The New York directors share what it was like to make their breathless crime thriller that’s distinctly New York
In Uncut Gems, diamonds are a compulsive gambler’s best friend. When Howard Ratner, a New York jeweller played by Adam Sandler, receives a dead fish in the post, he reaches inside the cold creature’s mouth, plucks a black opal from its slimy innards, and involuntarily moans, “I’M GONNA CUM!!!”
It’s said that one can view the entire universe within the iridescent, elegant surface of a black opal. All Howard sees, though, is a smuggled rock that will fund another betting spree – which is, in a way, his entire universe. Despite owing $100,000 to a loan shark with shark-like goons, Howard endangers his life by ignoring deadlines and placing outrageous sums on basketball games. As his parlays increase in foolhardy ambition, such as guessing who will win the tip-off, the stakes rise so high they could induce vertigo. Gambling, to Howard, is an all-consuming, biological urge, and if death is a potential outcome of a lost wager, then he’ll just hope that fate and today’s referee are on his side.
Uncut Gems, then, is stressful to the extreme. For all the excitement cinema offers as a medium, Benny and Josh Safdie's comedy-thriller is the only movie in recent memory that captures the nail-biting tension of a live sports event. Here, Howard is an athlete, his sport is capitalism, and the viewer must resist chucking popcorn at the screen. However, the NBA footage itself is riveting, especially when a missed rebound could mean lights out for Howard. “We want people to feel what it’s like to really care about a basketball game,” Benny explains to Dazed. “There’s a whole tradition of literature and journalism about sports as a means to understand life. We’re leaning into it in a heavy, heavy way.”
When the Safdie brothers visit London in early December, it’s amidst fever pitch anticipation for the theatrical release and a possible Oscar nomination for Sandler. So much so, the interview is delayed slightly as they deal with a New Yorker profile that will be published a few days later. Walking in, Josh tells Sandler over the phone that he’s too busy to chat right now. A minute later, Benny receives a call from Sandler, too. Once sat down, the siblings speak at breakneck speed, often over each other, much like the loquacious characters of their films. An accurate transcript would require two columns.
That gusto and unbridled enthusiasm permeates Uncut Gems. Although Howard achieves a natural high via basketball, critics have praised the film as a “wild injection of pure cocaine” (The Playlist), “the cinematic equivalent to mixing cocaine with acid” (LA Weekly) and “a cinematic snort of cocaine” (Uproxx). Within an hour of the world premiere at Telluride, journalists from prestige publications tweeted that it was “cocaine the movie” and “cocaine-fuelled”.
“It’s a bit pejorative, you know?” says Josh. “It’s fine. It just means people are totally energised by it.”
“I would like to ask how many of them have actually done it,” says Benny. “Because I’ve never done cocaine.”
“I’ve done it and it’s terrible,” says Josh, laughing. “It’s the worst thing in the world! It makes people sound like idiots.”
“I think people say it with the idea that it’s a total energy boost,” says Benny. “They’re like, ‘I lost 15lbs by the end of it.’ So I can hear that and translate that into: what we’re doing with the pace, the narrative, the action, the sound, the music – it’s all working to create a feeling, and some people are saying they can’t handle it.”
Well, if snorting coke is their favourite hobby in the world, then it’s a compliment?
“I think cocaine, in general, is a cool analogy,” says Josh. “Because the general PR of cocaine is that it makes you really energetic.”
Really, the cocaine-ness of Uncut Gems is a culmination of the Safdies’ filmography. Their debut as a duo, 2009’s Daddy Longlegs, starred Ronald Bronstein (the co-writer and co-editor of Heaven Knows What, Good Time and Uncut Gems) as Lenny, a stressed New Yorker who literally sprints through crowded streets as he juggles raising two sons, supervising a cinema, and fulfilling an urgent need to get laid. One evening, Lenny drugs his kids with what he estimates will knock them out for a few hours; they’re comatose for days. Oddly, the viewer still sympathises with Lenny, and you sense the Safdies do, too – the character is loosely based on their father.
“Lenny and Howard are flawed characters that we’re trying to understand as an audience,” says Benny. “The goal for us it to make sure you see what makes them special, and what makes you love them. In Gems, I hear people yell at the screen, ‘OH MY GOD! JUST MAKE THE FUCKING RIGHT DECISION!’ The movie works because when Howard makes a wrong decision, it’s believable. There’s an element of understanding the flawed beauty, and trying to see the uncut gem inside.”
Uncut Gems was supposed to be the follow-up to Daddy Longlegs but Sandler passed on an early draft in 2012. So they shot a basketball documentary, 2013’s Lenny Cooke, instead. Still, they rewrote the script obsessively. During research trips in the Diamond District, Josh met Arielle Holmes in a jewellery store, and the brothers adapted her diary into the 2014 heroin drama Heaven Knows What. Robert Pattinson, an admirer, asked to be in Uncut Gems, but they couldn’t find him a role. So Good Time was made specifically for Pattinson in 2017. With each film, the budget increased and the pace accelerated, as if they were warming up for Sandler one day agreeing to a collaboration.
“The movie works because when Howard makes a wrong decision, it’s believable. There’s an element of understanding the flawed beauty, and trying to see the uncut gem inside” – Benny Safdie
In the meantime, various actors were temporarily attached as Howard: Harvey Keitel, Sacha Baron Cohen and Jonah Hill. “No matter who the casting decision was, we would end up curtailing it for that person,” Josh explains. “When we were going for Sacha, the concept was that we were going to actually work in realistic scenarios. We had these scenarios written, but we were going to surround him with only non-professionals, kind of like a Borat situation. Conceptually, it was going to be a little bit different.
“And then with Jonah, we had a hard time figuring out a way to make the character younger. It was just a different concept. We couldn’t figure it out. It just happened that he became unavailable, and we went back to Sandler who we originally wrote it for.”
In Howard, there are traces of the comedy persona that Sandler immortalised in Billy Madison, The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer: the jeweller is a performer who’s always “on”; he’s usually moments away from a temper tantrum; and beneath his crass remarks lies a sad sensitivity and self-hatred.
“It’s those moments in his comedies where he’s playing it so straight, even though everything’s going so crazy,” Benny enthuses. “You’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is a real thing that’s happening to this guy!’ It’s the fact he wants to be respected by everybody. When the guy’s laughing at him on the golf course in Happy Gilmore – ‘Hey, you like that?’ – I can see Howard doing that to somebody.” Benny does an impressive impersonation of Howard impersonating Happy Gilmore. “It’s no coincidence that one of the major inspirations was Rodney Dangerfield, who was like, ‘I get no respect!’ all his life.”
“The (fight scene with Ben Stiller) in The Meyerowitz Stories is a complete homage to Happy Gilmore.” Josh adds. “You know, when he’s fighting Bob Barker and they’re rolling down the hill. With this one, I feel like our whole movie is classic Sandler.”
That said, Uncut Gems breaks new ground for Sandler and the Safdies. Take the opening scene: it’s 2010, and two miners in Ethiopia sneak away from their bosses to chisel away and pull out a black opal from a cave wall. The camera zooms into the diamond and the screen explodes into a psychedelic splurge of colours, lights and objects that could trigger your trypophobia. It’s not dissimilar from the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But these sci-fi images turn fleshier and gooier, until it’s revealed to be footage of Howard’s colonoscopy in 2012. You can supposedly spot something new with each viewing of Kubrick’s interstellar masterpiece – is there similar wisdom to be gleaned from close-ups of Sandler’s anus?
Perhaps. Like the opal inside the fish, there’s something special within Howard’s obnoxious, hardened exterior. One admirer is Julia (artist and first-time actor Julia Fox), an employee and mistress who tattoos Howard’s name on her butt. That’s about it. More typical is Howard’s wife, Dinah (Frozen’s Idina Menzel), who informs her cheating husband, “I hate being with you, I hate looking at you, and if I had it my way I would never see you again.” Elsewhere in an enviable ensemble is Lakeith Stanfield as Demany, a middleman who introduces Howard to potential clients – including basketball superstar Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, both playing themselves.
“You can’t get an actor to perform that,” says Josh about casting The Weeknd. “A big part of the scene with The Weeknd leans in on the fact you’ve got this jeweller who made his way into this club, and has his own drama going on, and in the moment, he’s forced to watch someone who’s naturally really great. Howard’s not naturally really great at anything. That’s why he’s so frustrated. He wants to prove his space on the planet. But he’s stuck watching his girlfriend be mesmerised by the voice of an angel, in The Weeknd. If it’s an actor, subconsciously you know they can’t sing.”
“It always bothers me a lot of the time,” says Benny.
“When you see it’s The Weeknd, you know he has this voice,” says Josh. “He brings a reality. What does that do to Howard as a fictional character? It totally makes you think, ‘That’s a real guy.’”
The Weeknd also texted Jay-Z to watch Good Time, which proved instrumental to the Safdies directing the “Marcy Me” video in 2016. The four-minute clip was the brothers’ first project with Darius Khondji, the legendary cinematographer whose credits include Funny Games, Too Old to Die Young and Madonna’s “Frozen” video. “Darius brings poetry to lighting and the general vibe,” says Josh. “His work in Se7en is so vanguard and amazing. A lot of our collaborations with him have been pushing and pulling, but I think he really enjoyed it. We shot the Jay-Z video as a way to understand one another before we went and did something bigger.”
“We didn’t spent ten years on it to aggravate people. This is the world that we’re living in, and this is the world that we love” – Josh Safdie
In Uncut Gems, Khondji’s 35mm cinematography and frenzied zooms are combined with an abrasive sound design. “Recreating a New York City Street isn’t just slapping on a New Your City ambience,” says Benny. “It’s cars, it’s a baby crying, it’s construction, it’s a siren, it’s a freeway in the background. You layer them together, you add dialogue, and then you add music.” The original score by Oneohtrix Point Never is blasted throughout the film and fills in the rare moments of silence.
“If you listen to the score in Gems, there’s maybe three cues that are frenetic,” says Josh.” A lot of the other ones are flutes and Mellotrons and meditation balls.”
“And saxophone!” says Benny.
“It’s soothing music if you listen to it,” says Josh.
One reason for the passion behind Uncut Gems is that its maximalist, go-for-broke ambition inevitably provokes an extreme reaction. At the London Film Festival, it played as the Surprise Film, meaning that attendees expecting something like Green Book (last year’s Surprise Film) received less of a surprise and more of a shock. The reactions on social media skewed wildly positive or wildly negative, with no in between. I ask if a divided response is a badge of honour – but their mortified faces tell me otherwise.
“Is that true?!” says Josh, bewildered. “I don’t pay attention to Twitter. Our friend Yorgos Lanthimos was in that screening and he said it was amazing and people loved it.”
“I guess the element of surprise caught people off-guard,” says Benny. “The thing is, we make every movie like it’s going to please everybody. We’re like, ‘Everybody wants this itch scratched!’”
“We spent ten years on this thing,” says Josh. “We didn’t spent ten years on it to aggravate people. This is the world that we’re living in, and this is the world that we love.”
The Safdies tell me they have three unproduced scripts, including a remake of 48 Hrs written with Jerrod Carmichael for Paramount. “But it was so unlike the original that they’re spinning it into something of its own,” says Josh. Still, you wonder: how could they possibly top Uncut Gems in terms of intensity? Or do they shoot a meditative Fassbinder-ish chamber piece to switch things up?
Either way, it won’t be conventional. Whereas “gambling”, as a word, possesses negative connotations, “risk-taking” is what critics use to praise directors like the Safdies. There isn’t much of a difference. Howard’s flaw is that he’s a dreamer whose romanticism and optimism steer him towards Sisyphean tasks. For the Safdies, that audacious approach to filmmaking is a strength, and they’re on a hot streak. Right?
“Well, yeah!” says Benny, in the final seconds of the interview. “Every movie we’ve made up until this was: if it doesn’t work, we would not be making movies anymore.”
Uncut Gems is in select UK cinemas from January 10 and on Netflix from January 31