Hustling Uncut Gems With the Safdie Brothers

How their family history glistens in their New York story

Josh and Benny Safdie on the set of Uncut Gems, their new drama starring Adam Sandler in what many are calling the performance of a lifetime (Image courtesy of A24)

Many movies are linear. They're meant to get you from the beginning to the end. But Uncut Gems, the latest feature from the Safdie Brothers, is like being trapped inside a pinball machine, a kinetic fury of movement and color, action and inevitable loss.

Josh Safdie, who wrote and directed the film with brother Benny, laughs and nods at the comparison. He says, "I often love art that reflects pinball machines, but I don't like playing pinball." Even though he lives near a pinball museum, he's never managed to get into the pastime. "I like the way they look," he says. "It's a cool idea, but it feels so pointless."

"That's because, when you lose, it's very definitive," adds Benny. "What it is for me is that the ball always goes down, so the key is if you can keep it going, keep the ball up for as long as possible. That's when it's exciting."

That's the thrill that Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is chasing in Uncut Gems. A wheeler-dealer and inveterate gambler, he careens through New York's Diamond District from one risky deal and dangerous wager to another, putting everything on the line with a bet involving an uncut black opal and NBA Hall of Fame nominee Kevin Garnett (who plays himself here).

But is Howard the player or the pinball? For Josh, his story not just about gambling addiction, but the very American mindset about not just winning but winning big. He contends that's part of why basketball is America's fastest-growing professional sport. "It's the most dramatic sport, because it's the most exposed. You can have close-ups."

It's also a sport that craves impossibly high point differentials, a mindset summed up in a conversation between Ratner and Garnett: A ball player doesn't want to just win, explains Howard, they want to win by 10 points, 20 points, 30. For Josh Safdie, that's the mindset of a gambler like Howard. Yet unlike most film gamblers, who are portrayed as depressed losers, he's constantly optimistic, always convinced the long shot will pay off. That's what gamblers crave, says Josh. "You can walk away with 4,000 percent of your money, but you have to be willing to risk it all. But what does it mean to risk it all? It means you have to believe in something."

If Uncut Gems achieves anything, Benny adds, "Hopefully when you leave the theatre, you've left with an electric energy, like you're on the same wavelength as Howard how you move through the world."

Yet the film is as much a landscape of Howard's environment as a portrait of the man himself. Uncut Gems is a rare insight into one of the many microcommunities that make up the patchwork of Lower Manhattan. In this case, it's the Diamond District, a block-and-a-half stretch of 47th Street. Behind the nondescript frontages, over 2,600 business handle 90% of America's imported gemstones. It's famous, always open for business, and yet notoriously inward-looking, and the only reason the Safdies were able to film there is because they grew up there: Their father, Alberto, was a low-level jeweler working in the district, and his experiences there both informed the story and gave them the point of entry and connections that so many other filmmakers have lacked. Josh says, "I remember, when we were shooting in one of the exchanges on the second floor looking down, full on, we had total control."

Austin Chronicle: One of the most amazing aspects of Manhattan is that you have these intensely specific locations like the Diamond District that mean you can tell these stories that you couldn't tell anywhere else.

Josh Safdie: Over the 10 years of making this project, we'd go off and follow an interest that would turn into an entire movie. But during the edit process I would just get off at Rockefeller Center and just walk around. I would take a left on Sixth Avenue and 47th Street, and within 30 feet of walking down that block the energy would hit me right away, and I send a text: "It's still here. The energy is still here, it's not going anywhere, I still have the bug. I can't get rid of it."

There's a tribalism, a barbarism of the block there. Everything is handshake deals: "I know you, you know me." It has a small town vibe, because it is one block, and there's all these ancient things running around.

Benny Safdie: There are kings to the block.

JS: And the jewels themselves are these magical beans that everyone's trying to hustle to one another. You go up to people on the street and they're showing you stones from 10, 15, 20 million years ago. Some of them are pristine, some of them are not, some of them are garbage and you're seeing how you can repurpose them into something else. Then there's the confluence of pop culture, and every once in a while a big black SUV would show up and Floyd Mayweather would get out. The element of celebrity, it just felt so ancient yet so modern at the same time, and that was what was so exciting and cool about that block.

“When we heard these stories, they were so alive and pulpy, and we’d say, ‘Oh my god, that all takes place in New York? How come nobody’s ever done that?’ Well, it turns out it’s very hard to make a movie in the Diamond District.”
When we were growing up, our dad working there, he had these stories. We're releasing a zine for A24 that's a long-form interview with our dad where he's recalling all these stories that, weirdly enough, when I was listening to them again I went, "This is the first draft of Uncut Gems, all these stories," and then they ended up being thrown in the garbage and we ended up using them as an entry point to the world of the jewelry business.

AC: Ten years is a long gestation period, especially since you're dealing with a real basketball player and real games. If you'd got a current player, rather than a retiree like Kevin Garnett, how different would it be?

JS: We didn't have the option to do that because form was following function. We were shooting with a contemporary player up until three months before the production, [Philadelphia 76ers player] Joel Embiid, but then Sandler's schedule meant we couldn't shoot in the summer, so we had to push back into the fall, but in the end I think everything happened for a reason. It went from Joel Embiid to Kevin Garnett, and Garnett is really the only player I can imagine this story happening to.

When it was contemporary, there was a lot more social media, but in the version in 2012 social media is this thing that people are starting to understand but it's not obsessive. In the 2018 version, remember all the stuff we had?

BS: It was almost like social media was cash. You can trade in it. It's a little bit hinted at, because 2012 is when Instagram switched over to Android, so that's the little things that changed. What makes 2012, 2012?

AC: Those small mechanics can be where a period piece falls apart.

BS: Yeah, and here it turned out it's the phone. The interface of the phone is what makes people think 2012 is 2012. There's certain cars and clothes and the fashion, but the phone was the big deal. We had to get the real phone – how it interacts, the shutter to close, the slide to unlock – so when you see that in the movie you recognize it.

As filmmakers, early on we had a desire to not use cell phones, to preserve the human experience or whatever it is. But to really embrace what cell phone is as part of your life, that's what we try to do with Gems. But how do you do that when you don't have the old technology? Well, we ended up getting that from Apple. We had two phones that had the old operating system on them. We couldn't update them. These things were relics, and it's really interesting how it affect and changes things, because the screens are smaller but everything's there. Those are the fun things where you can go in and make it period.

Think making a near-modern period piece is easy? Just ask Benny Safdie about getting the right iPhones for Uncut Gems, set in 2012. "We had two phones that had the old operating system on them. We couldn't update them. These things were relics." (Image courtesy of A24)

AC: When you live or grow up somewhere, it's really hard to understand how different or unique it is, that it has these stories worth telling. Was there a point when you went, oh, not every other kid lives like this?

JS: I remember our dad, he got into the jewelry business because he was fired and he had to provide for us, and he had a connection in Brazil to make gold rope chains and you can upsell them crazy. You have the price of gold, but the price of a rope chain goes up 200%. So he had gold laying around sometimes, and he worked with a jeweler because he didn't have the capital for that business, so he started acting as a salesman-slash-runner for a guy on 47th Street. I remember one time I swapped out my Star of David for a Knicks pendant, 14 carat Knicks charm. I remember walking around with it going, yeah, I got my jewelry on. It made me feel like I had worth, and made me feel like I was cherishing my favorite team and giving them their due by casting them in gold.

I remember walking and some kid going, "Whoa, what is that necklace?" "Oh, it's gold." "Oh, you have a gold necklace?" It was basically a stolen thing from our dad, but it felt like we were involved in this world that was kind of dangerous too. I remember being told people might snatch if off of you. Be careful.

BS: A lot of it was after the fact that we realize, oh, that was when we were young? That was some of the stories he told us, and that was when he was off to work when we were eight years old?

JS: He told me a story about when I went with him once to his boss' place, and he was a creep but I used to love his place because he had ceramic clown dolls all over the house.

AC: Sign one

JS: Oh yeah, he was weird, but what was cool was that he was a magnet for the outcasts of the diamond district. A lot of those businesses are so family-oriented, and then there was this guy – who was called Howard also – who would hire people because his only family was his brother. They ran this business together and they hired all these outcasts from New York. He was kind of a paternal figure to them.

BS: When we heard these stories, they were so alive and pulpy, and we'd say, "Oh my god, that all takes place in New York? How come nobody's ever done that?" Well, it turns out it's very hard to make a movie in the Diamond District. It's a very closed-off community and they don't really welcome people in. If you want to shoot there, it's almost impossible. One of the hardest things to do was to get in and go, "We want to do this thing together."

JS: They guy who wants the Rolex, who Howard sells a fake Rolex, he went to high school with our mother, but I was afraid to tell him who our mother was in case he had a thing for her or something went wrong. And there was another person in that bazaar who knew our mom from her Studio 54 days when she was a teenager there. "Oh, your mom was the craziest."

BS: And our mom had no recollection of this person.

AC: There are a lot of people who have hazy memories of Studio 54.

JS: Oh, yeah. But what's interesting is about 47th Street today is that it's still the same now as when we were kids. It really hasn't changed much.

BS: Just the technology.

JS: It was run more by the Hassidim community, and then it became run more by the Russians, then the Koreans too over, then the Indians were running it, and now it's more the Bukharian community, the Uzbekistani Jews. But it's more or less the same. Everyone's moving more or less the same merchandise, everyone's wanting to get the anomaly from another part of the world.

Uncut Gems opens in Austin today. For review and listings, visit our Showtimes page.

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Safdie Brothers, Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems, Kevin Garnett, Adam Sandler, Diamond District

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