During a recent interview on his cellphone, filmmaker Josh Safdie was walking down 119th Street in his neighborhood in Harlem as sirens wailed and pedestrians raucously shouted in the background. “Oh my God, there are so many heroin bags on my street right now,” he said. “Just eight or nine empty bags lying around.”
The gritty urban milieu could well have been a setting from his new film, “Heaven Knows What,” co-directed with his brother, Benny Safdie, which spotlights the life and doomed romance of a homeless junkie, based on Arielle Holmes’ upcoming memoir, “Mad Love in New York City.” In the movie, the author plays Harley, a lightly fictionalized character based on herself, following the 19-year-old as she clashes with her nihilistic junkie boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones); “spanges” (or panhandles) for change; shoplifts, then sells, stolen energy drinks; and chases her fix. The film, a hit on the festival circuit and now in theaters, has received excellent reviews, with The New York Times heralding it as a “beautiful classic of street theater.”
It’s not the first time Josh and Benny Safdie, 31 and 29, respectively, have combined fact and fiction in their work. Their 2009 film, “Daddy Longlegs,” was inspired by their childhood with their unpredictable father, a Syrian-born Jew who was a compulsive amateur videographer, a distant cousin of the famed Israeli architect Moshe Safdie and who worked for a time as a runner in New York’s diamond district.
Filmmakers Benny and Josh Safdie.
One late afternoon in May 2013, as Josh Safdie was researching a prospective film based on his father’s years as a nonreligious Jew in that predominantly Orthodox industry, he chanced to spot Holmes swiping her Metro card in the subway near 47th Street. At the time, she was well dressed, and, Safdie recalled, “There was a star quality to her that pulled me gravitationally.”
Safdie asked Holmes if she would consider starring in his diamond movie, “Uncut Gems,” and didn’t know she was a homeless drug addict until they met to discuss that film in a restaurant in Chinatown some time later. “She was dressed like a street kid, and she kept nodding out,” Safdie recalled of the second meeting. The filmmaker learned that the day he met Holmes, she had awakened on the steps of a Buddhist church, washed her hair in a public bathroom and had donned the only dress she owned. While she was working as an unpaid intern designing jewelry in the diamond district, most of her money came from panhandling and from working as a dominatrix at a club called Pandora’s Box. Often she slept on the steps of various churches or in Central Park on the Upper West Side.
Intrigued, Safdie began hanging out with Holmes and her friends and met Holmes’ abusive lover, Ilya, a charismatic, if violent, Russian Jew whose idol was the misanthropic Greek philosopher Diogenes. “She described their love as epic, operatic,” he recalled. “She was like a member of the Manson family cult talking about Charles Manson. And I’m very interested in relationships where love breeds that kind of totalitarianism.”
After Holmes disappeared for two months, Safdie learned that she had been admitted to the Bellevue psychiatric hospital after Ilya goaded her into attempting suicide by slashing her wrist to prove that she loved him. “She seemed to be like a walking prophet or a tortured saint,” he said. “And that was the moment that this film project was born. … I wanted to tell the story of a girl who fetishized love and death, and was so darkly romantic that her life was in danger. And also the story of a young woman who was trapped in a kind of Mobius loop, where the only way out was prison or death.”
Safdie paid Holmes by the page to write down her story, which she typed for hours at a time mostly at Apple stores around Manhattan; with his co-screenwriter, Ronald Bronstein, Safdie then adapted her memoir into the script for “Heaven Knows What.”
In one bizarre sequence in the film, based on a true incident, a Chasidic Jew naively gives Holmes’ character $20 so she can get high. “It’s a funny scene because there’s a major miscommunication going on there,” Safdie said. “He says, ‘It’s good to be high,’ but he’s high on God, and she’s high on heaven knows what.”
Benny Safdie, who also served as the film’s editor, however, was initially hesitant about making the addiction-themed movie. “I thought it had been done before,” he said. But while many other films have depicted the drug underworld (think the 1969 classic “Midnight Cowboy” or 1971’s “The Panic in Needle Park”), Safdie was ultimately impressed by Holmes’ unique perspective and especially the details of junkie life she recounted in her memoir, including having to awaken at 8 a.m. each morning in order to spange during morning rush hour.
“But it was very difficult for me to enter Arielle’s world, because it was very dark and bleak,” he said. “I also felt morally conflicted about how we were going to actually film the shooting up of drugs — to not glamorize it in any way, and at the same time not to judge these people. Eventually we decided to use wider shots of those sequences; we very rarely cut in close during those moments.”
Holmes agreed to eschew heroin but to remain on methadone during the shoot over 30 freezing days in early 2014; the brothers also cast some of her junkie friends to play versions of themselves in the movie.
However, Ilya refused to act in the film, explaining that he was embarrassed by his bloated appearance and oft-broken nose. But he did show up often on the set and created his own drama during the making of the movie: One day during rehearsals, he overdosed on heroin and had to be taken away in an ambulance.
At another time, he was severely burned in an apartment fire. In April of this year, he was found dead in Central Park with a syringe lying beside him.
The Safdie brothers said Kaddish for Ilya during his Jewish funeral in New York, where his loved ones shoveled dirt upon his grave per Jewish tradition.
After shooting “Heaven Knows What,” Holmes expressed her desire to get clean, and the Safdies paid for her to attend a drug treatment center in Boca Raton, Fla. She is now reportedly sober, living in Hollywood and pursuing a professional acting career, having shot a science fiction thriller and with a role in Andrea Arnold’s upcoming film “American Honey,” opposite Shia LaBeouf.
The Safdie brothers have now returned to making “Uncut Gems.”
Asked whether casting junkies to play themselves in a film could be perceived as exploitative, Josh Safdie strongly said no. “That’s condescending,” he said of the question, “because it insinuates that these people have no agency of their own, and that they’re like animals. The people who are in the film were and are my friends; they’re still very much a part of my life.”
“Heaven Knows What” is in theaters now.