Joshua and Ben Safdie’s Good Time is a crime odyssey that doubles as a funhouse-mirror portrait of New York City, restlessly contemporary in its foul-mouthed paranoia while simultaneously telling a story as old as sin. That tale sees small-time crook Connie (Robert Pattinson) lie, cheat, and steal to improve his developmentally disabled brother Nick’s (Ben Safdie) beleaguered lot in life. An initially successful bank robbery curdles in the back of their getaway car, and the brothers are subsequently separated.
Connie’s mission to spring his brother from Elmhurst Hospital takes us on a self-elongating night from hell in the anonymizing grid of suburban Queens—a sprawling tract of this most-photographed metropolis that’s rarely been center-staged for the big screen. The film is comparable to a Grimm fairy tale or a hard-boiled page-turner, as riveting as it is abrasive: Connie’s quest ends up involving multiple identity swaps (intentional or otherwise), an ad hoc safe house belonging to a suburban grandmother, and a soda bottle full of LSD.
Many have embraced the film as a whirligig tour of the booby-trapped options available to New York’s economically marginalized, especially those with frustrated machismo to spare. Connie and Nick’s estrangement from mainstream society lends subtle tragedy to the proceedings, while digitally augmented anxiety tears into each kinetic minute. Good Time shares a cynical awareness of our justice system’s lopsidedness with its antihero, even while ostensibly indulging the audience with the thrill of further depravity.
I met the Safdie brothers on the 23rd floor of a midtown skyscraper, in an empty conference room at the end of a long day of phoners and one-on-ones. Whatever their fatigue, the duo came across as almost frantically considered, discussing their ideas and approaches in an ardent repartee that was, like the rest of their work, quintessentially New York.
You guys have been here all day?
Ben Safdie: It’s a little insane. It’s just endless. They give us a little list of who we’re gonna be talking to—
Joshua Safdie: They edited it down today.
BS: There were a lot of phone interviews, which are weird. Sometimes I don’t know who I’m talking to. I don’t wanna say to somebody, “Oh, I really like that!”—especially if I do like the paper they write for—but then I get nervous, because, wait, do they write for that paper? I do like Slant, by the way.
Even if they want to be conscious of who they’re talking to, filmmakers are fielding so many interview requests. It’s gotta be hard to keep up, right?
BS: We haven’t gotten that big yet, but I’m interested in who we’re talking to. I mean, the goal is a conversation.
JS: We did an interview with this guy from the New York Post. He doesn’t cover film normally. He does investigative pieces. And he had a timer on. And then, the timer went off. He looked around and told us he had 10 minutes left.
BS: Normally it’s the other way around [laughs].
JS: He’s like: “I want to spend my remaining 10 minutes pitching you on a story I have the rights to.” It was one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard. I mean, I consider myself an investigative journalist too, and this guy was a card counter banned from many, many casinos. He told us this story about baccarat that was just insane. Like Benny’s saying: At the end of the day, this is promotion, and we do end up saying a lot of the same things over and over again, but we’re also meeting people, you know what I mean?
Was that the first time someone tried to level-up on the journalist-interview contract?
BS: First time it’s happened to us.
Tell me more about your style of filmmaking as investigative journalism.
JS: We would go to Adventureland all the time as kid. That’s why it was so important to shoot Good Time there. I’ve always been very nosey, because I’m attracted to it. Know what I mean? My friend Buddy Duress, who’s in the film, I asked him, “How would I do in prison?” I’ve been through bookings and stuff, I know how to handle myself, and Buddy was like, “You’ll be all right. People like you, you get along with people and it’s not phony. You kinda get yourself involved in other people’s intimate business—so, you might get your ass kicked once, but then after that you’ll catch up.”
When we were doing research on the character of Connie, I found myself sitting in on a lot of arraignments at 100 Centre Street. I went down there to see what goes down on Christmas Eve and it was devastating, man. A lot of shoplifting cases, people stealing presents, petty crime, you know? There was one really insane case of a girl having an AR-15 and other automated weapons, and it turned out she was a star scholarship student at the New School. It was a high-profile thing, so I meet this guy there, photographing for the Daily News. The next day he saw me there again, and he’s like, “What are you doing here?” And I’m like, “I’m just here to watch, to listen.” He asks me what I do, I tell him I’m writing a script. Now, I love photojournalism: the Magnum photographers, the Helen Levitts, Walker Evans, these people are true artists. He gives me his card, I check out his website, and there are nice photographs: artistic, abstract stuff, and then there’s a section called “Evidence.” He used to be an evidence photographer for the NYPD.
I remember this case about a con man who posed as different people, including a Village Voice critic! The photographer shot the contents of the con man’s bag, and it was insane—one little Jansport backpack with a MiniDV tape, a lot of different IDs, weird essays photocopied from the library, and this cheap, crummy-looking book, Disguise Techniques. This guy’s walking around with a handbook on how to con people? I thought that was fascinating. So I buy the book, and it’s, like, one of the great manuals, like an acting book. It ended up informing the wardrobe of Good Time, and I gave it to Rob to read. I’d known some con men in my life, and sometimes they were friends and sometimes they weren’t. But when I read this thing about how to truly get away with crime, to use municipality to its advantage, sometimes the best way to blend in is by standing out. That’s where the orange jackets in the movie came from. These investigations end up being really fruitful.
BS: We just gotta be open to whatever the world is throwing at us at a specific time. If you had closed yourself off, you wouldn’t have seen that guy, or ended up going down that path. That’s the journalistic side: being able to follow a lead, emotional or real or otherwise.
This is a work of pure fiction, different from Heaven Knows What. If I understand correctly, that film percolated much longer due to your relationships with the people on screen.
BS: Well, the relationship Josh had with Arielle [Holmes] was not first for a movie. It was just a friendship. When she started writing down her life, it became “Oh, we should make a movie about this.”
JS: Arielle’s great talent wasn’t acting. It was writing.
BS: And Good Time was still a long process, but it wasn’t based in the reality of a specific person. It was the reality of now. But locations weren’t tied to a specific event in the characters’ biographies.