Uncut Gems Directors Discuss Turning Adam Sandler Into a Shady NYC Jeweler [Exclusive]

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The Safdie brothers, directors Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, have had quite the rise in Hollywood over the past couple of years. 2017’s Good Time, which went on to earn rave reviews and earned Robert Pattinson high-praise for his performance, got the duo a great deal of attention and ensured that more people would be keeping an eye out for what comes next. The Safdie’s next effort Uncut Gems is here and similarly will go down as a critically-heralded addition to the year that has been 2019.

This time around, they paired with Adam Sandler and put the Happy Gilmore actor in a unique situation. Instead of sticking him in a slapstick comedy, they turned him into Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler who is totally unhinged, unpredictable and out of his mind. It will easily go down as one of the best performances of Sandler’s career and could even earn him an Oscar nomination. As you can tell from the Uncut Gems trailer, the movie itself, aside from Sandler, is a wild, stressful ride quite unlike anything else released this year.

I recently had the chance to speak with the Safdie brothers after a screening of Uncut Gems. We discussed their 10-year journey to get this movie made, the many actors who they developed it with and what they think of Robert Pattinson as our new Batman.

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I was at the movie last night. I loved it. It was one of the things I was most curious about this year because I grew up with Sandler and you mentioned that Punch Drunk Love came out when you were a teenager, and I’ve been waiting for him to do something else like this again. So what was it like for you guys to be able to get him out of his comfort zone?

Josh Safdie: You know what’s weird is, I was never surprised. Not once did I think we weren’t getting the same person who is carrying Billy Maddison, or Happy Gilmore, or Wedding Singer or Big Daddy. It’s the same person. His comedy records, and getting to know him personally, he has such a desire. He’s such a workaholic and he’s constantly searching for something that inspires him. I heard a story of him yesterday going to see a very small independent movie like ten years ago, just going to see it in a movie theater. That didn’t surprise me. Every once in a while he would just amaze us with his talent. We love working with real people. Real people do very idiosyncratic things they sometimes don’t even realize they’re doing in their performances when they’re acting as themselves, or a version of themselves. And Sandler was doing things as if he was one of these real jewelers, and when he would do these little tiny things, adding to a moment. Filling space as Howard would, that’s when I would just be amazed at the whole experience. I’m sitting here watching one of my idols do the words that I wrote.

Benny Safdie: It’s less surprise and more of like awe. Like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe he’s doing it to this level.” Because we all thought he could, but now it’s actually happening. Watching him scene over scene, just staying in his close-up. Because he also didn’t know when we were shooting his close-up, or if we were shooting a wide shot. He was just on all of the time. That’s why we were moving like that but was just going, “I’m going to do this as if it’s my close-up all the time.” It just breathed life into the character in such an awesome way.

I know you guys said last night that you worked on this for like ten years. Was it always in your mind Sandler?

Benny Safdie: Well, yeah. Because he has that ability to have you root for him no matter what, in the most absurd situations. You bring yourself to want that guy to win. You want him to succeed. That was very important for Howard.

Josh Safdie: We also knew that this character did a lot of questionable things and we knew that we needed somebody who you loved. And Sandler is just a very lovable person, on-screen and in real life. And we wanted an iconic Jew also. He was our first option. We couldn’t get to him. So we went down the road with other actors, and it never really felt right. We got pretty far down the line with Sacha Baron Cohen. We got far down the line with Jonah Hill.

Really?!

Josh Safdie: Yeah, Jonah Hill was attached for a little bit. Harvey Keitel at one point. What’s interesting, with Harvey Keitel we aged the character up, then we went to Sacha Baron Cohen, we were going to do kind of a more conceptual approach to the film, where we were going to create… Howard was going to be almost, not like a Borat, but like a more grounded version of Bukharian Jewish guy in the diamond district. We went down the line with him for a little bit. All of the process you just keep grinding the stone and filling it out. Then when Jonah got involved, Jonah really responded to our previous work and we thought it would be really great to work together, and he would net us a certain budget. We started discussing [it]. We tried. We tried to make the character younger, but we couldn’t really figure it out. Then he went off and did Mid-90s and wanted to become a director. So it just kind of made sense that the timing wasn’t working.

Then we went back to the drawing board. We were like, “Let’s give it one last shot.” We’re gonna be in Cannes with Good Time. Sandler is going to be there with The Meyerowitz Stories. Let’s take a shot. You can’t score if you don’t shoot. And we couldn’t get to him in Cannes. He was there with his wife. Then he watched Good Time a few months later and that was the moment. That was the thing that shifted his attention because he really responded to the film. Then he went back and watched all of our movies. The great irony is that the movie he responded to most was the movie that we made in 2009 that we were trying to go out to him with. We had our Spirit Awards nominations and we were like, “Hey, Mr. Sandler.” I told him about that irony and he thought that was hilarious.

You guys are brothers that make movies together, which is rare in this business. How did that dynamic even come together and how does that work between you guys?

Benny Safdie: I don’t even know if we truly understand it. At some point, if you have a sibling you know you can argue, but they’re still your sibling no matter what. I think here, sometimes there’s an unspoken part of it that can be very helpful. You look at each other when something is not working and you don’t even need to say anything. It’s just like, “Okay, let’s figure this out.

Josh Safdie: We’re also very open to physical abuse [laughs]. So we have like a hot poker system, and I have a big callus on my back from it. Now there’s no burning sensation on there anymore. He just sticks it on there.

Benny Safdie: I have a portable one. That one you have to plug into a wall.

Josh Safdie: That’s right, that’s right.

Benny Safdie: It only works on a stage. When we’re on location I have a portable, battery-operated one.

Josh Safdie: He also attaches it to his boom, so he can just stab me with the boom [laughs].

Benny Safdie: No but really. How did it start? I’ll tell you how it started. Our father had a really bad relationship with his brother. A nasty one. He came from kind of a strict Syrian, Jewish family and the older brother was cherished, and the younger brother was kind of discarded. He was the younger brother. So he never really had a real brother. We had a crazy childhood.

Josh Safdie: Having a crazy childhood, when there’s an uncertainty about who is going to be around when, the only consistent thing we had was each other. So that really built a deep bond. And that’s when the burning thing started to happen [laughs]. It was an accidental thing. Our dad, he would film us constantly. He had a camcorder and that instilled this early idea of, what worthy of reflection? Then he would also show us movies instead of having talks with us about stuff. So he was basically gifting us this idea of the power of movies and the power of what they are as reflections of us as humans, and I think we learned that together subconsciously as kids. Then, as we got older, we started to really lean on each other technically. You know, I’d say, “Hey Benny, this program came out. You learn it. I’m gonna go shoot this thing, let’s edit it together.” Now, to this day, we like to share a lot of the roles. Benny edits. I’m more involved in the writing process. Benny’s also in on the writing process, but Benny is also really running the boom and I’ll be more working with the camera. We’re both talking to the actors.

Benny Safdie: It’s like an amorphous kind of thing. You don’t know what it is, and sometimes you just kind of have to roll with it. I think it’s funny because, with the actors, sometimes I’ll see Josh vibing with somebody a little better so I’ll hold back. Then I’ll relay information to Josh and he’ll relay that to the person. That’s kind of in the beginning. Then as we move through the production, everybody feels much more comfortable, and then everybody can have a much more open conversation, which is kind of cool.

I caught onto Good Time a little late. I watched this and Good Time pretty close to one another.

Josh Safdie: Cool.

You guys, especially with this and then with Robert Pattinson for sure, have this tendency to bring out the best in people. Especially because you guys are talking about original ideas, what was it like to work with Pattinson on one of his most acclaimed things and then all of a sudden see, oh, he’s Batman?

Josh Safdie: It was wild to see Matt Reeves, the director, posted a gif of Good Time when they announced Rob won the role. That speaks to Rob’s talents. He’s such a devoted, hard worker, just like Sandler. I’m not surprised and I think Rob will make a great Batman and a great Dark Knight. I think he’s primed for it. But I think, when we like to work with people, we get so deep in it with our collaborators, and it is a very collaborative process where the actors have a lot of agency. We’re building out the biographies together. We’re doing the research together. We’re developing the wardrobe together. I think, in a weird way, it’s as helpful for us as it is for the actors I’m sure, but it is awesome to see Rob, he was amazing in The Lighthouse and in Claire Denis’ film High Life. He deserves everything that’s coming to him. He just finished a [Christopher] Nolan movie.

Benny Safdie: He’s clearly been on the path to understand something. You don’t know what it is.

Josh Safdie: He starred in this massive phenomenon [Twilight]. He could have continued and done that for the rest of his life, but he didn’t want to. He wanted something else.

I suppose in making a movie you have to anticipate, who is this for? Who are we making this for? For you guys as filmmakers, who did you envision this for as an audience member?

Josh Safdie: Everyone!

Benny Safdie: It’s true! Every movie we make we feel everybody is going to want to see. Everybody’s got the same itch we’re trying to scratch.

Josh Safdie: But I think, in particular, Americans are going to love this movie. It’s weird. I know previous movies we were like, “Oh the French are really going to like this.” I think Americans are going to love this movie because it’s such an American story, and I think we have such American icons in the movie. Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, Judd Hirsch, the Weeknd. That’s why I loved the producers’ decision, with the distributor, to release the film on Christmas. Yeah! It’s a Christmas movie! It has a family vibe. It’s cool.

Uncut Gems is in select theaters now from A24.

Ryan Scott at Movieweb