We are at the end of another decade, and looking back over the last ten years, there are no success stories in American cinema to compare with the rise of Josh and Benny Safdie. They broke through with their second independent feature, the 2009 Daddy Longlegs, and it was their subsequent pair of narrative features, the harrowing addiction drama Heaven Knows What and the hit A24 crime thriller Good Time, which brought them international attention. Their latest movie, Uncut Gems, is a fast-paced and feverish character study starring a first-rate Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a Diamond District jewelry dealer and compulsive gambler. Their most ambitious film yet has found an enthusiastic audience: in its first weekend, Uncut Gems had the best limited opening in A24’s history.
Beginning on December 25th, Metrograph is screening Uncut Gems in a very special 35mm engagement. Ahead of the film’s run, Josh and Benny joined Metrograph to talk about their influences, the writing process, and Martin Scorsese.
Austin Dale: I read that you began to research this film many years ago after Daddy Longlegs. This is basically my way of asking about the lessons you've learned during your last few films, because this feels like a culmination, but how do you think the film would have been different if you had made it then?
Josh Safdie: First of all, the reality is that a project like this, with all of its layered plotting and the lived-in quality—the KMH Jewelry showroom and all the characters within it needed to feel the way that it did to me in research, when I would walk into some of these businesses and you would just feel like each person was a story in a big book. So it needed that time. It needed the research and needed the time to steep, but we would’ve had a problem on a formal level. We didn't understand tension. We didn't fully understand or have a grasp on tension or genre or overt narrative plotting. The narrative of Daddy Longlegs stems from the essence of it being a character study. We felt foolish if we ever tried to impose plot from on high. It's like how I felt listening to produced music felt foolish. I only wanted to listen to music that had a tape hiss because I felt that at some level that that meant that it was more honest. We were immature in that regard.
A movie like Lenny Cooke, our documentary, taught us, on a very basic level, the essential parts of storytelling. What are the things that you absolutely have to tell from a pragmatic standpoint? And then on a formal level, it taught us how to dramatize a basketball game, because you only had a certain amount of footage and we had to figure out a way to turn it into a dramatic story. And it wasn't footage that we had shot; it was footage that we were inherited.
I met Arielle Holmes doing research for Uncut Gems, and when I met up with her a week later to try to figure out the right role for her, she proved to be a totally different person than I met. She was actually a homeless young woman with a heroin addiction, and we ended up making Heaven Knows What with her. The things that were very helpful for us as far as our education for this film were: A) a toxic romance, B) addiction, obviously, and C) working with score and the musicality of film. That was the first movie where we really embraced music.
That movie attracted the attention of Scorsese and that's how he got involved with us. And formally, he was very interested in what we were doing when mixing reality with fiction. Honestly, we've always been interested in that, but in that movie we dove deep into the hybrid nature of filmmaking, using real people, locations, and some scripted scenarios.
Benny Safdie: And then Good Time was a real education on pacing and genre filmmaking and on a technical level. On those two movies prior, there was no script supervisor, no A.D.
Josh Safdie: There were five or six people on set doing everything. And we did that proudly. Again, that goes to the immaturity of thinking more production means you can't get at something honest, but we learned better on Good Time from a writing standpoint.
Benny's character in Good Time was a big character, at one point in the script of Uncut Gems. And when we went and set out to make up Good Time, there was this fully-formed character that was not essential to the story. He was essential at the time to Gems, but we were capable of removing him from that film and placing him in this other world without actually affecting the story of Uncut Gems. There were a few other plot points in Good Time that were originally in the script for Uncut Gems.
Austin Dale: So it’s safe to say that the script of Uncut Gems has evolved a great deal over the years to get to this point.
Josh Safdie: It was 10 years of work. We had, I think, over 160 drafts, and every time there was a casting decision or even a prospective casting decision, we would do an entire pass of the character for that perspective casting.
Austin Dale: How do you think the character of Howard changed when Adam Sandler came on board?
Benny Safdie: Well, we tried to get Sandler 10 years ago, so we wrote it for Sandler originally, but we couldn't get to him. We got a general no, and then we went down the road with other performers trying to write specifically for them and then eventually when we finally made contact, we tried with Sandler again in 2015. Again, it was a no, and then after he saw Good Time, we made contact. It was very easy for us to go back to Sandler.
Josh Safdie: On a very practical level, there were some story elements involving the family that we worked on for Sandler in particular, just to kind of really hammer home that he's checking in on the daughter and he loves his kids, because that was going to be something that audiences could kind of latch onto.
Austin Dale: When Good Time was released, you two programmed a series with us showcasing all the films that had influenced the film. If you were to program another series for Uncut Gems, are there any particular films you would select?
Josh Safdie: It's tough because all the influences are really indirect. The things that shaped this film were more literary than they were cinematic. If you were to think about films that actually directly inspired this movie, you might look at Hollywood Madam: Heidi Fleiss by Nick Broomfield, the documentary, because there's a character in there that was very interesting to us, and Louis Theroux’s documentary Gambling in Las Vegas. Those are documentaries, so if you were to put those down on paper, it would be very confusing for some.
Benny Safdie: We did watch The Moment of Truth by Francesco Rosi because we love the actual lenses that were used.
Josh Safdie: People would much rather watch The French Connection for comparison. You know what I mean? And understand, you know, that those guys clearly are inspired by William Friedkin or Mikey and Nicky by Elaine May, or Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head. They're movies that are in the same world, but they weren't things that we watched to make the film. Obviously Friedkin's work, like Sorcerer and even to some extent Blue Chips, is always inspiring. There's a film that we kept recalling that we were talking about a few months ago and it's Stephen Frears' Hero with Geena Davis and Dustin Hoffman. The guy is so flawed, but you love him. This guy who just wanted to just do this thing, but he has these weird principles that he stands by. But these are movies you watch when you're kids and you can't get over them.
Austin Dale: Your films have gotten bigger each time and your audience is growing with each movie. I'm just curious about what your relationship with present-day Hollywood is. I'm sure you read Martin Scorsese's Times op-ed very carefully and, in light of the way Hollywood has sort of restructured itself, do you ever think about working on a large studio project? A movie that comes to you instead of the other way around?
Benny Safdie: Well, right now we're focused on making films that are born out of us. But as long as there's an independence to the vision, it doesn't really matter where it comes from. An independent film can be a $200 million movie. It's just a matter of the mind that’s behind it and the way that it's made. You can have those feelings in it all. But I think what he was trying to say was that the independence of vision is important and there are stories that help us understand life and understand who we are that need a seat at the table also.