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One Big Score: Capturing the Frenetic Pace of The Safdie Bros.’ “Uncut Gems”

Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie team with acclaimed cinematographer Darius Khondji for a high stakes thriller set in the Diamond District of New York City.

An electrifying crime thriller with a frenetic, hair-raising pace, Uncut Gems is the latest feature from the Safdie Brothers. Distributed by A24 and shot by acclaimed cinematographer Darius Khondji, Uncut Gems follows Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler), a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score. When he makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime, Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.

In her review for The New York Times, movie critic Manohla Dargis calls Uncut Gems “a tumult of sensory extremes, of images and sounds, lurching shapes, braying voices, intensities of feeling and calculated craziness,” calling the Safdies “two of the more playfully inventive filmmakers working in American cinema.”

“Every movie made by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie can be described as calamitous, propulsive and unbearably stressful,” Akiva Gottlieb notes in the Los Angeles Times. “It was true of such micro-budget, pointedly plotless character studies as Daddy Longlegs and Heaven Knows What, and it’s certainly true of 2017’s white-knuckle thrill ride Good Time and their latest, the Diamond District crime saga Uncut Gems.”

Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems,” courtesy of A24

The Safdie brothers have been honing their filmmaking skills for more than 10 years, culminating in 2017’s Good Time, their character-driven thriller starring Robert Pattinson that critics hailed as a career highlight. “Gems is an obvious successor to Good Time. It is just as frantic, just as tightly scripted, just as New York,” River Donaghey writes in Vice. “But where Good Time barely stops to let you catch your breath for its entire runtime, Gems is a more precise, expertly paced thriller. It’s a huge leap forward for the filmmakers.”

The original idea for Uncut Gems came from the Safdies’ father, Benny Safdie explains to Tarpley Hitt at the Daily Beast. “The initial piece came from the stories our father used to tell us about when he worked in the Diamond District as a runner and a salesman when we were kids,” he says:

“The person he worked for — the district was just kind of this insane place with all these pulp stories of adventure, love, just jealousy, humor, deceit, massive gambles, family but not family.”

So after Daddy Longlegs, Benny Safdie continues, “it was of course, let’s delve into this world because it was somehow connected to growing up.

“We decided to feel the nostalgia out of what those stories felt like from when our father told them to us. As we were exploring, we realized it was such a rich life and a big world, and you need a lot to tell that. We thought that in 2010 or 2011 — that we could make that movie. But apparently we were not. We went out to the world — we even went out to Adam Sandler — but we couldn’t get past the reception. So we decided to make another movie. What’s interesting about the ten-year journey is you try to make Gems — then oh, it’s not going to work out — so somebody presents the opportunity of making a basketball documentary [Lenny Cooke]. Basically you then focus in on the stories that present themselves as the movie is being made. But the seed was from our father really.”

Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner in A24’s ‘Uncut Gems,’ directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

The details of Uncut Gems were subject to modification over the years, as Max Cea writes for GQ magazine:

“When Sandler initially turned the Safdies down, they considered Jonah Hill or Sacha Baron Cohen as their protagonist, Howard Ratner. The year the movie was set would be dictated by the basketball player they got. When Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t pan out, they turned to Kevin Garnett, and they locked the film in 2012. But the Safdies had a vision for the way they would make the movie — how big it needed to be, the style they’d shoot it in, the story they wanted to tell — and when it came to their vision, they wouldn’t compromise.”

Benny Safdie, speaking to Joshua Encinias at The Film Stage, notes that the casting for Uncut Gems was “tricky,” with different actors forcing changes to the film’s plot and structure. “It started out with a different player in 2010 and then we tried to cast it up with Kobe Bryant,” he says. “Whenever you change the casting decision of the basketball player, you basically end up changing the entire movie. We do that with every casting decision. It doesn’t matter if this person has one line or a hundred lines; we try to rewrite the character to fit the casting decision. With the basketball player it was really complicated because we had these specific games we had to write around. The player has their own personality and motivation.”

Anna Swanson, writing for Film School Rejects, calls the film a “powerful feat of filmmaking anchored by a career-best Adam Sandler performance,” noting that as an anti-hero Howard is just as chaotic as the world he inhabits:

“The Safdies brilliantly grapple with a number of intersecting narratives while ensuring that Howard as the connective tissue is always foregrounded. The frenetic cinematography courtesy of Darius Khondji — the master DP’s first but hopefully not last collaboration with the Safdies — catapults us into Howard’s perspective. Khondji’s sublime and kinetic camerawork is enthralling, capturing Howard’s energy and throwing us into the deep end of his environment as we try to keep up with his rapid pace. It’s an assaultive experience that doesn’t allow anyone time to catch their breath. Watching the film feels like being punched in the face in order to feel alive. If stress could be converted to energy, Uncut Gems audiences could power a small city.”

Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield and Adam Sandler in A24’s ‘Uncut Gems,’ directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

Read more: The Safdie Brothers’ Full-Immersion Filmmaking (The New Yorker)

Read more: Cinematographer Darius Khondji Leans Into Garish, Gritty ‘80s Aesthetics For Uncut Gems (Deadline)

Read more: “Bokeh Perfume:” Frame by Frame on Uncut Gems with Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC

“Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner, a small-time jeweler with a gambling addiction, is the latest in a line of hapless hustlers pushed to extremes in an adrenalized cinematic realm that could only have been conceived by filmmaker brothers Josh and Benny Safdie,” Jake Cole writes in his review for Slant magazine:

“From the outset of Uncut Gems, Howard spins a dizzying number of plates to stay ahead of creditors, pawning jewelry loaned to him by customers to raise money he needs to pay off sharks, only to instead drop cash on the latest basketball odds. Howard is a man for whom the big score is always just on the horizon, and were he not barreling toward disaster, and without any brakes, you’d almost have to admire his endless optimism.”

“Sandler was perfect as the boy-man who could barely acknowledge his feelings (rage, longing, more rage, more longing) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, and he’s even more perfect (if such thing is possible) in Uncut Gems, because anger and need are fused, and Howard’s self-destructiveness is a form of aggression,” David Edelstein writes for Vulture. “Howard is the summation of the Safdies’ culture, in which the drive for life collides head-on with the drive for death, and the upshot is cinema.”

As Paul Thomas Anderson fans themselves, the Safdies readily understand the comparisons between Sandler’s turn as Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love and his role as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems, but insist that any parallels between the two features are less overt than they may seem. “When Punch-Drunk Love came out, it was the kind of confluence of all of our interests,” Josh Safdie explains to Matthew Monagle at Slash Film. “The beauty of that film is that PTA made a Sandler movie and this kind of absurdist comedy. I believe Sandler is kind of like the closest thing our generation has to a Jerry Lewis.”

Uncut Gems begins in the precious gem mines of Ethiopia, where two workers find a rare black opal, leading to a surreal sequence that ends in New York City, emerging from inside Howard’s colon during a routine colonoscopy procedure. “Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s camera moves closer to the gem to inspect, to create a tactile connection with the rock maybe, only to move in so close we plunge beneath its surface — caves within caves — and emerge, amidst a cosmos of particles, from Adam Sandler’s butthole,” Dom Sinacola observes in his review for Paste magazine, adding, “We’ve always known Sandler’s had it in him; this may be exactly what we had in mind.”

The black opal represents the score of a lifetime to Howard, who plans to sell the rare gemstone at an upscale auction house. “But, when the opal finally reaches his showroom, other business gets in the way,” Richard Brody writes in the New Yorker:

“Howard’s employee, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who’s his liaison to athletes and hip-hop artists, brings the pro-basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) to the showroom. There, Garnett sees the opal, feels its power (which Howard has been hyping), and decides that he must have it as an aid to his game. (Garnett was playing, in 2012, for the Boston Celtics, and the action is set during that year’s playoffs.) Howard is loath to part with the opal, but he senses that the transaction gives him a betting advantage.”

Yet, while Uncut Gems features a literal uncut gem — the black opal — it is Howard himself, with all his imperfections, that is the real uncut gem of the title. “To me, Howard being an uncut gem is like a corollary to the movie being a radical humanist film, which is kind of in a weird way, all of our movies,” Josh Safdie tells Hunter Harris at Vulture. “Our entire life we’ve grown up with very flawed people around us, and we’ve had to see past those flaws, or excuse them, to get at something that makes them relatable, or human, or worthy of value. In the jewelry trade, uncut gems are major gambles. You have to be a genius with your eye to find one [that is actually valuable].”

The Safdies sought an ‘80s aesthetic for Uncut Gems inspired by “the postmodern architecture of Michael Graves, the work of Robert Altman, and a garish, gritty look that captured the realism of New York,” Daron James writes in an interview with Khondji for No Film School, noting that “both 35mm and digital formats were tasked in creating the look, the main camera being an Arricam LT shooting anamorphic with Panavision C Series lenses,” and that “compositionally, a combination of zooms, tracking shots, and long lenses formed a language where the camera would constantly follow the action.” Khondji, who was unused to shooting with long lenses and would traditionally frame more around 50mm, tells James, “Here, 75mm anamorphic was normal and we’d go up to 350mm regularly.”

Film grain was an crucial aspect of the film’s cinematic language. “During preproduction, Khondji shot tests and it was decided to push the film negative one stop,” James writes, noting that since both 35mm and digital formats were used, “the film scanner became an important role in the equation.” The Mill colorist Damien Van der Cruyssen was tasked with matching the formats: “There are a fair amount of digital scenes in the movie and we really wanted everything to feel cohesive, so we had to have a pipeline and color journey that worked well for digital and film,” he told James.

Speaking to Matt Grobar at Deadline, Khondji calls Uncut Gems “gritty, with a lot of light and contrast,” noting that the Safdies pushed him out of his usual comfort zone, which is grounded more in the visuals of the 1970s, for the film:

“I started being a cinematographer in the ‘80s, so they went back to this period of time where we were after very strong, ink blacks, very long lenses, very contrast-y images, very harsh contours. They asked for this because they loved that period of time; they loved these movies. Of course, they loved the ‘70s, the late ‘70s; we looked at a lot of Robert Altman movies, we looked at The Long Goodbye. [With] the ‘80s, this postmodernist architecture, [it was] this kind of bad taste, but they didn’t embrace bad taste thinking, ‘Oh, it’s bad taste. We’re going to do bad taste.’ They really embraced it, and it became a nice thing.”

Set in the Diamond District of Manhattan, Uncut Gems is packed with nods to Jewish culture, including a memorable Passover seder sequence that includes a full recitation of the 10 Biblical plagues. In their interview with Variety’s Rebecca Rubin, the Safdies explain that the holiday — one of the holiest in the Jewish religion — just so happened to intersect with the film’s pivotal 2012 NBA playoff game. “The movie was developed over the course of 10 years, but we had always written in some sort of Jewish gathering,” Josh Safdie tells Rubin:

“The high holiday depended on which basketball player we were going to write around. When Kevin Garnett became the character, we centered it around a playoff game, which coincidentally coincides with the Jewish calendar when Passover takes place. Form always follows function, and I believe mysticism follows function as well. The fact that the movie takes place around Passover, the holiest of holidays, is so apt. This particular holiday, you’re supposed to derive much meaning from suffering, in a movie about a guy where your hero is enduring and suffering.”

Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner in A24’s ‘Uncut Gems,’ directed by Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.

Gaining access to New York City’s insular Diamond District took years, and sometimes entailed leveraging Sandler’s the star power, writes Laura Bradley in Vanity Fair: “It took Uncut Gems directors Josh and Benny Safdie years knocking on doors in Manhattan’s Diamond District before anyone would give them the time of day,” she notes. “It’s a neighborhood — really a couple of blocks, located just off Times Square in Midtown Manhattan — where millions of dollars change hands every day, and so the people making the deals are understandably a little wary of outsiders. It’s the perfect setting for the year’s most stressful movie, which features Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, an irresistibly irritating diamond dealer and compulsive gambler. And as it turns out, the best way to win over the Diamond District is to learn how to strike some deals of your own.”

On set, the Safdies like things just as chaotic as they appear on screen. “Everybody is allowed to talk,” Benny Safdie tells Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air:

“You know, the extras in the background are allowed to talk. Actors are allowed to step on one another… There’s no marks, and we don’t have playbacks. So there’s this feeling of propulsion, of just the scene happening in reality. And so then what you kind of — when you come to the edit, you have these amazing moments that you’ve tried to capture as real, you know, in quotes. And then we start like a documentary, and we take the scene from where it was born on the set. And then it kind of takes on a new life, and it gets kind of shrink-wrapped. And we approach everything with such a sharp knife.”

The Safdies’ approach to the art of filmmaking is fairly simple yet it yields a powerful impact to its audience, writes Francesca Escarraga for Living Life Fearless, “chiefly because of their ability to artistically capture the essence of human struggles organically instead of being in a controlled and altered environment such as a sound stage or filming location,” she notes. “They stand by their belief of casting non-actors to fully portray authentic personal experiences, which is seen through the exceptional performance of Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What (2014) (a casting that occurred thanks to a chance meeting while roaming the streets of their hometown).”

For a key sequence in which Howard runs from thugs, who end up beating him and throwing him into an outdoor fountain, the Safdies kept the city streets open, with people walking into the frame. “We kept the camera far back but that’s what gives the energy to the movie,” Josh Safdie said in December at a post-screening Q&A at the ArcLight Cinemas in Boston, according to Loren King, who covered the event for the Motion Picture Association’s The Credits. “We did it in one take with two cameras a block away with long lenses. No one suspected a movie was being shot.”

“For years, the brothers were do-it-yourself visionaries, finding ingenious ways to make their little movies seem big; they used the city as their soundstage in part because it was free,” Kelefa Sanneh writes in his recent profile of the Safdies for the New Yorker:

“When they began shooting Uncut Gems, last year, Josh was annoyed to see that his crew had posted flyers with filming permits on Forty-seventh Street; he was hoping to keep a low profile, in order to capture life in the district. Then he saw the platoon of trucks parked around the corner and remembered that he was involved in a major production, much too big to be surreptitious. For street scenes, the Safdies assembled about a hundred extras, who mingled with people going about their business. If the extras caught someone gawking at Sandler, or at the camera, they were instructed to create a simple distraction: approach the gawker and, posing as a tourist, ask for directions to the nearest subway station.”

The Safdies end Uncut Gems on a cosmic note, reminding us of the duality existence and that, ultimately, we are all merely atoms. “Think about this: There are two guys, and one’s in Ethiopia, and their daily life sucks,” Josh Safdie begins, speaking to Britt Hayes at Birth Movies Death:

“They are being exploited in the place that they live. These Asian miners came in and are exploiting these people because they were entrepreneurial, they were enterprising. And everyone’s getting paid, and it’s fair, it’s free market or whatever. But someone in that mine has to worry about getting their leg snapped off, whereas someone in New York is thinking about some illegal free throw — the duality of that… I think we’re all on this same rock together. You have two people on opposite sides of the planet. One’s worrying about his leg getting smashed and the other’s worrying about someone hitting a free throw in a playoff game, which might as well mean nothing. But they both have the severity of life and death. That, to me, is fascinating.”

Looking for more? In the below episode of the A24 podcast, listen to Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie talk to Punch Drunk Love filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson about Uncut Gems, including their love and admiration for Khondji — who shot PTA’s short film ANIMA — and why it just makes sense to ship a precious gem inside of a fish: