They call him Sandman; he calls them “the boys.” It’s an unexpected friendship, maybe, between the 55-year-old comedic superstar and the street-level thirtysomething auteurs, but a genuinely fond one.
And fruitful too: Adam Sandler‘s first project with the Safdie brothers, the kinetic thriller Uncut Gems (out Dec. 13) quickly became one of the breakout films of the fall festival circuit; now there’s growing talk of an Oscar nod for Sandler’s bravura performance as a fast-talking Manhattan jeweler whose personal and professional lives begin to tip toward calamity over the course of several feverish, increasingly unhinged days.
“These boys went at me pretty good,” Sandler says, of a frenetic month-long shoot that often involved putting his character Howard Ratner in various comprising positions — including nude in the trunk of a car. “They beat me up I’d say maybe 120 different angles worth.”
“All three of the guys who are manhandling Sandler, this is the first movie they’ve done, you know?” 33-year-old co-writer and director Benny Safdie admits between hurried bites of takeout in a New York editing bay. “So they’re very professional, but when it’s your first time… He literally looked like a cheetah afterwards, just blacks spots all the way up and down his arms.”
It was all in service to the verité madness of the movie, which is executive produced by Martin Scorsese and also features Tony-winning actress Idina Menzel, retired NBA power forward Kevin Garnett, and R&B star the Weeknd, among others — the latter two in their first substantial screen roles.
“We started the script in 2010,” says co-director Josh Safdie, 35, “so [the Weeknd’s part] was originally a fictional rapper based on someone who we kinda knew, and then every six months we’d basically almost rewrite the whole thing — just update it, keep it fresh. And it was centered more on the Knicks originally and their run in 2010 with Amar’e Stoudemire and Mike D’Antoni, but then as we got closer to production, we got friendly with the Weeknd. He’s a big movies guy so we bonded a lot over that, and we wrote him in.”
As for the casting of Sandler, which may have seemed counterintuitive at first? It’s true that he came on board after Jonah Hill dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, but the pair never doubted his dramatic bona fides. “Every time something insane happens to him on screen,” Benny says, “he grounds it, no matter what.”
“We grew up with him, and his work was so important to us,” Josh adds. “Like every comedian, he has an incredible sense of timing, and this performance is so much about timing. If everyone can just accept that he’s a great actor, that he’s the only person who could make those great, iconic movies — no one else could make Happy Gilmore, only Adam Sandler.”
“I think we really benefited from coming off the heels of his 49-city comedy tour,” he continues. “Stand-up is such an art form, because you have your script and it’s a very specific thing. It’s about hitting beats, beats that you know are the backbone. But then watching him as a performer find ways to inject improvisation into those lines… It’s a very human, raw place to be, to put yourself out there like that.”
For his part, Sandler did months of on-the-ground research — including deep embeds with his real-life Diamond District counterparts, and weeks in full dress rehearsal — but ultimately put his trust almost entirely in his collaborators: “We synched up pretty good with the New York of it all,” he says, his voice crackling over group speakerphone from his home in Los Angeles.
“They’re younger than me, so they know the new world more than me,” he goes on. “But they know so much about history, and they learned so much from their family and their friends and their life in New York. I would just keep questioning the fellas what they were thinking and what they wanted. They talked to me about Al Goldstein and Rodney Dangerfield and other kinds of strong, opinionated Jews,” he laughs. “And then we met guys on the block, the guys who were teaching us about jewelry, where’d we go ‘Wow, that was such a Howard moment.’ Josh and Benny would always say, “Oh! Right there, that’s Howard.”
With or without Academy gold, could the actor see himself returning to the Safdies’ wild world? “We talk about it constantly, man. I love these guys, love ‘em. [So] of course I would die to work with them again, because it’s a brand-new feeling. They really are incredible at what they do. But the funniest thing is when I would say to them, ‘Your future is so bright,’ they didn’t want to talk about that. They were so deep in it. They were like, ‘I just like Gems, man.’”