The Safdie Brothers Got Gritty as 2017’s Filmmakers to Watch
"You might not like the feeling that you're feeling, but you can still be entertained by that feeling."
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie (a.k.a. the Safdie brothers) have been making shorts and no-budget films since the early 2000s. They finally had their breakout moment in 2015 with their visceral, biographical heroin romance feature Heaven Knows What. In 2017, the Safdies became impossible to ignore, thanks to their neon-coated, action-packed heist thriller Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson as the hustling anti-hero who tries to break out his brother (played by Benny Safdie) before he’s sent to prison.
The success of Good Time soon led the Safdies to another major gig: directing the music video for JAY-Z’s “Marcy Me.” And they’re not slowing down. After years of doing little-known indies, the fraternal duo is now getting into big studio fare with an upcoming “remake” of Walter Hill’s 1982 action comedy 48 Hrs., which originally starred Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Not much has been revealed about the upcoming Safdie’s upgrade, but the two will be joined by comedian Jerrod Carmichael on the writing team.
We spoke with Josh and Benny Safdie to reflect on their year, which wasn’t without haters, and to learn about the big things to come.
Do you guys remember your first time showing Good Time to an audience? Was there any nervousness about people liking it or how they would interpret it?
Benny Safdie: You kind of just hope. That goes back to a deeper thought, which is tied to your own sensibility and how we think every film we do is a blockbuster because we’re simply and supremely entertained by something, reaching a deep place that we didn’t know existed. If we can reach those ourselves we just assume that other people will follow. You know that if something deeply touches you in a great way that it will inherently connect with other people. So you don’t ever really think, “Are people gonna like this?”
We’d been making movies for a while now, so when something doesn’t work or we learn something new, we’ll apply it to whatever we’re working on next. We want people to like movies, so we want people to have at least had an experience that they can take away and we’re constantly striving to figure out the best form of that. From our last film, we learned the power of the close-up, or with a documentary we learned what narrative information is important to an audience.
Josh Safdie: We abhor exposition. I find it to be unbelievably boring and un-nuanced. I can’t read a menu for the life of me. We think about the viewer internalizing or watching and we just want them to be engaged with it on a level that’s way deeper than just reading.
BS: “Entertainment” is such an interesting word because you might not like the feeling that you’re feeling, but you can still be entertained by that feeling. There are a lot of movies I cry in, but I wouldn’t say I was entertained by [them].
I’ve always had such a visceral reaction to your films. I thought the depictions of racial relations in Good Time were very purposefully presented, but I know that some people interpreted that as a problematic part of the film. I’ve seen you guys engage with that discussion on Twitter. Was that frustrating to see?
BoS: The only frustration lies in the shallow viewing. Everything is a decision in filmmaking. Every single thing we decide to put in front of the camera, they’re all ideas, they’re decisions. I would say the majority of people got it and saw it and realized that they were being put in a spot that kind of forced themselves to ask a question and basically look at the reflection of society and say, “Well, why is it that way?” But I think there were a handful of people who did not want to ask themselves that question and could not see the forest for the trees, they were seeing the trees through the forest. That’s unfortunate. That was the frustrating aspect.
At the same time it kind of reads like a little bit of a failure on our end. In the end it’s all about communicating. Filmmaking is a communicative tool, and you realize that you have to spell things out for people sometimes a little bit more explicitly. Again, that’s not really our style to explicitly spell things out for people, but sometimes if you want to bat a thousand, you have to.
On a slightly lighter note, there’s a scene in the film that I think about all the time. It’s when Benny washes his face with toilet water. Was that real toilet water and was it improv?
BS: It was real toilet water. I realized that as Nick, the first thing I would do would be to wash my face with the toilet bowl. I’d be so frustrated by the tunnel vision, I wouldn’t care where it’s coming from.
JS: He’s not thinking in the same as everybody else, so yes, it was a real toilet. Don’t forget, Benny, it’s also blocking. We didn’t want to sacrifice the camera angle just so you wouldn’t see a bowl of fresh water.
BS: In the end, Nick is free because of that.
Good Time obviously wasn’t your only big accomplishment of the year. How did you guys get involved with the JAY-Z video, which was great and looked very much like a Safdie creation.
JS: After we showed Good Time, The Director’s Bureau saw the film and they were like, “Hey, we think you’d be really great for this track ‘Marcy Me.’”It was right when Charlottesville happened and we didn’t have time because we were doing this press tour. I listened to the song, which is so nostalgic in its own way. You can just imagine little Jay walking the streets of Bed–Stuy. The concept of turning the limelight into the spotlight was very loud to me, so we just kind of looked to someone who was actually in Good Time in one of the jail scenes and I asked him. since he grew up in Bed–Stuy, “What’s your fondest memory of growing up in the hood?” And then Jay and Beyoncé saw Good Time and it felt like playing the Cannes Film Festival. A24 gave them a link that we could monitor so we got an email saying, “They’re watching the link right now.” And then in two hours I was like, “Any word?” They were like, “They started it again when it was over.”
BS: Yeah, it was very exciting to us, and then I got to sit down with JAY-Z and I saw all the videos that they’d been doing for this album. They were so powerful and subtle. Ours is a portrait of a young man of color in the hood and how you’re constantly under surveillance, whether you like it or not. Even the most menial things are criminalized.
Lastly, I’m so excited about your 48 Hrs. remake.
BS: Let’s get something straight, it’s not gonna be a remake, but we had a concept that was similar. The beautiful part about these remakes is that they’re all about the tone and the style. Walter Hill is a master and that movie’s a masterpiece. There’s no way we’ll ever come close to it. All we can do is just tell a story about a white man, a cop, and a criminal who spend 48 hours together. And that’s about it.
JS: It just seemed like the perfect foray into studio fare because it’ll give us a little more leeway when it’s within the confines of an existing title, and Paramount was just really cool. They really responded. They loved Good Time and they asked us what we wanted to do and we started a conversation. And they were like, “Hey, we own 48 Hrs.”
This was, like, the first movie that I saw as a kid, when I didn’t even know what racism was. I remember being a kid and asking my dad, “Why did Eddie Murphy’s character get so offended about something that Nick Nolte’s character said?” And he just explained to me, “Well, there’s certain words and things that people say to one another that make them feel bad.” So I asked him, “Based on what?” And he goes, “Based on the color of their skin.” And I was like, “What?” But the beautiful part about that movie is that it dispels the illusion of racism.
I know it’s very early in the process, but are there any casting details you can share? Like will you work with Buddy Duress again?
JS: I actually watched 48 Hrs. again with Buddy Duress when we programmed it at Metrograph. I’d like to find a place for him in that movie. He very much fits that world, but yeah, there’s some things we can’t really talk about just yet. It’s exciting to write with Jerrod Carmichael. He’s a good friend and we’re on the same wavelength and we thought it would be a good thing to collaborate on. We’re having fun right now just throwing ideas around.