South By Southwest (SXSW) is a great time to explore the City of Austin’s vibrant scene. Filmmakers, musicians, and fans from around the world descend on the city every March to share a common appreciation of artistic creativity.
The Salad had an opportunity to speak with producer Sebastian Bear-McClard and director Josh Safdie who were in town screening “Heaven Knows What,” a naturalistic portrayal of street life in New York City. The film doesn’t glamorize drug use or hide from the brutality of street life as it observes Harley (Arielle Holmes) struggling with her addiction to both drugs and the equally detrimental Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones).
Casting primarily street kids to play themselves (or versions of themselves) may seem to create additional challenges to the already difficult process of filmmaking, but both Josh and Sebastian did not see it so much as a challenge.
Josh: Artistically for first time actors, you have to kind of perform for them a little bit, but as this film went on, these actors became very professional very quickly, specifically Buddy Duress, who played Mike. He was asking for countdowns. He wanted marks. People adapted to the style of the film really quickly. It’s very important with first-time actors to not inundate them or intimidate them with the script. You’re often talking about the scene and not giving them the scene, so it’s a collaboration. They’re improvising, but they’re saying the exact same things we have written on the page. They just don’t know it. We use improvisation as a tool. It’s a means to an end. It’s not an end. I’m really disinterested in improvisation acting – seeing someone search for an answer. We’re providing actors stimuli. One thing I like to tell first-time actors all the time is literally 85% of acting is listening. If you’re not genuinely listening, then you’re not going to respond in a genuine way.
Sebastian: There’s a bit of an osmosis between the non-actors and the actors. They tend to merge their personalities, and it’s kind of a beautiful thing. Caleb got wild in this film. He wanted to be a street kid, and Mike wanted to be an actor.
Over the course of eight or nine months, Josh spent time experiencing the subculture, although for him it didn’t really feel much like research.
Josh: You start with just following your interest. You read everything. You watch everything, then that doesn’t become enough. You want to feel everything. Basically, we’re all just directing our own movies with our own minds. That’s why everybody thinks the book is better than the movie. When someone reads a book, they’re directing it, and they’re experiencing it and internalizing it. And when they watch the movie, they’re like that’s not how I experienced the book. I want to go out there beyond the book. I want to go out there and experience real life. These subcultures, I’m getting first row seats to, just because I’m interested. I wanted to hang out with these people. The interest came first and the movie came later. I’m not hating on Paul Schrader, but Paul Schrader said, “I want to make a movie about a taxi driver,” and he became a taxi driver. I want to be a taxi driver because I love to drive in New York City. I wouldn’t be an annoying taxi driver who talks to people, but I would be an annoying one who listens.
When attempting a truly natural non-rehearsed feel, especially when dealing with first-time actors, it seems that scenes should be prepped somewhat differently. How much rehearsal occurred?
Josh: There were a few peripheral side characters we didn’t rehearse. We just kind of wanted to have our machine in place and have them roll in and roll out as themselves. But a lot of the stuff with Buddy, who played Mike, and Caleb, who played Ilya, was heavily rehearsed and discussed. For some of the major pivotal scenes, there was a lot of rehearsal, discussion, blocking.
Sebastian: And a lot of tonal rehearsal. Josh would go and shoot scenes that we kind of knew might not make the movie. [He’d get shots] establishing how they could be comfortable with the camera, and making sure that their tone was who they really were. Even the first thing we shot was this beautiful, bizarre 17 minutes of two people rolling around on pavement in public. We were all blown away by it. Whatever this is, the energy, the combustion, is really special, and it kind of made us very present in the film.
Josh: It was an overture for everyone who was involved in the film. That first day was really special because we were waiting on an actor who was really late. Caleb and Arielle had already spent three weeks getting to know each other and discussing certain scenes, but it was almost like Caleb was trying to pretend like he really was Ilya, so there was no rehearsal. He was just trying to access that frequency that actual Ilya had with actual Arielle. The way they expressed that was insane.
Creating a non-disruptive, more natural feel for the cast, in addition to particular aesthetic outcomes, required the use of certain lenses that necessitated the cameras be placed some distance away.
Josh: People think because you’re close up on someone’s face, you’re close up. You’re actually really far away, and we wanted to play with that a lot. That became an aesthetic demand. Form followed function. The camera had to be really far away to get a specific aesthetic value system, but it actually ended up affecting the performance and affecting everything else around it.
Sebastian: That was the only way this degree of naturalism could have been achieved. If I had a wider lense [and had the camera closer], the entire fabric of the city would be disrupted.
Arielle, who in addition to playing Harley (a version of herself) also wrote the story upon which the film was based, wanted to wait until the premiere of the film to see it. This proved challenging.
Josh: Getting her to the Venice Film Festival was a saga in its own regard. She didn’t have a passport. She didn’t have an ID. She didn’t have anything that proved she was part of society. She had been living on the street six months prior to that. She got a passport in 3 hours [HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE??] She showed up about two hours before the premiere. It was really romantic for her.
Sebastian: It was beautiful. We literally met on the subway, and we didn’t know the depths of what she’d had to deal with. Then edit, and she was in this beautiful gown. She carried herself like a star. She’s a star with substance, which is kind of a strange thing.
Through the course of researching and filming “Heaven Knows What”, Josh discovered something that surprised him.
Josh: The darkness you kind of take at face value for a while. I was looking to experiment and research within myself the darker side of my interests. I was surprised I would be so resistant to certain things. I thought I could handle anything. You show me the darkest hole, I’ll jump right in and take a look around. I was surprised I actually had my limits.
Sebastian (to Josh): You’re like an empathy machine. You have a ton of empathy. When you get down into some really morally depraved hole and you have that much empathy, then your pain is too much to bear.
Often times filmmakers talk about the desire for larger budgets and how that would affect the project. When asked about having an unlimited budget, Joshua, had a surprisingly different take on it.
Josh: An unlimited budget would have hindered the film. The only thing it would have changed is that maybe some of our crew would have been different people, but I think our crew was so beautiful, I wouldn’t want it to be anyone else. Those are the people who believed in this project and believed in it for the right reasons. I think that there’s a great beauty in that that I wouldn’t want money to affect.
Sebastian: It would be nice to have the money right now because finishing a film is really expensive because you have to deal with legalese and licensing and intellectual property.
Josh: That’s a good point. The suitcase [of money] would become very handy in post-production.
If you happen to have a suitcase full of money that you’d like to get off your hands, contact Josh and Sebastian. I’m sure they’d be happy to unburden you.