A New Way to Kick Heroin—Get Cast in a Movie

By Dorri Olds 05/29/15

When director Josh Safdie approached Arielle Holmes on the street about starring in his movie, he didn't know she was a homeless heroin addict.

Heaven Knows What
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Director Josh Safdie spotted the Elysian beauty, Arielle Holmes, then 19, in a polka dot dress and sheer black stockings. She was headed into the subway in New York City’s Diamond District where Safdie was mapping out a film he and his brother Benny were making that was set in the area. On impulse, Safdie ran over to Holmes and told her he wanted to talk to her about starring in a movie. The encounter itself sounds like it stepped right off the silver screen, like in Purple Rose of Cairo. 

But much to Safdie’s surprise, Holmes showed up for their meeting in scruffy shorts, a raggedy T-shirt, and on the nod. He soon learned Holmes was homeless, a heroin addict, and hooked on a self-destructive relationship with a junkie named Ilya. 

Safdie still saw something in Holmes and suggested she start a diary and get clean. Her journal pages turned into a to-be-published memoir, Mad Love in New York City, and it became the basis for the Safdie brothers’ indie, Heaven Knows What. 

Watching this flick was like rubbernecking at a disastrous wreck. It depicts the decrepit, unmanageable lives of homeless teens on drugs with all of the high drama and disturbing situations. Although similar to films like Leaving Las Vegas, Requiem for a Dream, Panic in Needle ParkHeaven Knows What is original enough and hypnotizing.

Holmes stars as Harley, a fictionalized version of herself. Actor Caleb Landry Jones plays her sick and twisted boyfriend Ilya. Rounding out the triad of central characters is a street kid named Buddy Duress who plays Mike, the heroin dealer Holmes manipulates. 

At the start of the disturbing tale, we watch Harley (Holmes) slash her wrists in front of Ilya. In drug addict logic she decides that dying is her only way to show him her undying love. As blood gushes from her wrist Ilya the loser says he doesn’t feel like accompanying her to the hospital—at least the guy calls 911. Despite every creepy thing he does, her love for him remains undiminished. It’s the kind of dysfunctional romance that sends people screaming to Al-Anon.

The Fix caught up with Josh Safdie to hear how he got a junkie off heroin and in the process saved his own life, too.

What made you feel it was a safe bet to work with a heroin addict?

Arielle isn’t my first friend or family member—I consider her part of my family now—who battled addiction. I think people become susceptible to becoming addicted because their brains are abnormal. They’re medicating themselves. To get high is obviously alluring and people get trapped. The kind of people that can become an addict just get caught up in their own propaganda.

You mean they're putting a spin on what they're doing, like telling themselves they need a drug?

Yes. She didn’t even see how bad her life with Ilya was until she saw the movie.

Was Arielle still getting high during filming?

While we were shooting [the film] she was taking methadone to get off heroin but I think methadone is an evil drug. It’s even more addicting than heroin. 

So, what allowed you to trust Arielle? Addicts are notorious thieves and unreliable.

My brother Benny and I had this deal with Ari. She said she really wanted to do the movie so we were paying her to write and act in the movie. She said she’d do it if we put her in rehab afterwards. 

Most addicts have a lot of stops and starts before getting clean. Was it a straight line for Arielle?

After we finished the movie, she fell off and was shooting up a lot. She had a pretty big habit. At one point, she went to a detox but she only stayed there 12 hours. So, she went on methadone. After we almost finished the film, she wanted to get off the methadone. But then she stayed on it because we needed to wait a month before we shot the ending. 

She hadn’t liked the ending in the script. She changed the movie with her performance. She broke a window on the bus. That wasn’t scripted. Then we had to rewrite the beginning and we figured we’d edit the film and figure out the ending. I couldn’t send her to rehab and then ask her to come back and act in this movie again for many, many reasons. I couldn’t ask Ari to go down to Florida, get clean and then come back and act with these people. It would be a waste of everything and not fair to her.

You mean because it would undo any recovery she managed to get from the rehab to then be around that addict world again?

Exactly. But then during that month we were editing, she fell off and was using again. She got to the rehab in Florida, and at two in the morning, after I’d dropped her off, she was calling me from a highway. She’d escaped. I heard that terror. I heard that panic. I hate that tone of voice. She was going through hardcore withdrawal. They gave her some Suboxone because they hadn’t waited long enough for the heroin to clear her system. Kicking is no fun and there’s no way to make it not painful. She didn’t want to go through the pain and she was asking me to come and get her. I had to say, “No.”

Wow. Good for you! You did a real mitzvah in your life. 

I don’t really look at it like that but yeah, everybody needs a sense of purpose. The trick is trying to tell your brain that you’re not going to find the purpose in drugs, you’re going to find it in something else. That’s what I did with moviemaking. 

You saved her. 

She really saved me.

What do you mean?

Before the movie I wasn’t doing well. I didn’t know where I was going. My closeness to her and that world, it was kind of a reminder for me not to go that route.

Did you ever consider giving up on filmmaking?

Never. It’s my drug, man. 

Caleb Landry Jones was so believable as Ilya. Did he have a past that included heroin?

No. He just spent a lot of time hanging out with everyone in that scene, especially Ilya. They spent a lot of time together. They were like inseparable, which wasn’t always a good thing. They got drunk a lot. And sometimes things got really dark.

Was Ilya upset about how he was portrayed as such a bad guy?

No, he was proud of it. He’s actually a really dark guy. He was, I mean. You know, he died. He was a real punk though—into all of this black metal music. Dark, dark stuff. Ari has a really dark side, too. She was attracted to that darkness in Ilya. This movie isn’t just about being addicted to heroin but also about being addicted to a person.  

How much of the story was fictionalized?

Things were twisted and warped and characters were combined but for the most part it’s true to life, although the chronology of events shifted a little bit.

Are you and Arielle still close?

Oh my God, too close sometimes.

Did you ever have romantic feelings for each other?

No, no, no. Never. It was weird but it’s something that never entered either of our minds. In fact, we talked about that. She has no girlfriends. All of her friends are guys.

Do you and Arielle talk about her recovery?

Yeah, we talk about everything but she is like a punk. Right now she has this concept, she doesn’t think that addiction is a real thing. You’ll have an argument with her. I know you will because I have arguments with her. She wouldn’t say that you’re still an addict if you have so many years sober. 

Is Arielle taking acting seriously now?

She’s in another film already. She did a film over the winter and she’s doing another film now—a big film. They’re both pretty big films.

What other projects are you working on now?

One is this comedy about Buddy [Duress], you know, the guy who played Mike. It’s called Good Time where he gets out of prison and he’s trying to live a straight life but it’s very hard for him. 

Duress just got out of prison, right?

Yeah. So we’re kind of waiting to see how that goes. Then [my brother and I] are still trying to do the Diamond District film, which we’d originally set out to do when I met Arielle. That’s about a manic gambling addict. A third project is about a gay tomato-can boxer. That’s a guy who gets paid to lose. Boxers labeled as “cans” bleed during fights, like leaking tomato juice.

Heaven Knows What opens in theaters today, May 29.

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in book anthologies and numerous publications including The New York Times. She last wrote about the rise and fall and rise of a gangster cop.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.