A Brief History of the Safdie Brothers

With little new material for cinephiles to consume, Euan Foley delves into the filmography of the directing world’s hottest family property

Despite being largely overstepped this past awards season, the Safdie brothers’ most recent film Uncut Gems has been a massive hit, placed high on many 2019 lists and catapulted them to the next level of filmmaking stardom – hardly a surprise when you sit down and plot their remarkable trajectory.

Born and raised in New York City and very much a product of such a unique and vibrant place, Josh (b.1984) and Benny (b.1986) grew up bouncing between their mother in Manhattan and their father in Queens. This growing up in constant motion heavily inspired their early works and New York City has predictably been the setting of all of their films.

Both studied film at Boston University in the mid-late 2000’s and have worked together since they were making films as children, as inspired by their family (including architect great uncle Moshe Safdie and playwright Oren Safdie). Their father Alberto began to film the boys’ everyday antics not long after Benny was born and upon splitting up with their mother, actually encouraged them to watch divorce drama Kramer vs Kramer to explain what was happening. In Josh’s own words for The New Yorker in 2019, their upbringing was “very fucked up”.

In high school they founded Red Bucket Films, a production company that eventually produced their first feature, 2008’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed, a modest indie success from their senior college years about a meandering con-woman. Written and directed by Josh, and edited (among others) by Benny – carving out the roles that have largely defined them, with Josh more in control of direction and Benny more an editor and performer.

Josh, left and Benny during their time at Boston University

However, their individual contributions are far more complex than just that. Both have credits for producing, directing, writing, editing and starring in one or more of their films. They also have various frequent collaborators behind and in front of the camera. Eleonore Hendricks, Buddy Duress, Ronald Bronstein, Sean Price Williams and Daniel Lopitan have all contributed to multiple films in some way or another. Add up all the above and the lazy comparison to make would be the Coen brothers, but while their films are most easily identified by their scripts or cast, the give-away for the Safdies is in their image.

There is a ruggedness to all of their films. Often shooting without permits, using the public as extras, with limited lighting and deliberately shaky camera movement. Gritty authenticity is very important to them and making their surroundings as natural as possible partnered up with extensive character testing seems to be their ideal method. This quite eccentric artistry, whether the result of nature from their family or nurture from their personal interests, is something they seem reluctant to shake off, having served them so well.

Their second film, Daddy Longlegs was a vaguely autobiographical account of their childhood, staged around their father. It was also here when they first joined up with Ronald Bronstein (in the starring role) who despite a Gotham Award winning performance has been something of a quieter, behind the scenes partner as a script writer and editor since.

Ronald Bronstein with Sage and Frey Ranaldo in Daddy Longlegs

In 2013 they made Lenny Cooke, a documentary about the real life high school basketball player and his fall from what seemed like a certain NBA career; a man who fits well in their roguish gallery of fictional people. Their encyclopaedic knowledge of basketball is one of the many quirks you wouldn’t expect from two Jews from New York, but that subversion is exactly what they embody. The following year they adapted Arielle Holmes’ unpublished memoir into Heaven Knows What, a bleak story of a young woman’s destructive heroin habit which won the Grand Prix and Best Director awards at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Then bizarrely, Robert Pattinson came to them having seen a still from Heaven Knows What and asked to be in their next film. They then wrote a story around him which became the acclaimed heist-gone-wrong thriller, Good Time. Pinning down Sandler for 2019’s Uncut Gems however was not as easy. They’ve since joked about how he reportedly “wasn’t available”, as they worked on the script as far back as 2009. But they only ever had eyes for him as Howard Ratner, their diamond dealing, money bleeding, walking headache. It took seeing Pattinson’s work with them for Sandler to finally commit to the role, and the success in the aftermath of Good Time in particular signifies something of a watershed moment for them, when the stories they’d sat on for years suddenly not only became possible, but how they originally envisioned them.

The topics and people they write are interesting, largely anti heroes and oddballs. A kleptomaniac, a struggling father, a group of heroin addicts, a pair of bank robbers and an all-round chancer. These are not good people. But they are interesting people. The worlds these characters exist in are usually based in some sort of life the brothers have been exposed to; Their father worked as a runner in the diamond district which inspired Uncut Gems and they met Arielle Holmes – still on heroin at the time, while doing research for another film entirely. This balancing act between fact and fiction is something the brothers trace right back to their childhood. According to Josh, whenever they had family around he would tell stories to entertain them and at a young age worked out that the more details he included, the more believable the story was – a trait particularly apparent in their later works.

The shot of Arielle Holmes which brought the Safdies to Pattinson’s attention

As filmmakers their sets are said to be like organised chaos. A strange combination of arduous prep but also encouraging of spontaneity and improvisation. Uncut Gems had 160 script drafts but its franticness is still very apparent in the final product, engineered to feel that way. It would also be fair to say that the tighter they have gotten their ideas down, the better their films have been. Their recent pairing with studio A24 has been a match made in heaven but sources of funding for earlier films including fashion moguls Kate and Andy Spader, shipping heir Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis and Youtuber-come-media-tycoon Casey Neistat are testament to their by-any-means attitude before they had a brand of their own to sell.

If you ever hear them being interviewed it’s clear that they are not only filmmakers but passionate students of film too. They talk over each others’ stories frequently – a humorous quality that suggests a continuity from childhood that has never been challenged. They made light of this during their recent Independent Spirit Award acceptance speech. Never has so much been drawn about a relationship from such short and seemingly innocuous words – undoubtedly scripted and rehearsed.

On set with Adam Sandler while shooting Uncut Gems

They were briefly attached to a remake of Walter Hill’s 48 Hours, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the script they were hired to write quickly developed into something else they have since placed on the back burner. In February they were announced to be working on a parody of HGTV for Showtime starring Canadian comedian Nathan Fielder and Benny, but in late May they also announced a separate two year TV deal with HBO. With so much of the entertainment industry in the air at the moment, it’s hard to say when or if these will actually come to fruition.

Right now their main output is through their radio station Elara FM which they started during what Josh refers to as “the quar” (quarantine), and the twitter account that they naturally share. Content varies from guest DJ mixes from the likes of Finn Wolfhard or Julia Fox, fake interviews with Eric Clapton, to more serious material regarding the recent unrest in the US. If nothing else, they are engaging with what is current while still having a sense of humour about themselves and their work – a pretty good attitude to have considering it may be some time until they can put a film crew on their beloved New York streets again.