Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Howard Ratner, the New York City jeweler and outrageous gambling addict Adam Sandler plays in Uncut Gems, is a force of pure loquacious chaos. Over more than two hours, he never really stops talking: wheeling, dealing, making bets and excuses, exploding with joy and anger, monopolizing every conversation he stumbles his way into. Certainly, he’s one of Sandler’s most indelible characters. But for all he’s shaped by the moonlighting comedy star playing him, there’s a little of his creators, too, in his psychological DNA. That much is clear from spending just a few minutes talking to Josh and Benny Safdie, the NYC sibling filmmakers who wrote and directed Uncut Gems. Over the course of our conversation in a Chicago hotel last month, the brothers didn’t once try to sell me a jewel-encrusted Furbie, and we were never interrupted by loan sharks looking to collect on some astronomical debt they owe. All the same, it’s hard not to think of Ratner when the two are barreling through an anecdote, sometimes cutting each other off, rarely stopping for air. Below, they breathlessly hold court on talking Sandler into doing a grungy caper, working with a big union crew, and managing the high-wire energy of their best movie yet (and one of the best, most exhilarating films of the year).

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The A.V. Club: Did you write Uncut Gems with Adam Sandler in mind?

Josh Safdie: Yes. Well, the first draft was this strange nostalgic mush in 2009. But then in 2011, we jolted it for Sandler, and then sent it to him, and he passed. And then he passed again in 2015. And then he finally attached himself right after Cannes [2017] when we were there with Good Time.

Benny Safdie: He’s the only person who could properly play this character. Because Howard does some things that people won’t like. But you do love him and root for him. And Sandler has that kind of innate—

JS: The humor and the comedy.

BS: The humor and the comedy, but he has this insane ability to ground the most absurd situations. And you feel like you need this guy to succeed. So we knew that he had something inside that we could use with Howard.

JS: The only other person who could have played this part is Rodney Dangerfield before his break in Easy Money. Like, eight or nine years before Easy Money.

AVC: So how did you convince Sandler to do it?

JS: It was tough.

BS: Good Time.

JS: Yeah, the film convinced him. The irony is that it took Good Time to get him to pay attention to us or even give us a shot, but the film we made prior to our first reach out was Daddy Long Legs, and that’s now one of his favorites of ours. That’s the movie he responded to the most. He also responded deeply to Good Time and the energy of it, and he just wanted to be part of that.

AVC: How quickly do you feel he understood what was required of him in Uncut Gems?

JS: Pretty quickly.

BS: Yeah, right away.

JS: Immediately he knew that is a big character he was going to have to disappear into. And that was part of the initial conversation. He knew there was going to be a lot of prep, and he gave us a ton of time to do character tests, wardrobe tests, follow jewelers.

BS: We had a script that was over 160 pages. Howard’s a motormouth! He’s a loudmouth. He has a lot of dialogue. A lot of extended monologues that are constantly interrupted. That is difficult for an actor. Because from a technical standpoint, you have to memorize a lot of monologues with crazy tonal shifts. But he wasn’t fazed by that part at all. The movie benefited from 100% Fresh, that 50-city tour he did. He was used to going on stage with three and a half hours of material and shaping and modifying it in the moment, if the crowd’s not into it. The things that were more challenging for him, I think, were the hot and cold elements. And the fact that it was through the lens of realism.

JS: It’d be hard for any actor. Howard’s a very moody guy. To go from super, super hot to super, super cold, yelling, smiling, laughing—

BS: And the other thing is that Howard does some things that really affect people in bad ways. And [Sandler] was like, “How do I get past that?” When he finally got into the character was when he understood that this is a guy who wants to stake his claim on the world and say, “I’m meant to be here. I’m big just like everybody else.” He’s a dreamer for that. What’s key is that he knows the things he’s doing can hurt people. It’s not like he’s unaware of that.

Illustration for article titled The Safdie brothers on iUncut Gems/i and how they convinced Adam Sandler to take the role of his career
Photo: A24

AVC: Robert Pattinson starred in your last movie, and Sandler is in this one. Is it different working with movie stars as opposed to less high-profile actors?

BS: Everyone’s the same when we’re on the set. But there’s a different approach you take with certain actors who aren’t new to it. You kind of have to act it out a little bit more for first-time actors. But on the set, we want to create an environment where everyone’s equal. So there’s an amazing alchemy that happens when you have these first-time actors come in, like real jewelers, and they’re like, “Oh, my god, I’m acting opposite Adam Sandler. That’s insane. I’ve got to bring it.” And Adam Sandler’s like, “Oh, my god, these are real jewelers, I can’t be fake in front of them.” So he’s got to bring it!

JS: Every once in a while, my mind is so egalitarian, it kind of shorts. We have a couple of great voice cameos. Tilda Swinton plays the auction manager on the phone. And Natasha Lyonne was supposed to be Kevin Garnett’s manager, but because of Orange Is The New Black, she couldn’t do it. So she ends up doing one of the phone calls that Howard has with the Boston Celtics player personnel. And it’s a great moment. But when we were directing her, my mind just slipped into first-timer mode, and she was like [does Natasha Lyonne impression] “Josh, I’m an actor.” I’d, like, try to come up with these things to distract her in the moment. And I was like, “How about I send you this text that’s incoming while you’re reading the line?” And she’s like, “How about I just pretend that I’m receiving a text?” And I was like, “Right, sorry, Natasha.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Your budgets have gone up over the years.

JS: A lot!

BS: The CGI on this movie was more expensive than Daddy Long Legs.

AVC: Wait, what was CGI?

JS: Well, inside the gem. I love that you thought that wasn’t CG! [Laughs.] But some of the stuff out the window is green screen. That’s a different kind of CGI. And we did this thing that not one person has pointed out yet because it’s such a subtle effect.

BS: [To Josh] When he looks in the…?

JS: Yeah, this possessed moment. We did something with his eyes that no one notices but people probably feel. We had the luxury of doing that. But the big expenditure was—

BS: The gem.

JS: The journey through the gem. And it happens three times through the movie. But that was bigger than the budget of Daddy Long Legs. By a lot! What’s interesting is that Good Time was 10 times the size of Heaven Knows What, and this was 10 times the size of Good Time. This was the first film where we worked with unions. And we went from working with non-union crew on Good Time, which had its own struggles, to working on a major union production, which has crew requirements. So there’s a lot of people on set. But when you have someone like [cinematographer] Darius Khondji helping build your crew, he’s such a veteran that he knows how to build it in a bespoke way.

It was crazy, I’d talk to the key grip, and casually he’ll just bring up one of his first films, which was Do The Right Thing. And he’s like, “Yeah, I almost killed Griffin Dunne in After Hours.” And we’re passing the Midtown Tunnel and our gaffer says he shot a film in the Midtown Tunnel. And we’re like, “You shot Daylight? Oh, my god, what was that like?” And he’s like, “Most people want to talk to me about my work with Wes Anderson, and you guys want to talk to me about Daylight?” And we go, “Yeah, what was Sly Stallone like?”

BS: I’ll run boom on the set. And so I joined the union. For us, it was always such a small crew, we really felt like we were all in it and making it together with our bare hands. In this one, there were a lot more people, but we still create that feeling. We’re all there. We don’t leave the set. We’re always present. And everybody got on board.

But you were talking about Sandler. Sandler actually did almost all of his own stunts in this movie. He was hanging [out a window], he was getting punched, he was getting roughed up. The scene in the car, he came out and had, like, a hundred black and blue bruises. He was really game for a lot, which was amazing.

JS: Scott Rudin got involved three years ago. He’s arguably one of the greatest living producers. He helped build the crew in an intelligent way, too. On Good Time, the hair and makeup was done by one person. Anouck [Sullivan] did an incredible job. But on this film, we had to have different department heads, and they all had great input. But also we told Darius we don’t like to inhibit actors’ performances in any way, to the point where it becomes excessive.

BS: No marks!

JS: No marks. We try not to dictate the blocking by the needs of lighting. We want the lighting to be dictated by the blocking.

BS: We move fast.

JS: So Darius knew he had to build the crew in the right way. He set us up with an assistant cameraperson who is kind of the main proprietor of this thing called a Light Ranger, something Kubrick was obsessed with, but he died before it could become a real thing. It takes a very skilled person who knows the technology really well to work it. Like, not everyone can use it. It’s not like auto focus in any sense of the word. It’s very difficult to use. But he has a little cult of people who work with it and understand it and study it. What it offers, especially when shooting 35mm anamorphic, is freedom for the actors.

BS: It’s crazy because there are times when we’d be moving through a shot, and moving so quickly. We did a close-up, and then we were still shooting [with a] 150 macro [lens], and said, “Let’s grab this insert of the gem.” So Maceo [Bishop], the camera operator, shifts the camera, and he gets ready to do the insert. And we realize we didn’t even tell Chris [Silano] on assistant camera that we were going in for a crazy insert on a gem stone.

JS: Where you have literally a quarter of an inch of depth of field.

BS: Yes! So we do it, we get the shot perfect, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, Chris, I didn’t even realize, we probably should have told you.” And he’s like, “Don’t worry, I got it all.”

JS: Very rarely, maybe four times, Chris asked for another take for focus. Four times! In a movie where we’re shooting anamorphic and we’re pushing into stuff. Again, that comes with having the right crew. Everyone was game for it. And that helped the energy of all the actors involved. I remember the scene with the SUV, we had a lot of first-timers in there. Some of the guys had maybe kind of a checkered past, and now they’re looking at a new chapter in their life. And they’re roughing up Sandler! We wanted it to feel authentic. What happens when you have a bunch of men in an SUV manhandling this guy? It will have a certain type of energy. So the stunt coordinator worked with all these first-timers on how they can rough up Sandler. And Sandler was totally bruised afterwards.

BS: They were grabbing him!

JS: Yeah, when they’re choking him out, Sandler had a thing he could hit to tap out. But when he went to tap out, they were like, “Get out of here,” and grabbed his arm. And Adam had a real moment and screamed, “Stop,” and everyone stopped.

BS: We were in the trunk.

JS: Right. But my point is that Eric Bogosian has very specific expositional lines that need to be spoken in that scene. But it was so chaotic in the back, the actors saying all their lines and adding so much to the scene with the violence that he actually couldn’t find a way in with his lines. So he screamed in the middle of the take and slammed the dashboard as hard as he could. I think he hurt his hand. And he goes, “I don’t know about any of you but I got fucking lines I got to say.” [Laughs.] So I said, “Listen, a huge part of your character is the posturing. You’re posturing that you’re a tough guy. You’re posturing to your brother-in-law that you need this money.” I said, “If you can’t get a word in, that means your character is neutered. You have to tell them to shut up.” So then all of sudden Eric realizes that this movie is about staking claim. You’re constantly trying to find ways to make the film work with the actors and the setting that you have.

Illustration for article titled The Safdie brothers on iUncut Gems/i and how they convinced Adam Sandler to take the role of his career
Photo: A24

AVC: There’s a lot of stress in this film. Did any of it bleed into production?

JS: Sure, yes. I’ve watched this movie with an audience three or four times now. There’s the comedy element, which is an unbelievable release of tension. But the only thing I can really liken it to is a horror movie, in the sense that you’re in a room with a hundred or so people and everyone is leaning forward. If I’m watching a movie that’s supposed to be sad and I’m in an audience where people are crying, that doesn’t make me want to cry. That makes me self-conscious. “Why am I not crying? Why is that person over there crying?” But when it’s a thriller, and you can feel the energy of being people being tense…

AVC: Were you at the screening last night?

BS: That was insane!

JS: Were you there?

AVC: I was. There’s this moment in the third act where Sandler’s character is approaching a point of self-awareness, and then instead he just jumps right back into the fray. And the theater basically erupted into a mass groan.

BS: [Laughs.] That’s incredible.

JS: We didn’t get there last night until basically the [NBA finals] game starts.

BS: But there was that incredible amount at the end. At the very end.

JS: The credits.

BS: Yeah, when the credits roll. There was just a loud [exhale of air noise].

JS: It dumps you out into this cosmos at the end of the movie. What was awesome is you hear people kind of go, “Whoa.” It’s almost a Bill & Ted response. We just spent so much time in the micro of this guy’s life. But he’s just one person. The movie is cosmic. It’s called Uncut Gems. And it’s about someone who might be rough on the outside, but when you get down deep underneath, you realize that there’s some value there. And the cosmic element is that in the same micro-second that someone in Ethiopia is worried a machine might fall on their leg and break it and they might die, on the other side of the planet, you have a jeweler whose life-or-death moment hinges on whether an NBA player hits a free throw. Like, the fact that these are two sides of the same coin of life is crazy to me. And that moment, when it hits, I heard someone say, “Jesus Christ.” We didn’t get that in New York or Toronto. But we got it here in Chicago. And that was fucking awesome.

BS: We want the pacing to feel the way it does through the whole movie. Someone said to us, “Oh, my god, the ending, that last 15 minutes, is so incredible.” And we say, “From which point?” And they mention a moment 45 minutes from the ending, and they’re like, “Oh, my god, time just totally shrunk.”

JS: It’s funny, the script was 160 pages. And I kept telling Rudin, “Yeah, it’s 150 pages or so, but don’t worry, it’s going to be a 90-minute movie.” And he said, “How is that possible?” And I said, “Conceptually, it’s a 90-minute movie.” And he’s like, “Conceptually? What the fuck are you talking about?” But you understand what I’m saying. You’re stretching time and compacting it.

AVC: The two of you are both on set. How do you divide responsibilities? Does one of you always handle, say, the actors, and the other handle something else?

JS: On a technical side, as Benny pointed out earlier, he’s running the boom. That allows him to be in very close proximity to the actors, in terms of energy. I’m framing the film with the monitor and dealing a lot with Darius. But when it comes to working with actors, it’s really who’s vibing with whom at what time. It’s a really shared experience. And in post, Benny is editing the film with Ronnie [Bronstein]. And in the writing process, it’s the three of us, but Ronnie and I are focusing on the actual script, and Benny is kind of macro writing. It’s a very amorphous collaboration.

BS: And at some point, the goal is to create a soup on set. A primordial soup. This thick and open thing. There’s a comfort in hearing from both of us. We try not to step on each other, though.

AVC: Do you spar at all, creatively?

JS: Yes, of course.

BS: We try to go behind the scenes for that.

AVC: You don’t do it in front of the cast and crew?

JS: We try not to. It happens occasionally. I think it actually makes people feel weirdly comfortable when we’re fighting. I don’t know why, but it just does. At least with the crew we had, because everyone was so open. Fighting is a huge part of collaboration.

BS: But we spend an enormous amount of time preparing. The night before. The day before. Months before. We are trying so hard to think of everything then. That’s when we have a lot of our disputes.

AVC: So what’s happening with the 48 Hrs remake?

JS: So Walter Hill came to a Gems screening. I’d heard that he had seen Good Time and was a fan of that. He really liked Uncut Gems, too. The Driver is one of my favorite movies. 48 Hrs is great, but The Driver is his masterpiece. And I said, “Let’s just get this out of the way immediately. We’re not remaking your movie.” And he said, “Okay. It’s weird, I watch these two movies and think that these guys are not short on original ideas. Like, why would they need to do a remake?” [Laughs.] So what happened was, we wrote a few drafts for the studio, and it just wasn’t a remake. We tried, but I just don’t know how to do it. Maybe the general structure was kind of 48 Hrs. And there was a cop and an inmate. But it’s going to be re-shifted into something original.

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