Interview: Josh and Benny Safdie on the Making of Good Time

The filmmaker brothers discussed their ideas in an ardent repartee that was quintessentially New York.

Interview: Joshua and Ben Safdie on the Making of Good Time
Photo: A24

Josh and Benny 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 (Benny 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?

Benny Safdie: It’s a little insane. It’s just endless. They give us a little list of who we’re gonna be talking to—

Josh 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.

For me, the film’s music is loud and insistent, but I guess that’s also the world you create. Whenever Connie is trying to do anything else, the phone goes off, somebody else barges into the story. In designing that, do you start from a grandiose idea about, say, the criminal system in New York?

BS: It’s micro. We build from the micro and then it becomes the macro.

JS: I find the movie to be a hoot. I don’t consider it to be gritty, but I do understand everything that can go wrong does go wrong. But that’s Candide, that’s schadenfreude. I mean, people get off on that.

BS: It’s like old cartoons.

JS: Old cartoons. Like Wile E. Coyote.

BS: Because everything he does goes wrong.

JS: It’s not like we’re laughing, but it is absurd. Without spoiling the movie, there’s a scenario that’s downright Lynchian. Maybe Connie’s purpose is to take care of someone who’s handicapped. I mean, he can’t get away from that.

BS: Wile E. Coyote is actually more important than I realized, because the cartoons always follow the guy who’s trying to kill the roadrunner—in other words, the villain. You almost want him to catch him, but he never does, and he fails in the most extreme way—but you’re still following a villain. That’s interesting. They do that less and less now. If the stuff in those cartoons is inappropriate for kids today, I feel like watching these things as a child does inform your storytelling in later life.

I always remember how many old Looney Tunes and Fleischer brothers cartoons end with the main characters blowing their brains out.

JS: I re-edited a bunch of tapes of the cartoons we watched growing up, in fact, and what’s wild about those is the termite art. At the end of the day, you had these young and middle-aged animators, nearly all men, who probably weren’t paid that well, who were just in the system. They had complete freedom. Someone’s angry, so their face goes on fire—very expressive ways to convey very simple emotions, but it’s always, like, very adult, very mature, and strange themes keep popping up. It’s a weird feeling.

Back to the macro and the micro. There’s a poetic parallel to be made, I guess. My favorite part of the film is toward the end, when Connie is in this security guard’s apartment. After 10 or 20 contained minutes in the same room and the same hallway, the cops are showing up—and Buddy Duress runs outside onto the balcony. Suddenly, the world is huge, it’s open, it’s terrifying. You switched from claustrophobia to agoraphobia.

JS: That’s an important moment because the two characters’ perspectives are so far from one another. We always knew we wanted to see that go down from somebody else’s point of view.

The film seems constructed as an experience first and a text second; to even put it in words is a little beside the point. But the question that tripped me up when I saw it was: What is to be taken away from Good Time, politically?

JS: In short, yes, for sure. But am I gonna sit here and dictate what it is? No. So much of the writing came from stories of real life. Reflecting and writing. The summers of 2015 and 2016 were such horrific landscapes of America. I think in 30 years, hopefully, we’re gonna turn and look back like we do now at the summers of 1968 or 1977. I really think our job is just to reflect society onto an audience. The interesting part about Good Time is that you are, indeed, engaged or entertained, hopefully. The hope is that people will walk home from the theater and say, “Hmm, why did the cops just buy Connie’s scenario when they walked into the amusement park? Why did the cops just assume the black guy on the ground was guilty because Connie said he is? Why did they take the guy in the blond hair at face value? Why are the only two people being arrested in the following scene the innocent ones?”

This white Polish guy in Ohio was robbing banks disguised as a black man. I was amazed, and I thought that the ingenuity of this was genius but that he’s clearly playing into systemic racism to do it. Then I looked into it and found more instances of black guys using the same costume company’s white guy mask to rob banks—so it’s almost post-racial, you know what I mean? It’s looking at race for the superficial thing that it is. And that’s fascinating.

BS: On top of everything, if you set out to make a “political movie,” you’re not gonna say anything. You’re always gonna be stepping around things.

JS: I agree. And I hate those.

BS: But if you attach yourself to a character with flawed logic and questionable morals, you end up confronting those ideas head-on—and hopefully, from that, you can reflect.

JS: In fairness to your question: Ronnie and I did talk about the prison ethos in America. We gave ourselves a big obstacle by never having any guns in the movie. We wanted this idea of breaking free from the molds society puts you into and the penal system obviously perpetuates.

And the mental health industry.

BS: The whole movie is like a ruse. You’re siphoning through it and then you’re left, at the end, like, wait a second: There’s a whole world here that’s completely not thought of. Is this bad for Nick or is it good for him? He doesn’t wanna take part in it, but he does take part. Is that good? You know, like, you kinda wonder—people watch it, like, “Wow, Nick is engaging with the world in a way he wouldn’t have done before.” But the whole time you’re watching the film, we want you to forget that this is a guy who’s been thrown around, a lot. He ends up living life regardless of anybody else…

…but compromised.

BS: Yeah, exactly.

Steve Macfarlane

Steve Macfarlane is a film curator and writer from Seattle, Washington. His writing has appeared in BOMB, Cinema Scope, Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications.

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