“Heaven Knows What” is the new Safdie Brothers film. It features the adventures of Arielle Holmes, starring herself, struggling between the two loves of her life: the wild, errant Ilya, a rebel boy with hypnotic blue eyes, and heroin. Caught in the turmoil of incessant drama and ecstasy, the film is a fearless and immersive view of life with nothing but feelings, a few clothes, a couple friends, and loaded needles in New York City. One of a kind, astonishely real, the movie is a journey through agony and despair, where the opposite—pleasure and happines—somehow precariously survive.
The film opens this weekend (5/29/15) in New York at the Sunshine Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Arclight. Check out our interview with director Josh Safdie and exclusive behind the scenes footage.
How did you meet Arielle?
I met Ari deep in research in the diamond district. Myself and Sebastian Bear McClard were doing business and dealings on the block on 47th street. We thought we had seen most of the great street characters. For whatever reason, I was drawn to Ari as I saw her calmly trying to swipe her metro card. I told Sebo, “that girl is incredible.” I kind of watched her for a minute and then Sebo urged me to go talk to her and see if she works in the district and if she wanted to be a part of the film we were planning on doing in the diamond district. I approached her thinking she probably spoke Russian, nope… she spoke English and with a Jersey accent. She was unique, quite, beautiful and a star. I was nervous. We exchanged contact info and she had told me that she was open to the idea of being in a movie. We agreed to meet up another time as we both were going in different directions. Myself uptown to Harlem and her downtown to Chinatown.
What did you like about her story?
I was really attracted to the romance in her life. To the darkness of that romance. Romance can be very dangerous. There is a heroism to romance that can trick your mind into anything really.
Where you reluctant or attracted by the world she lives in?
Neither, interested is the better word. Arielle is such a resilient original. I was impressed and attracted to her focus, her intensity and her resourcefulness. The world around her emphasized these qualities.
“Heaven Knows What:” why did you choose such title?
Long answer: I bought this book in L.A. in an occult section during a dark period in my life called “Heaven Knows What.” It was the book that popularized astrology. People could buy the book and do their own readings and see what was in store for the future.
Short Answer: Heaven Knows What will happen to Harley, Ilya, Mike and the children of the street.
“There is a heroism to romance that can trick your mind into anything really.”
What was the most difficult scene to do and why?
Every part of the film was difficult, obviously her suicide attempt was difficult both technically and emotionally. It was especially strange for me as I had known Ari during that time of her life. So what was once only in my imagination, when Ari first recounted the incident to me, was now a reality in front of me. Add to that, the prosthetics, the freezing weather and Ari’s visceral performance, it was tough. But really, the hardest scene was Ilya’s OD scene. There was something very dark in the location where we shot, it matched the scene too closely and it just shook us all. The dying lover, the drugs, the dirty ass bathroom… the fact that the real Ilya OD’d in front of me days before production… again the cards were against us and it disoriented us at first.
What’s the real struggle in this movie: love or drugs?
They’re the same.
Photography: lead image and paired images: Eleonore Hendricks; all other images: Oscar Boyson.