Things got heated last night on Gawker’s roof, during a post-screening Q&A with the directors of the new movie Heaven Knows What, Josh and Benny Safdie, the film’s director of photography, Sean Price Williams, and one of its stars, Buddy Duress. It happened when Gawker employee Victor Jeffreys pointed out that he had seen one of the movie’s performers panhandling (or “spanging” as many who do it call it) on the street yesterday. There we were on the roof of a beautiful building in a beautiful part of New York and the first-time actor in question, Manny Aguila, was nowhere to be found.
“And I’m not saying that you are making tons of money off the film, and I’m not asking you how you sleep at night, but how does it all work?” Jeffreys concluded.
Josh Safdie, the more talkative of the two directors (the other, Benny, is his brother), started his response by explaining that actors were the only people who’d gotten paid in this movie that’s a blend of fiction and documentary focused on the heroin-using homeless population on New York’s Upper West Side. Almost the entire cast of the movie is from that world, playing versions of themselves, which contributes to the film’s vérité intimacy.
“The amount of money I would suggest that they were being paid, even in cash, is inconsequential to your, specifically your, prospect going forth. So how do you reconcile that?” is what Jeffreys followed up with.
Josh turned defensive, accusing Jeffreys of “PC concern-trolling.” As moderator, I asked Duress if his life had improved or gotten worse since shooting the movie in March 2014, as one of the most brutal winters in memory tapered off. Duress lived on the street while filming the movie and has since served time in Rikers for drug-related offenses.
“This movie has changed my life,” said Duress. “I would never have woken up one morning and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll pursue being an actor.’ That would have never happened. It just fell into my lap by pure luck...[Josh] asked me one day if I’d like to do a couple scenes and I said, ‘Yeah, why not? I’d love to do that.’ Who wouldn’t want to be in a movie?”
[There was a video here]
I had spoken to the Safdies earlier this month to interview them for this piece. I also spoke with Arielle Holmes, the focus of Heaven Knows What and the inspiration for its plot—the story goes that after meeting Holmes while researching another film in the Diamond District, Josh asked her to write her life story and the 150 or so pages typed up at various Apple stores was adapted by Josh and co-writer Ronald Bronstein for the screenplay. Last night’s screening was my third time viewing the film, which I think is compulsively watchable and culturally crucial. By the time we sat down in front of the 40 or so people who remained after the screening, I had more or less vetted the directors and the film to my satisfaction.
Still, I was prepared for Jeffreys’s question, or some variation of it. We are in a time when cultural appropriation is more examined and debated than ever, thanks to the internet, and two men with enough money (or the means of getting their hands on it) making a movie telling the story of people who beg for change and often don’t have a roof over their heads has “thinkpiece deeming this ‘problematic!!!’” written all over it. On the film’s quasi-documentary setup as well as Holmes, 21, playing a version of her drug-addled self (her character is named Harley in the movie), Ben Kenigsberg wrote in the New York Times earlier this month, “it’s a risky strategy that raises questions about what crosses the line and what is exploitative.”
During my discussion with Holmes in office of Radius, which is releasing the movie, I asked if she feels like she was exploited. “I felt like I was exploiting myself,” she responded. “I didn’t feel like these guys were coming in and using my story. I felt like these guys are coming in helping me use my story. Or my experience in this part of the world. I don’t really like calling it ‘my story’ because it’s one of many in that world with core similarities and various differences. I showed everything I felt comfortable showing.”
Holmes told me that she was not on heroin while filming the movie, and Josh said, “We couldn’t have made the film if she was shooting up all the time. It just wouldn’t have been possible.” She was, however, on methadone, and she suggests the opiate may have helped her achieve such a naturalistic performance. “Heroin makes you very detached,” she explained. “I already have issues with that that I’m working on now. It wasn’t hard for me to film any of it or reenact anything. Someone just asked me if it was hard reenacting when I tried to kill myself. It wasn’t. I just did it, laughed about it after the scenes.”
Josh, by Benny’s description, was “so deep” in Holmes’s world, by the time they started filming in March 2014. Josh says he met Holmes about ten months earlier and got to know her and her friends.
“You spend one week with someone in that world, you’re their best friend,” said Josh. “Forget about it, you’re a family member. I got past that threshold with so many different people. When most of these people met me, I wasn’t a filmmaker, I wasn’t there for any other reason but to hang out. Do you know how many times I was offered like a fuckin’ full syringe?”
“I was very involved in that world. I don’t think I ever slept on the street, but there were times that I was there until everyone had fallen asleep,” he continued. “I have a home, I’m not homeless. Sometimes people would stay with me, but very, very rarely. I wanted to keep that distance. Just for my own sanity. It was getting to a point where I didn’t know...I would just go and try to find people to hang out all the time.”
Josh says that he never took anyone up on their offers of heroin, and that he’s never “flirted” with that drug but has with others and has ultimately one addiction: filmmaking. Still, he says working with addicts is “great,” and that he related to them on fundamental levels.
“Most people that are addicts I’m attracted to them because, whatever, I have certain chemical imbalances myself and I think most people who take drugs are self-medicating, so therefore they have certain personality disorders, chemical imbalances. I can relate to them,” he explained. “There’s an intensity to them that I really respond to. I really respond to someone who’s all or nothing. I really respond to someone who just wants the entire world in one moment. That’s all I want. That’s why I make movies, because I think that that’s the only way to access that feeling—the velocity of the now. For better or worse these are the people that I personally can find that access with.”
And that, I think it’s fair to say, is how worlds intersect. That why movies about specific experiences resonate to those who will never have the opportunity to see what the characters see or feel what they feel. That is why Heaven Knows What works.
“We didn’t want the drugs to be at all glorified,” said Josh. “We wanted to remain truthful to the romantic yearnings of this young woman. I think that that generally is a pretty accessible [thing]. That’s every teen romance movie.”
“Going into it, it was a very moral thing for me,” added Benny. “It was like, I don’t want this to in any way give anyone the hint of possibly wanting to try this. In this lifestyle, there are times that you feel really close to it, but there also has to be that feeling: If I take this turn there’s no going back and that’s going to be a frightening road.”
Holmes told me that she’s “proud” of Heaven Knows What and she thinks it’s a “great film.” But shortly into our conversation, when the subject turned to Ilya Leontyev, her real life ex-boyfriend who’s fictionalized in the movie and played by working actor Caleb Landry Jones, Holmes’s voice turned shaky. Leontyev was found dead at 25 last month. When I asked her if his death complicates her relationship to the movie, I felt like I might be trespassing on a life that had seemingly been offered up for examination through the medium of film.
“I think it’s, what’s the right word,” she started and then trailed off for a few beats. “He dies in the movie. I just…yeah. I don’t really know what I think about that.”
Regarding her life now, Holmes is “good, for the most part.” After wrapping Heaven Knows What, she completed a rehab program on the Safdie brothers’ dime, and signed to the ICM Partners talent agency.
“I’m not on the streets and on heroin,” she told me. “I went through a kind of dark period even after that, living in L.A. I was really kind of depressed for a while, so I wasn’t really doing much. I was doing auditions and things like that.”
Art is not under any obligation to change the world. When it happens, it’s great, but we should be careful to avoid conflating expression with activism. That said, it seems like something like Heaven Knows What has a greater chance making a difference than most movies released today. It a way reminiscent of Abel Ferrara’s ‘80s output, it reminds us that New York is a brutal place to live, glamorized portrayals from the past two decades be damned. It dances on the fine line between living and death, gleaning a frenetic pace from characters who live moment by moment. It pulls back the curtain on a group of people who are hiding in plain sight, overlooked and ignored as those more fortunate whizz by. I’ve never really taken the time to think about what was going on in the lives of people begging me for MetroCard swipes, before or after they ask the question. Now I do.
“I read that often: ‘Oh, the stories no one ever pays attention [to]’ or ‘The people you often ignore,’ and I always found the opposite,” explained Josh. “Obviously, I made the movie. But I’m always so intrigued by those who feel uninhibited...The goal from the get go was: Here are these people that I’m attracted to, people that have become my friends. I just wanted to shine a light, and show some type of truth. I wanted to show the dangers of that lifestyle and, the way I look at it, the beauty of that lifestyle.”
Regarding the experience of living on the street, Duress said last night that Heaven Knows What “captured it really realistically.” Holmes told me the friends from her street days who have seen the movie “really like” it.
“I was kind of saying [to a friend], ‘Why did this even happen to me? It was just so random. Why did I get picked out of everyone else for this to happen to?’” she told me. “He was like, ‘But you know what? It wasn’t just luck. Yeah, you had the luck of meeting the right people, but it was you that actually took the chance and put the work and the effort and the time into it and made everything happen.’ He was basically saying that not everyone would do that or could do it. For me, it wasn’t even about if I could or would. There wasn’t anything else to do.”