Toronto: A Homeless Teen Stars in Her Own Biopic in Buzzy 'Heaven Knows What'

La Biennale

The adaptation of leading lady Arielle Holmes' real life story of addiction was well-received at Venice

Josh and Benny Safdie have been labeled directors-to-watch and New York’s indie darlings ever since their first two features, The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddy Longlegs, were warmly received at Cannes in 2008 and 2009. It was Daddy Longlegs that really put the Safdies on the map, scoring Gotham and Spirit Awards and landing the 20-something brother-filmmaking-team an agent. With a light breeze at their backs, the Safdies looked for a project that could bring their career to new level.

“We were looking for a film that would make us pop into a larger conversation,” Josh tells The Hollywood Reporter, “as oppose to an in-crowd, indie situation.”

While keeping busy with other projects -- a couple of short films and a documentary about former high school basketball star Lenny Cooke -- the Safdies took meetings throughout Hollywood and tried their hand at writing a genre script, which was later deemed too unconventional. They eventually set their sights on Uncut Gems, a thriller set in Manhattan’s diamond district, where their father once worked.

“We were doing extensive research in the diamond district,” explains Josh. After a day of research, he saw 19-year old Arielle Holmes entering the subway station. He assumed she was a Russian assistant working in the district. He also thought she had a striking look, so he approached her about being in Uncut Gems. What he discovered was that she was in fact a homeless girl from New Jersey with a heroin addiction and a boyfriend who was making her life hell.

The conversation between filmmaker and Holmes continued over weekly meetings, until one day she stopped showing up. The Safdies learned, after receiving a call from Holmes, that she had attempted suicide and was sent to the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital. Once she was out and recovering, the Safdies commissioned Holmes to write her story, which she did on Apple Store computers throughout the city.

Meanwhile the Safdies had grown increasingly frustrated with their diamond district thriller. The brothers felt stuck after developing the project for two years, writing 17 drafts of the script, switching producers and disagreeing with potential backers over cast. It was at this point the pages from Holmes started to trickle in. Sharing them with their co-writer and co-editor Ronnie Bronstein (Frownland), the three collaborators were blown away by what Holmes had been writing.

“The more I learned about Arielle's life the more I realized that was the film to make,” recalls Benny of first reading the manuscript that would become Heaven Knows What.

Josh started to spend his days with Holmes' crew of street kids instead of in the diamond district. The Safdies wanted Holmes to play herself and to find the right combination of real life street kids and trained actors to round out the cast, so they flew in a series Hollywood actors to test as Arielle’s boyfriend, Ilya, who is the catalyst for much of the film’s drama. Once Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) immersed himself in Holmes’ world, practically living on the streets himself, the Safdies started to shoot extensive rehearsals.

The notion of non-professional actors, many of whom are drug users, might conjure up the image of a shaky handheld, improvisational indie. The Safdie’s were striving for something different. During rehearsals the filmmakers experimented with shooting on a tripod and used an extremely long lens with the hope of creating the sense of street theater.

“We were trying to let the city street be in the foreground and add movement,” explains Benny. “It was part of this street theater idea, we would have the camera very far away and actors would know we had the camera on them, but everyone around them thought it was this spur of the moment thing, [such as a] fight between street kids in front of the Barnes & Noble.”

The unique shooting situation left the Safdies with a number of factors they could not control and somewhat outside their comfort zone as filmmakers. More than anything though it was the dark subject matter of Heaven Knows What, a depressing turn from their semi-autobiographical serio-comedy Daddy Longlegs, that made the brothers question if they could make the film.

“Two days before shooting I wanted to quit,” admits Josh. “I didn't want to make the film, it was too dark. The guy Caleb [Landry Jones] was based on O.D.'d, he stopped breathing and me and the casting director had to revive him in a McDonald's. It was very scary. I was less concerned about the pragmatism [of the shoot] and more wondering if emotionally I could make it through the film.”

Bronstein and Benny convinced Josh it was too late to pull the plug. Once the shoot began the filmmakers faced a number of challenges, but Bronstein, who purposefully removed himself from the set and the real-life cast in order to maintain objectivity, would watch the dailies and assure the Safdies that what they were filming was working.

The result is a film that has been met with early buzz coming off of its premiere in Venice this week. Amongst the early reviews IndieWire’s Eric Kohn gave it an "A", Variety’s Scott Foundas called it a “sizable step forward" for the Safdies, while THR's David Rooney made favorable comparisons to the work of John Cassavetes and Gus Van Sant.  It will be interesting to see how the film is received at TIFF this weekend, but early reviews leave open the distinct possibility that the Safdies’ unexpected detour into the dark world of Heaven Knows What and away from mainstream filmmaking could be what vaults their career to another level. 

'Heaven Knows What' will screen on 7:15pm on Sept. 6 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, 10pm on Sept Sept. 7 and 7:45pm on Sept. 13 at The Scotiabank Theater. On Oct. 2nd it will receive its U.S. premiere the New York Film Festival.

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