How the DIY Safdie Brothers Shot the Genre Thriller of the Year on 35mm Cinemascope
In 'Good Time', the Safdie brothers use their characteristic scrapyard DIY to bring Robert Pattinson into the 'warped moment.'
"We wanted it to feel like lightning," Josh Safdie said of his new film in an interview with No Film School.
And it does. Good Time is electrifying: every turbocharged moment of the bungled heist film has a lightning rod's power to transform or destroy. Co-directors Josh and Benny Safdie, brothers who are known for their gritty, homemade movies, put the audience through its paces. Their film teems with manic energy, breathless performances, neon and strobe lights, and a pulsing synth soundtrack from Daniel Lopatin that underscores the film's relentless experience.
In fact, watching Good Time is like riding the Coney Island Cyclone: it's a genre film, or a "pulp movie," as the brothers describe it—a thrill ride old as time. Its rickety structure threatens to collapse at every turn, and you emerge from the theater with whiplash.
"Once the movie starts, you have no option but to just accept it as, 'I'm in the crazy story and I'm experiencing it.'" — Josh Safdie
Like the Cyclone, the Safdies are New York mainstays. Their chaotic childhood, spent between the underworlds of Manhattan and Queens, wends its way into their movies. In fact, Daddy Longlegs (2009) was based on their own upbringing. Heaven Knows What (2014) was born of a chance encounter with a junkie on the city streets; the Safdies recruited her to write and act in her life's story.
"Growing up in New York City, your sense of space is thrown out of whack and it’s completely unconscious," Josh said to Interview Magazine in 2010. "You feel an ownership of the street and the six feet around you at all times, which often spawns screaming matches and constant littering. It also manifests living in the moment, which is a major influence on our work… the warped moment."
Speaking of the warped moment, in Good Time the Safdies manage to tell a politically-loaded story of America's underclass through the lens of Connie (Robert Pattinson) and his grimy universe made up of fast-food restaurants, overpacked emergency rooms, and cramped row houses. The film speaks volumes about the prison industrial complex (specifically, Rikers Island), racial profiling, and white privilege without explicitly saying a thing.
The Safdies shoot their films with a scrapyard DIY ethos, taking on multiple roles themselves and employing a skeleton crew and non-actors, which they embed in the live city streets. Robert Pattinson, who plays the manipulative and charismatic Connie, was attracted to the Safdies' energy. "He said, ‘I wanna be on a movie set that had the energy that I imagine this had,'" Benny recently told Fader, to which Josh added: "Little did he know, there was no movie set."
"We like to work with people who can do everything on set."
Let it be known that the Safdies themselves harbor some of their films' characteristic breathlessness. They constantly interrupt one another or finish each other's sentences; conversations often escalate quickly, only to take a sudden left turn into another subject. No Film School sat down with the duo on the day of their film's theatrical release, and they were nervous about handing their project over to the world to be "shredded," as pulp consumers are wont to do. The brothers also discussed their particular brand of DIY, which sees them participating in every single aspect of a film's production, and their cinematographer Sean Price Williams' intense 35mm cinematography, which favors close-ups to claustrophobic effect.
No Film School: In some ways, Good Time is different from your previous films. Heaven Knows What, for example, starred an unknown actor that you found on the streets of New York. The movie itself demanded a lot from the viewer in terms of participation. Good Time stars Robert Pattinson and is a flashy, thrilling ride. It only requires audiences to grip the handlebars.
Josh Safdie: A movie is designed to be owned by the viewer. But giving up that ownership is a really crummy feeling. You know, you incubate with this movie for almost two years....
Benny Safdie: And then, at the flip side, it's so strange because we made it for an audience.
Josh: We made a popcorn movie. We wanted to make something that felt like lightning, that felt like entertainment, and that you consume.
Benny: ....then maybe you ask questions later, yeah?
"We wanted to make a piece of pulp. Pulp is designed to be shredded."
Josh: Yeah. We wanted to make a piece of pulp. Pulp is designed to be shredded.
Benny: Look at the term!
Josh: Exactly. But it's also designed to be consumed, so we designed Good Time to be consumed. But pulp is also a reflection of society. So we know what the movie is for us.
Benny: We know why we made it.
Josh: Back in the day, if you made a pulp film or a genre movie, [the director] was invisible. It's just the movie. And, ultimately, I think the best part about Good Time is once the movie starts, you have no option but to just accept it as, "I'm in the crazy story and I'm experiencing it."
NFS: I'm along for the ride.
Josh: Exactly. But my point is that it's just a kind of a crummy feeling. I was just telling Benny in the bathroom that it's just a crummy feeling to know that it's not ours anymore.
NFS: Well, the flip side of that coin is that people get to have their own relationship with something you made, and that's a beautiful thing.
Benny: Yes, they get to own it.
NFS: But in a completely new way. So it's a new conversation for you guys, as artists.
Josh: Yeah, I mean, I don't mind talking [to press]. I can talk a lot. But I just want to keep making stuff. And, luckily, we have a handful of things already set up. But I want to just go already!
Josh: I learned very early on to never read reviews. So, I don't do it. I don't need someone else's opinion to tell me what to see. The traction, for me, comes from an image. I remember, as a teenager, it was always the still that was released from a movie [that would make me want to see it]. I don't even watch that many trailers because I find they give too much away.
Benny: You go by word of mouth.
Josh: Even word of mouth is, like...I'm gonna lean on someone else's opinion? No.
Benny: I do read the reviews. We went to a communications school where film was a concentration, but the interesting part about it was you didn't touch a camera. You had to learn before you went and shot.
Josh: Well, it's weird, especially in this day and age, where—
Benny: —cameras are everywhere.
Josh: But also, we were already making stuff, so we had this general sense of craft—like how to edit, what a close-up means versus what a wide shot means.
"Sometimes, I would walk in and turn lights off [during the shoot], just because it's a nocturnal movie."
I worked for this artist, Tom Sachs, for about a year. His entire aesthetic is DIY, but when you work for him, you're like, "Oh my god. There [are] 15 people working here." But he does encourage everyone to bring their own identity. I learned a certain kind of etiquette working there. I'm interested in all of the elements of filmmaking. I think sound is incredibly interesting. Obviously, the picture I'm really, really interested in—
Benny: —obsessed, almost.
Josh: I know the lens better than some of the people on the crew.
NFS: Which lenses did you use on this film?
Josh: The ones that we used most were the Mark III Zeiss lenses. We used them because they were fast. We had a couple of very long lenses. We had an incredible gaffer and lighting team, but sometimes, I would just walk in and turn lights off, just because it's a nocturnal movie.
Benny: At 35mm, you can really push it. You can push it and it still holds up in a way that, say, a 60mm doesn't.
Josh: We looked at 16mm with the Panavision lenses.
Benny: Oh, and there was this one lens that was so fast, but it went to 0.8. I was like, "Oh my god."
Josh: Kubrick, actually, with [the help of] NASA, pioneered that lens for Barry Lyndon. But I just recently learned about these Leica lenses which are coated and all of the color fields hit the gate at the exact same time. That's how your retinas work, but that's not how cameras work. The 1600mm lens is similar, and it's amazing.
"Combining close-ups with a thriller makes you feel trapped. It has a vertigo effect."
I like shallow depth of field. I find it to be very evocative of how the eye works. Most of the time, we, as people, focus on one thing at a time, so we have subjective vision. I like that in movies, too.
Benny: Although it's actually an exaggeration of what your mind wants to focus on. Because right now I'm looking at you, but I still see everything behind you in focus. I'm trying as hard as possible to just focus on you. I think that's what you're getting at—you can really play with people's perceptions with what you hear and what you see. Working in CinemaScope, too—Techniscope—was pretty incredible.
NFS: You had very few wide shots in this movie. The relentless close-ups created a strong feeling of claustrophobia.
Benny: Just from a technical standpoint, and from the mood of a film, once you're in the close-up, you can go anywhere. And also, the idea of having the audience have to piece together a location in their own brain...you develop more of a kinship—
Josh: —to the character. You know, we had done it before on other movies that weren't so plot-driven, but combining close-ups with a genre like a thriller makes you feel trapped. It has a vertigo effect.
But if I'm obsessed with the image, Benny also obsesses over the microphones and the acoustics.
Benny: When you hook up with somebody who's doing sound, they have their own kit. Our sound mixer, Patrick Southern, was going, "I've got all these microphones and I've got this boom mic."
I'm like, "Alright! But we're gonna rent all these microphones and this boom mic because I've been doing a lot of research about them, and they sound incredible." But they are very delicate. They're British. And there are these amazing, incredible lavs. And then there's this one boom mic that only one rental house in the city had. You can buy them on eBay because they were made in the '80s and they kind of just got thrown away. But it's got such a specific feeling to it. It's a workhorse but it's a real, directional microphone.
Josh: You wanted to have two boom mics the whole time on this!
NFS: What were the mics called?
Benny: I don't want to give it away.
Josh: There is a recorder that we have yet to use that we do want to work with, the Cantar.
Benny: The closest thing that we ever got to was the one that Patrick used on this one, the Zaxcom.
Josh: I like our Sonosax, too.
Benny: The thing is, it's really hard to find digital recorders that have that "sound" feeling. Most digital recorders [are designed to] erase all the sound. Then you add it later.
The Zaxcom Nomad is very simple. It's straightforward, and then there's a lot of sound to it. It has "room tone," which a lot of people don't want because they want to have full, maximum, clean sound. It's the same with a lot of the digital cameras—they try and have nothing.
No Film School: They're too pristine.
Josh: Exactly. I've made short films where we used Nagra tape, and that's a crazy feeling because you can run out of sound. You can roll out on sound. But the warmth of analog tape is incredible.
Benny: They don't make them anymore.
Josh: Yeah, and also, it doesn't all need to be that nostalgic.
No Film School: You two are known for your DIY ethos. How do you think about the scrappy, collaborative nature of your projects?
Josh: I've actually brought a with me book today: Disguise Techniques. When I was doing research for the movie, I sat in a lot of arraignments in 100 Center Street and I met this photographer for the Daily News who photographs high-profile arraignments. And I started talking to him and he saw me over the course of two days and he was like, "What are you doing here?" and I said, "I'm doing a movie." He sent me his website. On his website, he has a section called "evidence" with photographs that he took for the NYPD. One of them was this case that I knew about a con man. They photographed the contents of the bag they found when he was arrested. This book—this guy's techniques—fooled everyone.
I started reading it. It almost reads like an acting book. It was very informative. And it ended up being very helpful for the costume design because we get very involved in that. We hired Miyako Bellizzi (Patti Cake$) and Mordechai Rubinstein. Mordechai had never worked on a movie before, but he has this unbelievable understanding of the clothing people wear. When I started talking to them about the book, there a little section on municipal clothing that describes the best way to fit in. It helped me dictate how the costume design would be.
Josh: It got to the point where we had a really hard time finding the "hero look" for Connie. I was in a bodega on my way to our office in Queens for the movie, and I saw a guy in front of me and it was just... the jacket. And it was so anonymous yet so loud at the same time. It was a reflective orange jacket. And I talked to him, and I was like, "This is going to sound weird, but do you have any attachment to that jacket?" And he goes, "I hate this jacket." And I was like, "Well, do you think we could buy it off of you for our movie?"
Benny: We had tried so many other jackets, so we had a whole bunch at our office. We offered to switch it for him.
Josh: I said, "We have new, nice jackets. You can have whatever you want and we'll pay you." But I didn't have cash or even access to cash on an ATM card, so I was like, "We have to go back to the office." It was a little bit of a walk, so I'm walking with this guy and he starts to get very weirded out—
Benny: —it gets really industrial.
Josh: He thought I was up to something. But yeah, in terms of DIY, I'm like, "This is the jacket that we're going to use." So then it became, "Well, we have stunt guys, so we have to replicate the jacket," and the jacket was very hard to find. It turns out the jacket, which was new—the guy got it from working at LaGuardia airport years ago—was $400.
Benny: But the costume department dirtied it up exactly like the other. We were like, "Which one's which?" You couldn't tell.
Josh: But yeah, we do like to get involved. And we like to work with people who can do everything on set. Like, our Production Designer, Sam Lisenco, has done TV shows on basic cable, network television, and also big movies. We've been making stuff with him since we were teenagers. And he can run sound. He could direct a movie if he wanted to. He could run camera.
Knowing that the roles could switch around on set.... You want that. You want that confidence on a set.