By Iain Blair
Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie have been on the verge of the big time since they started making their own distinctive brand of cinema: one full of anxiety, brashness, untamed egos and sweaty palms. They’ve finally done it with A24’s Uncut Gems.
Following their cinema verité Heaven Knows What — with its look at the New York City heroin subculture — and the crime thriller Good Time, the Safdies return to the mean streets of New York City with their latest, Uncut Gems. The film is a twisty, tense tale that explores the tragic sway of fortune, family and fate.
It stars Adam Sandler in a career-defining performance as Howard Ratner, a profane, charismatic New York City jeweler who’s always on the lookout for the next big score. When he makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime, Howard must perform a high-wire act by balancing business, family and encroaching adversaries on all sides.
Uncut Gems combines relentless pacing with gritty visuals, courtesy of DP Darius Khondji, and a score from Brooklyn-based experimental composer Daniel Lopatin.
In the tradition of ‘70s urban thrillers by Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese (who produced, along with Scott Rudin), the film creates an authentic tapestry of indelible faces, places, sounds and moods.
Behind the camera, the Safdies also assembled a stellar team of go-to collaborators that included co-editor Ronald Bronstein and production designer Sam Lisenco.
I recently sat down with the Safdies, whose credits include Daddy Longlegs, Lenny Cooke and The Pleasure of Being Robbed, to talk about making the film (which is generating awards buzz) and their workflow.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
Josh Safdie: The exact one you see on the screen. It changed a lot along the way, but the cosmic vibe of it and the mélange of characters who don’t seem to fit together but do on this journey where we are all on on this colorful rock that might as well be a colorful uncut gem – it was all there in the original idea. It’s pulpy, cosmic, funny, tense, and it’s what we wanted to do.
Benny Safdie: We have veteran actors, first-time actors and non-professionals in the cast, working alongside people we love so much. It’s great to see it all come together like it did.
How tough was it getting Adam Sandler, as I heard he initially passed on it?
Josh: He did. We sent it to him back in 2012, and I’m not sure it even got past “the moat,” as we call it. But once he saw our work, he immediately responded; he called us right after seeing Good Time. The irony is, one of his favorites was Daddy Longlegs, which we’d tried to approach him with. Once we actually made contact and started talking, it was instantly a strong kinship.
Benny: Now it’s like a deep friendship. He really got our need to dig deep on who this character is, and he put in the time and the care.
Any surprises working with him?
Josh: What’s funny is, we had a bunch of jokes written for him, and he then ad-libbed so many little things. He made us all smile every day.
What did he bring to the role of Howard, who could easily be quite unlikeable?
Josh: Exactly, and Adam brought that likeability in a way only he can. We had the benefit of following up his 50-city standup tour, where he did three hours of material every night, and we had a script loaded with dialogue. His mind was so sharp, so by the time he did this — and we were giving him new pages over lunch sometimes — he could just ingest them and regurgitate them and go out on a limb and try out a new joke, and then come back to the dialogue. He was so well oiled in the character that it was second nature to him.
Benny: And you root for him. You want him to succeed. Adam pushed us on stuff, like the family and the kids. He knew it was important to show those relationships, that audiences would want to see and feel that. And he wanted to create a very complicated person. Yes, Howard’s doing some bad things, but you want him to get there.
Was it difficult getting former pro basketball player Kevin Garnett to act in the film?
Josh: It’s always tough when someone is very successful in their own field. When you try to convince them to do acting, they know it’s a lot of work and they don’t need the money, and you’re asking them to play a version of themselves — and there’s the huge time commitment. But Kevin really committed, and he came back a bunch to shoot scenes we needed.
You’re well known for your run-and-gun, guerilla-style of shooting. Was that how you shot this film?
Josh: Yeah, a lot of locations, but we built the office sets. And we got permits for everything.
Benny: But we kept the streets open and mixed in the 80 SAG actors in the background.
How does it work on the set in terms of co-directing?
Josh: On a technical level, we’ll work with our DP on placing the camera. It was a bit different this time since Benny wasn’t also acting, like he did in Good Time. We were co-directing and getting that much closer to the action; you see different parts of a performance that way, and we have each other’s backs. We are able to put our heads together and get a really full picture of what’s happening on set. And if one of us talks to somebody, it’s always coming from both of us. We’ve been working together since we were kids, and we have a huge amount of trust in each other.
The way characters talk over each other, and then all the background chatter, reminded me a lot of Robert Altman and his approach.
Benny: Thanks. He was a huge influence on us. It’s using sound as it’s heard in real life. We heard this great story about Altman and the film McCabe and Mrs. Miller. About 15 minutes into the premiere Warren Beatty turned to Altman and asked, “Does the whole movie sound like this?” And Altman replied excitedly, “Yeah!” He was so far ahead of his time, and that’s what we tried to emulate.
What’s so great about Altman is that he saw life as a film, and he tried to get the film to ride up parallel to life in that sense. We ended up writing 45 extra pages of dialogue recording — just for the background. Scott Rudin was like, “You wrote a whole other script for background people?” We’d have a character there just to say one line, but it added all these extra layers.
Josh: On top of the non-stop dialogue, Howard’s a real loudmouth; he hears everything. Our post sound team was very special, and it was very educational for us. We began with Oscar-winning re-recording mixer Tom Fleischman, but then he had to go off to do The Irishman, so Skip Lievsay took over. Then Warren Shaw came on, and we worked with the two of them for a very long time.
Thanks to our producers, we had the time to really get in there and go deeper and deeper. I’d say the soundscape they built in Dolby Atmos really achieved something like life, and it also had areas for music and sound design that are so meticulous and rich that we’d watch the movie without the dialogue.
Where did you do the post?
Benny: All in New York. For sound, we started off at Soundtrack and then went to Warner Bros. Sound. We edited at our company offices with co-editor Ronny Bronstein. Brainstorm Digital did most of the crazy visual effects. We worked closely with them and on the whole idea of, “What does the inside of a gemstone look like?”
How does editing work with Ronny?
Josh: He’s often on the set with us, but we didn’t cut a frame until we sat down after the shoot and watched it all. I think that kept it fresh for us. Our assistant editor developed binders with all the script and script supervisor notes, and we didn’t touch it once during the edit. I think coming from documentaries, and that approach to the material, has informed all our editing. You look at what’s in front of you, and that’s what you use to make your film. Who cares what the script says!
One big challenge was the sheer amount of material, even though we only shot for 35 days — that includes the African unit. We had so many setups and perspectives, in things like the auction and the Seder scenes, but the scene we spent the most time writing and editing was the scene between Howard and Kevin in the back room… and we had the least time to shoot it — just over three hours.
You have a great score by your go-to composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never.
Josh: We did the score at his studio in Brooklyn. It’s really another main character, and he did a great job as usual.
The DI must have been vital?
Josh: Yes, and we did all the color at The Mill with colorist Damien van der Cruyssen, who’s a really great colorist and also ran our dailies. Darius likes to spend a lot of time in the DI experimenting and finding the look, so we ended up doing about a month on it. Usually, we get just four days.
What’s next? A big studio movie?
Josh: Maybe, but we don’t want to abandon what we’ve got going right now. We know what we want. People offer us scripts but I can’t see us doing that.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.