“Uncut Gems,” the fourth narrative feature from co-directors Benny and Josh Safdie, is their biggest film yet, and not just in terms of its budget, wide theatrical release, or awards buzz. The NYC brothers describe it as their North Star, the project they honed while building their authorship with “Heaven Knows What” and “Good Time,” starting ten years ago with co-writer Ronald Bronstein on this script about Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) a jeweler who gambles his life away in the Diamond District (as inspired by stories the brothers heard from their father). The Safdies’ pursuit of “Uncut Gems” has lead them to a monument for their anxious, tour-de-force filmmaking, where an incredible performance from Adam Sandler is just one shiny piece. The film is full of life's highs and lows, unforgettable faces that are surprising (Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett) and new (Julia Fox), and it brims with the euphoria of a story that must be told at all costs.
The Safdies have created their own style of NYC with deeply researched, roller coaster character pieces that are unafraid of unlikable protagonists, accompanied by synth-heavy scores that portray grimy New Yorkers in a light both mystical and cinematically old school. Like Arielle Holmes’ homeless junkie in the Safdies’ “Heaven Knows What,” or Robert Pattinson’s manipulative criminal in “Good Time,” Sandler’s Howard rushes through very specific corners of New York, evading grave consequences, unable to get out of his own way. His life is the ultimate Safdie experience—a character you would hate to cross paths with in real life, but whose cinematic world is so rich you don’t want to leave it.
RogerEbert.com sat down with the Safdie brothers to unpack "Uncut Gems," the thematic significance of Howard's blinged-out Furby, how filmmaking is a fascistic art form, and more.
In doing my research for this interview, I rediscovered Benny’s stand-up comedian character, Ralph Handel. It's anti-comedy gold.
BENNY SAFDIE: "So what are you doing here? I don't know!"
“That's right, Handel. With an H!” That really got me—that’s probably the stupidest joke I’ve ever heard.
BS: But it's next level. "Like the composer! E-L. It’s not like the drawer.”
Will Handel ever make a return, at some point?
BS: I am going to bring it back. There just hasn’t been a lot of time. But I have been wanting to do something like, “Can You Handel the News?” I have a few ideas. Because he does news!
I know you guys do a ton of research for your characters and locations, and that "Uncut Gems" has more or less been in the works for ten years. So I have to know—where did the Furby jewelry come from? Is it real?
JOSH SAFDIE: What’s weird about the Furby jewelry is, that’s a moment of pure imagination. What you do is you get into the research, you look at jewelers and the way that bling culture lead to where it stands today. And today, it’s basically anything memetic, anything remotely revolving around pop culture or cartoons. Like a “Rick and Morty” piece is probably out there.
The idea of taking pop culture and blinging it out was the foundation of that business, and Howard was a pioneer of that. He was one of the first. So, I was jumping back into that mindset, going, Well, if Howard was popping in the ‘90s, and the late ‘90s was really when he was working with everyone who is the shit—then what was popping in the late ‘90s? And it was like, Oh, it was a Furby. And then you look at a Furby, and you see the sad eyes of a Furby, and you just imagine what that looks like encased in gold and diamonds. And all of a sudden the themes of the movie jump out at you—the trappings, this thing that is trapped, the way the eyes move back and forth.
BS: We were about to shoot the close-up, and Josh runs and says, “Wait, wait!” And he made the eyes cross-eyed. [laughs]
JS: It was so sad! So it starts with research, and then you have to get to an original place with Howard. There were pieces that we could have borrowed from jewelers. But they weren’t going to have the trapped feeling that the Furby has.
BS: And also it feels—because no one had actually done the Furby—it makes it feel that Howard is a real guy.
JS: It felt iconic in Howard’s life, but I never really thought it was going to have this effect that it has on the internet, weirdly. People LOVE the Furby.
BS: It’s like a bringing back of the Furby.
When we talked in 2017 about how you guys made "Good Time," you described it as "a construction site mentality." How was that different here, working on a bigger project, and with a more classic cinematographer like Darius Khondji?
BS: It’s a bigger building, but it’s the same mindset.
JS: I remember the first day, we were on set, and I saw these “No Parking” signs on the 47th. I went crazy, and I was just running around and ripping them all off.
BS: But it was like, “Hey, take it easy. You don’t have to do that anymore.”
JS: Our mindset didn’t change. There was just more.
BS: There’s a lot of carts pushing to the location, which is new.
JS: Peter Bogdanovich did this thing with “They All Laughed,” where they set the call time and the holding on like 50th Street, and shot on South Street Seaport, so that no one would ever know that it was Audrey Hepburn and Ben Gazzara. We tried to put the trucks far enough away, but the beauty of Midtown, which is where we were shooting most of our street stuff, is that you could be one block away and you might as well be in another world.
What kind of time crunches were you working with?
BS: You’re more restricted on the hours.
J: That didn’t stop us. [laughs]
BS: We had a couple days where it was like, “You have 20 minutes, and we’re done.” And we’re like, “OK.” And we do the most insane shot, like four shots in one.
J: What you do is you try to game the system. They’re like, “Ok, you can only do two more shots.” And then you go and talk with your camera operator.
BS: And you say, “Listen. We’re going to go crazy.”
J: “We’re gonna combine shots J, L, M, N, O, P, and Q.” [laughs] And he’s like, “What do you mean?”
BS: But that takes agility! To be able to do that in ten minutes takes a lot, it’s not easy.
J: We had an incredible crew, and Scott Rudin was really helpful in building out the crew the right way. He made “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” in the same year, with two great directors, well, technically three. But he gave us a lot of freedom. He let us make the movie that we wanted to make. But there were some days where there were mandates. Like, “You can’t go over 12 hours today.” And we were like, “OK, gotcha.” And then you’re at 12 hours, and then you’re at 13 hours, and 14 hours. And then they’re like, “You can’t go to 15.” And we say, “I understand.” But it’s like, if you don’t get it, you’re not going to get it. And it’s a matter of, you look around and no one complained.
BS: That’s the thing. Everybody was so on board. We were talking to everybody. If everybody is not cool with it, we’re not going to push everybody. But we’re like, “We’re gonna go for this.”
J: One time someone made a wisecrack at me, and I was like, “If you don’t like it, go home.” And everyone was like, “Whoa, I can’t believe he said that.” And I couldn’t believe I said it, to a big Teamster guy. But at the same time, we had mutual respect for each other—he was gonna throw something at me, I was gonna throw it right back at him. I’m like, “Dude, we’re working here.”
How does Adam Sandler fit into the collaboration process?
JS: Sandler is a workaholic. How do I put it? He has this thing behind his eyes which is that he’s constantly searching, he’s constantly searching for something that can inspire him, or take him to this other place. And I can relate to that heavily. He’s also, if he’s not working, he doesn’t know what’s going on. And that’s why his output is so intense. I made a joke the other day that he was kind of like the filmmaker Fassbinder. First of all, he gave an incredible amount of attention to the script. He had thoughts on the script, and he would share them. And then he gave a lot of time for prep, he came four months out and we shot some character test stuff. Which is really tough for any actor, going out in the real world without a script, and having to just be this person, when people know you are Adam Sandler.
He was very, very dedicated to knowing every little moment and knowing every inspiration for those moments. So you would shoot, and then you would wrap, and then he would be like, “Let’s go get dinner.” And I’d be like, “Benny and I have our two-hour meeting that we have to do for tomorrow.” And he’s like, “Well, you can do it after.” So you go and you meet and you have dinner and you talk about what you did during the day that was great. What worked, what didn’t work. Let’s reminisce about the great shit you did today. Then you go and meet again, and you just hang out and you talk about tomorrow’s work. And then the next thing you know it, you shot a 12-hour day, and you’re at hour 16, and you still have your two-hour meeting for the next day. And then you have maybe a couple hours of sleep. And if you don’t do those things, it’s kind of like you’re hurting the process.
For [Sandler], he needs to be plugged into it all the time. We also were following a 50-city tour that he did for “100% Fresh,” which was maniacal, doing that. Three-and-a-half hours of material? Every night? So we had the benefit of following that, and we had such a big script with a lot of dialogue that he was able to say it effortlessly to the point that people don’t realize it’s a script.
Sandler’s teeth are a key part of Howard's presence—the way he brandishes them like a Cheshire cat. Whose idea was that?
JS: That was my idea. There was this documentary by Nick Broomfield where this guy had dentures, and a lot of people in the diamond district who hid it, the first thing they do when they hit is they buy teeth. With Howard, there’s a lot of posturing with consumerist culture, and the status symbols that you need to let everyone know around you that “I belong.” There are these things in your research that you come across, and it’s like, “Well, this is something that he has to have.” And that dictates the character.
BS: And those little things affect his performance. That’s something that he can hide behind, and be a new person. He really did want to disappear. And that leather jacket let him walk a certain way.
JS: And the jewelry. [Sandler] was putting on hundreds of thousands of dollars of jewelry every day, and prop people were so stressed out.
BS: Yeah, when he’s doing that FaceTime with his son, he’s got like a $200,000 watch.
JS: I remember watching a little documentary about the making of “Jackie Brown,” how they actually had half a million dollars in cash. So whenever Pam Grier is walking with that money, she’s actually really holding a half-million dollars in cash. That changes the way the character holds that bag. It changes the energy on set. Same thing happened here—when Howard was in his full regalia, his full blinged out world, he was wearing hundreds of thousands of dollars of jewelry. and it makes you walk a certain way.
I remember when I was a kid, our dad worked in the Diamond District as a runner and a salesman. He gave me a little chain, and I had a little Star of David on it. And I remember swapping the Star of David with a Knicks pendant. Which says a lot. But I remember when I put it on, I felt a sense of worth. An almost Egyptian sense.
BS: I actually had an interesting idea for a Knicks pendant. You know how they have the triangle? Do another triangle for the Jewish star. Knicks on it. You coulda had both!
Oh, with Sandler. When he’s in the truck. Just speaking to the idea what those pieces mean to you. When his glasses get ripped off, those are important to him! Those are $10,000 glasses.
There seems to be a key value in this movie that if Howard just shut up, he’d fare so much better.
JS: Yeah, someone who can’t get out of their own way is something that, in a weird way, we can relate to. We couldn’t get out of our own way, this was the movie that we had to make for so long. And you have these principles that you just kind of stand by. It’s like … everyone once in a while, someone will send us a script or their agents will, and we’ll read it. And you hear, “This is the script that everyone wants,” and you read it, and you’re like, “This is the script that Hollywood thinks is going to be a huge hit?” The exposition is so naked, all these things. But we could do that. In a weird way. We could. But at the same point it's like, but I can’t do it.
Why do you think that is?
JS: I don’t know, I just can’t. I just can’t get out of my own way!
BS: Well there was a moment when we were shooting in the backroom of [Howard’s] office, and Darius [Khondji] had a whole lighting set-up and lit for a very specific spot. And we did our rehearsal, but the actors never stood in that spot. So Darius came up to us and was like, “So when we do the next one, just have them stand right here. The light’s perfect.” I’m like, “OK. But I can’t do that. I’m sorry.” And he’s like, “What do you mean? Just tell them to stand right here.” And I say, “They don’t want to stand here. I’m not gonna do it, I can’t do it.” And it was this standoff, where I felt like Howard. I’m not gonna do it. Sorry.
JS: And Sandler overhears us, and he’s like, “I’ll stand right there. No problem.”
BS: He made the decision!
JS: Filmmaking is a fascistic art form. It starts with the director. Sometimes you have to be a fascist about it, you have to be. I remember there was too freeform of a conversation that was an attempt to rewrite a scene in the middle of it. It was involving [Eric] Bogosian, Sandler, and two guys in the back room. And at one point I was like, “Why is this even a conversation? No. It’s not a conversation. We’re doing it the way it's written.” But when that comes out, it’s like, “Whatever happened to our collaborative thing?” So it’s tough.
But what I’m getting at is that we could direct those scripts that come in, sometimes. We could just do it. But it’s just not within us. And I would rather go and do a commercial or a documentary that pays bare minimum to live off for a couple of years, then do something like that, where I have to basically get out of my own way and be someone else.
BS: And there's a lot of ideas that are still ... the idea that we know we can do that is great.
JS: Well, we don’t even know if we can do it, because we’ve never tried!
BS: I’m pretty confident that we could do it. But it would have to be, the person would have to be comfortable with, “Hey, this is going to be very different than what you set out with.” [laughs] If we were ever to do that.
Given that this movie finally arrived after ten years and a few projects in between, does "Uncut Gems" mark a type of closing for you guys?
JS: Big time, because it turned out better than we could have ever imagined in our heads. Which is a really special thing, a sense of accomplishment for ourselves. But it’s bittersweet because it was this North Star, it was this catchall. It’s like finishing a book. When you finish something you love to read, you don’t want to finish it. I know people who—I don’t do this—I know people who love a book so much that they’ll never finish them. There will be like three pages left. It’s always there.
BS: I don’t like to finish books not in a comfortable scenario. If I’m on the train, I don’t like to finish a book.
JS: But the bittersweet element to it is that Howard was this kind of proxy to dump personal experience onto, and there’s so many personal things deeply embedded in the movie that most people won’t even see. People who were maybe involved in these crazy experiences will see them and know, but it’ll be a private thing. But saying goodbye to that character is almost like saying goodbye to … a therapist, in a weird way. I don’t have that analogy because I’ve never said goodbye or done something like that, but I imagine that’s what it’s like. It’s like saying goodbye to a parent, almost.
BS: You’re saying goodbye to a vehicle to help you understand certain things. And it’s like, “Oh, now it’s a whole new weird world.”
JS: But it’s nice because it’s like, “What’s next?”
What is next? Do you think your next movie would be like "Heaven Knows What" and "Good Time" and this? Or would it be different?
JS: I think inherently it will have us in it. But it will be something else.
BS: The thing that was interesting about those movies is that, because we went to go make “Gems” and then we couldn’t, and it was like, let’s investigate something that’s involved in “Gems” so it was basketball. And then with “Heaven Knows What” it was, Josh saw [Arielle Holmes] while researching the Diamond District.
JS: And the toxic romance.
BS: There were all these things that were related to “Gems.” So it wasn’t just that we made them separate, they were all interests that were related to the world.
The characters are in your films are always caught in the very worst days of their lives. And yet there is a euphoric aspect to their very creation, to your storytelling. So I'm curious—have you guys experienced both the worst and best days of your life on a film set?
JS: I think we are so adamant and so headstrong and determined that we never really allow the worst to happen. But there have been in the past certain things we’ve been filming, certain productions that I would label under the worst days in my life. Like I know in my own particular head that movie will never be seen. It was something that was abandoned, and it was a horrible f**king day in my life.
BS: There have been times where it’s like, “Oh my god, it’s never going to work,” and the coolest, the best, is when you take those worst days, and you try. And when you succeed, it’s like, “Oh my god. That was pretty insane.”
So there’s an optimism underneath it all; a sense of possibility within the chaos.
JS: Yeah. That’s Howard.