In Uncut Gems, writers-directors Josh and Benny Safdies’ anxiety thriller which drops this month, you learn that Howard Ratnor is an asshole pretty much up front. The movie opens at an Ethiopian mine, evacuated after an accident leaves one man’s tibia bloody and exposed, as two workers uncover a chunk of black opal the size of a soda can. Over a soundtrack of orchestral, alien synths, the camera zooms in on the stone until its metallic flecks swallow the lens, taking the viewer to some other dimension, first visibly rocklike, but then almost vascular and fleshy. All at once, the visuals turn distinctly rectal, and the camera pulls back to reveal Ratnor, played by an unmistakable Adam Sandler, unconscious, drooling, and mid-colonoscopy.
The intro is a classic Safdie move—at once jarring (exposed tibia), funny (butts), fast-paced, choppy, vaguely stressful, scored by Oneohtrix Point Never—but it’s also somewhat new ground. The Safdie brothers have a thing for playing fast and loose with fiction, or more specifically, for hewing to real life so manically that the border between fact and imagination seems more made up than anything else. In earlier movies, like Daddy Longlegs, about their feckless, movie projectionist father, or Heaven Knows What, which followed a then-homeless addict whom Josh met in New York’s Diamond District, that impulse showed up most visibly in their ensembles of unknown actors and average Joes, often with deep ties to the subject matter. The cast of Uncut Gems, however, is crowded with familiar faces: Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, Eric Bogosian, and The Weeknd, to name only a few. The Safdie brothers have taken stabs at big fame once before, with Robert Pattinson in 2017’s Good Time. But when the camera pulls back on Sandler, the jolt of immediate, near-universal recognition—the kind they’ve explicitly rejected in movies past—telegraphs a shift in verisimilitude.
On a recent phone interview with The Daily Beast, the brothers argued that familiarity serves a purpose. Uncut Gems follows Ratnor, a debt-ridden New York jeweler convinced the rare black opal will be his ticket to solvency, on an anxious spiral into sports gambling, theft, and getting punched in the face. As the story unfolds, the movie quickly affirms that Ratnor, unrelenting liar, semi-absent father of three, and haver of two girlfriends—the nearly-ex wife Dina (Idina Menzel) and the barely legal mistress (Julia Fox)—is indeed an asshole. He’s not a total asshole though. He’s Adam Sandler. Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore! Family man and fart comic! He gives the role an unsettling double valance: at once a depraved, Gilbert Gottfried-rasping deadbeat and a tragic but silly variant of the man-child moviegoers have known for decades.
That same intentional confusion between character and celebrity extends to Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, both of whom play themselves. The former appears as Ratnor’s customer, desperate to buy his opal; the latter as a somewhat mystifying side character whose concert Ratnor attends. He briefly flirts with his mistress and doesn’t do much to advance the plot.
Whether the casting achieved its desired effect or not, the primary veracity of the movie comes from the Safdies’ signature style, the same tools they’ve always used, but now multiplied: the overlapping dialogue, the shrieking alarms, the choppy cuts, the panicked time crunch, the furious synths, all working together in frantic consistency. Howard Ratnor is an asshole underwater, weighting his ankles with every bad bet and lie, and watching it is like drowning there with him.
In a 2010 essay for The Morning News, journalist Jay Caspian Kang described the visceral agonies that accompany gambling addiction like Ratnor’s. “Pain in poker comes in many forms,” he wrote. “There is the loss you feel about living off of the dregs of a societal illness. There is the gambler’s moment of clarity when you realize you have become just like the old, sad men that you ridiculed in your younger, luckier days. There is the tedium of sitting at a filthy felt table for hours, sometimes days, feigning a studied intensity. There is the anxiety over explaining to a loved one exactly how you lost $30,000 in the course of a weekend.” Uncut Gems puts all those pains on stimulants, drives them off a cliff, and doesn’t have insurance to pay for the hospital bills afterwards. It sucks, in an absolutely amazing way, to watch.
Getting this film made has been a long, ten-year process. Can we go back to the beginning? When was day one? What was the initial idea?
Benny: The initial piece came from the stories our father used to tell us about when he worked in the Diamond District as a runner and a salesman when we were kids. The person he worked for—the district was just kind of this insane place with all these pulp stories of adventure, love, just jealousy, humor, deceit, massive gambles, family but not family. So after Daddy Longlegs it was of course, let’s delve into this world because it was somehow connected to growing up. We decided to feel the nostalgia out of what those stories felt like from when our father told them to us. As we were exploring, we realized it was such a rich life and a big world, and you need a lot to tell that. We thought that in 2010 or 2011—that we could make that movie. But apparently we were not. We went out to the world—we even went out to Adam Sandler—but we couldn’t get past the reception. So we decided to make another movie. What’s interesting about the ten-year journey is you try to make Gems—then oh, it’s not going to work out—so somebody presents the opportunity of making a basketball documentary [Lenny Cooke]. Basically you then focus in on the stories that present themselves as the movie is being made. But the seed was from our father really.
So that whole time, was this project looming over you like some massive white whale or were you thinking, we’ll get around to that eventually?
Josh: No. There were over 150 drafts of the script, the reason why we couldn’t get the film made in 2010 or ’11 was because the film wasn’t ready to be made. It was one these kind of North Star projects where they need the development. They need the gestation. They need the research. That first draft was a nostalgic draft. That first draft was built out of the pulp stories that we had either vague memories of or they were born out of stories our dad was recalling from his times in the District when we were kids. Once we got those out of our system, I embedded myself deeply in the Diamond District and started to get the world-side view. And that world is a very hard one to crack, very hard. You can’t take a cell phone picture in the Diamond District without getting punched in the face and I knew that. I knew it was going to take time to gain people’s trust. I knew that it was a very materialist, consumerist world that wasn’t going to care or give a shit about me until I either had money for a big diamond pendant or I had some form of celebrity—neither of which I had. I had to bring press clippings, I had to come back—when our documentary Lenny Cooke came out, that film reached them because that film blew up on World Star. They actually check World Star. So all of a sudden, all the cultural capital that we’re amassing is allowing me to gain access for the script.
Each time we finished a project, we’re taking the knowledge that that project gave us in its development and its completion and we’re applying that new education retroactively to the next draft of the script. Now couple that with the casting—every time we meet somebody, whether it’s somebody who’s been in a 100 movies or they’ve never acted in their life and they’re a real person we’re looking to put on camera, we’re meeting with those people and we’re adapting the characters to those people themselves. That person might pass and not want to be involved in the movie, and you know what happens then? The vestiges of that research find their tentacles into the characters, but then we added to them, then we look for the next casting decision and we go through that whole process all over again. So what you’re seeing is actually this amalgamation of 10 years of research and work, and characters upon characters upon characters, and layers upon layers upon layers. So it’s not that it was this weight upon our shoulders that we were trying to dump. It was an educational process. It was a lifestyle.
You have a track record of hiring unknown actors, and regular people you’ve found on the street. This movie is stacked with big names like Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, and huge names like Adam Sandler. What was the rationale behind a transition like that?
Josh: We were always attracted to Adam Sandler. Sandler was, from the very beginning, with this project—form follows function. When you’re making a movie for a few $100,000 you can use a cast of complete unknowns and it actually helps add to the mystery—doubling upon these characters who you don’t know. But once you start to need a bigger budget, you don’t have the freedom to cast whoever you want, and it’s not a financial decision, it’s a decision of OK, well this project in particular, like with Howard, Howard is a jeweler to the rich and famous. Howard Ratnor is a celebrity in the Diamond District. He might not be a celebrity two blocks north or south, but on 47th street, he’s a celebrity. Everybody knows his name. He’s appeared in magazines. Everybody knows his name. He is the guy. So when you think about that you need to tap into that on a guttural level. You need to tap into it on a meta level. You need to cast someone that everyone knows, and who does everyone know that has the capacity to be lovable and has this rage in him? Adam Sandler. It was Adam Sandler.
We were looking at Adam Sandler the same exact way we were looking at all the non-professionals we’ve ever cast. There’s no difference. We were looking at his persona, and that’s what you do when you cast a movie. So the reality is that I think we’re maturing. In the beginning, I used to not be able to listen to music if it didn’t have tape hiss in it because I thought that if there was any element of production it meant that there was an insincerity there. I grew out of that phase, now I listen to Steely Dan and Metro Boomin’ which has the highest possible production value, because I feel like you can actually be honest within that production.
Benny: And there is something kinetic that goes on when you have a [professional] actor and an actor who’s never acted before. Usually when we have someone that we find, they have a world with them, they’re acting from the experience of their lives. They might not have the tools to act, but they have the personality and emotions there. When you pair them with somebody who’s an actor playing that role, you have an interesting alchemy that happens. Let’s take Sandler with a real jeweler. You have Sandler nervous around the jewelers because he’s like, ‘Well now I have to sound legit, I want to disappear into their lives,’ and then you have the jewelers saying, ‘Oh my god I’m acting with Adam Sandler, I have to bring it from an acting standpoint.’ It’s a conversation. I think it’s something that even in the earlier movies, you do have people with varying abilities of how much they can act and what their quote-unquote range is. But it’s all about people and how you translate that.
You said you wanted Sandler from the beginning of the process. What was it about him that made you think he achieved that combo of relatability and range?
Josh: When we were kids we would always listen to his comedy records. Things like Teenage Romance. It’s just hilarious, there’s so many characters fully formed and that’s what makes it so funny. We learned he did these weird adults in comedy sketches at nine and seven years old. They were huge for us, so by the time we finally experienced him in his movies, they were huge to us. Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and later Big Daddy, those films were—they had a sincerity to them. He was such a unique character who was constantly getting frustrated, and that rage that would show up in those early movies. Punch Drunk Love as well, that’s why PTA [Paul Thomas Anderson] is such a vanguard artist. He saw that in him and he tailored a movie around it. And we knew from the very beginning that only Adam Sandler could really make this movie work, because you needed him to be lovable. You might not need him to be likable, but you needed him to be lovable. He made a whole career in that.
“You have Sandler nervous around the jewelers because he’s like, ‘Well now I have to sound legit, I want to disappear into their lives,’ and then you have the jewelers saying, ‘Oh my god I’m acting with Adam Sandler, I have to bring it from an acting standpoint.’”
There are also two other real-life celebrities playing themselves: Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd. Why did you want recognizable real-life figures? Why did you want to use real games?
Benny: When you have a fictional story like this, which is very insane, if you bleed in these real elements, it kind of grounds the whole film in an interesting place. So you have Kevin Garnett coming in and playing a character that’s totally the opposite of who he is. He said to us so many times on set, do you have any idea how hard this would be for me to do? I would never in a million years be here right now in a playoff game. So he is playing this weird version of himself, and then The Weeknd comes up more and is like I want to play the supreme punk version of myself at that age and I want to go so far with it. So these people are playing these extremes but again, you recognize them. We’re using real games, we’re using a real song from that period, so everything else kind of feels more realistic, and you’re playing with this perception of the audience.
Josh: When The Weeknd first discovered our work through Heaven Knows What, he really responded to it. He responded to the dark romance of it. I think it really aligned pretty closely with his Trilogy and some of his early work. And then after Good Time, we became friends and I noticed that he would say things like, “Josh, you never met the punk.” And I was like, “Who’s the punk?” And he’s like, “That’s who came out when I hit the scene. No one really knew who I was, I didn’t do interviews or anything like that, I was just reckless, I was putting out tons of work and I would be be a Tasmanian devil.” And that was very interesting to me because this movie is about celebrity in some regards. So like Ben was saying, when you have this fictional world, and you have these pillars in it, these reality pillars, it blurs the line between fiction and reality, in a way that allows the audience to kind of suspend its belief in a more grounded way.
Your past few movies have been in this very particular style—tense, choppy, frenetic, sonically overlapping, anxiety thrillers. With Gems, like Good Time, there’s a way the movie’s central theme is this constant anxiety. Why did you gravitate there?
Josh: Maybe we have anxiety issues and putting ourselves in that scenario seems natural. We wanted this movie to be a thriller. Part of the impetus behind the original version of the script was the thrilling elements of those original stories. It’s the thrill of being in the Diamond District, not knowing if someone’s going to burn you on a deal, doing a handshake deal and just accepting that, knowing there’s no contract involved. There’s a certain anxiety that was attached to making this film over the past 10 years: are we going to get it made, can we get it made, is this person attached to the budget, is this budget enough, can we do it in this amount of days? Sometimes the closest emotion that you associate with a thriller is anxiety. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about Sandler is that he brings this humor to it, and this humor is what offsets the anxiety and acts as comic relief.
Benny: There’s also an obsessiveness to kind of get the point of view of the character and when you really get into that, the style comes from there.
You guys have this notorious mood boarding situation, where you’ll bombard the people you’re working with with specific, disparate images of what you want. I’ve seen articles about how you sent people pictures of Spongebob and men in the rain and ’80s leather jackets. Can you tell me a little bit about plotting the aesthetic of the movie?
Josh: Mood board is kind of a bastardized term that the commercial industry has taken over. But we are kind of constantly sending images to people we’re working with. Like with Lakeith Stanfield, I sent him a bunch of memes that I found on the internet that I thought his character would respond to, that his character would want to share with other people, memes that he wanted his character to align with. I think he was able to tap into the character in an interesting way for him, and it was helpful for me too, because I was able to write the character knowing that. I don’t remember what they were—weird hood humor that Demani [Stanfield’s character] would think would be very funny. I’d have to look at my exchange with Lakeith to see those exact ones. I would try to find the ones from 2012 when the movie was [set in] 2012 or sometimes not. With Dan, the composer, I would send him an image of a guy walking down a staircase at night being beat down with rain and say, ‘Hey good luck, this is the image of the day.’”
Lastly, are you both still onboard to remake the movie 48 Hours?
Ben: No. Not happening. We were.
Josh: We were hired to write a screenplay for it. We wrote a bunch of drafts and the reality is that what came in was so not a remake, we don’t know how to do that, so it’s going to be turned into something original.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.