Real-Time: Examining How the Safdie Brothers Experiment with Naturalistic Cinema

According to Austrian film director Michael Haneke, ‘film is twenty-four lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth’. In essence, cinema exists in the service of art, entertainment and the desire to acknowledge universal truths, but what we see on screen can only ever be a fabricated version of the reality we know. Yet, just as a lie becomes more believable with detail, as cinema has evolved over the years, film has inched closer and closer to the line existing between fiction and truth.

The Safdie Brothers at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards.

Through their devotion to naturalistic cinema, contemporary American filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie have blurred the line beyond recognition. Although their films may at first seem like chaotic, anxiety-riddled expeditions through the rough ecosystem of New York’s underbelly, a Safdie Brothers film is a finely controlled experiment, disciplined to the finest detail.

The Safdies have formed their distinct style through an amalgamation of specific influences, including early independent filmmakers such as John Cassavetes – the kind of filmmakers who stepped away from the Golden Age warehouse-style-production of cinema in an attempt to capture a more authentic image of American life. Akin to Cassavetes, the Safdies construct their films around the pursuit of realism, focusing on complex characters taken from real-life inspirations. The pursuit of authenticity informs every aspect of their filmmaking process, from casting and prop design to plot and cinematography. It isn’t as simple as putting pen to paper; a Safdie film requires months or even years of intense research and character development.

The brothers immerse themselves into worlds existing on the margins of society to correctly understand how their inhabitants learn, act, talk and think. To have megastar Robert Pattinson completely disappear into the role of Connie Nikas in Good Time, they created a detailed backstory for the character, starting at birth and finishing moments before the plot of the movie began. The document existed as a blueprint for Connie’s personality, which Pattinson could use to make informed decisions regarding his character’s behaviour.

Yet, perhaps the Safdie’s most recognisable tool for creating naturalistic cinema is their use of first-time actors – or actors who are incapable of playing anybody but themselves. The brothers have made stars of Julia Fox, Arielle Holmes and Buddy Duress by bringing exaggerated cinematic versions of their personalities to the screen.

Buddy Duress in Good Time.

Josh and Benny utilise the tension created when professional actors go up against none-actors. In their run-around feature Good Time, the brothers cast Buddy Duress to play the role of Ray. The film, in which Duress plays a character based on his own personality in a movie inspired by actual events in his life, required Duress to evoke an extreme form of method acting. Although Duress isn’t quite cut from the same acting cloth as Robert Pattinson, he brought specific knowledge to his role, which was just as crucial to the Safdies as years of acting practice. Within Good Time, Robert Pattinson represents cinema, as he has an understanding of how to carry a film and embrace a fictionalised version of reality. In contrast, Duress represents realism, as he brings authenticity and acts as a representative for the world we see on screen.

We see countless examples of this harmonising of actors, from Adam Sandler and the Diamond District jewellers, Caleb Landry Jones and a gang of drug-addled street kids, to Ronald Bronstein and the motley crew of characters he encounters with his children on the streets of Manhattan. A Safdie film requires professionals and first-timers to meet halfway between reality and fiction, a concept which spills over into the rest of the movie-making process.

The pursuit of naturalism also extends to the casting of the more recognisable faces on the screen. The Safdies placed the plot of Uncut Gems around a series of pre-existing basketball games, meaning it was subject to change depending on which basketball player the Safdies chose to focus on. Kevin Garnett’s pre-existing streak of winning and losing games supplied his character with his belief in the lucky quality of the gem, an idea which dictates the arc of Howard’s gambling journey. Garnett’s appearance in the film also placed the events in 2012, justifying the presence of The Weeknd who was seeing his climb to fame in the same year. As the film is so reliant on actual events in Kevin Garnett’s life, there’s no doubt that the film would literally not be the same without him.

The Safdie Brothers chased legendary Hollywood funny-man Adam Sandler for ten years, believing him to be the only man for the job when it came to casting Howard Ratner. Ratner is a wretched individual whose likeability rests firmly on the shoulders of Sandler, as it is Sandler’s flair for the ridiculous that keeps us on Howard’s side. When we see Howard showing off his bling furbies, locked naked into the trunk of his car, or threatening to destroy the Weeknd’s career, he feels impossible to hate and easy to root for. Not only is the film reliant on The Sandman’s talent as an actor but also his entire comedic reputation and affinity with the absurd. We believe that Howard would make these insane choices because we believe Sandler would make them too.

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The Safdies also achieve their naturalistic style through varying production methods. Although their standard of production has escalated with each project, the Safdies still favour a homemade style of filmmaking, often opting for handheld cameras more synonymous with documentary films to create a feeling of being in amongst the action. A Safdie film is in a constant state of motion, and in a broader sense the characters are always either on the run or chasing something important to them, but even within each frame these characters are continually moving, rocking or twitching. The handheld cameras allow for freer movement when trying to capture this constant motion, and also gives the footage a natural jerkiness reflective of the human experience when witnessing events. The Safdies also prefer to use a shallow depth of field, evocative of how human eyes naturally focus.

The brothers choose not to use marks and allow actors to move freely around their sets and locations, meaning that the equipment they use to film must be versatile enough to follow these characters wherever they might go. To combat the possibility of straying too far into documentary territory, the brothers choose surreal and outlandish characters to focus on. Although most Safdie characters are insignificant losers and criminals, their experiences are deemed worthy of the cinematic experience. Their provocative depictions of New York’s most deplorable characters give their movies undeniable cinematic flair.

To add a further layer of authenticity, in Heaven Knows What, cinematographer Sean Price Williams used long lenses to keep a reasonable distance from the actors, as not to interrupt them or interfere with their organic interactions and conversations. The physical distance of the camera reminds us just how far removed we are from the dismaying characters on screen.

New York acts as a free soundscape for the Safdies, who often have their characters talk over the top of the natural noisiness of the City— favouring ambient sound over artificial silence. The Safdies also encourage each of their actors to speak as if they are the film’s protagonist, a method which results in a great deal of interruption and cross talk. As well as creating a vast well of anxiety, cross talk is much more reflective of human conversation in elevated situations. This constant barrage of dialogue is also illustrative of how Josh and Benny naturally converse, as, in almost every interview, the Safdies frequently interrupt one another or finish each other’s sentences. To humour this, they famously delivered two individual acceptance speeches for their Best Director win at the Spirit Awards – at the same time!

New York also offers up an abundance of oblivious extras. As Josh and Benny try to keep their sets open, their shots quickly become littered with members of the public. This onslaught of commuters might be an irritant for the average filmmaker, but for Josh and Benny it is a welcomed interruption. The brothers believe that closing a street down robs the movie of its intrinsic New Yorkness and instantly makes their footage look fabricated. The Safdies embrace the free materials the City provides them with, believing that to interfere would rob their movies of the kinetic energy New York allows them to borrow.

In terms of colour, the Safdies use the dark shadows and industrial greys of New York’s concrete skyline to ground the surrealist colour palette they use to light their lead protagonists. We often see characters lit in fluorescent pinks, blues and greens, as if it is their stories which give New York it’s dynamic colouring. In the Safdie universe, New Yorkers make the City as much as the City makes them.

Safdie characters are morally ambivalent, often showing themselves capable of heroic and villainous behaviour, and as such are much more reflective of actual people. In Daddy Longlegs, which is perhaps the brothers’ most autobiographical feature, we see the failings of Lenny; an inadequate Father of two small boys. Lenny makes some distressing parenting decisions, including horrific experimentation with some sleeping pills, but also radiates love and affection for his boys when he plays with them or shares in their childhood fun. The Safdies manage the conversation around childhood and parental failings delicately, using the omniscient presence of cinema to explore their personal experiences with their subject matter.

The Safdies extend this understanding to all of their lead characters, seeking not to cast judgement but to examine the complex duality of human nature. We see habitual heroin user Harley relentlessly stealing and hustling her way to her next fix while also displaying compassion and solidarity with her fellow addict. Harley’s journey serves as a reminder of the difficulties the homeless face and their capacity for humanity in the face of it all. Good Time’s Connie is a serial manipulator, cheating, stealing and conning himself out of one situation to the next. Yet, his reasoning for his constant scheming comes from his desire to free and look after his disabled brother. All of the Safdie Brothers’ protagonists share a compulsion to keep on moving through the world, although their relentless activity hurts themselves and those around them, it’s as if stopping or slowing down would be the end of them.

Most of our beloved cinematic New Yorkers, the ones existing in worlds of organised crime, finance, fashion and fairy tale love stories, have not originated from the City’s streets but from the creative minds of the filmmakers who put them there. In contrast, The Safdie Brothers let New York bring its characters to them. To gather their stories, the Safdies notoriously surround themselves with criminals and drug addicts, a necessity they believe serves to immerse them entirely within the worlds they are hoping to capture on film. Yet, because so much of a typical Safdie movie rests so heavily on its source material, we could accuse the brothers of using or manipulating their subjects solely for artistic inspiration.

Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What.

After meeting Arielle Holmes in the Diamond District, when completing research for Uncut Gems, The Safdie Brothers became sidetracked by the stories of her cult-like relationship with her boyfriend Ilya, and the harsh realities of drug-addicted street kids. The Safdies commissioned Arielle to write her memoirs, which subsequently became the inspiration for their film Heaven Knows What. In the movie, Arielle plays Harley, a cinematic version of herself who is at the height of her drug addiction. While filming was in process, Arielle used the narcotics substitute methadone, then transferred to a rehab clinic when filming completed. Buddy Duress provided the Safdies with his prison journals, written while serving time at Rikers Island. They quickly became the inspiration for Good Time and the character of Connie Nikas. Although Duress held his own against Pattinson on set, upon completion of the film, Duress once again faced charges for drug-related offences and landed back in jail.

Although the Safdies seem to have become genuine friends with their subjects and have undoubtedly helped to pull them out of the problematic worlds they were stuck in, perhaps using these people in their pursuit of naturalistic cinema blurs the line between entertainment and moralistic standards. Are the brothers documenting the difficulties of a disadvantaged American society to make a statement? Or are they moving from one seedy subject to the next for the benefit of their own artistic achievements?

In any case, it does not seem that Josh and Benny’s pursuit of naturalistic cinema comes from any desire to take advantage of people. Their body of work speaks to a genuine obsession with creating the illusion of reality—a passion which is plain to see in the behind-the-scenes footage of their short Goldman V Silverman. In the footage, we see Benny Safdie performing street magic for a father and his small child. Benny comes away from the encounter in delight, not because his magic was any good, but because he had managed to convince the family of his legitimacy in his costume.

Watch Goldman v Silverman on Vimeo here.

The Safdie Brothers’ experimentation with naturalistic cinema has revealed them to be true auteur filmmakers, with an intense passion for creativity. A Safdie movie attacks all of our senses, manipulates our emotions and creates an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, which many have compared to a drug-induced nightmare. Yet despite this, The Safdie Brothers have become immensely popular, their objective to capture realism on-screen has elevated the standard of naturalistic cinema and is redefining the rules of film as we know them.

If, in effect, all cinema is a lie, perhaps the Safdies are coming closer to the truth than ever before.

Written by Leoni Horton

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