Audiences nationwide may have felt anxious while watching Adam Sandler’s gambling crazed alter ego Howard Ratner in the anxiety-provoking, blockbuster drama, Uncut Gems — and it’s exactly what directing duo Josh and Benny Safdie wanted.
The brothers Safdie are the two Queens siblings responsible for this thrilling tale of life for one debt-ridden jeweler in the Diamond District in 2012.
The film’s chaotic nature was a product of Sandler’s ability to make viewers feel like they were bystanders in a claustrophobic and crowded jewelry store run by a self-indulged hot shot — a role that the Safdies’ say was familiar to Sandler.
“He was kind of under the impression he was walking into something very lived in,” Josh said regarding Sandler considering and accepting the role.
The film has many points in which the audience feels the misfortune of bystanders who bear witness to Howard’s nerve, temperament, and somehow enjoyable narcissism — particularly when you hear him scream “fugazzi” at a man whom he’s indebted to on a midtown street.
As for something that felt lived in, the narrative of Uncut Gems was one very close to home for the Safdie brothers.
The movie’s concept, which had been in the works after “long gestation and a decades worth of thought and research,” originated from stories the Safdies’ father would tell them while he was a salesman and runner in the Diamond District for some years.
Josh and Benny admitted, however, their dad worked for someone “who was not Howard.”
“The first draft was very nostalgic,” Josh detailed, adding that it was filled with “intense stories that were absurdly funny.”
“You couldn’t help but laugh at them,” he said.
Those family stories brought the film to its final version as an “intersection of art, commerce, and hyper materialism,” according to Josh Safdie.
That sense of familiarity translated into the film’s casting of Idina Menzel, who captures the persona of a fed-up wife living in Roslyn on Long Island, with other roles from LaKeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, The Weeknd and Judd Hirsch.
Josh described witnessing the cast coming together as feeling like “a big holiday dinner where everybody just didn’t know each other yet.”
The Weeknd continued that close knit sentiment on Twitter on New Year’s Eve, comparing his altercation with Howard to previous bout that Sandler started on a separate set.
me and bob barker have something in common now.
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) December 31, 2019
There was another recognizable casting decision that Safdies landed on as well — Mike Francesa of sports radio fame, who has a profanity-laced cameo as Gary, Howard’s bookie.
Originally, the Safdies planned on using a real life bookie for the role — but after he declined, their thoughts turned to the grandiose “Sports Pope.”
“After that, Mike Francesa was the first casting that came to mind,” Josh said, noting what a big fan he is of the talk radio mogul, but adding that “the cadence of his voice reeks of degeneracy.”
“When I had a car, I would always listen to Mike,” the director added.
Uncut Gems is filled with tightly-framed shots, audible background conversations in close quarters, and other elements that Benny Safdie, who handled the film editing, used to make Howard’s world rapid and hectic.
“It’s about the pacing,” Benny said, going on to detail the “obsessiveness of getting every point of view while constantly shifting sides,” of the film’s many scenes — especially when Garnett and his security detail are stuck in double-doorway of Howard’s store.
Originally, it was intended to be a sequence of 45 shots, but the Safdies ultimately decided to use one, moving steady cam throughout the anxiety provoking moment.
“I asked myself, “Is this too stressful?” while I was editing it,” Benny joked, talking about the “hyper real experience” the now iconic scene had.
It was that scene and the film’s ending which had remained unaltered throughout its decade long gestation, the brothers said.
The ending of Uncut Gems also includes something very dear to the Safdie brothers—L’Amour Tourjours by legendary DJ Gigi D’Agostino.
“I love Gigi D’Agostino,” Josh said about how the Italian DJ revolutionized house and dance music.
The track had been scrapped from the film for about three years until the Safdies had the revelation which left them wondering, “Why did we take that away?”
“That is the club music that will forever play,” Josh said about how its lyrics tells the Uncut Gems narrative to perfection.