A Good Time — My Interview with Benny Safdie

I was blown away by the movie Good Time. You can still catch it in theatres, and I suggest you do. It’s the best movie of the year. I was surprised that I knew nothing about the brothers that made it — Josh and Benny Safdie. I had to track down Benny and talk to him about this film that I’ve now seen three times.

JOSH BOARD: How hard is it to co-direct a movie, and is it even harder if that person is your brother?

BENNY SAFDIE: I wouldn’t say it is hard. It is definitely a unique experience. I think because we are brothers and the only constant in our crazy childhood was one another, we have developed a closeness that can’t be broken. It is tested, but never broken. So when we are fighting for a specific side it is always because of the ideas and at the end of the day you can only stay so angry because Josh is my brother. When we are on set and I’m acting, I have the opportunity to dive deeper because I know I can almost “trust fall” into Josh and he’ll have the crew in place; but when I’m not, I am running boom and working with sound, while Josh is usually working with the camera. The boom operator is usually overlooked in the sense that it is one of the closest people to the action of a scene. I use that as an opportunity to get a different perspective and feel, and Josh and I can put our heads together and I can say, “How did it look?” And he’ll ask me, “How did it feel?” With actors it is a similar vibe based system. We see whoever has the conversation going with a specific person and run with that. Either I will give my notes to Josh or vice versa, depending on the situation. In the end I like to think we create a vortex on the set where we are speaking as one voice. But yes, there are arguments and they are important. When you look at Venn Diagram, it’s the parts that don’t interlace that make things deeper.

JOSH BOARD: What was a movie you remember watching that had a big influence on you, that perhaps had you considering going into filmmaking:

BENNY SAFDIE: I would say unknowingly, it was probably “The General” by Buster Keaton. It was just so funny and so propulsive. I couldn’t believe it. But it was really a film called “Il Posto” by Ermanno Olmi that I saw after Josh invited me to a film class he was taking. It really floored me. It was part of the Italian neo-realist movement and the idea that you could make such a simple film fueled by the emotions of the main actors and using the world around you was really mind blowing.

JOSH BOARD: I read something about this movie using “street casting.” What exactly is that? Does it mean actors that aren’t professional actors, and if so…I think it worked wonderfully. The psychiatrist (Peter Verby) had such an interesting face, and I loved his look/voice for that role.

BENNY SAFDIE: “Street casting” means exactly that. Finding a star off the street. Josh likes to call them “sudden stars” and we don’t like the term non-actors because these people are natural actors who just haven’t been given the opportunity before, so “first time” actor makes more sense. The street casting led by Eleonore Hendricks was really special. Just from finding people for the jail scenes or the mall scenes. Everything had to fit the fabric. She has a unique ability to attract people to her and say yes to being in a movie. Her and Jen really worked great together to help us with this world. Overall though, the mixing of the worlds from known and unknowns creates an interesting soup of emotions and it forces everyone to raise their game and level to one another. With Peter, he is a criminal defense lawyer in real life and a true cinephile. I was actually going to act with Peter in that project of Ronnie’s a while ago and I think that added to our on screen chemistry with one another. He really deeply cares because he knows about the world we’re talking about. He knows that it’s very easy for someone like Nick to end up in jail because almost 40 to 50% of the people in Rikers Island have some sort of mental disability. He can’t help but bring his real life and experience into the role. He also has an incredible look and voice too! Everyone who sees him immediately thinks, ‘How come I don’t know him?’ He has that star quality. He and I were leaving the theatre at 42nd Street after watching the boxing match the other day and someone from the theater saw him and me together and it flipped their wig. They couldn’t believe it, like that he had seen a ghost, especially given the roles we play in the film.

JOSH BOARD: I thought your performance as Nick was the most heartbreaking, and incredible, performance I’ve seen all year. I loved it. I’ve never seen a movie with somebody playing a mentally challenged person, where I worried so much about them. Even Slingblade, I never really felt that Carl was in any danger, the way I did with this movie. Is it hard to write and play a character like that? For example, you’ve probably seen a movie with somebody mentally challenged, that was just awful (for me it’s the Sean Penn movie). And it can turn out horribly if done wrong, or overacted. Your performance was so understated and friggin’ brilliant.

BENNY SAFDIE: Thanks, this really means a lot. The character of Nick has had a long journey. Back in 2010, Ronald Bronstein and I set out to create a character for a film he was making. He pushed me to look inside myself and understand and acknowledge my own emotional insecurities, deficiencies in addition to whatever social anxiety I have and then exaggerate them. I had also developed this way of speaking with holding my tongue back that made communication even more difficult. We shot a bunch of rehearsals and stuff but the project never happened, so this character with a rich back story just lay dormant. I would revive him every once in awhile, just because he truly is inside of me since he is coming from periods of my life where I had similar struggles. That said, when Ronald brought the idea of bringing this character to the film with Josh, I was not always going to play the part. We looked at casting someone with developmental disabilities and met some great people. It was also good research for me as well. But when looking at our schedule, particularly the action sequences, it felt like we would have to push them to places that would make them feel uncomfortable and that felt wrong to us. Then we looked at actors, but the problem was just as you said…people were playing the part, they weren’t thinking/being the character. I said, ‘I can do this!’ And we put myself on tape getting interviewed by the casting director [Jennifer Vendetti] as the old character, and sent it to the financiers. They had no idea it was me and said, “Let’s cast this guy, he’s great!” Long story short, I noticed I had gained muscle for another role I was going to play and noticed that added to the character. Not only did he want to do what he wanted when he wanted, but now physically he could force that on the world. So then became the process of updating his life from 2010. He hadn’t been in the system or treated, so it just meant all of his tendencies and problems had calcified. And I also put on some more weight after seeing some camera tests, to add to the physicality. I really just wanted to be this guy and I feel a connection to him, so the last thing I wanted to do is condescend to him. Just because I know something or am aware, doesn’t mean he is. It’s a process of deleting the awareness of that separation. I as Benny, might be aware of an emotion or certain word but Nick isn’t, and if I perform the roll knowing that I have that knowledge, I will be inherently condescending to Nick, so I had to develop a filter for my vocabulary and thoughts so I just would be him. The takes where I slip in with that separation, we always cut and redid it.

JOSH BOARD: The teenage girl was terrific. How hard was it finding her?

BENNY SAFDIE: Taliah Webster, who plays Crystal, showed up to an open casting call set up by our casting team after they scoured local schools, clubs, hang-outs, neighborhood spots, you name it. They were trying to find someone real who could bring something more to the roll. Well, 600 people showed up and Taliah really just had such an incredible story that was very similar to the script, but she had such a toughness and humor to her that it would make everything deeper. We kept bringing her back for call-backs and did a ton of improv scenarios with her and she thrived in all of them. It wasn’t till she met Rob (Pattinson) that we knew it was official. She acted like she could care less and their rapport with one another was so natural that we had to go with her. After she left that meeting I was told she was a huge Twilight fan and she had hid it from all of us! Now we really knew she could act.

JOSH BOARD: On the subject of big name actors like Robert Pattinson, you must’ve been thrilled to get Jennifer Jason Leigh?

BENNY SAFDIE: It was a dream come true. She has the ability to breath life into every word and truly just inhabit these characters. Josh wrote her a full character biography to get her to get on board with the project. It was so detailed, down to the medication she takes and how she met Connie. At that point, the page count was meaningless, because her presence would be so large. I love how you can hear her on the phone in the scene at Annie’s house and you’re immediately transported back to that world. You visualize it all just from the tone of her voice.

JOSH BOARD: How did Rob get involved?

BENNY SAFDIE: The project would not exist without Rob! He emailed Josh out of the blue after seeing a still from our film Heaven Knows What on Indiewire. The guts it took to dive in after only seeing a still! Not a trailer even. Long story short, he reached out to set up a meeting and after meeting Rob, we saw a mania in him that we didn’t always see reflected in the world. It was hidden almost. He also moved secretly through the world trying not to be seen, which was perfect for this type of character. He also expressed such a specific dedication that we could tell wasn’t bullshit. He wanted to disappear into a world and we were hell bent on taking him up on that promise. We left knowing we were gonna work together but not when. At the same time, the project we were about to embark (Uncut Gems) got pushed, so instead of sitting around and waiting, we embarked on a new venture. Josh had all these interests in his head and he and Ronald Bronstein got together and wrote the script for Rob specifically.

JOSH BOARD: There’s a scene where Rob is in the back of a police car that made me think of the criminal in Fargo, after the woodchipper scene. I didn’t notice any scenes in the movie that made me think of other films I had seen before, which is rare, but…can you tell me if there was a scene or two that was partly inspired by another movie?

BENNY SAFDIE: I can’t think of one scene that was directly inspired while we were making the film, but looking back after it’s made, you see where your mind pulled from. Someone said the movie felt like Dog Day Afternoon meets Rain Man. I thought that was one of the best compliments. I will say, in some way, Running Man influenced the film. It is in more ways than I probably know. Also, Josh and OPN threw in a reference to the After Hours score when doing the park scene score. It is when Ray falls off the fence and they run down the tracks.

JOSH BOARD: Since this is currently my favorite movie of the year, I clicked on Rotten Tomatoes, hoping to see it getting 100%. It was around 88% good reviews. I clicked some of them to read what they had to say. How frustrating is it to read or hear a bad review?

BENNY SAFDIE: I do read the reviews. I am interested in what critics, in the broad sense, not just the negative, have to say. The negative ones I read too, and I legitimately ask myself the questions they post, but I am just reading to see if anything strikes a nerve in my own brain. I want to see if certain things translate. I just like to take in information, but yes, sometimes I’m frustrated, like…oh, they didn’t get this, or they didn’t get that. But other times, I’m like…oh, we could have made that clearer. I will say, something great with this film is I’ve found audiences really love it, and leaving screenings there is palpable energy in the room that you can feel, which is really special. We made this film to be consumed and it’s great to see the reaction and film translate.

JOSH BOARD: When I saw the movie a second time, I couldn’t believe how emotional I got in the final scene. Is there anything you can tell me about it?

BENNY SAFDIE: That final scene was really hard for me. We chose to not tell the group, the Epic Players, that I was an actor, for the fear that it would be too distracting. If I dipped in and out of character, it would just confuse things, so I stayed in character the whole day for 17 hours. I wouldn’t let myself connect with anyone, even if they tried. I remember one take I started hysterically crying, but again, that was Benny. I was upset at not being able to feel or say certain things whereas Nick isn’t necessarily aware of that, so he wouldn’t be sad. He would just be participating when he wanted. I just remember feeling his fear and anxiety and just being close to the character.

JOSH BOARD: Thanks so much for your time, but more importantly, thank you for making a terrific film. As a critic that has to often hear people say, “You don’t like anything,” it’s refreshing to see a movie I not only liked, but loved. And I gave a bad review to Baby Driver!

BENNY SAFDIE: Thanks. This means a lot.