UNEARTHING A DIAMOND AFTER A DECADE IN THE ROUGH
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
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.