "This is what life was like," and that’s it.
What would you say is the most meaningful scene in the movie to each of you and why?
Benny: I just love the moment in New York City and [Arielle] and the Mike character [Harley’s friend and heroin dealer] are walking down the street, and everything kind of swirls together and it culminates in that sweeping shot with music underneath it. There’s just something about that, that—it reaches that level.
Josh: For me, I wouldn’t say it’s one specific scene, it’s a sequence of scenes. It’s when the Harley character is sitting there spanging and she just clearly got high off of the motorcycle guy’s supply, and she’s nodding out, and then Ilya shows up and takes her bag. Because that, in her book, was such a moment. That sequence, to me, is very important because you can just see how these characters change from one scene to the next, emotionally.
What is the reasoning behind the title?
Josh: You know, [it is] actually the title of the first wildly popular astrological reading book, where you would buy the book to find out what’s in store–in your star.
Benny: Heaven knows what’s in store—that’s the idea.
Josh: And we would always say, "Heaven knows what love Ari has for Ilya. Heaven knows what is going to happen tomorrow." The idea of chalking everything up to fortune. This is a movie about a bunch of characters with no past and no future. So, heaven knows what’s going to happen at any moment.
Benny: It’s a statement and it’s a question. You know, it’s like, "Heaven knows what’s going to happen to me." What’s so strange is that you could either take comfort in that or take fear.
Can you talk about the choice of music?
Josh: We wanted to hint at a romance, but we wanted to do it from this kind of times-square/night-time vibe, which is, to me, electrified. We wanted it to be this kind of romance that you don’t really recognize; most of that music is Debussy—which is some of the most romantic music ever written—but it’s synthesized by Isao Tomita, which makes it almost unrecognizable. We have "Clair de Lune," which is one of the most popular classically-composed songs ever, but it’s done through Isao Tomita’s crazy synthesizers, so it’s like an alien interpretation of romance.
For someone who hasn’t seen the film, can you describe how it specifically sheds light on homelessness and addiction?
Josh: Do you want to know what it actually feels like to be living in the moment like that? How the now can be one of the most beautiful things and the most horrific things at the exact same time? Love on the streets is a really romantic thing. But that romance is really dangerous.
Heaven Knows What opens in select theaters today.
Written by Alberto Gonzalez