The filmmaking brothers talk about their Venice and Toronto selection, including how they were inspired by addict-turned-writer/actress Arielle Holmes.

Heaven Knows What, the Safdie brothers’ new film, premiered in Venice Orizzonti and offers a part fiction, part documentary story about young heroin addicts. (The film also plays in Toronto’s Wavelengths section starting Saturday.)

Joshua Safdie recognises how “surreal” it is to present his latest film Heaven Knows What amongst the glamorous surroundings of Venice. “We brought ‘the street’ to one of the most glamorous places in the world, a place of palaces … and we see this film as an opera so it made a lot of sense that it would play in a palace,” he said.

The film stars Arielle Holmes as Harley, in a story partly adapted from Holmes’ own life as a homeless young addict on the streets of New York. Caleb Landry Jones plays her boyfriend Ilya.

Joshua and his brother and filmmaking partner Benny Safdie were doing research for a different film set in the Diamond District in New York, when he spotted Holmes, and he recalls “she was a star from the second I saw her and like an astronomer you want to share the star with humans and it kind of grew from there.”

Despite only being 19, he found “her stories were so charged and her insight was so deep.” She wasn’t right for the Diamond District film but they became friends and collaborators.  

The brothers were immediately impressed by her writing. Joshua says, “she wrote with such intensity, with such originality, with such unique prose that it begged to be turned into a movie.”

Holmes is now clean, and Joshua remarks: “I think that she understood and started to realize that she had the ambition, but I don’t think she knew she had the ability … when she realized what she could do with herself, the limits she could push herself past, in terms of a performer, in terms of a thinker, in terms of a writer, I think that’s when she started to realize that maybe she should turn things around for herself and maximize her own potential”.

The production was almost endangered because the real-life man who inspired the Ilya character had a non-fatal overdose a few days before she shoot started, and Joshua said he wanted to drop the project because “in the life of an addict, OD-ing is almost beautiful for them because they get so high they fall out … it was very dark for me … I called Benny and I said ‘I don’t know if I can do this, this is too dark for me, I can’t handle the way they fetishize death.’”

In looking at other films about drugs, Joshua Safdie was inspired by Jon Alpert’s HBO films Junkie Junior and Life of Crime. He also cited Martin Bell’s 1984 film Streetwise as a “major inspiration.”

Benny says he liked The Panic in Needle Park “as a love story” but for Heaven Knows What “we wanted to make a movie about people and the people happen to use this drug and we wanted to show it frankly and not romantically.”

To develop a realistic look, they tested different filters. Joshua says, “We wanted it to have a hazed look…but it does have that rawness to it.”

As far as the Diamond District film – titled Uncut Gems — is concerned, the brothers have a new draft of the script. In Joshua’s opinion, “that world hasn’t really been captured before.”

Benny adds: “It’s a thriller about a gambling diamond dealing addict. We obviously kind of like addiction in its different form.”