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.

Eye of the Tiger

Highlights from the 49th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam

    

“We believe in the power of cinema to increase our understanding of society. We trust its potential to infuse positive social change. We collectively expand the creative space for film citizenship and celebrate the diverse forms of cinema.”

– IFFR

As the film industry once again finds itself mired in criticism of being pale, male and local, there is one event that continues to prove an exception to the exclusive rule – the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). At this year’s festival, 145 out of the 574 films were world premieres, with the wider industry represented by 89 different countries. Its inaugural showcase in 1972 infamously garnered seventeen visitors, but now, in its 49th year, it remains one of the best moments in the calendar to enjoy experimental, documentary, fiction, short or feature-length independent cinema from all reaches of the globe. Rotterdam itself is a microcosm for this multi- cultural and lingual showreel, with half of the city’s residents having non-Dutch origins (or at least one parent born outside the country), housing large communities from Suriname, Turkey, Morocco and the Caribbean. Cycling down its coffee shop lined streets, you get the feeling most residents would have no problem overcoming the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles and dual ways of seeing. Art installations, performances, exhibitions and artists films also continue to make up a substantial part of the festival’s diverse offering, via its Art Directions programme. This element, according to IFFR director Bero Beyer, is to “shake up our expectations and transgress boundaries.”

Below, you’ll find some of my highlights from Art Directions and across the festival – from Taiwanese Virtual Reality to Afrofuturism from Baltimore.

Photography Jeroen Mooijman

Beasts Clawing at Straws

Korea continues to create great cinema (Bong Joon-Ho incidentally attended this year and showed a black and white screening of his excellent film Parasite), and Kim Yonghoon’s Tarantino-esque multi narrative crime drama rightly deserves the special jury award from the festival. Bloody and brilliant, it coalesces all of its strands into a darkly comic game of cat and mouse in which characters are crossed and double-crossed, devoured and destroyed by their greed.

Sacred Beings 

A number of countries in Asia have a long and rich history of non-binary expression through religious ritual and practice (transgender and intersex individuals were considered closer to God), at odds with the current, reductive debates around gender diversity and queer culture, which is arguably an ugly import of Western colonialism. This short and sweet installation attempts to “reimagine, reconcile, re-establish and reclaim these so-called gender deviations”, and a personal highlight was the documentary photography in Indonesia by academic Sharyn Davies.

The Making of [5×1] & O [5×1] double bill

We are beginning to see VR as a viable art form and although are some way off from it reaching its full potential, both these VR shorts were incredible. The first, created by Midi Z, places you directly around a table of actors, arduously going over and over a scene due to an overbearing director. Swivelling around 360 degrees, you can take in the full production crew, which makes for a dizzying combination of naturalism and artifice, compounded by the medium and playfully altered further when the director is then given feedback on his own acting, a film within a film within a…you get the idea. At once intimate and destabilising, this could well be the future of filmmaking (as demonstrated by Mende’s recent computer game-like 1917) – with you at the very epicentre of the story, the action orbiting around you.

The second film that followed, directed by Qiu Yang, was a grotesque, intense movement piece by French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan. You find yourself in a vast warehouse filled with caged doves and in front of his stage, a milky body of water sits opposite a blinding 2001-like obelisk. A suited man then proceeds to break down – physically, mentally, running through birth and death and rebirth via his transformative materials of clay and paint and straw. Anyone familiar with the film Samsara or his now infamous clay performance art, in which he repeatedly layers and punctures and remodels his face like a palimpsest, will understand how unsettling it is. Least of all when he is grunting, shouting, writhing and undressing right in front of you. VR has yet to perfect the technology so that a piece longer than 10 minutes doesn’t make your head ring from nausea, nevertheless, it’s an incredibly emotive, dangerous and unsettling film, made all the more so by its immediacy.  

G/D THYSELF: Spirit Strategy On Raising Free Black Children

An incredible spectacle from the American Ummah Chroma collective sees visitors don robes and enter a vast, sacred space. You are invited to explore, meditate, draw, smell sage and even rake the soft gravel within the Afrofuturist installation. It is a sensorial and poetic piece that explores the histories of Baltimore (poignantly Rotterdam’s sister city) and the power of black creativity and spirituality, perfectly at home within the impressive Het Nieuwe Instituut.    

Uncut Gems 

Do not see this film if you suffer from anxiety. I loaded up on a Kit Kat and some Haribo before the screening and by the end I thought I was going to have a heart attack. The Safdie brothers have produced a fantastic, frenetic film that mines the hardly-ever-used potential of Adam Sandler, finding the tragicomic balance that Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrated in Punch-Drunk Love. Sadler’s New York jeweller is a repulsive, compulsive gambler ricocheting from one terrible decision to the next and we are dragged along, watching between our fingers at his mounting debt. Wonderfully stressful, truly visceral viewing experience.

How to Overthrow the US Government (Legally)

Filmaker and professor Caveh Zahedi runs a how-to-make-a-web-series course that also probes how to bring about political change at the experimental The New School, New York. During the course, the students film the entire process and edit, together with Zahedi, the film itself. What follows is a hilariously raw and open exploration of the lesson’s – and their own – shortcomings. Starting as an exploration of macro politics and bureaucracy, the documentary turns inward as the importance of relationships, learning and connections between peers take centre stage, with the class almost doubling as therapy. A very clever, introspective experiment which showcased its honesty artfully.

Robby Müller Polaroids

The beauty of Wim Wender’s films (Paris, Texas) as well as Jim Jarmusch’s (Down by Law), are in part thanks to the careful eye of the late Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller. Like the former director, he was an adept polaroid photographer, using them to capture local flora, landscapes and potential locations for films. This is a quiet, beautiful exhibition commemorating a rarely seen part of Müller’s work, a gentle reminder of his mastery of minimalism and natural light.

Love’s Twisting Path

Reportedly Nakajima Sadao’s final chambira (sword fighting film), this faithful genre story involves one drunk, sulking, pouting, disgraced Ronin rediscovering his honour and craft by hacking down a collection of bad guys and protecting the woman he (kind of) loves. Set against the tumultuous background of the end of Shogunate rule, the choreography, set and costume make this worth seeing alone.   

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