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The Immediacy of Design: An Interview with ‘Good Time’ Production Designer Sam Lisenco

The 2017 New York crime thriller Good Time is a trip. Directed by Bennie and Josh Safdie, the film speeds along in pursuit of Robert Pattinson’s Connie Nikas, a grifter on a self-obsessed path to eventual failure. Midway through, Connie tricks a stranger into being his momentary accomplice. Frustrated at the reluctance to help him unconditionally, Connie blurts out, “Don’t get confused, you’re just gonna make it worse for me.”

When I first saw Good Time, I felt claustrophobic. The close, tight shots (filmed by Sean Price Williams), the harsh, neon color palette and the amoral Connie all got under my skin, with the combined effect leaving me wanting relief. And I mean this in the best way possible, as it was beyond exciting to have such a visceral response to a movie.

Sam Lisenco is Good Time’s production designer and constant collaborator with the Safdie brothers. Beyond their cinematic sphere, Lisenco has worked on NBC’s Shades of Blue and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Mistress America. Recently, I spoke with Mr. Lisenco about fast-food locations, non-actors and the colors of Good Time.

Ankenbauer: What’s the process like on a film like Good Time? Is it mostly research in the beginning, working in concert with Josh and Benny Safdie?

Lisenco: Most of the time, when I receive a new script, I’ll print out a hard copy of it in order to make notations in the markings of the page about my initial aesthetic concepts or ideas or questions I have along the way. I’ll also keep a laptop handy to be able to start pulling images from the internet and try to keep them organized by location. If something I read in a piece works, especially something so fast paced and as intense as certain scenes in Good Time, I’ll make sure to literally fold the page over, so that I know it’s something to come back to later. Most of my scripts get bunny-eared or filled with various post-it notes with thoughts I’d like to refer to later. Luckily, with the Safdies, I’ve been working with them for so many years that at this point, day or night, I can text them images and ideas as I go as well, and make notes of their responses. A lot of the time, I’ll also discuss specific references in pre-existing films or photographs that I know can help express a concept, even if the subject matter varies wildly from the plot of the script we’re working on.

Ankenbauer: How did you come to meet the Safdies and how has your relationship evolved?

Lisenco: I met Josh first, on the street in Boston, in — I believe — 2003, when we were both undergraduates at Boston University. I think he could probably smell that I was also from New York City, and we became fast friends. He had an off campus apartment, which was always a good excuse to get away from class and spend time watching movies and crashing on his couch. Eventually, we got a two bedroom apartment together, and by that time Benny had moved from a different school to join us. We all went through all of our film production classes together, making various shorts. By the time we left college, some of those shorts were having moderate festival success, and the two of us shared an apartment in the East Village. The three of us also shared a communal workspace downtown with artist Alex Kalman and cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, working under the moniker Red Bucket Films. I think we must’ve made about 10,000 short films together under that roof. Years later, I wound up sharing a different apartment with Benny in Chinatown. There was a 10 year span where I saw one or both of them every minute of every day. I think now that we’ve all grown apart as adults, it’s created a better working environment, as we have a succinct shorthand together but get excited to see each other, as it doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

Ankenbauer: Does familiarity with the setting of Good Time work in your favor? Do you push for spots you know and like?

Lisenco: I am from New York, so I think it’s a strength to be able to understand the subtlety of the kinds of characters and stereotypes they’re working with in a film like Good Time. There are so many different kinds of people and worlds in this city that there’s extremely rich resources to pull from.  We had an incredibly talented location manager (Samson Jacobson) on the film who knew exactly what kind of neighborhoods would work for us, and he did the heavy lifting really.

Ankenbauer: The Safdies’ films have this immediacy and intimacy, does that affect your work on the film?

Lisenco: In the early films, but also in Good Time, the brothers have a specific consideration for creating a small working environment in which the actors are more free to approach the material in a realistic environment. For me, this has been incredibly rewarding, since there is so much flexibility in how the scenes will play out. It’s more complicated than what one would consider strict block shooting, there is a way the shoot the scene and they know what it is, but there’s an openness to playing with the scene and the environment it takes place in, and a consideration for the limitations of the physical space. Even though they often shoot tight shots on long lenses, I find it’s much easier to dress a particular space in 360 degrees and fill every drawer for them, as you never know where a scene could wind up. In this way, making films with them necessitates a level of realism in the dressing that you wind up feeling on camera.

Ankenbauer: The Safdies are known to work without permits and in bursts of spontaneity. How does this affect your flow of work? How does one make a schedule and budget for that kind of filmmaking?

Lisenco: It’s easy to confuse spontaneity with unpreparedness. So, in that regard, I think the Safdie brothers’ best course of action is usually to talk through their goals and motivations for each scene and figure out what the flexibility is and what the outcome could be. For example, if there’s a scene they want to steal, and potentially keep their footprint small, I would make sure to provide them with a box with every possible prop they could need and have them take it with them, or if there’s a scene where they want to change the action at the last second or shift the location, I make sure to know that the unknown is enough of a possibility to pivot for. That being said, they were pretty regimented on Good Time. Duccio Fabbri did a great job of scheduling and keeping everyone’s priorities in order.

Ankenbauer: Could you take me through how one films a chase sequence on the streets on New York and through the New World Mall?

Lisenco: I was prepping at the time, so I wasn’t present for the actual chase scene, but the nuts and bolts were basically as follows:

Myself, the brothers, location manager, assistant director and cinematographer all went to check out the location — before we TOTALLY had permission to film there — and walked through the beats of the sequence. We spent about an hour there that day and walked it up until the point where Benny’s character would break off and run through the window. Then I redrafted a hallway for the construction department to build and match on a stage that had an open gate out to the street, and had [Set Decorator] Audrey Turner go back to the mall to steal some posters and elements from the mall that we would use to help tie the two locations together. We had special effects on site to blow the glass the moment before the character would plow through the glass so that you would think it was his body that forced the break. I believe we did two takes of the gag itself.

Ankenbauer: A lot of the locations seemed real — the hospital, the holding cell, the jail. Are they? When you shoot in a real location, how does one bend the location to match the vision of the film?

Lisenco: Yes, everything other than the fake hallway at the Chinatown mall were real. Most of them — like the hospital corridor — were empty of their dressing, so they needed to come alive with the help of Audrey’s efforts. Tailoring the location to meet our requirements can vary from location to location, as simple as moving a bench to building a wall to make the space feel different. You try your best to embrace the reality and hopefully find locations where the director can see the action without having to alter it too much.

Ankenbauer: I’m interested about the colors of Good Time. The film was shot on 35mm and all the colors seemed baked in.

Lisenco: There were many many discussions about the colors of the film, especially about the tones of the palette in Annie’s house. Danny April [Gaffer] is so immensely talented and we were constantly working together to create differentiations in the various worlds that you experience throughout the film. Annie’s house is a great example of this — between the light inside the fridge and the cool blue of the tube television as a lighting source, the challenge really became to give Danny the putrid tones that he could then bend with lighting. With normal practical house lamps on, you’d see a very monochromatic world that was very different than the final product. I also think it was very good to cast clear difference between the municipal, cold and sometimes stark interiors from the residential ones, and Danny was instrumental in that regard.

Ankenbauer: Could you take me through the design of the immigrant homes of good samaritan Annie and Barkhad Abdi’s security guard? Their homes are so distinct and Annie’s home in particular is rich in detail.

Lisenco: Annie’s house was borne out of a conversation where Josh had mentioned a “putrid, bulbous sofa” and that Annie was Haitian in descent. The rest was just kind of filling the gaps in. We laid down carpet and filled the house with furniture that smelled of that kind of world, and tried our best to make it as realistic for that kind of middle class home as possible.  My parents live in what is now becoming a Trinidadian and Haitian neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I walked around a bit and peered in some windows.

Believe it or not, the security guards home was pretty much as is. When Samson showed us that location, we all flipped out about how good it looked. It was a nice respite from the rest of the film at that point… the calm, white, sleek interior. Even the christmas lights were there when we arrived. I believe the only major changes we made were the coffee table — which was a bitch to find — and the bedspread and window dressing. But it would’ve been stupid of us to change anything else about that apartment, it was just perfect.

Ankenbauer: I’d like to know about the film’s helicopter photography, both the opening shot and the Cops-esque trailing of Connie’s vehicle. In a movie so focused on faces, it’s interesting to have these expensive and technical shots of objects.

Lisenco: I’ve said to Josh that the film feels like you’re playing Grand Theft Auto — these intense, tight, action-ridden, nail biting sequences of perpetual motion, where there is nothing but Connie’s guttural instinct for momentum, punctuated by the calm breath of the wide helicopter interstitial moments. I think it helps with the pacing of the film. It was a happy accident that the car Connie steals from Annie had one operational headlight, and can more easily be noticed from up that high.

Ankenbauer: There are a number of fast food locations in the movie — a McDonald’s, a Subway, Connie and Nick run into a Domino’s. Was it a Domino’s in the shooting script or how did that come about?

Lisenco: White Castle was always scripted as the stop for the crew near the hospital. There was always something about how the bright white exterior of that kind of environment would seem like an island in the middle of the night. The Domino’s was a location that the brothers had shot on their previous film, and I think they secretly knew they could get away with filming there again, so they wrote it as such.

Ankenbauer: The masks Nick and Connie wear during the robbery are so realistic and nightmarish. Where did they come from?

Lisenco: Believe it or not, those are actually masks that are often used in high profile bank robberies, for their otherworldly realness. There are incredibly expensive, but were the first prop that the brothers hoped to see while we were prepping the film. When they arrived at the office, I think everyone wanted to try them on. They’re very thick — and when you put them on, you instinctually change your posture and persona.

Ankenbauer: From listening to interviews, the original idea was more centrally located in a prison. Were you involved in the production at that point? How did it molt into Good Time as we know it?

Lisenco: The story was crafted rather quickly, and I was working on a different film at the time.  I knew that their eventual feature Uncut Gems had been pushed a few months, and they had started to take sketches and ideas from those writing sessions and work that Ronnie Bronstein had done with Benny in crafting that kind of a character and creating some new worlds around some of those concepts.  It wasn’t until they had a real locked script that I became available to come on board.

Ankenbauer: Take me through the Adventureland location. How much did you add to the Farmingdale destination? The blacklight sequence is particularly shocking to the eyes.

Lisenco: Josh had requested that we hyper-sexualize a lot of the elements of the interior of the haunted house, so I commissioned a sculptor friend of mine Jerry Blackman to start working on highly erotic and disgusting pieces that we could use to help express the vitriolic chaos in the scene. We also added tons of black-lights, neons and sundry other elements to make that interior as horrific as possible. I don’t think the location had any idea to what extent we added to that ride. I’m sure a few blow up sex dolls probably got left behind, but if you go through that sequence frame by frame, it’s really quite disgusting. We also had the exterior neon sign fabricated, which now hangs in Sebo Bear’s apartment.

Ankenbauer: The climax of the film takes place in this brutalist apartment complex. Was there a desire for the complex to look harsh and labyrinthian?

Lisenco: I think that’s just an aesthetic that appeals to both the language and world of the film and the aesthetic sensitivity of myself and the Safdie brothers. It was certainly intentional, but I think the three of us all find that kind of environment beautiful in it’s repetitive simplicity, and the inherent parallels between the living apartment complex and the prison complex are obvious enough to work for the better of the world of the characters.

Ankenbauer: A lot of the actors are people cast in their real jobs — the bail bondsman and his assistant, the psychiatrist, the public defender, the members of the therapy session. How was this decided upon? Did the crew visit the bail bondsman’s office and go, “he’s perfect!”?

Lisenco: Certain actors were cast in the film, such as Peter Verbe, because of the talent they have in their individual jobs that were needed to flesh out the writing process. I think there were most definitely some eureka moments with some of these people where the Safdie boys realized it was in their best interests to incorporate some of these people into the film because they could breathe the kind of life into the characters that would only come from years of experience. The brothers absolutely have a wonderful skill of being able to get non-actors to feel comfortable enough in their own skin to be able to deliver the kind of performance that you would expect from them in real life scenarios. Fun fact: we originally shot the bail bonds scene with a famous actor and the pacing and performance weren’t working within the cut. So, when it came time to come back and re-shoot, the brothers decided to go with the real bondman instead.

Ankenbauer: What’s something you’re especially proud of in Good Time?

Lisenco: Film is such a collaborative medium, and it’s important to consider how long the hours are and how pressing each moment captured is, and how long those moments can take to compose. Fortunately for me, there was a lot of preparation that went into the film, and that often meant I was working the day shift, preparing tomorrow’s work today, so to speak. I’m absolutely especially proud of the on set crew that bled every night to get the movie made, often in the cold, and were able to deliver a consistency of vision and cohesive film, all on no sleep, all working often outdoors, in January, in the middle of the night. Audrey Turner, [Propmaster] Stephen Phelps and [Art Director] Patrick Duncan deserve all the praise in the world for keeping that ship afloat. Their efforts are what I’m the most proud of, and Annie’s house. That set looked dope.

Sam Ankenbauer (@SamRupertGiles) lives and writes in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In his spare time, he is a programmer for the Cinetopia Film Festival in Detroit. Along with Vague Visages, he writes for Bright Lights Film Journal.

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