The filmmaking siblings take us on a tour of New York’s Diamond District, the setting for their sensational Uncut Gems.
Josh and Benny Safdie are a couple of real Noo Yawkahs, so much so that they don’t even pronounce the term that way. They grew up ferried between Dad’s in Queens and Mom’s on the Upper West Side, developing an infatuation with Gotham’s grit and eccentricity that has informed their vivid body of work.
The brothers’ world teems with crooks, addicts and sleazeballs – off-colour characters such as deluxe jeweller Howard Ratner, the antihero played by Adam Sandler at the heart of their latest and greatest film, Uncut Gems. Drawing from memories of their father’s work in the Diamond District, the legend of envelope-pushing Jew-Ubermensch Al Goldstein and a lifelong passion for pro basketball, they’ve made the rare Big Apple movie that feels as hectic and relentless as the city itself.
LWLies: With so much location shooting in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, how did you make it all work, especially getting a star like Adam Sandler in and out?
Josh Safdie: As early as nine years ago, I started trying to develop a rapport with someone in the Diamond District, and eventually I did. Through some kind of barter deal – our lawyer told us recently that he found the old contract – we designed him an Uzbek-style lounge for the penthouse of one of the Diamond District buildings, and he gave us six months of free rent in the area. In our mind, we looked at that location as ‘on location.’
When we got to scouting, it became a nightmare: elevators on Shabbos stopping on every floor, all sorts of different stuff. A logistical mess. So we abandoned that, and decided to build everything in Howard’s office and showroom on a stage. And the challenge there – I’m gonna get to your question – was how to bring 47th Street to our stage on Long Island. We ended up just bringing people from the actual street to come hang out, and our casting director found a lot of the right people to populate the setting and give the walls life.
Take that idea on this meticulous, obsessive level, and apply it to getting Adam Sandler and Eric Bogosian on a busy street corner. It was a mandate from the beginning for Amy Lauritsen, our first AD, that we would never close down a street. Ever. She had done that on Succession, maybe some other TV, and she was aware of how something like that works. There are ways of doing it – people with sandwich boards, that’s part of it.
Benny Safdie: We also had a certain number of SAG extras there on the ground, and that turned out to be a pretty big deal, because we had to go through and pick each of the people in the background one by one. Who would be on this block at this time? It was an interesting process of figuring out the faces; anyone who walks by could have their face in the frame at any moment, since we’re not going to block it. You accept that if they’re there at that moment in time, they’re meant o be there, even if they’re an eyesore or doing something wrong.
JS: The way we shoot, we try to mix in with the energy of the street as much as possible. On 47th Street in particular, it was difficult. There was one scene we had to cut out, which ended up being fine, it wasn’t working anyway.
Is that where the set photo of Adam Sandler chasing a woman in fishnets came from?
JS: When you write a 170-page script, and intend on keeping up a breakneck pace, you know ahead of time that not everything’s getting on screen. When we started out, we had the general shape of a three-hour movie. Our first act, in New York after Ethiopia, was really complicated, with an entire character arc that had to go. Pom Klementieff is in the movie for five seconds now, but her character was more important. She was someone who took something from his apartment, and the credit sequence where Julia Fox gets him to come to bed, that was originally seven pages long. The first edit had it at six-and-a-half minutes.
“Darius Khondji saw Good Time in Cannes; he came to us and said, ‘If you want to level up, I want to be your guy.’”
BS: Going back to the location shooting, we’ve always left our sidewalks open for people to walk through, but we had a sort of protection this time. The more background players you have, the more passersby think it’s normal. If people are just walking around on the street instead of forming a crowd, everyone acts fine. People took us for a construction site, because the work moves so quickly without making a scene. We’re doing everything on walkie-talkies instead of bullhorns or loudspeakers; no big partitions.
In terms of budget and stars, this sounds like a bigger operation than you were both used to. With the way you describe your methods, a lot of which involves stripping production down to the essentials, how do you scale up?
BS: When [DP] Darius [Khondji] saw Good Time in Cannes, he came to us and said, ‘If you want to level up, I want to be your guy.’ We got along with him. We did a short film for Jay-Z together to get a feel for the collaboration, because we’d heard that he does, like, 12 set-ups a day, and we’re used to something in the mid-twenties. So we did ‘Marcy Me’, and it was by far the most hectic shoot I’ve ever been a part of. I was in a helicopter for most of it. Just pure mayhem, but Darius was like this Zen centre to it. His artform is light. He said, ‘Josh, frame the film, I just want to light it and give my opinion on lenses.’ That was awesome.
He also helped bring the right crew on board, people who’d understand the vibe. We made it clear when we were interviewing assistant camera operators that we wouldn’t be using marks. We warned them, ‘You’re going to have to shoot anamorphic lenses, low-angle, two to three inches of lee-way to stay in the right depth of field.’ Darius told us, ‘Your movie’s going to be out of focus. You know that, right?’ We needed the best AC, and we found this guy, Chris Solano, who told us about the cult surrounding this piece of equipment called the Light Ranger 2. Kubrick was obsessed with it. He used it a lot on Eyes Wide Shut, but the technology wasn’t quite there yet. It looks like this giant thing on a tripod attached to the camera. But it’s really just a field that interprets your frame and breaks it down like The Matrix, with all these moving graph bars, and the AC has to interpret them and figure out how to lock the field in. It’s really, really hard.
BS: There were times when his video feed would go out, but Chris would still be working the Light Ranger just by feeling it. He couldn’t even see the levels, but he was like Neo, he’d just know where the graph bars were intuitively. His talent allowed us to get away with not using marks. Chris was a master, and we had a second cameraperson named Olga who was also totally great, but then we also needed a third AC for some splinter unit stuff we were doing. That third one wasn’t so good at it, and we instantly realised how valuable Chris and Olga were. Smoke was springing out of the guy’s ears – doing this properly is that difficult.
JS: Darius understood the type of production that we wanted this to be. We talked about 360-degree lighting. We talked about Cassavetes. We talked about this Francesco Rosi film, The Moment of Truth – incredible movie, shot in Techniscope, informed a lot of the Passover seder sequence. Criterion lent us their screening room to watch it with some of our crew.
I developed a new appreciation for really good below-the-line talent on this one. Mia Neal, who did hair for the production – I always thought hair was important, and I respect when it’s done well in a movie, but she showed us that it really is an art. She recreated The Weeknd’s hairstyle from 2012, and made Julia look like she’s her own precious gem in every scene, and found the perfect shade of black to dye Bogosian’s hair because he’s just the kind of guy who dyes his hair. Spectacular job, and she took so much pride in it. Gave us a note at the end of production that made me cry, along with a bottle of champagne that’s still in my refrigerator.
Not a champagne guy?
JS: No, it’s just like, I get superstitious about champagne and cigars. I never feel like it’s time to celebrate. Whenever you think you should start celebrating, something happens. I’ll be, like, 80 and opening my fridge to find five or six champagne bottles and a box of cigars I’ve never touched. And even at that point, I’ll be thinking, ‘Would drinking all this champagne at my age be inviting death?’ Insatiable kind of thing.
You mentioned that you’d shot all of Howard’s office on a set. What’d you do with the six months at the place on 47th, then?
JS: We ended up using the building, and the good faith with that guy. It’s, uh, okay. Okay. Let me tell you about 47th Street: we produced a documentary called Everybody’s Street, about street photographers. We were kind of involved in the edit, too, and we met this amazing photographer named Bruce Gilden. We were shooting some B-roll with him near 47th Street – this was about eight years ago – and I had already begun research of the culture there. I suggested we get some footage of him shooting on the street, and he was like, ‘No, I can’t go there, someone fought me last time I took a picture there.’ I was like, ‘Ah, just try it,’ and sure enough, the second he steps on 47th with a camera and snaps one photo, we’re being pretty much attacked. A guy’s threatening to smash all of our faces in. It’s a little barbaric, only because privacy’s so important. They don’t want people getting photos of what they have. It’s also the most well-armed street in the tri-state area. Our Dad worked there when we were kids, but the only memories I have of that come from his storytelling.
But my point is that I wanted to get into this as an adult, and found that I couldn’t get a point of entry anywhere. There was one building, 25 West 47th Street, that this guy Joe Alishaev owned. He believed in us, after we showed him some photos of us with celebrities. This was before we met Rob [Pattinson], by the way. We had to give him printouts of our reviews in the Times to prove that we were legitimate. ‘LeBron talked about our movie!’ Stuff like that. After long enough, he took a shine to us. We never really spent money apart from the deal that our locations manager cut with him directly. Joe had this mayoral presence on the block, where he let everyone know we were okay and introduced us to everyone. If he told another jeweller that we were okay to shoot in his shop, the guy would let us, on the understanding that Joe would owe him a favour. It was hard to ingratiate ourselves with everyone, but once we did it was hugely helpful.
Plus, we have Sephardic Jewish roots, and a good portion of the Bukharan community is Sephardic too. Slowly, really over the course of a decade, we built up trust. Then we brought them Adam Sandler. Suddenly, all the doors blew right open. Sandler’s such a mensch, so everyone was generous with their time, letting him trail them. They realised we were interested for the right reasons, genuine reasons. By the time we got to shooting on 47th, we were basically accepted by the block as a whole.
BS: We had a location scout just for 47th. We had a casting team fanning out just to find background people for 47th. We ran into one of them and started talking about something or other, and Cat with the props department walks by at the same time holding a backpack containing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewellery. She knows she’s holding onto a bunch of $75,000 watches, and she’s trying to act nonchalant. She’s trailing this guy, Izzy, who’s making a custom ring for Sandler for the movie. Then the set decorator comes out of nowhere, shouting, ‘On the eighth floor of this place, we found the person who sells all the scales for weighing out jewels! It’s a gold mine!’ It was like we had our own tiny community inside of this other tiny community.
Was it always going to be Adam Sandler?
JS: 2010, we start writing the script. 2012, me, Benny and Ronnie [Bronstein, co-writer and co-editor] were trying to figure out who could play this Al Goldstein-like Jew, who we revered in his heroism and fearlessness and humour. We all loved Adam Sandler, grew up on him. It had to be him. We went to him, having just finished Daddy Longlegs, and his team passed. Didn’t even get to him. So we thought we’d make Howard older, and we started talking with Harvey Keitel. We had a Passover dinner with Amar’e Stoudemire and Harvey Keitel in 2013. Harvey’s amazing – he’s Harvey – but we just thought the part wasn’t quite right for him. We went off and did some other stuff, and after finishing up Heaven Knows What in 2015, we came back to the idea.
Hang on – you went to a Seder with Harvey Keitel and Amar’e Stoudemire?
JS: Oh, we organised this Passover dinner! Or wait, was this a Shabbat dinner?
BS: It was a Passover dinner.
JS: No, I think it was a Shabbat that was just near Passover.
BS: It was Passover! I remember.
JS: You’re right, yes, that’s right. But yeah, Amar’e had let us host at his house, and we had invited Harvey and his wife and son. It was a really nice dinner, honestly. He loved the script, he’s a great actor, but Howard shouldn’t be that old. He’s gotta be late forties. We ended up talking with Sacha Baron Cohen for a while. He did a table read that went really well, but then he was impossible to pin down. Once Scorsese got involved as an exec producer, Jonah Hill got interested, and we started thinking about making Howard younger. We both thought he’s a great actor, but with the age his kids needed to be, it didn’t make sense. That collaboration fizzled out once he went to go direct his own movie. So now we’ve finished Good Time, it hasn’t premiered yet, and still we don’t know what we’re going to do for the next one. We go to Cannes for Good Time, and Adam Sandler’s there with The Meyerowitz Stories, and we’re dying to get a meeting with him.
BS: But he’s with his family, doesn’t really know who we are, gives us the polite brush-off off. ‘We’ll do it another time,’ he says. We didn’t really blame him. Then he saw the movie and he flipped out. Finally he calls us asking if we’ve got anything for him. We’re like, ‘Well, there’s this one thing we sent you five years ago…’ He asks us to send it to him and reads it within three hours. He was a little scared at first, but [producer] Scott Rudin ordered us to get on a plane to LA and talk to him.
What’s the pitch?
JS: From the beginning, we made it clear that we love Howard. He does things that may be quote-unquote ‘unlikable,’ but we love him. You can’t help but root for the guy. We weren’t shy about how obsessed we were with his stand-up records, either. On Good Time, whenever we were standing around waiting for something to happen, I’d say, ‘I’m hitting the record button now!’ in the voice of his character Barry Lakin, who’s in ‘Sex or Weightlifting’. He found out we were serious fans. To me, there’s really no difference between Happy Gilmore and Punch-Drunk Love. Only he could do it.
BS: He has this ability to internalise the most absurd problems and make the audience care. Even in a ridiculous scenario, you’ll believe that this man has to overcome it and succeed, which is exactly what we needed for this movie. We felt a closeness to him. It was his idea to play up Howard and his family, which I’ve come to realise is really important. He wanted more with the wife and kids. That allows the audience to understand Howard a little better.
JS: One thing we vacillated on a lot was the girlfriend. Was she a secret? Does the wife know about it? When Sandler got involved, he pushed us and Ronnie as writers to show that the marriage had begun to fall apart before this relationship started. The wife knew about it, and it bothered her, and he had too much pride in saving the family to actually talk to the kids about it. He’s dragging his feet through the split. That gave us a lot, and came from Sandler’s pushing. But he did let us know early on, ‘I want to do your movie.’
So much of Howard’s life involves getting himself out of the corners he’s painted himself into. Does that mirror the process of scriptwriting?
JS: The scene where Howard shows up in his auction, looks in the catalogue, sees his gem in it, and just kind of sighs to see something he’s worked so hard on listed with a price – that’s our little metaphor for making small independent movies. Weirdly enough, the cost that they estimate for the gem was $200,000, and that’s the exact same budget as Daddy Longlegs. That was subconscious, but it was cool how that turned out. You sweat over something, it unlocks truths in your life, you see so much meaning in it, to you it’s priceless, and then you release it. It goes to a festival. It’s in a program, and you’re one of one hundred titles. Maybe critics say it sucks. No offence! Critics are valuable.
But all this takes some of the air out of you. A person spends all this time creating something, and then it’s out in the world, and it’s just an object. You ask how much of Howard’s struggles resemble our own; the movie can stand in for our process itself, but I don’t want to harp on that too much. I remember that Rocky was originally about a screenwriter, and everyone was like, ‘Dude, nobody wants to see that, let’s make him a boxer!’ All the same, we can see ourselves in these other people. If he’s not a writer, he’s a boxer. If he’s not a boxer, he’s a jeweller. It’s a transference.
BS: When Howard gets painted into a corner, clearing a way out is the fun. Everything’s so connected that changing one thing means changing everything. You pull on one thread, and the sweater comes apart. The helicopter service, Blade – that’s a screenwriter’s dream when you need to get someone from A to B and don’t know how. When we were in talks with Joel Embiid, we took a copter from New York to Philadelphia. We started hearing rich people say it: ‘Hop on a Blade!’ The higher up you go economically, the closer you get to teleportation.
JS: The vestibule that locks from both sides, that’s the first thing you experience when you visit one of these diamond shops. You realise you’re entering a place of maximum security, to the point of paranoia. The split second between the first door locking and the second door unlocking, we were like, ‘Oh, this is a very vulnerable feeling.’ That struck us as something useful, a way for Howard to keep a character in a scene and unable to touch him. And it fits with the trappings of overcompensation. If I can keep myself safe like this, I’m untouchable. That’s the gambler’s mindset. The filmmaker’s, too.
Published 16 Dec 2019
Mr Sandman brings us a dream with his hypnotic turn as a fatalistic Jewish jeweller.
Enter Sandman... Our Nov/Dec issue celebrates the unrelenting vision of directors Josh and Benny Safdie.