Di­rec­tors Joshua and Ben­jamin Safdie cat­a­logue the long, com­pli­cated his­tory of their lat­est film Un­cut Gems. From the be­gin­ning, they knew they wanted Adam San­dler, but it took 10 years of de­tours and devel­op­ment be­fore they got their man

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only for whin­ing like a ninny while Rob Sch­nei­der pours spaghetti sauce over his head, clearly hasn’t seen his work in Reign Over Me or Punch-Drunk Love. No less a judge than Daniel Day-Lewis has ex­pressed him­self a mas­sive San­dler fan.

“It was funny to hear Adam talk,” Ben says. “’They want to meet me? But they al­ready know what I can do. Yes or no?’ But he un­der­stood. ‘Okay, I’ll meet with them.’ We al­ways knew we needed him to be in this film. Howard is a per­son who is go­ing to test you. And you get that from San­dler.”

So, what is San­dler like? Rightly or wrongly, we feel we have some grasp of what makes Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio tick. But the in­ner San­dler re­mains hid­den. He does few print in­ter­views. He’s rarely heard talk­ing about any­thing apart from the cur­rent project.

“He is a fas­ci­nat­ing guy, a very unique per­son,” Ben says. “He has a burn­ing de­sire to over­whelm him­self with some­thing in­spir­ing. But he is also a very pri­vate per­son. He gives ev­ery­thing to the per­son he’s talk­ing to. He was such a movie star in the 1990s. He blew up in such a big way. Af­ter that he wanted to make sure he had a pri­vate life.”

Their fa­ther’s tales

Like San­dler, Ben and Josh are proud Jewish sons of New York City. Their par­ents split up when they were chil­dren and they spent time trav­el­ling from dad in Queens to their mom’s new fam­ily in Man­hat­tan. They’ve made no se­cret of the fact that it was their fa­ther’s tales of the Di­a­mond District that in­spired Un­cut Gems. I worry for them. Though he has his good points, Howard comes across as ir­re­spon­si­ble, dis­hon­est and un­faith­ful. I’m tak­ing it that he’s not a ver­sion of Mr Safdie.

“No, it was an in­tro­duc­tion to that world,” Josh says. “He gave us ac­cess to that world. From there it grew into ac­tual re­search on the Di­a­mond District. The sim­i­lar­ity is there. They are both peo­ple who have their flaws and you have to look past those to find the gem in­side. You are con­fronted with this per­son and you find your­self on his side.”

They cer­tainly seem to have been fond of their dad. Josh and Ben be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with cam­eras when they were still kids. As they tell it now, their ec­cen­tric early projects were of­ten aimed and im­press­ing or in­flu­enc­ing the older Safdie.

“We made a film about a smoker who loves the Knicks and who dies of lung can­cer. We knew our dad watched the tapes, you see,” Ben says.

“Yeah, it was sort of a com­mer­cial,” Josh con­tin­ues. “We wanted him to watch it be­cause we wanted him to stop smok­ing. We also made a film about a bas­ket­ball player that I was in. Fun­nily enough I was al­ways act­ing. Now you do all the act­ing. Ha ha!”

Their path to­wards pro­fes­sional film­mak­ing was an un­usual one. Josh found him­self mak­ing a short film to pro­mote Kate Spade Hand­bags and, al­most by ac­ci­dent, saw that project es­ca­late into his first fea­ture. When the boys came back to­gether, how­ever, they dis­cov­ered that the work prof­ited from their broth­erly ca­ma­raderie. The films look like no­body else’s. They also sound like no­body else’s. Mu­sic that might else­where be de­scribed as “am­bi­ent” is cranked up to pneu­matic-drill lev­els. Back­ground con­ver­sa­tion swells. City noise forms a con­stant un­der­score. No film school teaches you to do it this way.

“We had peo­ple on set say­ing: ‘This is a bad idea. You don’t want to do this,’” Joshua says. “We let them know we have done sev­eral films al­ready. We know what we’re do­ing.”

Usu­ally ex­tras in the back­ground mime con­ver­sa­tions, leav­ing the ac­tual “rhubarb, rhubarb” to post-production boffins. But the Safdies en­cour­aged those in the pe­riph­ery to talk away.

“There was one mo­ment where we stopped film­ing be­cause there ac­tu­ally wasn’t enough talk­ing in the back­ground,” Ben says. “Then we get to post and you find that you need to add more. We had peo­ple do­ing more back­ground dialogue. We added buzzers. We added sound from the street. It’s so amaz­ing. There was a scene and in it you hear a siren come up. We hear these crises in the dis­tance start and then fade away. That’s city life.”

I get the sense that there is lit­tle the Safdies haven’t thought through in de­tail. This is chaos at its most ruth­lessly or­gan­ised. But there’s al­ways some de­tail you over­looked. Not un­til they crossed the At­lantic did they re­alise that Howard Rat­ner’s sur­name had wider as­so­ci­a­tions in the world of jew­ellery. As­ton­ish­ingly, it is now nearly 30 years since Ger­ald Rat­ner, founder of the com­pany that bore his name, nearly ru­ined him­self by re­fer­ring to one of his own prod­ucts as “crap” in a speech.

“We just learnt that two in­ter­views ago from the BBC and thought: ‘Yeah, that seems so ap­pro­pri­ate,’” Ben says. “Here’s another guy you can’t for­get. A dra­matic rise and a dra­matic fall.”

The moral was: don’t dis­re­spect your fans.

They nod vig­or­ously. I have no fear they’ll take any of theirs for granted.

Un­cut Gems is in cin­e­mas now and stream­ing on Net­flix from January 31st


Left: Di­rec­tors Benny and Josh Safdie on the set of Un­cut Gems with Adam San­dler. Above: San­dler as jew­eller Howard Rat­ner with his prized golden di­a­mond furby.

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