'Uncut Gems' Writer Ronald Bronstein On His Creative Process With the Safdie Brothers

Ronald Bronstein, the de facto "Third Safdie Brother" details the intense creative process behind 'Uncut Gems.'

Safdie Bros Uncut Gems
Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein. Image via Getty / Phillip Faraone/ Stringer
Safdie Bros Uncut Gems

By now, Josh and Benny Safdie's decade-long journey to making the most ardently celebrated film of the year has been well chronicledUncut Gems owes its feverish appeal to the Safdies' many years of field research in New York's Diamond District, their practical and psychological guile sharpened by making similarly rattling fare such as Heaven Knows What and Good Time, and their impeccable assembly of cast and crew. One of the most invaluable players on the team is co-writer and co-editor Ronald Bronstein, who has been central in rearing every one of the Safdies' narrative films since starring in their 2009 feature debut Daddy Longlegs—at this point, it isn't uncommon to hear him referred to as the third Safdie brother. His contributions to the architecture of the films are so vital that if you consider yourself a fan of the Safdies, then whether consciously or not, you're a fan of Bronstein, too.

Complex spoke with Bronstein recently to solicit his side of how Gems came to be, and what he additionally shared was a wealth of perspective on filmmaking overall. He unpacked his and the Safdies' processes, reflected on the development of their unique identities as storytellers, and his generally insightful disposition yielded many, well, gems. Read below.

Okay, so I know a little bit about how Gems began for the Safdies 10 years ago. But where did it begin for you?
Oh geez. I had made Daddy Longlegs with them. I wouldn't say against my better judgment, that wouldn't be accurate, but sort of a counter-phobic thing that just sort of forced me to plummet myself into the project. It was great. I had spent so many years by myself over the edit of my own movie and I had just sort of barely managed to slither to the finish line with any feelings of self-respect left.

And I just was totally enervated. I did not think I was going to do anything ever again. I was just, I was a total fraud. I was just faking my way through these, through promoting that movie, just acting like I had a career ahead of me. But was completely creatively bankrupt. It was like, when you are a kid and you are asleep in the back seat of your parents' car and you can kind of feel that you have gotten off the highway and the car is turning more as you are getting close to your house and you are going to be picked up and carried into the house.

That is sort of what it felt like to work on that movie. So 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 wasn't sure what I was going to do. I started working on this project. I knew I did not have it in me to sort of find financing. The project was such a barren piece of work 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. Like, "Oh, they're off doing their thing. That's cool." But I guess they got stuck or they were not happy with the results of their first attempts to get this thing down on paper.

So I had worked as a writer with them on Daddy Longlegs. And, very organically, I kind of just inserted myself into their process and I think they just recognized that sort of a three-headed beast. And so they called me and said, "Will you read our script, give us feedback?" And then I just had so many notes, I just sort of tore the thing to shreds. I sat down with them at a diner and I 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're writing as a three-way team.

That goes on for about a year. And at that point we had the movie made then, it would resemble Daddy Longlegs in scope in the sense that it was more, I guess sort of peripatetic in structure, more like a series of anecdotes. Less driven by overt narrative plotting from on high. And we all got stuck. We worked on that for, I don't even know how long, maybe a year. And 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 even really making any resolution. One day we had a meeting, it was very contentious and the project, we just stopped talking about it.

There was no financing for it. So we just stopped mentioning it and then we made Heaven Knows What and that was just Josh and I, we were like, "All right, well let's just do it as two." Then as soon as we were done with that, Josh just said, "Well, let's 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. But again, we could not find financing. And so we made Good Time and Good Time was interesting. It was a project that sort of—it was not a project, it was a person. Robert Pattinson just basically, unceremoniously just appeared and said, "All right, do that for me."

That allowed us to secure money, just enough money to make something on a bigger scale than we had and we had no ideas. So outside of creating certain things from the most recent Gems draft, we were starting from a place of zero. And I was like, "Oh, 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. The fear was that you will determine the narrative progression in advance and then you will create your characters after that. You will create your characters second to devising a plotline and then you will pick the personality traits that would ensure that the plot would progress in accordance with your wishes.

You know what I mean? And that is very limiting in terms of character development. But we were always afraid of that. We were always avoiding that. We were like, "All right, we're just going to only do that, we're 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, character detail." And I feel like we survived. I still feel the goal was to create something that feels like it is being written while it unspools in the camera. Like it is just being puked out spontaneously. That is the goal. 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.

And I feel like we did that successfully so that when we went back to Gems, literally the day after we finished Good Time, then it was, I mean it was an entire sequence. 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 the movie that you saw.

Okay, that is a very long-winded answer, but it's comprehensive. [laughs]

That is an incredible answer and gives me so much context for how it came to be. And I agree that you guys have been incredibly successful in finding that balance of like, "How do we incorporate something that has a discernible narrative but also holding onto these incredibly rich characters?"
Right. How to work in like Rube Goldberg type mechanics into a script without sacrificing character detail. That was the goal. And it became very natural for us to do it to Gems once Good Time was completed. So, at that point, you got to realize none of us ever got paid to make any of these movies. It helped Gems, really. So, I have a family, health insurance, so I was working in a projection booth for all those years. And it's funny, I started when things started to change from 35 millimeter to DCP, I was working in the rev houses in New York City and then landed at Lincoln Center, the Film Society.

And at first, I was resentful of DCP, just for qualitative reasons. And then I realized, suddenly I had all this time, I only have to get up once every two hours. Which I guess is, says something about just how one's value system can get compromised for self-optimizing reasons. So then, Josh would come every single day to the booth and we just worked and worked and worked. We are very hard on the script. We are both very suspicious of script, you know that they are not life, they are the blueprint for life. They are limited in terms of what they can capture, they can capture the text but they can't capture the way the muscles in someone's face move.

And those things are just as essential in communicating what you want to communicate. We just ended up very neurotically overcompensating and just trying to cram as much detail and life into this document. Just figuring like, "We'll put 200% more than we can possibly capture onto the page." In a way, it is still almost fake in a sense because you are trying to invent these small nuances and put them on the page knowing that once the film is cast and once the script is run through their directorial process, the nuances are going to spring from the actor and you are just sort of giving them the catalyst for that. So it is a weird process.

The way we approach script is, I guess, hard to explain.

Who goes to the movies to see the best version of themselves endorsed? That's not fun.​​​​

The language people use a lot when describing this movie and your other movies is, they love to talk about the realism. They love to talk about how it feels unscripted and what I think of when I hear that is, how much that speaks to there being a very meticulous script. And very meticulous control.
Yeah, it is weird. You absorb a certain vocabulary when you are younger that aligns with your own value system and it sort of calcifies over into your aesthetic DNA, I guess. And then you get bored with it and you take that for granted and then you're rebelling against it.

My case was kind of realism. Realism, really? What about dreams? And I just felt like I was cauterizing expressiveness for the sake of realism. And I was more interested in sort of railing against that. But then you don't realize that that stuff really is built into your DNA, you're just building on top of it. You think you're fighting against it, you think you're contradicting it. But really what you're doing is just creating layers. Layers of things that do not necessarily belong together. Whether it's mixtures of drama and comedy, mixtures of the hyper-real with the hyper heightened, these things—they're kind of wrong to put together. And then Josh and I both have an impish compulsion to jump and seize on the wrong. An idea that seems wrong for the scene, especially when you are working 10 years on a script, you're looking at this material, it means nothing to you anymore.

And so in a way you want to betray it in order to like 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 with when we were first laying that down on the page years before. You're trying to ruin it in a certain sense and make it exciting for you still. And that I think creates just strange layers, strange layers. You take ownership over the wrong and you just insist that it is right. That is a very abstract thing to say. I am sorry, but it is hard to put words into.

Can you give any examples of what some of those more dramatic changes that were made to the script over time?
Examples are tough. 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 an all caps, right? And you are kind of wary of it because you do not want to become mawkish. And your first draft is trying to write this thing that is emotional on the right frequency, 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 the tattoo and his response to it. And you end up with something. Look, maybe there is some genius that would be able to mix those major and minor chords or just clash chords together on a first draft. But for us, the time that it took for the script to steep like a tea bag over so many years just allowed us to constantly gain new perspectives on the work, mess with it.

I mean, you're making this movie for years and it is a New York movie. You're just thinking about the city and how the rhythms of the city are tied into the rhythms of your characters. Then after a few years you're just like, "All right, well you come up with the city, we got to open it in Africa." And that idea of opening this film in Africa, runs so counter to the mindset of creating the meat of the movie. That's an example of something that just seems wrong. It seems like a totally extravagant thing to throw money at. You're creating these discordant layers but they run seamlessly together. But you would not necessarily arrive at those ideas at once. You would not conceive of a New York movie that opens in Africa. You never land on that instantly because in the first phase you are only thinking of the city and can't even imagine stepping outside of its boundaries.

I read some interviews you did about Frownland a long time ago and found you talking about this idea of how a movie can force an audience to spend time with a character they might find unlikable or straight up abhorrent. So I want to talk a little bit about constructing Howard.
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. On any of the work that I have ever been a part of, nobody is ever looking at the characters topographically from on high and wondering, "Is this person likable?"

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. I guess I am just naturally attracted to people that make wrong decisions because I think that's more dramatic, more fun to watch. It's more engaging. Who goes to the movies to just see the best version of themselves endorsed? That's not fun.

I have to agree there.
And likability. Again, that just runs counter to our whole process. We never talk about whether a character is likable. We never say, "Oh my God, this scene needs to be really intense." We never talk about tension and intensity. We are literally just following the rhythms of our protagonist.

Uncut Gems A24

I think that's why it works so well, because you're not forcing the hand.
And we are all coming at it from different perspectives. Josh is very romantic. He's always trying to tease out the romance of any given situation. I am looking to pinpoint and magnify pathos. Benny, in a fantastic way, has so much respect for the audience that he has a sort of over-abiding, "You're boring the audience." So he is responsible in many ways for the constant forward motion. But it's funny, you have a tipping point. At what point does a fear of boring people become pathological in itself? And so somebody who is afraid of boring you is actually harassing you. I don't think we've hit that point, but you can see that we're right on the edge of that.

I think that relates to the pacing, which is so successful. I saw one of you guys a while ago say that Good Time works the way it does because the movie is paced at the speed of Connie's mind and we are always with him. Did that logic inform the pacing of Gems as well?
For sure. Again, that idea is so deeply embedded in how we go about making the work that it sounds silly to even articulate it. You hear that come out of your mouth as a statement. You can just see it turning to ice and falling to the ground, cracking. It isn't even worth saying.

But, yeah, being on the writing side and on the editing side is a unique pleasure because you get into the edit and you don't have to show any respect for the writer. You only have to show as much respect for the writer as you feel for yourself. In our case where, I would not call it self-deprecating, but we definitely never think anything is good enough and we are constantly trying to overcompensate for that. So getting into the edit, I can look at the raw footage and I'm not obliged to do an assembly that is respectful of the intentions of the screenplay. We don't do assembly, we don't care. We never reference the script once we get into the edit. You're just looking at the footage at this point. It is almost like found footage. And then you're attempting to rewrite, it's like a new phase of writing where a fair share, obviously, of the material that has been captured is reflective of the script.

The script has been an effective blueprint and in this case, more than any other film that we have done, most of the dialogue helps. It wasn't permutated to the point of being unrecognizable. I was shocked when I went back recently through the script, but it's irrelevant. It's irrelevant. You're looking at what was captured on the set and you're just rewriting new material with that footage. We're rhythm freaks in the sense, control freaks with rhythm. Usually, you think of the freedom that you give a performer exists in an inverse relationship with technical precision and of the technical precision of camera in these films.

And usually, the relationship between those two usually means that if you are going to tell your actors they don't have to hit marks and you're going to give them that freedom to talk over each other and step on each other's lines, it makes the most sense to shoot in a Tableau style and a wide style like [Robert] Altman did very frequently. But in our case, where we are all obsessed, not just with the closeup because of its relationship to the human face, but 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 the freedom to control the pacing on the set, to control that rhythm and then you get to dominate once you get into post and take the rhythm that they set and prod at it and magnify it and find those moments of tension and increase the tension.

You talked about this already but how would you compare your dynamic with Josh while you are writing to your dynamic with Benny while you are editing?
Certainly much friendlier, the latter rather. I mean, my dynamic with Josh, it's very combative. I would not call it competitive, but I would call it combative. There is a strange checks and balances system that we have created in the way that we both attack the work. Again, he tends to be more romantic. I tend to be more, I don't know what word to use...trenchant? There's all sorts of ways to approach this question. Josh is responsible for directing a film with Benny, I'm not.

So when we are writing, that gives me the freedom to push ideas that might be very, very, very difficult to realize both financially and technically. It isn't my responsibility. And I think Joshua, we have that difference. There is a difference in terms of, I can come up with an idea and I can see fear in his eyes where he's like, "Well, how is this even possible? How are we going to get this done?" Or again, I can push certain characters into more apparent, like you said, places, and not have to worry about how those ideas are going to be communicated to the people who might be paying for the movie.

So when I see a little bit of fear in his eyes I know we're in a good place because Josh, in an insane way, loves challenges. So we're coming at the material with different responsibilities and different intentions and we just vacillate all the time between procrastinating and just shooting the shit. But there is always this feeling that even when we're not working, we're always circling like a shark around our prey, until through dialogue, we just hit at something, hit at ideas and then we just seize on it in a very severe way.

Then we divide up, we split off and we write our scenes separately and we bring them back together and we do passes on each other's work. It's hard to explain. We've been doing it for so many years that I cannot even tell where my friendship with him begins and my partnership with him ends.

With Benny, you have to remember, in terms of editing, my share of the scenes that I edited in both Heaven Knows What and Good Time were all done in a projection booth. So we did not have an office. Benny would be editing his share of the films in his apartment.

So Benny and I never even sat next to each other or had the physical luxury of proximity until this project. It was wonderful, because it was nice, we were able to actually comment on each other's work while it was being made and not just make our comments after a first pass had been reached. Benny and I get along very well. Again, Benny is a very practically minded person. He does not get carried away like Josh does. So, whenever things get a little indulgent, he's always there to rope it in. It makes things razor sharp. He's very generous to the viewer, more so than probably the two of us in that he just does not want to bore them, he wants to give them the most for their money. He wants to give them the experience and he wants them to move.



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