The Safdie brothers are at the end of a 10-year road. Uncut Gems, their new gambling thriller with A24 out this Christmas, is their fifth feature film, the second with major distribution, and sixth overall project (not including a handful of shorts). But it's the script they've been conceiving, tweaking, writing, shelving and rewriting for the better part of a decade now, the opus they've been building to. The grand summation of their careers thus far. Now that it's finally out, their labor is validated: Uncut Gems is one of the best movies—if not the best movie—of the year.
The film plucks the ever-talented albeit recently unmotivated Adam Sandler from the rolling hills of Netflix Mount Olmypus and casts him down into an uber-specific circle of hell: Manhattan's Diamond District. Sandler is Howard Ratner, a vintage New York hustler in the throes of a mid-life crisis and, worse, the losing side of a gambling addiction. Howard owes money all over New York, yes, and his hare-brained schemes to get out of the hole are what drive the tension and danger. But over the course of the film, you begin to sense that Howard will miraculously dig himself out of an early grave just to willingly bury himself alive all over again. He is what's becoming identifiable as a Safdie Scumbag, cancerous to all around him yet undeniably magnetic and endearing. Like Robert Pattinson before him, Sandler eagerly lets the brothers muddy his image with their specific coat of New York grime. But one of the reasons this movie feels bigger than Good Time is the return on emotional investment is doubled. Pattinson's Connie commanded attention, but he was always a piece of shit. Howard Ratner, on the other hand, is hard not to love. Of course, we've seen Sandler go dramatic before, but what he does here with Howie is a singular achievement. Through the sheer force of Sandler's charm, you're practically forced to root for him despite repeated proof that he doesn't deserve it.
The film combines Sandler's A-list movie stardom with a variety of talent like casting Kevin Garnett as himself in a significant supporting role, alongside buzzing It actors like Lakeith Stanfield, veterans like Eric Bogosian, and arresting first-timers like Julia Fox. The result is a particle accelerator of cinema verite energy, combining Robert Altman-style affectations with with gritty New York authenticity.
If Good Time was the critically acclaimed major-label debut, Gems is the mainstream-aspiring double-down aiming straight at Album of the Year. Whether it'll get that far is unclear, and also beside the point. What it does, unequivocally, is confirm the Safdies as auteurs who are here to stay, with a loyal and equally audacious creative group behind them, like Ronald Bronstein, their co-writer, co-editor, one-time co-director. Or Miyako Bellizi, the costume designer who helps their vision of NYC come to indelible life with one intricately conceived outfit after another.
Love it, hate it, or (somehow) fall in the middle, Uncut Gems is, objectively, the type of palpable, visceral movie-watching experience that doesn't come around often. A spectacular feat of storytelling deserves to have told the story of how it came to be. Over the course of this past fall, Complex wrangled the various actors and collaborators, as well as the Safdies themselves, to tell the story of how they created the sad, at times unpleasant, and at all times thrilling ballad of Howard Ratner.
Josh and Benny Safdie: co-writers, co-directors, co-editor (Benny)
Adam Sandler: Howard Ratner
Ronald Bronstein: co-writer, co-editor
Lakeith Stanfield: Demany, Howard's shady business partner
Kevin Garnett: himself
Julia Fox: Julia, Howard's mistress and love interest
Idina Menzel: Dinah Ratner, Howard's estranged wife
Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never: composer
Miyako Bellizi: costume designer
Trinidad James: himself
Greg Yuna: himself
Additional reporting by Ariel LeBeau and Dan Barna.
I. The Early Stages
Josh and Benny Safdie conceive Uncut Gems at the top of the decade, but new, more immediate opportunities arise. In that time the script continues to gestate, expanding, then contracting, while maintaining its core themes and essence. As the brothers continue to tweak and research the worlds of gambling and the Diamond District, new casting opportunities that shape the story come and go.
Ronald Bronstein: I had made Daddy Longlegs with them. I would not say against my better judgment, but sort of a counter-phobic thing that forced me to plummet myself into the project. It was great. When it was done, it was just like a magic trick where the tablecloth was pulled out and I was just a plate left on this piece of wood. I was not sure what I was going to do. I started working on this project, and then they started writing, I guess, what became the first pass at Uncut Gems. And it just sort of existed in my peripheral vision. I guess they got stuck or they were not happy with the results of their first attempts to get this thing down on paper.
Josh Safdie: At one point, the story was so sprawling we had people encouraging us to make it a TV show. Then we pared it down from an ensemble to Howard.
Bronstein: They said, "Will you read our script, give us feedback?" And I had so many notes. I just tore the thing to shreds, and I sat down with them at a diner and went through all the ideas I had in terms of where this thing could go or should go. And then the next thing I know, we are writing as a three-way team. That goes on for about a year. At that point, it would resemble Daddy Longlegs in the sense that it was more peripatetic in structure, like a series of anecdotes. And we all got stuck. As a three-headed team, it did not work. Everyone was trying to pull the project in different directions. It became like a piece of taffy, and it reached a point where we just ended up putting the project down without making any resolution. One day we had a meeting. It was very contentious, and the product, we just stopped talking about it.
Benny Safdie: At one point, it had this really toxic love story element, but then Heaven Knows What took care of that.
Bronstein: We made Heaven Knows What and that was just Josh and I. Then, as soon as we were done with that, I said, "Well, let us just pick up Gems and go back to it." And then we radically rewrote it. I guess our muscles had developed as a result of making Heaven Knows What together to the point that that next draft did not even resemble the previous iterations.
Josh Safdie: Each time we went out to someone, we did a new pass on it for them. It's like when you go get a suit, you're going to get it tailored.
Bronstein: We made Good Time, and Good Time was interesting. It was a project that—it was not a project, it was a person. Robert Pattinson just unceremoniously appeared and said, "All right, do that for me."
Greg Yuna: I bumped into Josh Safdie and Sebo [Sebastian Bear-McClard, the film's producer] one day out outside of Blue Ribbon. They were like, "We follow you on Instagram. We love what you do. We're putting together a movie. We want you in it, but it'll probably take about two years for us before shit happens. It's going to be with Jonah Hill." And I was like, "All right, cool. Just let me know."
Benny Safdie: So the script kept evolving as we did other things and learned new things.
Bronstein: In a way, you want to betray it in order to heat it up and give it new life. You want to contradict it. You want to add things to it that we would never have come up with when devising the first draft years before. You are trying to ruin it in a certain sense and to make it exciting for you still. And that, I think, creates strange layers. You take ownership over the wrong and you just insist that it is right.
Trinidad James: On Instagram, The Weeknd posted, "[Good Time] is the best movie I've seen in five years." I don't know Weeknd like that, but I do know he doesn't really just talk out of his ass.
Bronstein: I was like, "Josh, this would be a good time to stop being such a chicken shit in terms of the sphere of narrative plotting." We were afraid that if we were steering a story from on high with too much force, it would come at the expense of character development. We were always avoiding that. We were like, "All right, we are just going to only do that—we are going to tackle that and make something very, very plotty and see if we can still maintain everything we have learned about nuanced, psychologically rich characters, and character detail." And I feel like we survived. The goal was to create something that feels like it is being written while it unspools, like it is just being puked out spontaneously. The goal is to cover up your writing as much as possible, to hide whatever intelligence you have. You want to cover it up with leaves and trash.
We did that successfully, so that when we went back to Gems, literally the day after we finished Good Time, we were able to just dismantle the script, finally get rid of all these outmoded vestiges and rebuild it using the muscles that we developed on Good Time. And to me, that is where Gems became [what you see now].
Yuna: Two years pass. I bump into them. They're like, "Yeah, yeah, we're still working on it, trying to figure it out." I was like, "All right, man. Whatever." Three years pass. I'm like, “All right, this is bullshit.” I don't know how long it takes to make a movie, you know what I mean?
James: I reached out to one of the two brothers like, "Yo, good job on this movie." They hit back like, "We're big fans. You got us through college.” Out of the blue, one of the brothers reached out: "Would you want to be in one of our movies?" And then a lot of time went by, actually. It got to that point where it's like, "I care, but I don't care. But at the same time, I don't want to miss the opportunity,” on some pride shit.
Yuna: One day they [finally] called me: "Listen, we got a part for you. And it's not going to be Jonah Hill. It's going to be with Adam Sandler."
"It only works if you root for [howard]. And that's why it had to be Adam." - Benny Safdie
Adam Sandler: Their other movies were incredible. Then, getting to know the guys—two sweet, amazingly passionate guys, and they care about movies so much. Sharp as hell. Just caring about every part. I mean, they talked to you about work, they talked about your family, they talked to you about something you said in a conversation four months earlier—they'll bring that up to you.
Josh Safdie: We spent time with Amar’e Stoudemire.
Kevin Garnett: This was originally for Amar’e Stoudemire, and they're Knicks fans, you know. I get it. But it actually morphed into Kobe Bryant in the rewriting of the script.
Josh Safdie: Then we hear Kobe’s interested in acting. So we reconfigure [the narrative and themes of the opal] to be like the elixir of life, and it’s gonna be his 60-point game and Howard's trying to reclaim his youth, as well. So I go through it and everyone's like, "Where's the script?" But these changes take time; it's not just a find-all. And then you finally finish and go through it and go back to Kobe and it’s... "Oh, Kobe's only interested in directing now."
Garnett: Then they rewrote it again for Joel Embiid.
Josh Safdie: At one point, it was going to be a contemporary player, so we talked to Joel Embiid, and got to hang out with Embiid and go to a Sixers game. And the narrative made sense, African player, and he was going to reclaim this. And we're sitting and LeBron keeps talking to some guy. I go, "Who is that?" and he’s like, "Oh, LeBron just likes to talk to people in these seats." Later that night I found out it's Rich Paul and someone told him we were the guys who made Lenny Cooke and he turns to us like "Oh, you made Lenny Cooke?"
Garnett: During the season, they figured they couldn't get all these players during the season cause some of these guys are still playing at the time.
Josh Safdie: Then Adam could only shoot in the fall, so it couldn’t be active anymore.
Garnett: They started looking at retired players, and Josh was a huge fan of mine and we hopped on the phone. The phone call was supposed to take 30 to 45 minutes. It ended up taking like two or three hours. Then we met, and what was supposed to be an hour conversation again turned into something different, and the synergy was there.
Daniel Lopatin: This isn't a cameo. This is a really amazing performance on his own. When we got KG, I couldn't believe it. He's a born Celtic. There's a certain kind of defensive quality and a need to be aggressive and compete and scrap—that East Coast thing.
Garnett: It was me playing myself. Like, I didn't feel like I had challenges with being myself. Like, nobody be me better than me. Fuck you talking about? So that's kind of my attitude coming into this. They want KG? OK, yeah.
Julia Fox: Reading the character, I was like, tattoo, this, that... yeah, it's me. So there are these funny little parallels. No one else could have played this role better than KG. And I feel the same about me, and I feel the same about Howard and Lakeith. Like, I mean, it was just perfectly cast.
Idina Menzel: I was doing a play in Manhattan two summers ago. And I guess someone on their creative team saw the play and they sent me the script and met with me about it.
Miyako Bellizi: We always do preshoots. We start, like, six months before we're already working. We went to the jewelry stores, like, six months before going up and down 47th Street. We all really have a chance to sit and contemplate, talk about it. Really figure out the characters.
Sandler: My uncle used to work right up there on 53rd and 6th, and we used to go around that neighborhood and walk the street. And it is just a fascinating spot. I don't think it changed at all since when I was on Saturday Night Live; it was right down the street from there and I ended up on the block a few times. I don't see one change.
Lopatin: There's kind of like a nice contrast in the film of the unnerving and something really quite beautiful. Not that I'm making necessarily beautiful music. The idea is quite expansive, flaccid, blissful, new-age-y kind of chords and progressions and how they come into motion and clash with noisy, cacophonous stuff and dense stuff. The density of the score adds to the nerviness.
II. In Howie we trust
The brothers land the Howard Ratner they'd always envisioned: Adam Sandler. Over the course of pre-production and filming, Sandler immersed himself in the role so thoroughly that many of his fellow cast members and the Safdies literally call him as "Howie" when referring to him in set anecdotes.
Benny Safdie: It was always Adam.
Yuna: I'm such a huge fan of Adam Sandler. I grew up watching all his stuff. Jonah Hill, he's what, 10 years in the game, maybe? Let's give him 15. But, like, Adam Sandler is, like, super, super legend, you know?
Bellizi: If you saw Howard on the street on 47th Street or even on the subway, you wouldn't really think twice.
Menzel: I was so excited to be opposite Adam in a dramatic role and to work with the Safdie brothers where I was playing something grittier than people were used to seeing me, something that didn't involve singing. It's exciting.
Bellizi: Howie is a guy who's going through a lot of shit. I think at one point he was doing really well and now he's kind of in this lower point in his life and he's a little out of the loop, also, when it comes to style in general and fashion choices.
Benny Safdie: It only works if you root for him. And that's why it had to be Adam.
Bellizi: He thinks he's kind of hard on the outside, but he's really a softy on the inside. He's not a scary guy.
James: There's a certain type of respect that's just in the room for certain people. It's unspoken. You know to just leave him alone. You don't bother motherfucking Adam Sandler. You don't bother Howie, bro.
Benny Safdie: Even during downtime on set when Adam would be out of character, he would then just spend that time thinking about, like, why Howard did the things he did in character that day.
Bellizi: It’s Color Theory. What does the gold shirt represent? It's rich. It's gaudy. It portrays his character. It's so disgusting. But for me, if you describe elements as disgusting, it's incredible. [We were like], "Oh, that's disgusting," then definitely we should use it.
Josh Safdie: [Adam] spent time with Ben Baller in L.A., Todd Vulpio, Avianne. His research and his work ethic was just crazy.
Bellizi: I wanted [his look] to show that his style hasn't really evolved that much and that he's wearing the same things he's been wearing for, like, 15, 20 years since he started. When he was young and cool, that's what they were wearing. So that's why even the leather sport coat, it's a vintage sport coat. It looks old. It looks like he's had it for a long time, which was the goal.
Garnett: [Howie] was charming. He was manipulative in a charming way. Sizing me up for the whole slow pitch, and he was going to knock it out.
Bellizi: [Towards the end], he wears that green and black polo with the tag sticking out. Obviously that was on purpose, to show that he has clothes in his office and he just threw it on and he's such a mess.
Menzel: I didn't want [Dinah] to ever be a victim. She's a strong woman. I believe that she at one point really loved this man and that she was dreaming alongside with him until she was disappointed too many times in their lives and now she is numb to all of the disappointments, the way that he's treated her.
Bellizi: Idina Menzel was a big one for me, [I wanted] the women portraying the women to be authentic.
Menzel: J-Lo was one of our references. She definitely liked to wear her jewels; she liked to have good things. She's aware that her husband is sleeping around with a younger woman, so [her outfits reflected] that need to remain relevant, fit, and young. A little over the top. A little loud, a little wacky.
Garnett: Adam's brilliance when you're in a dialogue with him... he senses the nervousness. He senses all of that. But through the dialogue, you would never know it. He's firing back at you, 'cause it's [all] timing.
Fox: He can really sense where you're going with it. He can read you and then mimic that same energy.
Garnett: You know, it's almost like a dance, and the one step that you mess up, you see that y'all messed up. His brilliance in the dialogue was that you didn't see it. And I was just in total awe of that.
Fox: He's just so perceptive and really nuanced and detail-oriented. He sees everything and you don't realize that he's seeing everything.
Menzel: [The parking lot] ended up being a funny scene for me because I wasn't aware that they were going to want me to run the 300-yard dash in high platform heels and tight jeans. I didn't see him naked or anything. But it also showed the depth of their relationship and that she probably would be there to help him no matter what. It showed us the love she has for him. And also how exhausted he makes her. I love that it's both. I love that it's multidimensional and has so many different emotions all at one time.
Fox: Howard and Adam are like night and day, you know, so you can't say Adam. That was not Adam. That was Howard.
Yuna: Adam Sandler was one of the nicest human beings I've ever met in my life, man. He's really a mensch.
III. Recapturing 2012
Uncut Gems takes place in New York City 2012, a year too recent to make it a period piece but distinct enough that recapturing the look and feel of the city presented a unique set of challenges—while also evoking deep emotions within the cast and crew with regards to their lives at that time. Every detail was slaved over regardless how miniscule, like a blink-and-you'll-miss-it Hood By Air T-shirt.
Lopatin: 2012 was dark [for Celtic fans].
Garnett: It wasn't a dull time, believe it or not.
Bellizi: It's a very tricky year. It's interesting, going back in time. My favorite part of what I do is the research component. That year is going, like, back to Before Instagram. Instagram existed, but no one really used it yet. That was the height of Blogspot. [I had to] go deep into people's blog party photos.
James: You don't do a casting with the Safdie Brothers. They're too cool for that.
Sandler: They're really just some good people. You can tell kind of by the world they've built around them. Their films are littered with non-actors and people that they've met over the course of their life and people just seem to be comfortable on set with them.
Fox: They really wanted to capture that authenticity, and that's why I loved their formula of getting a really big name and then pairing them with a first-time actor, because that spark is so real and it makes for a fucking timeless, amazing movie.
Lopatin: Any given project with [the Safdies], there's going to be these sudden stars or these, like, wildly interesting, bizarre people that they'll meet through encounters on the street.
James: They'll see a girl walking down the hallway of the Yahoo building and they'd be like, "Oh, that's her. That's Julia Fox."
Josh Safdie: We're in a diner in, like, 2010-2011 and we see [the guy who plays Howard's street harasser] walk in, and he's in a big leather coat with a big group of people, and we were starstruck, so I said, "Benny, you gotta go talk to him."
Benny Safdie: I go up to him outside and tell him we'd love to put him in a movie. And he goes, "Say that again? Me, but not them, right?" showing off to his friends. We wrote a whole treatment from his perspective.
Josh Safdie: That was intentional. We wrote that character with the intent [that you should fear he'll do something violent to Howard].
Benny Safdie: There’s all types of characters we wanted you to feel that way about.
Lopatin: They'll put those characters into orbit with professional actors. And that alchemy is going to always be interesting and challenging and humorous.
Lakeith Stanfield: [Josh will be like], "Have you met that guy? Insane." He's always just meeting strangers, like, "Yo, this guy's trippy." And I love it.
Bronstein: Josh is always trying to tease out the romance of any given situation. I am more inclined to pinpoint and magnify pathos. Benny, in a fantastic way, has so much respect for the audience. [He always says], "You are boring the audience." So he is responsible in many ways for the constant forward motion.
Yuna: They're just connected to the culture. They know what's up, man. If you're from New York and you know New York, it's just—they know what's going on. They feel it.
Bellizi: I went all over New York trying to find certain pieces that represented that era and the certain brands, because for men,  was kind of the beginning of several streetwear pieces and trends. Finding that HBA shirt was like a needle in a haystack, I think I found it at Tokio 7 in the East Village. The Galaxy basketball shoes, we couldn't find them on eBay. We never really saw his shoes, which is a shame. You don't really see the hard work of what we did in terms of the sneakers on that movie.
Garnett: That's their gold. They're able to get you to be the best you that you can be in you, though, how you would do it. And from Julia's perspective or Kevin's perspective or Howie's perspective.
Menzel: They create this really detailed, nuanced set with this explosive energy and sort of organized chaos where you just feel like you're a part of this world and you stick to the script, but then you throw the script out the window and improvise for a while, then make your way back to it and just really immerse yourself in the world and you're able to take risks and play, and I just really just had to stay present in the moment with Adam and kind of go on the ride with them.
Bronstein: You gotta realize none of us ever got paid to make any of these movies. It helped Gems, really. I was working in a projection booth for all those years, in the rev houses in New York City, and then landed at Lincoln Center, the Film Society. Josh would come every single day to the booth and we just worked and worked and worked. We are both very suspicious of script. That they are not life, you know—they are blueprint for life. They are limited in terms of what they can capture. They can capture text, but they cannot capture the way the muscles in someone's face move.
Garnett: Well, there's a superstition. It's not to the overall [extent] of me sitting in my locker, praying to a rock, but I wore a rubber band, and if it popped off during the game, it would throw me off a little bit. It would totally throw me off. And as you get older, you learn to control those thoughts and remove them. I can honestly say with the help of yoga and being more centered, I was able to control my energy better as I got older. But yeah, those parallels are very true in sports, and they are real superstitions.
IV. "Howard, we were just doing coke!"
In one of the film's biggest set pieces, Howard journeys to the popular meatpacking district club 1OAK, where he hopes to finally retrieve his opal as well as link up with his erstwhile mistress Julia. Instead, he finds a disagreeable Demany, and Julia looking a bit too comfortable in The Weeknd's private section as he takes the stage for an intimate club performance. It's arguably the most 2012 scene of the movie, featuring Trilogy-era Weeknd, a soundtrack including Meek Mill's "Amen," and cameos from the likes of Trinidad James (then riding high off the success of "All Gold Everything") and Greg Yuna, a popular celebrity jeweler.
Bellizi: The club scene was probably the highlight of the film for me. Josh, Benny, we all know similar people, and so seeing how they hired all of our real New York club friends from that era was a trip. You're just seeing all these old friends you haven't seen, and everyone's dressing the part from that year. It just was beautiful.
Yuna: They gave me a Givenchy T-shirt I would never wear [today]—but I would’ve in 2011-'12.
Bellizi: I was almost brought to tears. I was really emotional that day.
Josh Safdie: At one point, [the artist Howie scuffles with] was going to be ASAP Ferg, and it was going to be at Webster Hall. We definitely want to work with him again, though. He came in to read, and, man, he's got it. Then, after the thing at Irving Plaza, I became obsessed with it being Troy Ave for a little while.
Bellizi: There's so many beautiful moments in that scene. One was seeing how [Lakeith's] fluorescent hoodie bounced off onto Adam Sandler's face to make his face look red because he was so heated. He was so mad when he walked up to him. And then, when they have that little scuffle, you could see the orange bouncing off on his face and it made him look red.
[The pink shirt], that's [Howie's] version of a club outfit. He's just looking nice. Everyone else is in streetwear, like [informal] clothes, because that's the younger version of what's cool. But his version of going to a club, it's a nice button-down shirt and his fancy loafers. [That shows] that he doesn't really fit in here. He thinks he does, but he doesn't. I don't know if it's even shown, but he wears these Giuseppe sneakers that I love. They have the gold metal hardware on it.
"I just truly believe that Uncut Gems is just going to be a classic" - Trinidad James
James: It's almost like asking for a feature. How do you ask The Weeknd for a feature? How do you prove to the Weeknd that I'm worth your time? Well, let me make a film that is the shit, that we know he'll like, show it to him, blow his mind, and then ask him to be a part of the one that we actually need them to be in.
Bellizi: Hearing The Weeknd in the back, performing Trilogy live to us, these songs that would make me cry.
Fox: He's such a great dude. So humble. He was almost more interested in me as a person, asking me about what I do. And I was like, "Dude, you're The Weeknd! Let's talk about you."
Bellizi: I wanted him to look as authentic to that time period as possible. He was really into camo then. He mostly wore camo vests, but he kept the jacket just so we can see him [under the blacklight]. He was brighter for that look, seeing him there.
James: I'll tell you the most beautiful thing [about that scene] that I will always cherish: he had to sing that motherfucking song at least seven times. Deadass. Every time, he sounded like the motherfucking record. It was fucking beautiful.
Lopatin: [Abel and I] did a couple sessions. We recorded a ton of different stuff, and there was one piece that we thought maybe this is like the Iggy OPN-style end credits track for Gems. But there's this far superior palate-cleansing Gigi D'Agostino track that ends the movie that launches you out of the theater in a way that is really useful.
James: I was thinking that I'm not actually playing me. I'm thinking that I'm playing a rapper or playing an artist, but not actually me.
Bellizi: Trinidad James came through with old stuff that he used to wear, and I think the club scene really highlighted that year. That's when you really you look at that scene and you're like, whoa, that's that time period.
James: That's really what was going on in 2012.
Bellizi: Julia's outfit was incredible. That was a big one for me to figure out. Then, when she walked in the room, I didn't even know she's wearing this white top, and as soon as she walked in under the blacklight and she was so lit up right behind the Weeknd, seeing that made me want to cry.
Fox: That club scene, that fight was totally different. The dialogue was totally different—there was a line and it was like, “Well, if Rihanna was in a bathroom with you”—something like that. And I was like, no. Like there's no time for that. This is just a fight. We're not making any sense; we're desperate. We're not rationalizing. So I replaced it with, “You knew what it was when you met me,” which I thought was just more powerful. I was turning it around, like you got yourself in this mess, you know?
Menzel: I think, [later, at the Seder], that he's feeling that and he's missing his family and wants to be close and he wants everything. I believe that he's authentic in [wanting Dinah back] at that moment. It's just too late.
Bellizi: That was such a true, real scene. Very authentic New York, her walking in her crazy shoes back past the club and everyone waiting outside in line. It just brings you back.
v. "you having fun?"
Howard's actions throughout the film leave audiences conflicted: over whether to root for him, when to laugh, or when to cringe. Through it all, the Safdies' knack for unconventional plotting and Robert Altman-style approach to editing, writing, and blocking create scenarios both challenging and rewarding for the film's collaborators.
Menzel: What's so brilliant about their filmmaking is it's so multilayered and complex and so nuanced because that's life, you know?
Josh Safdie: I don't know what an antihero is. I've heard the term antihero a couple times now. [Howard is] a hero—with flaws.
Bronstein: The funny thing is likability. Never, ever, ever—that is not a word that ever comes into play at any points during the creation of this work over so many years.
Lopatin: I think Howard Ratner is actually a lovely guy and he's kind of on his—he's on his grind, and he's doing his best to sort stuff out.
Bronstein: What you are trying to do is you are just trying to get deeply, deeply, deeply inside the pathos of your subject and articulate it and express it and share it and show it with as much compassion as possible.
Menzel: I think he's always being genuine. I just think he lives in the moment, and I think that he's desperate to win in everything that he's doing, and to win is to be loved, really.
Yuna: They brought that essence and they did a really good job—what Adam Sandler played, it's very common in the diamond world. You start, you have a good year, and then, all of a sudden, things start going to shit. And then you're running around trying to make ends meet. And sometimes you put yourself in a bad position to try to fix things and then you end up fucking it up. I know, 'cause I've been there.
Stanfield: I empathize with the character because I feel the need to always be hustling, getting something, doing better, moving up in your life, trying to do the right thing and trying to achieve something. I mean, Howard, he's not a bad guy in the film, but he fucks up sometimes. It's like any of us.
Bronstein: I am just naturally attracted to people that make wrong decisions, just because I think that is more dramatic, more fun to watch. It is more engaging. Who goes to the movies to just see their own, the best version of themselves endorsed? That is not fun.
Garnett: I'm not a casino guy. I might break down a friendly dice game or something. But the interesting part about all of this is learning the outside nuances, the odds and the betting and how I never was conscious of that. You play, you're in it, you're hurting. Whatever's going on off the court plays. You got to play him tomorrow. It's so much going on in your head that I'm not thinking about what's the odds on tomorrow and how much are we going to win. None of that. You're not conscious of all the nuances that surround the game.
Menzel: They wrote pages and pages of backstory—how they met, how religious they were, what the history was with her father and how they got along and then things went sour or things like that—which was so wonderful and helpful. They went into things I never would have even thought of and they knew these characters so well and there was so much preparation that went into the characters. For me, I grew up in Long Island. I knew a lot of these women. I am this woman at times myself. I based her on a lot of people that I know in the world.
Garnett: [The first time I watched the finished film], I texted Jules, "You killed this shit, girl." I'm just super excited for everybody.
Fox: [KG] used to coach me. He'd be like, "You could do this. You could do that." He would just really gas me up.
James: Julia Fox is going to fuck up 2020. I'm just putting it out there. I don't give a damn what any other bitch think. You've lost. You've already lost.
"I felt like I was making a scene in a Scorsese movie or something" - Idina Menzel
Lopatin: That opening sequence—watching it makes me shudder 'cause it was three or four weeks of production and it involved every single instrument, every single element that you would later hear on the other cues. Six minutes of music in any scenario in a film straight is wildly challenging. So it truly is like an overture. It's quite gargantuan.
Bellizi: This my personal secret—I didn't tell anybody about it. Just let it happen. I don't think anyone noticed it. But the opening scene in the showroom when Demany comes in with KG and the bodyguards—everyone in the room is in leather. I don't know if anyone will catch that but me. But Demany is in that leather jacket, KG is in the NBA leather printed bomber coat, Howard's in the leather sport coat, the bodyguards are in sport coats. The influence of leather in each person's character was close to me. Leather has this special effect in that it kind of gives someone more life because it's a little shiny. It's like an extra layer of skin. It's a really beautiful fabric to have, and it's important to this movie. I think it makes it look a little more rich in general.
Josh Safdie: Miyako is very thoughtful. It's never just clothes; it's what color shirt does he wear, does he button it or unbutton, everything down to the smallest detail.
Bellizi: Josh and Benny really care. If I really wanted to sit down and talk about a pink versus a purple shirt, Josh would take the time out of his day and sit down and look at the options and put them on film because it matters to him just as much as it matters to me. And that's really special. That's what sets them apart as filmmakers.
Stanfield: I love this kind of filmmaking that feels whimsical, but at the same time very grounded and really blurs the line between fiction and the visual aspects of it. It kind of goes everywhere sonically. The music, it taps you into this other whole other dimension that's just strangely raw and familiar at the same time. I love movies like that.
Sandler: They're two confident guys. They [know the] way they want to show their movie and what each shot means to them. Then, at times, they watch it and they'll make a change. They'll discuss with the DP [Darius Khondji], he was an incredible guy, and just say, "I don't like this. I don't know. I don't like the way it's looking. This feels too this, too that." They're all over every moment.
Stanfield: Watching them figure it out was quite fascinating. I mean, when I would watch their brains just moving, and particularly looking at Josh and the way he calculates things and tries to figure out ways to put it together on the day. Because things change.
Sandler: And then Benny's editing, Benny and Ronnie, the whole way they do it. I've never seen anything [like it].
Bronstein: Being on the writing side and on the editing side is a unique pleasure because you get into the edit and you do not have to show any respect for the writer. We never reference the script once we get into the edit. You are just looking at the footage at this point. It is almost like found footage. I was shocked when I went back recently through the script, but it is irrelevant.
Menzel: [The Seder] was one of those classic moviemaking scenes that I felt really lucky to be a part of. Everything from the Haggadahs to the way the table was set to everything was just so thought out. All the behavior, all the little nuance stuff, and it caught everybody's reaction shots to everyone else's. It's a big undertaking with so many people sitting at the table. But I just felt like I was making a scene in a Scorsese movie or something.
Bronstein: We are control freaks with [regards to] rhythm. If you are going to give [your actors] freedom to step on each other's lines, it makes the most sense to kind of shoot in a Tableau style and a wide style like [Robert] Altman did very frequently. But in our case, we are all obsessed with the closeup because it gives you maximum control over rhythm. If every character is shot in closeup, every exchange can be micro-controlled. So the actors are given freedom to control the pacing on the set, to control that rhythm, and then, once you get into post, you get to take the rhythm that they set and prod at it, magnify it, and find those moments of tension, then increase the tension.
Benny Safdie: The movie was darker at one point, then we added an element of comedy.
Bronstein: The scene where Howard breaks down and is crying. When you first lay that down on a page, you know you are creating a dramatic moment in all caps, right? And you are kind of wary of it because you do not want to become mawkish. Your first draft is trying to write this thing that is emotional on a sincere frequency. Then you look back on this thing and, again, what you see as something that is mawkish, you can already see it as a clip at an award ceremony and it just makes you blanche. Then you start adding layers of humor into it, like [Julia's] tattoo and his response to it.
Josh Safdie: I can't think of another movie in recent years where it's funny and you're laughing but still feeling that tension.
VI. The Ballad of Howie Bling
SPOILER WARNING: In this section, the cast and crew speak frankly on the movie's shocking ending—specifically, why it had to end that way and how it informs the story they're trying to tell. Do not read if you haven't yet seen the film.
Even though Howard wins back the money he owes and then some, the goon he's spent the entire film disrespecting and trivializing—played with soft-spoken but menacing affectation by first-time actor Keith Richards—goes against orders and kills him anyway.
Benny Safdie: It's a parable. People only become relieved of their flaws in death.
James: It's a year of death. You had to kill somebody to make a successful movie this year.
Bellizi: At the end, he wears this Versace tracksuit. It's very much him. It's subtle, all black. It's not outwardly Versace. But the way [Howard gets shot in the head]... It's also the same way that Gianni Versace died. Gives me goosebumps every time.
Fox: If she came back with the million dollars, yeah, I think they stay together. I think their relationship is really genuine. I feel like in her position, she could have anyone she wanted, but she's with him and she accepts him and he accepts her and he takes care of her. She doesn't have anyone else. I mean, I was rooting for them.
Menzel: I think [Dinah is] devastated [when she finds out]. He's the father of her kids. She doesn't want to be married to the man anymore, but I think she'd be devastated.
Garnett: Howard, you know... When I first saw it… They didn't tell anybody.
Fox: I knew, but I didn't know when it was actually happening. It's one thing to just know but then to see it. I was crying at the end.
Bellizi: [Keith's] mock neck was a very specific part of his character. We wanted to introduce him in the baby blue to show he's soft-spoken, but actually he's the scariest fucking dude in the movie. It was really hard for me to kind of change his personal style into who he would be in this film because he has a leather collection. He collects leather. So he always wears leather pants and a leather vest and a leather hat, leather jacket. He has a full closet that's just leather. It's incredible.
Fox: [Howie] never loses his optimism, you know? Even though he dies, he does win. So I do hope that it, even though you keep failing and keep falling and getting knocked down, if you believe in something, even if it's something like gambling, do it. 'Cause eventually you win. If you are confident and you believe that you'll win, you will.
Lopatin: There's a real lack of disenchantment. It's not a cynical film. In fact, in a lot of ways, that film is about re-enchantment. It's about seeing what's beyond what's superficially there. And believing in something other than your material reality.
Garnett: It has a message in it to keep continuing to believe and continue them to go, go, go.
Lopatin: I just hope people come away from the film with a sense of joy, you know? I think it's actually a really fun and uplifting film. Even if it can be quite tense and can be quite upsetting.
Lopatin: The way that the Celtic stuff is shown in the film is actually kind of in a vacuum and makes the Celtic season seem like it worked out. Like, you don't see that they go on and get crushed by LeBron. It's just a wonderfully happy moment.
Fox: Every experience, whether negative or positive, has kind of been leading up to this moment. And then now everything kind of makes sense. Like, oh, I went through that so that I could, like, channel it in this movie and revisit those feelings and then make sense of it and kind of take the power back, you know what I mean? Relive the trauma and own it and get over it.
Garnett: There was a special synergy around the set, and we always were very, very much conscious and aware of it.
Fox: It kind of feels like we all had like a baby together and now the baby's, like, first, you know, and it's starting to, like, crawl and then it's going to go out in the world and do all these things and win stuff, and it's like we're always going to have that bond that we did this together, and that's really cool 'cause that's, like, a forever thing. That's immortalized.
Bellizi: As a costume designer, it's kind of a dream to see people wanting to portray a character for Halloween so much so that they'll recreate an outfit that you made. It's a mind trip.
James: I just truly believe that Uncut Gems is just going to be a classic.
Garnett: To be comfortable is to be confident. If I'm comfortable with something, I feel like I can give my best in something, or just being familiar with something and trying to create a synergy. And I think that's what true confidence—you get great things out of when someone has confidence in what they're doing.
Lopatin: They're still pretty young filmmakers, and I think they're just going to do what they love to do and that might involve surprising themselves or surprising an audience and approaching other forms. When I first met them, they were really interested in making a genre film. I think it was Josh who said we really need to make a genre film. Like, it's critical that we feel what it's like to do that and go through that challenge and see what happens. And that [became] Good Time for them. I think they'll always have certain intrinsic qualities to their films. It's unavoidable. But I could see them making a very quiet film one day for sure.
James: They really care about this shit that we call film. They really do. And I'll do whatever it takes to protect them at all costs.
Josh Safdie: It's surreal and it's bittersweet because now we have to channel that energy into something new. Even just the research, like going to Vegas and betting on the first 2016 Cavs-Warriors Finals game, watching someone bet on the tipoff and just getting in the mindset of a guy like Howard. Now, when I go, it's not gonna be for research. I'm just going to be a derelict.