When Twilight star Robert Pattinson saw a still from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie's 2014 film Heaven Knows What, he became convinced he had to work with the two indie filmmakers.
"He reached out and wrote some mystical and maniacal email saying it was connected to his purpose and that he felt some connection to us and that he wanted to be involved in whatever we're making next," says Josh Safdie in a recent conference call with his brother Benny. "He wasn't right for this Diamond District movie that we're doing at the top of the year, but I have this life-long interest in reading about and watching movies about and hanging out with the American criminal."
Knowing that Pattinson was willing to do "anything" to be in one of his films, Josh began creating a character for Pattinson, a model, actor and musician.
"At the time, I was reading Executioner's Song for the first time and the Jack Abbott book In the Belly of the Beast," says Josh Safdie. "At the same time, I was reading and talking to [actor] Buddy Duress and his prison journals were very informative as well. There was this general idea to make this kind of movie. When Robert reached out, we knew we could tap into a much larger audience than normal and make a piece of termite art and a piece of pulp that at first feels disposable but then you realize there are all these nutrients there. In the tradition of genre movies, we wanted to do something that felt propulsive and was entertaining. We wanted to make a popcorn flick that was also a reflection of society."
Josh Safdie would first write an extensive background for small-time crook Connie Nickas, a character that Pattison could play. He then constructed a screenplay based on that background story. The resulting thriller, Good Time, opens areawide on Friday.
In the film, Connie decides to rob a bank with his mentally challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie). The heist goes awry, Nick ends up in jail and Connie takes desperate measures to try to free Nick, even teaming up with Ray (Duress), another small-time crook who's just gotten out of jail. The film's realistic portrayal of the heist separates it from other genre films.
"Crime is so sensationalized but most of the stories are low end," says Josh Safdie. "They're usually not spectacular. The landmarks are usually subway sandwich shops or playgrounds or one–bedroom apartments that someone was hiding out in. Movies have fooled people into thinking that crime is so romantic and explosive and grandiose. It can be, but most of the time it's this petty thing tied to a romantic notion."
Benny Safdie says he and his brother sought to "tap into that realism and use the work we've been doing in our other films and take that to the genre element and see if we could fuse the two."
To his credit, pretty boy Pattinson goes all in.
"He gave us a full commitment," says Josh Safdie. "When he first sat down with us and said he wanted to do whatever it takes, I told him to read Executioner's Song, which is a 900-page book. I sent him this extensive character background, which is very long in its own right and isn't even the script. He worked with that and gave us months and months of time and would come sporadically to get lost in the criminal world and meet characters that Connie might hang out with or be inspired by."
The two directors describe the film's characters as people who "live in the present" as they try to outrun the law. The irony of the situation isn't lost on them.
"These criminals affront the idea of time," says Benny Safdie. "I can't even count how many times they say, 'I don't care.' They don't think in that realm. What's so funny and strange is that time becomes hyper-realistic. When you're on the run, it's your demise. You can run away as much as you can, but in the end, it will always catch up. You live in the no,w and it extenuates the time and makes it more present.
"The film's triumph is that we have this electronic, propulsive, rhythmic score that dies down as the story of Connie fades away," says Benny Safdie. "The second it leaves, you have this beautiful track that [composer] Daniel [Lopatin] wrote that Iggy Pop wrote lyrics over. It's a perfect way to end the film. It says the world isn't such a fast moving place all the time, and maybe these are the people who really matter. The lyrics are so beautiful because Dan could see the movie through the duality of Connie and Nick's perspective. That speaks to his artistry. He really is the king of termite art."