- “Uncut Gems” directors Josh and Benny Safdie talked to Business Insider about making their new movie.
- The directors explained why attempts to make the movie with Sacha Baron Cohen and Jonah Hill didn’t work out, leading to Adam Sandler finally taking the role.
- Sandler also showed up at the end of the interview to talk to the Safdies about playing some basketball after the interview.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie can only explain pulling off making “Uncut Gems” with one word: “Fate.”
The brothers, who for the last decade have found acclaim by telling unforgiving stories, often with non-actors and a gritty New York City backdrop, have also in that time wanted to make a movie with one of the biggest actors in the world.
That movie is finally here, titled “Uncut Gems,” with Adam Sandler playing the lead role of jeweller-to-the-stars Howard Ratner. The film is set in New York City’s Diamond District, and follows Ratner, a degenerate gambler, as he tries to navigate an anxiety-filled couple of days trying to hold off bookies (one of which is played by sports radio great Mike Francesa), juggle his wife (played by Idina Menzel) and girlfriend, and even hook an NBA star (played by Kevin Garnett) long enough to sell off a rare Ethiopian opal that he expects to clear all his debts.
But at first, it seemed like an impossible dream to get Sandler. When they first began thinking seriously about this project, the brothers’ filmography only included low-budget dramas like 2009’s “Daddy Longlegs,” 2014’s “Heaven Knows What,” and a documentary in 2013 on high-school-basketball-phenom-gone-bust Lenny Cooke.
Things improved when the Safdies’ profile raised substantially thanks to Robert Pattinson. The actor sought out the Safdies after seeing “Heaven Known What,” which led to them making the acclaimed 2017 movie “Good Time,” in which Pattinson plays a small-time bank robber.
Suddenly, making “Uncut Gems” didn’t look that too far fetched – though getting Sandler for it was still a pipe dream.
But after stints when Sacha Baron Cohen and Jonah Hill were attached to play Ratner, plus the addition of Martin Scorsese as executive producer and Scott Rudin as producer, Sandler finally became interested. Getting Sandler on board led to “Uncut Gems” (opening in select theatres Friday and nationwide Christmas day) not just being one of the best movies of the year, but one with Oscar potential for the actor.
Business Insider sat down with the Safdies in New York City to talk about the journey to get “Uncut Gems” to the screen, including why Cohen and Hill exited the project opening the door for Sandler (read the entire story on how that went down at Business Insider Prime). And then the Sandman himself showed up unannounced itching to play some basketball with the brothers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Guerrasio: Outside of this being a decade-long labour of love for you guys, I have to say I left the movie feeling this is a love letter to Abel Ferrara.
Josh Safdie: [Laughs.]
Benny Safdie: There’s some “Bad Lieutenant” in there.
Josh: You want to know something, Mike Francesa partially was really excited to do the movie because “Mad Dog” (Russo, Francesa’s long-time radio partner) was in “Bad Lieutenant.”
Guerrasio: All these years he still has a chip on his shoulder about that?
Benny: He wouldn’t say it and finally we told him we wanted him in the movie and he said, “I’m in! I’m going to be on camera.” [Laughs.]
Josh: But I’m so happy for Abel, he’s sober now and has a family, I’m happy for him. He was in “Daddy Longlegs” and it wasn’t good. Drugs are f—ed up.
Guerrasio: But you guys and Abel see New York City a different way than others, even Scorsese.
Benny: I agree.
Josh: I was at a Q&A he did for his version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and he said it was hard getting the movie made and he couldn’t handle it anymore so he went and made “Bad Lieutenant” for a few million bucks. He was frustrated to get this huge movie off the ground. And I was at that Q&A year three into “Gems.” We had committed to “Heaven Knows What” which led to “Good Time,” so I learned from him it’s this idea of constantly creating and using movies to express yourself and using characters as a vessel.
Guerrasio: So before Sandler you had Sacha Baron Cohen attached to play Howard, then you had Jonah Hill. What happened?
Josh: We went to Sandler in 2012 and he passed. Hard pass. [Laughs.] It was such a shot in the dark. Then we aged the character up so it was more similar to who our dad worked for in the Diamond District. And that was Harvey Keitel for a little bit. But the character was too old, no offence to Harvey. Then we made “Lenny Cooke” and “Heaven Knows What,” and we researched the Diamond District more. We really wanted the character to be Jewish so we went down the line a while with Sacha Baron Cohen. For about a year.
Benny: We did table reads.
Josh: Yeah. Doing meetings. He watched “Heaven Knowns What,” and he loves realism so he was into it but it wasn’t his cup of tea. Then Scorsese attached himself and that elevated the profile of the movie in a big way. And that attracted Jonah.
He had just finished shooting “War Dogs” at the time and we thought it would be so cool to work with someone who is one of our peers. We told him that Sacha wasn’t committing and he said, “I’ll do it. I want to do this.” So we went down that road but we could never figure out how to age the character down. We didn’t want to take away the patriarchal quality of it. We didn’t want to lose the teenage children.
Benny: That was important.
Josh: So fate happened. Jonah got really wrapped up in his own film [“Mid90s”] and then he went and did “Maniac,” so he became unavailable. It was a sign because we finished “Good Time” and we went to Cannes with it and Sandler was there. We made one last run at him and that’s who we wanted from the beginning.
Guerrasio: With any talent there’s always a bend that happens where things are adjusted for the star.
Guerrasio: How much of a bend was there from the page to the Howard we see Sandler play?
Benny: He had seen “Good Time” and his impression from “Good Time” was, “These guys are intense and they are going to hold me to it no matter what.” And that’s so not the way we work. He just wanted to make Howard more aware of everyone around him. Howard does things that are wrong but he’s aware they are wrong. And that’s a very big distinction.
Josh: I told him the inspiration for this movie is someone like Rodney Dangerfield. A guy who is on all the time like in “Easy Money.” And that really connected with him. He found funny moments in the script but when he got involved we infused it with more comedy and it became the backbone. Sandler brought sincerity to this hard edge character. This movie without Adam in it might be too hard. It might not function the same way.
Guerrasio: I would think part of the trick with this movie is, yes, Howard is doing messed up things, but by the end you have to root for him.
Benny: Exactly. And people will say to us, “I hated that guy, I was going to the screen, ‘Don’t do that, what are you doing?'” Well, if you are telling him not to do something you are feeling something. If you really hated him you would say, “Go ahead, dig your own grave.” You don’t feel that way with Howard because Sandler brings something where you want him to get out of his situation.
Guerrasio: I have to talk about Kevin Garnett, he’s a scene stealer. Is it true you had Amar’e Stoudemire first in the role?
Josh: It was Amar’e first and then it was Joel Embiid. Up until four months before production it was Joel.
Josh: But then we had our schedule pushed into the season and then he couldn’t do it.
Guerrasio: That would have been interesting to see him in it.
Josh: He’s from Cameroon, so the African element, we wrote that in. But again, everything happens for a reason. As much as I love Joel, I don’t think he could have done what KG did.
Benny: Scott [Rudin] said to us, “How do you know he can act?” And we pulled together all of Kevin’s sideline interviews and showed them to him –
[Adam Sandler enters the room]
Sandler: Hi. How are you doing?
Josh: What’s up, man!
Sandler: What’s up boys. [They all hug.]
Josh: What are you doing right now?
Sandler: I wanted to see if you want to hoop when you’re done.
Guerrasio: Please tell me you’re inviting Garnett.
Sandler: I wish. Wouldn’t that be the best?
Guerrasio: Could you ever get him to play with you guys during filming?
Sandler: He shot a little bit on the set when we had that hoop, right?
Benny: He would talk trash to the other people trying to shoot and made them miss.
Sandler: We didn’t get to hoop with him, but he just gave me another tip!
Sandler: The second tip. The first tip he gave me I use it all the time now.
Josh: You didn’t even tell me the tip yet.
Sandler: I can’t tell you. I’m going to try it on you today! Can you get there in an hour?
Josh: Hour and a half.
Benny: I can get there then.
Josh: Why can’t we meet at five?
Sandler: Because the f—ing place gets packed. There are going to be people there like, “What?” Well, I’m sorry to interrupt. I’ll see your a–es up there!
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