This is how they won: Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers on spoilers and secrets of Uncut Gems
Audacious, exhausting, electric: Some nine months after the Safdie brothers' diamond-district crime thriller Uncut Gems first cut a swath at its Telluride Film Festival premiere, a neutron bomb of amphetamines and opal talk, the movie arrives Monday on Netflix.
Last fall, EW sat down with star Adam Sandler and the two siblings for a freewheeling conversation on the art of filmmaking, bedazzled Furbies, and how a gemstone lunatic like Howard Ratner came to be. (Note: Some portions of this interview were previously published in EW, but most of it was held back to avoid spoilers; it's probably best to read the full piece below only after having seen the movie.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Okay these are all internet facts but Adam, is it true that the brothers first reached out to you back in 2012?
ADAM SANDLER: Oh man, I didn’t get to meet 'em. I didn’t know! But I guess they talked to [my agent] and he probably didn’t think the timing was right, I had other stuff cookin’. But this age feels like it makes more sense.
JOSH SAFDIE: For many reasons, it was for the best.
And how much time did you actually have on set?
BENNY SAFDIE: It was pretty tight. We had maybe 31 days of principal photography?
JOSH: I went to Africa [to shoot the film's opening scene] for nine days, and we only shot for one day — two days! Friday to Saturday, that was it.... But I think that the chaos and that monstrosity of a schedule kind of vertically lined up with the concepts of the movie — that here you have a guy who’s trying to balance a bunch of plates at the same time and kind of strive for something great. It coincided with Howard’s business, you know? A lot to do all the time in Howard’s world. [Laughs]
Adam, you’re not known for low-energy characters, but what’s it like to sustain this level of almost-mania for 30 days?
ADAM: It was not a problem at all. We were all kinda goin’ at it together. I think that the Safdie boys have more energy than Howard. We were just thinking this movie night and day, it was an amazing. We kept it cookin’ the entire time.
BENNY: We also didn’t want to let each other down you know? There were certain scenes we knew we had to kill and we were all kind of watching each others’ backs, like trust falls.
ADAM: Oh, for sure.
Adam, did Howard bleed into your life at all? He seems like a hard character to shed at the end of the day.
ADAM: Well my family was nice enough not to come by the set, ever. [Laughs] that was a conscious choice that we made as a family: "Let’s stay away from Howard."
JOSH: Except sometimes you brought him home with you, with those bruises.
ADAM: Oh my goodness, yes. The boys went at me pretty good — they beat me up I’d say maybe 120 different angles worth. And yeah I had some spots on my body.
JOSH: He literally looked like a cheetah, blacks spots all the way up and down his right and left arms.
BENNY: Josh and I prepared for that, you know — we were right there in the car [for that kidnapping scene] and we had a stunt driver driving, but it was so ratcheted up, so when they were grabbing his arms all the tension of the moment went into their fingertips.
JOSH: All three of those guys who are manhandling Sandler, it was the first movie they’ve done. So they were very professional, but when it’s your first time — Sandler’s so in it, he’s so into the character that it started to actually get a little scary one or two times, because he's getting choked at one point in the scene and there were all these cues.
Our stunt driver was actually also the stunt coordinator, so he had eyes on him the whole time, and kudos to him that he was really hawk-eyed about it — because there was one take when Sandler was getting choked and he was trying to tap out, but the actor thought that he was just being Howard so he choked harder, and Adam couldn’t breathe.
You didn’t have a safe word?
JOSH: A safe word? He couldn’t speak! [Laughs] But he never said anything till after we cut and then he was like, “Thank you.” But I thought it was amazing that when his wife Jackie saw the movie she was like,"It wasn’t you, it was a totally different person on the screen."
ADAM: Yeah, we don’t know if she liked that guy better, but that’s okay. [Laughs]
Some New York movies feel like they’re definitely shot somewhere in Toronto or on a soundstage, but Gems is so specifically in its place. How much interaction did you have with the real diamond guys throughout this process?
ADAM: We were in on the block before we shot the movie a lot, you know? These guys were very familiar, they grew up with the block because of their dad, and then when I got involved they brought me to it. And so many store owners allowed us to hang out with 'em and get to know 'em, their lives and their days and their work process, we were welcome. And while we were shooting we were welcome too, 'cause they came out every day we were shooting. There was a really great energy there.
JOSH: As you can imagine they were very protective, because it’s very secretive there’s a lot of handshake deals and exchanges. In the beginning I couldn’t even pull out a phone to take a picture without someone coming out and grabbing my phone, so it was like, "I can’t even take a cell phone picture here, how are we going to do shoot a 35mm shoot on the street?" And really it all became about gaining the trust of the people who work there and knowing that we were not looking to expose anyone, we were really just telling this intimate story about a jeweler who they might even know, you know? A guy who could be their cousin, or somebody who’s just trying to make it.
So I ingratiated myself insanely. At one point our lawyer even joked that he was doing some spring cleaning and he found a contract that said we were going to design an Uzbeki lounge on the rooftop of one of these spots in the diamond district in exchange for these services, and they were gonna give us six months free rent in a showroom. And we didn’t end up doing that but that’s actually where Howard’s business takes places, in that building.
BENNY: We also don’t close down the street when we shoot, we keep things open, so there are people who enter the frame who are real. The goal is we don’t want to look like a film shoot, we want to look like a construction site so that people don’t stop and stare, so they would just observe what was happening and accept it as a real scenario.
JOSH: And weirdly 47th Street, it’s the one street the city won’t even consider shutting down. So much business goes down there that they’re like, 'Oh, are you gonna give us $7 million dollars?"
BENNY: It was amazing, we were on a location scout one day and as we were going to different exchanges and stores we passed by our casting director, the street casting, the props master, all walking to different jewelers. The whole street before we even started was completely taken over by us in kind of an undercover way.
JOSH: Yes! And Sandler was in costume with someone he was tailing... A big part of it was spending time with real jewelers, and Sandler spent a lot of time doing that on his own, but then the three of us got together and spent time with a jeweler it was a very special, because there were these glances across the room. Sandler would look at me and I would look at Benny and basically there would be this collective note-taking: “Did you catch that mannerism? We need that in the movie!"
Adam, so much of the rhythm of the movie rests on your speeches, and the pace you set in those first scenes. How did you handle that volume of dialogue?
ADAM: You know these guys were very, very hardworking. The script was constant late nights of rewritings and early mornings of tweaking and stuff like that but they had a great script. As the shoot progressed they just wanted to make sure they hit certain points more or less, and there was one day — I don’t even remember what scene it was but Josh and Benny and Ronnie [Bronstein, who cowrote the screenplay] ....
JOSH: It was the scene at Adley’s when you’re on the phone with Tilda Swinton.
ADAM: Oh that’s right, it was right before the big auction scene, and I said, "When are you guys gonna get that, because [the assistant director] says we’re supposed to start shooting in 40 minutes," and then they handed it to me and it was a good two pages of stuff and I said, "I don’t know if I can get that perfect for ya," and they said, "Just do the best you can."
I really did work — study and study and study even before we shot the movie, just so I could not worry about what the dialogue was, and these guys couldn’t have taken care of me better.
JOSH: I’ll say this, I think our production and our movie for sure really benefited from coming off the heels of Sandler’s 49-city comedy special. It was three hours of material and it always seemed 100 percent fresh. Standup is an incredible art form, because you have your script and it’s a very specific thing that relies on hitting beats, beats that you know are the backbone, but then watching him as a performer do a monologue basically and then find ways to inject improvisation into those lines or feel that some actor’s maybe falling out of it, and getting them back in.
BENNY: [Costar Kevin] Garnett said that when they were in conversation he’d be like "Oh, I messed up," he’d realize that Sandler would take it, internalize it, wrap it around himself, throw it back at him and make it seem okay.
Adam, what kind of feedback were the Safdies giving you on set, and how much guidance were you looking for?
ADAM: Oh 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 kind of strong opinionated Jews. [Laughs].
And then we met guys on the block where’d we go, "Wow that was such a Howard moment." Some of the guys who were teaching us about jewelry, Josh and Benny would always say “Oh right there, that’s Howard!” We’d get closer and closer the more we’d be together and the more prepared — which we prepared for a long time, in costume.
I would love to talk about how you got Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, two non-actors, to play such prominent roles.
JOSH: The script started in 2010, so [the Weeknd's part] was originally a fictional rapper, not a real R&B star — based on someone who we kinda knew who was not a success, but kind of rising. And then every six months we’d basically almost rewrite the script, just to update it, keep it fresh.
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 became friendly with the Weeknd, who's a big movie guy. We met through Good Time — he was a fan of that, and just became friends. And then [retired NBA star] Garnett was actually a late addition.
BENNY: We met with other basketball players, but the thing was they had to be good enough to have games that were worthy of Gem games, like they had to transcend the game. And when we spoke to Garnett there was such a kind of fire and realness to his personality that it was just immediate.
JOSH: He told a story, and the cadence and the timing and the specificity of his storytelling spoke immediately to a performer. I was like, I can stay on the phone for four and a half hours and not need to speak once and be entertained, and that’s when you know he’s the guy. We also were talking to this other basketball player [Philadelphia 76ers power forward] Joel Embiid, and his manager actually appears in the movie as KG’s manager.
Okay, are those diamond furbies real?
BENNY: Oh no, we made those. We made a lot of the jewelry in the movie, which was a lot of fun… Actually what’s crazy is, on the cover of the [New York] Post a few weeks ago there was a big robbery on 47th Street, $8 million was stolen from a shop called Avianne Jewelry.
And Jonathan Aranbayev who plays Eddie, the older son in the movie, he is the Avianne heir basically, he happened to be in the shop when these guys came in and said they wanted to buy these watches and you can see it on the internet on the surveillance footage, they pull a gun on this 15-year-old and then they tie him up. And his dad who made some of the jewelry for us, like the Jewish star, he was also tied up.
That’s not because you attracted attention to it with the shoot and everything, I hope?
BENNY: No! Thank God, no, they’re one of the biggest jewelers for rappers, a lot of celebrities, Justin Bieber — arguably the most successful jewelry shop on 47th. But getting back to Kevin Garnett, we also had [L.A. Clippers coach] Doc Rivers — he’s one of our voice cameos, Tilda [Swinton], and then Natasha Lyonne plays the Boston player personnel.
Natasha is a friend of ours as well, and another one who’s really obsessed with movies. So she was like "I need to be in this," and I was like, "There’s not parts!" But we found something, and she's amazing. And it actually tends to get a laugh every time, when Howard goes, “I happen to be a very litigious individual,” and she's like "Mmmm.” [Laughs]
I really want to talk about the other women in the cast. Idina Menzel, I think people think of Rent, they think of Frozen… But that scene with the prom dress, it really feels like watching someone sort of being set free from what’s expected of her as an actress.
BENNY: Yeah. Yeah! Actually it felt like that while we were shooting that scene – this is the moment she finally got to tell Howard unfettered exactly what she thought of him.
JOSH: It was the last thing we shot with her actually, we had all the smaller things leading up to it and then we had this kind of Mt. Everest of a scene with her, and we talked a lot about it. You can tell she’s a serious actor.
We saw her in Skintight that was Off Broadway here and now it’s in L.A., and she holds the play together. And I remember doing that scene, it’s funny because our collaborator Ronnie, that’s his mom every Passover — she puts on her bat mitzvah dress. But yeah I remember after the first take of that scene we all looked at each other like "Okay yeah, she brought it."
BENNY: It’s fun too, because when you watch the movie you’re like, where does the movie stand with Howard? And when she says those words it’s basically saying, we understand everyone’s point of view here, because she’s saying it and it’s totally valid and true. And when you watch it with an audience you almost feel this kind of release from it.
If there’s a throughline with your movies, it's that there's nearly always this person at the center, whether it’s Howard or a heroin addict, who’s desperate and really kind of a mess, but you still find the audience’s empathy.
BENNY: Well, you said something interesting about Idina in that moment — it’s so full of anger, but you understand the love behind the words, because there’s such a deep connection and history between the two.
JOSH: It’s a good question to pose to any filmmaker really, because in a weird way that’s luxury of being lucky enough to make work like this — tell your own story, but tell it with maximalism, you know? Like there’s so much of us that goes into this movie. There’s a lot of me in the character, in Howard, in all the characters really.
It’s funny because [producer] Scott Rudin had so much faith in us that we didn’t have test this movie, he treated it like an artist’s work. But then you start seeing it with the public, and you can’t help but be like, "What did I mean by that?"
Like for example, when Howard shows up at Adley’s [auction house] and he sees the catalog on the desk, he’s almost died for this opal, and he sees that booklet and he opens it he realizes he’s one page in a program of a 150 other pages. That’s filmmaking for us in a weird way, you know what I’m saying? You spend all this time on a thing and then it’s just out there and someone says “Ah, it’s not good.” We’re all so important to ourselves, and then you realize, wait, Howard's life is just as important to him as yours is to you.
I was not in any way prepared for how it all goes down in the final scene. Adam, did you see that ending coming for Howard?
ADAM: Ooh. When I read it the first time. I was as baffled as you were — I didn’t know that was coming either. [To the Safdies] It was a decision [you made] on the day, right, the kinda smiling?
BENNY: Yeah, yeah, 'cause Howard was having such a good time, you know? He was winning! It was so fun, this was what he was doing it for, and it just made sense.
JOSH: I’ll say this, so Eric Bogosian is in that part [as Howard's brother-in-law and adversary Ardo], and Eric is, you know, a big theater guy. He had to be in that vestibule the whole time and it’s a lot of dialogue.
BENNY: A rollercoaster of emotion.
JOSH: We had this eight- or nine-minute take, we rolled a lot of film that day, and I remember after the first take Eric Bogosian stood up and just started clapping.
All sweaty and trapped in that vestibule.
JOSH: [Laughs] Well it’s also from Eric’s character’s point of view, and Eric was the only one who could fit in there with the camera, so it was just him, basically a one-man audience, and Sandler. And he watched Adam just become the most Howard that Howard could ever be in that moment, being lost in his own dreams and his own mania, and Eric just could not believe it. He just stood up and started clapping.
Adam, to put you on the spot, would you work with these guys again?
ADAM: [Laughs] We talk about it constantly, man. I love these guys, I love 'em. I mean, they're incredible filmmakers. I gotta tell you, these two and Ronnie and their whole gang, I love having these new friends, we talk all the time and i think they’re just great, great people.
Of course I would die to work with them again, because it’s a brand new feeling. But the funniest thing is when I would say to the Safdies, "Your future is so bright," they didn’t want to talk about that. They were like, “I just like Gems, man." They just were so deep in it.
BENNY: The craziest thing for us was yeah, we got to collaborate with an amazing performer, but there’s something deeper than that. It’s someone who’s a friend and just a really good person and someone who pushes and is just constantly searching for something deep.
ADAM: Aw. Love you fellas.
JOSH: Rest in peace, Howard.