Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie are American filmmakers whose recent work includes Heaven Knows What (2015) and Good Time (2017). Their latest film, Uncut Gems (2019), which opens in Boston on December 25, features Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a shop owner in New York City’s “diamond district” circa 2012 (more specifically during the Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the Celtics and the 76ers in May). Kevin Garnett, playing himself, arrives at Howard’s shop via a third party, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who is seeking a commission; arriving at the same time is an opal, first smuggled into the country and and now into Howard’s office, that the jeweler hopes will serve as the solution to his mounting, gambling-induced debts.
It should be noted that Uncut Gems is co-written and co-edited by Ronald Bronstein, who has been a primary collaborator on all of the feature-length narrative films that Josh and Benny Safdie have directed together.
At a few points during the film, the frame travels into the opal itself, revealing what’s described in the final script as “a shifting melange of abstract shapes and patterns.” Those particular sequences are the first thing discussed in the following interview, which was conducted at the Boston Harbour Hotel last week prior to a screening of Uncut Gems at the ArcLight Cinemas Boston. There was a limited amount of time available for the interview, so while this transcript has been lightly edited, it still pretty much represents the conversation in its entirety. As a result, I’ve left in certain digressions and exchanges that, under different circumstances, I might’ve cut out. You’ve been warned.
First I want to speak about the “Journey Through the Gem” sequence. Can you tell me where the actual specific design of it comes from: Was it research into physical objects, was it visual references to experimental films, was it something else?
JS: A huge inspiration, always, in life and thinking and philosophy and filmmaking, is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But it’s tough because, obviously, we built that with a VFX company. And when it came time to actually build it… a lot of VFX companies in America function in a very simple way—they function on mimicry. They can only do what’s been done before, or maybe they can do a twist on it. But [what we wanted to do] had never been done before. And it’s not like you can say to someone, let me show you some pictures of some opals, then imagine what it’s like to be inside one of them. Because I can imagine that, but I can’t guarantee that a VFX artist will.
Luckily I found this photographer from the 1950s, Eduard Gübelin, who was the first person to photograph the interior of gemstones. And there was another guy in Los Angeles, Danny J. Sánchez, who is more contemporary. So I had to build this document [Josh, using his phone, begins to show me images of documents that contain storyboard-esque layouts of various pre-existing photographs] … That’s the real gem… And the exterior of the gem, by the way, took us months and months and months and months to figure out, because it consists of many different small opal faces, and over $100,000 worth of gemstones, so it was a real prop… [Josh is still flipping through the documents on his phone] Sometimes I was using nebula imagery that NASA compiled… There’s some more nebula… nebula… but a lot of it is a combination of those two photographers that I mentioned.
And it does look quite aquatic when you get close up. Just like the great Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten (1968/77), the more microscopic you get, the more macroscopic it looks. So the cosmic element—there is the universe inside something like this. I love Jordan Belson’s work, too; I sent them some of his films as well.
You had to be very, very detailed with these [instructions or citations]… It got to a point where I wasn’t even sure if it was gonna happen. We had to brace ourselves for the backup—just cutting it. But it was very important that you do have this interconnectivity.
BS: At first we were going to build something! We were going to build something and have a camera go through it.
What’s amazing about this company… the way they went about building that landscape was insane, because they literally constructed a physical world in the computer. And the light and the gas inside of it were manifestations of that physical environment. So Josh would be like, I want some light here, or we want more of a rock face here. And they’d say, well, we can’t have the light exactly where you want it to be, but we can mess with the environment inside to see if a light will shine through… It was so strange to not be able to place something exactly “there,” because [for example] the gas would only flow within that space in a certain way, which meant that you couldn’t have a cloud thick enough.
Josh, you mention “the cosmic element,” and I’d like to hear more about that, especially given [Benny’s] background as a would-be physicist. I hope this isn’t upsetting to you guys, but after I saw the movie, not being able to get it out of my head, I ended up reading an early draft of the screenplay—
JS: How did you find it?
I found a draft from 2015 by [redacted].
JS: How different was it?
Very different. I’m sorry to make a presumption, but to me, it read like a Jonah Hill draft [at one point, Hill was attached to play Ratner].
JS: Oh, that was the Jonah Hill draft.
There were a lot of anatomically specific insults.
JS: That was the one where the character lost a lot of weight, right?
No, this one started in a Miami boxing gym, and had Amar’e Stoudemire [in the role now played by Garnett]. The whole reason I bring it up is because in that draft there’s a crucial line where the Stoudemire character, in relation to the gem, says something to the effect of “with this I feel a connection to the cosmos.”
BS: I remember that!
JS [simultaneously]: I remember that. That was the line that Amar’e couldn’t do.
BS [now laughing]: I remember that.
I wanted to ask, given all this, about the meaning of—
JS: How was the 2015 draft?
Oh, it was horribly dark. A totally different movie.
BS: Once you go with Sandler, that changes!
JS: It was also that we got a lot of the darkness out with the movies we’ve made since then.
Well, on that note, this is weird to say, but to me, it also read like a Sean Price Williams draft [Williams is the cinematographer of Heaven Know What and Good Time]. No, but seriously! [Both are laughing] Because part of what I think is so distinct about the new film is that even within this cycle you’ve made, of New York City street stories shot from the other side of the block [along with Heaven Knows What and Good Time], Uncut Gems has a slightly different aesthetic feeling, more ethereal. The mysticism is pronounced. And I suspected, or wondered, if part of what gave me that feeling was that the camerawork here, in contrast to your other films, is so much… smoother?
JS: We had a different camera operator, and [cinematographer] Darius Khondji—
BS: And we really got into steadicam, dollies, and stuff like that, intensely on this movie. Because that’s like Howard! Howard’s moving through the world on that kind of frequency.
JS: But it’s no coincidence that… Heaven Knows What, I met her [lead actress/collaborator Arielle Holmes] doing research on the street for this movie. And in making that movie, my attraction to it was the dark romance, the toxicity of that romance. So once that got fully explored, we were able to remove it from Uncut Gems, in a way.
BS: It was like a weight.
JS: And then Benny’s character—the boxing character in the draft you read—was Nick in Good Time.
Nadav is Nick?!
BS: That became my character in Good Time.
I wasn’t reading it that way at all.
JS: Because you don’t get to hear the voice, but yes, Nadav is Nick. He would’ve sounded and looked the same, just a little bit more Bukharian, not Greek. We just moved him around a little bit.
I’m sorry, but I have to hustle us off this subject because we don’t have a lot of time. An element of Uncut Gems that significantly expands upon on what you’ve been doing in the last few movies is the soundscape, particularly during the sequences in Ratner’s showroom. You depict this constant digital soundtrack that we’re all living with now, in real life: text alerts, ringtones, door buzzers, other electronic noises, and of course people talking and yelling, too—but, either way, just constant noise. Where does the impulse to depict the world like that come from?
JS: It comes from living in the city, first of all. And knowing that in this day and age, we live in a cacophony of noises. We don’t even realize it anymore, we just accept it. I mean, I’m going deaf, and I know I am. And that’s because I came in the age of headphones. A volume knob was just on or off to me. In my mind I didn’t know there was any modulation, you know what I mean? So for me that’s just life. And I think the privacy of your own noise, in the face of a cacophony of noises, is what your own life is. That’s why we have such a proclivity towards maximalizing the soundscapes.
BS: And there’s a realism to it. There’s something about that that makes it feel more real, or hyperreal. Because your ear does pick it all up, but… in that showroom, I remember we watched a version of that scene, and it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel real enough. We went back to the district, and just recorded a whole bunch of sounds. You hear that the elevator “talks,” and when you’re in the hallway, you hear the elevator from the floors above or below, seventh floor, eighth floor. And there’s all the buzzers going off. Then we were in a showroom, and you hear all these people talking… but when we listened back, we were like, oh, cell phones are just going off, all the time. So you have to include that.
JS: We had this initial concept in shooting that we didn’t fully see through: Sandler’s character had his own dedicated phone number, and I was going to have a specific person on set just constantly texting and calling him. Because that is the world we live in—we are littered with distractions…
Not to keep going back, but that was like a recurring device in the draft I read—something like, “Howard silences the phone without looking at who’s calling.”
JS: Exactly. Also, that draft was … was it contemporary? Was there a lot of Instagram talk in there?
JS: There was a version of it with Joel Embiid that was super contemporary. And that was actually my second favorite version of the script. My favorite version is the one that exists. And that 2015 version was the version that dug us out of a hole that we were in for five years. So it’s weird that that one’s out there…
BS: It is.
I hope that’s not upsetting—
JS: I mean, it is, but—
I am sorry for reading it, and if I’ve violated your privacy in any way.
JS: Whatever—you’re interested in the work, you went and saw it through, I appreciate that. But you know, it is what it is.
For example we’re producing a show right now for another director, a guy named Xander Robin, who made a film called Are We Not Cats (2018). He read the script before I’d even met him! He was like, I’ve got a confession—I’ve read Gems. I said, how did you read it? And he goes, it’s out there. I was just like—fuck, man.
BS: To go back for a minute. We’re here talking, and we’ll hear a siren outside the window. And it’s an emergency going on right outside that we just picked up on—
BS: It’s a total story. We once had that happen in our production sound. And it was like, oh my God, that’s incredible. So then we became obsessed with recreating that ineffable sound of a siren through a window—
And so often in your movies we’re actually hearing the sound travel from left to right, or right to left. Which also strikes me as being a primary element of their kineticism.
BS: Yes—the whole movie is panned! The whole movie is panned. There’s a whole amazing Atmos mix to it. It was almost like 3D sound. Skip actually said it was “Documentary Atmos,” or, that was how he looked at it. Because it was all “real” stuff placed into surround channels, and that really does make it feel like a more realistic world—even though it’s hyper.
It’s a very counterintuitive thing. Like, many people keep bringing up Altman as a comparison for the sound design of this movie, and I find myself wanting to pedantically correct them, yeah, maybe it’s like Altman, but he did it with voices, where this does it with pure sound—it mixes the entire world like Altman mixed dialogue. But then it’s also true that, much like Altman, it becomes this weird thing where the construction is extremely artificial, until the artificiality—
BS: —becomes real, all of a sudden.
JS: We also had a 45-page ADR script. So in addition to production audio, we went in there and recorded a ton of additional dialogue just to add to this feeling. Because when I would do my research in the diamond district, I would just be inundated with sounds and conversations that were happening at the same time. Sometimes three different business deals happening at once—
BS: —in different languages!
JS: In different languages—and that’s all in the same conversation! That’s what I really wanted to… that the modern-day hustler has so much noise going on around them, and it’s about manipulating that noise.
Before I get pulled out of the room, one last subject I’d like to get to: Something I feel like I perceive in both of the last two movies, Good Time and Uncut Gems—you may disagree—is a depiction of race relations in the United States as being almost entirely transactional in nature. I wanted to ask where the impulse for that comes from. Like I’m thinking specifically, for instance, of the swooping camera movement around Demany near the end of Uncut Gems, which is a big moment, and where the character seems to be thinking, Howard is messing up the money.
JS: Yeah, but I would disagree, because I think; Good Time, that movie is about race. Uncut Gems is about the interconnectivity between people, and the worries that everyone has at the same moment. I actually think that the difference here is that you have a character in Howard who—his mom is Bukharian Jewish, and he kind of sees himself as like a mutt of the world. And there’s that scene between him and Kevin [Garnett] where he’s basically saying, we’re the same people, he’s being egalitarian.
I think the Demany character, Lakeith’s character, he’s a guy who’s going to play the game, you know what I mean? And play up his postures. The whole movie’s about posturing, and—
BS: That big swoop shot, with Demany, he knows exactly what’s going on. So when we have that moment with him, we’re in his head for a little bit, and see his view of what Howard’s doing. And yeah, Howard’s fucking it up, but Demany calls bullshit on him—
JS: That moment is really just [Demany] saying, I don’t understand! There’s no mysticism, there’s no spirituality—it’s a fucking rock.
Benny [laughing]: You dummy.
JS: He calls him a dummy! That moment is just like, I cannot believe this is my partner.
BS: But they’re talking to each other in such an equal way in that backroom. I love it, I love it.