Filmmakers Joshua and Ben Safdie found the star of their latest movie, “Heaven Knows What,” on the MTA. Her name is Arielle Holmes, and she once was — as she plays in the movie — a heroin addict who lived on the streets with other young addicts, including an on-again-off-again boyfriend named Ilya (played on film by Caleb Landry Jones). Do they often stop random strangers?
“All the time,” Josh, who found her, replies. “I stopped someone on the subway the other day. A little kid — a teenager. Because we need teenagers for the next movie we’re doing.”
Not that it ever gets easier. “You’re breaching a social contract,” says Ben. “It’s ‘No talking, don’t look at me.’ Now you’re acknowledging that you looked at them and you’re talking in front of everybody.”
Josh knows that it sounds “sleazy” to assure them they’re filmmakers, though at least the brothers now, together, have a body of work: nine shorts and, with “Heaven Knows What,” four features. “It’s a little easier now,” Ben adds. “You can say, ‘Look, I’m not a liar. You can look us up.’”
When they found Holmes they convinced her to write her memoirs, which she did, for a good stretch of it, standing up, at the Apple Store on 67th and Broadway. When Josh caught wind of this he gave her a laptop. Her manuscript — “Mad Love in New York City,” not yet published — became the backbone of the film. They chronicle a committed addict, and living the life that comes with it: perpetually on-edge, usually prone to mood swings and outbursts, both in thrall to the drug and her sometimes emotionally abusive boyfriend, Ilya.
The real-life Ilya entered the Safdies’ life, in some degree, long ago. Their casting director, Jennifer Venditti, met him long before the Safdies met Holmes. She tried to get him in a movie, but he wasn’t having it. “He was the one who got away,” Josh says. When they told her, years later, about Holmes and her boyfriend Ilya, they were blown away to learn he was the same guy. “Think of the cosmic significance of that,” Josh says.
Sadly, Ilya was found dead of an overdose in Strawberry Fields in April, soon after he had gotten clean for the first time in ages. “That’s the Ilya I never got to meet,” Josh says.
The film arrives at a time when addiction is evolving from a stigma — whose afflicted members tend to be locked up — to starting to become recognized as a real disease.
“Most dope users have anxiety disorders. That’s why they’re taking dope,” Josh says. “For most of society, if someone’s using drugs around you, your first instinct is to do anything you can to make them not use that drug. That’s a normal instinct to have. If you’ve ever known a drug addict on a deep, personal level you know that’s actually not what you do. They’re going to do it no matter what. You can talk to them while they’re sober, but you don’t talk to someone while they’re getting f—ed up.
“People are weird animals. We use drugs to get high. We like to get high. We’re not content with life.”
Most movies about addicts tend to be a strange mix of warning and siren song, telling you not to abuse drugs while preaching their seductive power. “People who saw ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’ — I saw those movies and thought, ‘Wow, they made heroin look pretty cool,’” says Josh. “I’m not knocking them. They’re great movies. It’s just a very delicate balance to ride.”
“When you make a movie about [addicts] and you’re showing from their perspective, how do you do that without translating that same love or desire to the viewer,” Ben asks.
As such “Heaven Knows What” doesn’t dwell much on the actual drug taking, and it spends most of the time in the constant state of agitation that comes with being an addict. For them being an addict, especially in a city like New York City, is a kind of job. “You gotta pay our rent, you gotta pay for the drug,” Josh points out. “You have a schedule that’s still regulated by most of society because you’re either stealing or you’re begging, and you have to do that on a normal people’s schedule. She says in the movie, ‘I have to wake up to catch the morning rush.’”
Like their other movies —“Daddy Longlegs,” “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” —“Heaven Knows What” is deeply ingrained in the anxiety of New York City life. “To me it doesn’t take much effort to capture that energy,” Josh says. “The vibe is always there. It’s just a matter of resurrecting it.”
“Being from here helps,” Ben adds. “You don’t treat it with the same preciousness that someone else would. I remember walking down 5th, and there were all these people stopped on the sidewalk. I was like, ‘What is everyone looking at?’ I stormed right through and there’s the Empire State Building. People were taking pictures of it. I thought, ‘That’s here. I forget.’”
We’re used to, these days, New York being depicted on screen as a playground for the wealthy. The often homeless addicts in “Heaven Knows What” spend most of their time in their space, hanging in the Upper West Side.
“There’s two awesome sayings,” says Josh. “One is about how the super-rich and the super-poor are very similar: neither carry wallets and neither carry keys to their houses. They have nothing to do all day. The other saying is you can take the ho out of the street but you can’t take the street out of the ho. New York City will always be the ho with the street in it.”