Josh and Benny Safdie are no strangers to style. Their films are flooded with it; vivid, dense, frenetic pictures. So, it’s only fitting that the two New York filmmakers would be talking from Chicago’s Waldorf-Astoria, on a swanky couch, surrounded by fruit, coffee, the works. They’re uninterested in any of it, though. The five-star table-setting is as much a juxtaposition for them as their tightly-wound dramas are for the A-listers they attract.
Their latest catch is Adam Sandler, who delivers — as you’ve no doubt heard by now — the performance of his career in Uncut Gems. As Howard Ratner, Sandler haggles his way throughout New York’s Diamond District as a Jewish jeweler drowning in myriad debt. It’s another survival parable from the Safdies, and while it’s their most expansive production to date, it loses none of the intimate anxiety that fuels their gritty catalogue.
Much of that intimacy stems from the fact that Uncut Gems is a personal pet project for the two. Not only did their own father work in the Diamond District, but they’ve also been building up to this film for over a decade. From waiting to land Sandler — at one point, Jonah Hill was even attached — to getting sidetracked by past films (see: Heaven Knows What), the journey to Uncut Gems is as long and winding as that of Howard’s opal.
In a curious way, it’s a portrait of their own life as creators. “I think that Howard and his constant fight to belong, I can’t help but relate to that as a team of filmmakers who’ve been constantly trying to put our own product out there,” Josh Safdie explains to me, later adding, “You feel so dedicated to this thing, and you’re going to take any modicum of success and parlay it onto itself so that you can hopefully hit the big one.”
Given all the awards chatter –the film’s already received accolades from both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle — the Safdies have hit the jackpot. So, it was admittedly a relief to catch them in the calm before the storm, because if Uncut Gems is any indication, this is hardly the last diamond they’ll mine. And as you’ll see in our conversation below, they’re not the type of creators to stop digging.
On filmmaking as a form of catharsis
Joshua Safdie: Sure, sure. I always wondered about horror film directors. We’re good friends with Ari Aster, and I think he has anxiety issues that he’s working out. And someone like [Robert] Eggers, who does horror as well. I always wonder if they’re trying to work out some sort of deep rooted fear, or if it’s some sort of like sadomasochistic thing. It’s different for us, though, like I can always watch Uncut Gems, and tap back into the feeling of anxiety when he’s in that SUV being flanked by them, by those heavies. Whereas when you watch a horror movie … there’s two different types of horror movies. There’s the jump scare horror movies, which aren’t scary anymore, and then you have a deeply eerily scary movie like The Shining that makes you feel uncomfortable. Like you shouldn’t be seeing it. I do think that those are tied deeply to the people who make them.
Benny Safdie: The thing that’s very strange is the production side of it is so anxiety-inducing. The level that you have to deal with is out of control, and you literally have to go through a crash course of the most anxious you’ll ever feel at any moment. So, in the end, when you watch it, you kind of break it down into little bits and pieces. Like “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.” So you kind of don’t remember the anxiety in weird ways, which is kind of shock treatment.
On getting characters torturously from point A to Z
Joshua Safdie: It always comes out of the character, you know what I mean? And if you’ve done enough work and research … obviously with this one, we had a lot of time, not by design, but we just had a lot of time. So we were able to go back and amend the character biographies and they were so intricate and there were so many different versions of the script that actually ended up playing into the biography. ‘Cause you move things around like, “Oh well that happened to Howard because we wrote it out in detail,” or Dinah, or Julia’s character, or even Kevin’s character, or Demany’s character.
Each character had their own detailed biography. So, once you know these people, you can find their actions dictate themselves to you. But then, of course, there are a handful of overarching narratives, and there are ways you set the arena. You can set it in a really absurd scenario, like a basketball player — seven foot tall guy — getting stuck in a vestibule, and then you work your way backwards from that. And you’re like, “Well, how will these people who we know so well react to a scenario like that?” And it kind of becomes a little bit of you don’t know what came first the chicken or the egg?
Benny Safdie: I had a physics teacher once who said, “Look at the most complicated physics ideas and problems,” and the exercise was that you have to walk me through this problem. Start from point A and end at point Z and he goes, “You can have the craziest line drawn, but if you are actually literally holding my hand and walking me through that and I get there with you at the end, you’ve succeeded.” Well, that’s pretty awesome.
On the influence of video games (or lack thereof)
Joshua Safdie: It’s funny. I have no relationship with video games, but what’s crazy is on Good Time in Chicago, I got us into hot water during the Q&A after the film. Someone asked that same question, and there were a lot of gamers in the audience for some reason. Good Time, I think, is way more like a video game than Uncut Gems because it’s a guy in the middle of the night running around. It had a GTA feeling.
I remember the people from Rockstar, they approached us after they saw it. They’re like, “We love that, let’s talk about doing a game,” and I mentioned that in the [Q&A], and then I got a phone call being like, “What are you doing?” In the end, it was fine, it wasn’t meant to be. But, I was honest, I was like, “You know what? Any time I’ve ever played GTA, I only just want to get five stars. I don’t follow the narrative,” but the narrative is supposedly great. I just don’t play video games.
I was recently reading about a something that someone did. I never played this game, The Sims, and someone made up a meal, right? And the meal was poisonous. It killed anyone who ate it, and they sent an invite out to a party to all the other city people, but then they didn’t show, they just left all the food there. So then you can just watch all the people eat it and then die. And that, to me, sounds like a lot of fun. Right?
I remember ICQ. Our Dad had this avatar…
Benny Safdie: It was WorldChat.
Joshua Safdie: WorldChat! Our dad had a profile, and he clearly used it in a serious way, and had interesting deep conversations with people. We would just go up to people, go up to the bros, they’d just be talking, and we’d be like, “Penis.” Eventually, people would be like, “Oh my God, there’s the weird purple elephant.”
Benny Safdie: This is what a six and eight-year-old does when they get into the chat, they’re like, “Oh, what are you talking about? You want me to say it again?”
Joshua Safdie: Yeah, we ruined our dad’s profile. No one wanted to talk to him anymore.
Benny Safdie: Sim City was cool. But, again, it’s world-building, and then you try and watch how the world creates itself.
On the power of audiences
Joshua Safdie: I think movies are unique in the sense that you can create a real-time experience for somebody. I think that horror is a genre that works really well with an audience because you can feel the collective scare. I think sadness doesn’t work as much, because if you hear someone crying in the middle of a movie you’re like, “Are they crying, why am I’m not crying?” You know what I mean?
But I think that thrill and anxiety, you can just feel the energy when someone’s tense. The whole room gets tense and it adds to the experience. And then when you add the kind of present element of our movies, where you’re moving with these characters, you don’t know what’s going to happen next, which adds another element of tension. I think that’s what makes a great theatrical experience.
On research — and lots of it
Joshua Safdie: The first drafts are usually imaginative and you do need a certain element of research just to get the stuff on the page, but then the drafts that really cement it as something that’s shootable involves so much research. I’s not like it’s work that you feel like, “Oh, I have to go do this,” it’s actually very fun. You get to moonlight or almost cosplay as a PI. You know what I mean? I remember when I was doing research for the Diamond District, I found myself wearing more jewelry and a different style of clothing so that these people would accept me.
You got into their heads a little bit.
Joshua Safdie: Exactly. And you get into their mind spaces. It’s strange. One of our producers calls it method directing, which I think is a corny thing, but I can understand that. I gamble, I love shooting crap more than anything, but I didn’t have much of experience gambling on sports, so I had to start just betting some sports. But ever since I was a kid, I watched Knicks games as if I had money on it.
Benny Safdie: That’s the key. The goal for us was, “How do you show a basketball game and get people to feel what you felt when you literally care about the first quarter?”
Joshua Safdie: You know how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Do you owe money on this game?”
Click ahead to hear them discuss Adam Sandler and their ties to Martin Scorsese…
On their most personal film
Joshua Safdie: I’d say Daddy Long Legs is probably the most personal, but this one’s very close to it. This was the followup to Daddy Long Legs, and I think that the Howard character, and his constant fight to belong … I can’t help but relate to that as a team of filmmakers who’ve been constantly trying to put our own product out there. Like the golden Furby, we’d hear people telling us that it was either worthless, or this, that, or the other. But sticking with it and fighting and saying … it’s like Howard says, “You know what? Maybe you didn’t like that one. You might like it the next time.” You know what I mean? You feel so dedicated to this thing, and you’re going to take any modicum of success and parlay it onto itself so that you can hopefully hit the big one.
And then you couple it with our childhood perspective of not only our father, but also our mother, and then our stepfather, seeing people try to strive and use the things of consumer and material culture to try to overcompensate and try to be like, “Yeah, I belong here.” And, in particular, with our dad, he worked in the Diamond District, and he tries and he tries. The difference between our dad and Howard is that our dad has had many different jobs. So yeah, this is a very personal film and there’s a lot of deep-rooted things in it that are strange little jewels for our own selves that I don’t think anyone else would be like, “Oh that’s tied to this.” There’s a lot of really messed up personal stuff in there for us.
What did your father think of the film?
Benny Safdie: To him, it’s just a movie, because it’s not like Daddy Long Legs, which was a real inspection and criticism of him in a lot of ways and loving of him.
Joshua Safdie: This one he saw and he actually compared it to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That was a movie he showed us very, very early on.
Benny Safdie: He would show us movies where he relates to the main character’s inability to get out of it.
Joshua Safdie: That’s what a lot of people do. A lot of people share movies that they feel what their close ones would be like, “This is me. This is my self. So watch this to understand.” He loved the movie, though. He bought us our Adam Sandler tape really early on. So, to him, it was just a movie. He was so entertained by it that he forgot that his kids were involved in it.
On growing up with Adam Sandler
Joshua Safdie: We started with the records, we heard the records. To me, it all started for us with “Sex or Weight Lifting”. Because you’re kids, you’re just kind of like, “Whoa. What is this? Oh my God, this is crazy.” It’s greater than a porno. It’s kind of like, “Whoa, that’s pretty real sex.” And also it’s just so funny. Even on the set of Good Time, whenever things would get tested, I would say, “I’m hitting the record button now…”
On Daniel Lopatin
Joshua Safdie: Daniel’s amazing. Good Time was a lot easier than this. We knew what it needed to be, we knew its purpose. It was a pulsing drive that would come out. I still love shredding to that score. I know people who get speeding tickets listening to it ’cause you just start fucking driving fast.
Benny Safdie: The narrative pace drove the score.
Joshua Safdie: With this score, in particular, I remember when we finally finished, and he sent me the rough mixes, and I took like a very brief vacation ’cause I thought we were gonna be done with the movie and then we weren’t. But it ended up being just a little bit of a break. I remember listening to the rough mixes and there’s a couple of pieces that are like the Good Time driving pieces, but there’s a lot that’s just kind of euphoric music and beautiful and new agey in a weird way that’s very cool. And making this score was so much harder than Good Time because it was more unknown. And I felt like we were going to new places with Dan. And there’s also flutes, there’s saxophones, there’s percussion. We worked with Eli Kessler, who’s an incredible percussionist. Gatekeeper performed on the soundtrack. Mario Castro. We had a lot of collaborators on this.
Lopatin offers a great juxtaposition in the final scene. Very misleading.
Joshua Safdie: Interestingly, his first sketch for that final cue was very Cheers-inspired. It was very Boston. Like you were all good friends and there’s a Yamaha electric piano called the CP80, which was just a sound that we knew we wanted. And his first improvisations on that were the first sketches for that final piece. And they were a bit maudlin, but the maudlin element to it kind of made it feel like the closing credits on a soap opera or something, which I really liked. So then we took that and we added the cosmic element to it, and cosmic was the key as the ending had to feel cosmic. The movie kind of wraps itself up at the very end, and that was very important to us. That it had this feeling of the spaceship in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
It’s no coincidence that he’s using his name on this movie and not Oneohtrix Point Never. For me, it’s a sign of maturation, but it’s also, a composed piece of music. It’s not the name that some people can’t even pronounce — Oneohtrix Point Never — it’s not like this weird edge lord. Don’t get me wrong, OPN is some of my favorite music.
Yeah, we struggled to pick our favorite album of his this decade. We went with the Replica.
Joshua Safdie: I think Replica was his Trojan horse for a lot of people, too. It was like the one that kind of got into you.
Benny Safdie: The thing that’s hard is his music never really takes back seat. For us, it was always going to be like, “It has to all exist on the same plane.” The music is there, it’s there. If it’s not there, it’s not there. If there’s like a couple scenes where it plays underneath, it’s not just lowered, it’s woven in and out of the hole.
Joshua Safdie: By the way, Eccojams is up there, too. And I actually think Eccojams does relate to this score, too. There’s a Chuck Person element to it. The fact that he didn’t go by Oneohtrix Point Never then, and that it was called Chuck Person, named after the most generic basketball player whose last name is Person. You know what I mean? And that’s another huge thing for Dan. He got asked to score a movie that centers around the Boston Celtics, and he’s a Boston guy, and loves the Celtics.
On that 48 Hours remake
Joshua Safdie: What’s interesting is that Walter Hill, who I met for the first time recently, I heard he was a Good Time fan. And he really responded heavily to Uncut Gems, which was amazing because The Driver is one of the greatest movies. But I said to him, “Let’s get this off the bat right away, so it’s not awkward, we’re not remaking your movie.” And he’s like, “I figured. I watched these two movies. I like these guys. There’s never a shortage of original ideas.” And I said, “Yeah, the thing is that we tried to write it and we just couldn’t do it. There was a general structure of your 48 Hours, but it just was its own thing. It was so original in its idea, we couldn’t do what it was doing. We know there are people who could just rewrite that movie, but we couldn’t do it.” So, I don’t know what it’s going to be. It’ll most likely get turned into something original for me.
On the power of Scorsese
Joshua Safdie: [Scorsese’s involvement] raised the profile immensely at a time when this project needed it.
Benny Safdie: It showed that somebody believed in it in a way that was huge.
Joshua Safdie: I remember meeting him for the first time. He saw Heaven Knows What, him and his producing partner Emma Koskoff, it wasn’t even Good Time, and we heard that he really responded to the movie, that he saw the romance of it. He saw it as a traditional romance film, like a Hollywood melodrama, and so I met him after seeing Silence, which was intense cause we’re obviously very big Scorsese fans.
So I met him and I wanted to talk to him about his movie, which I just saw, which I found very profound about enduring in your beliefs. Actually, the deepest part of Silence is when is when they go into that house, and they start eating, and everyone around them was like, “We’re not going to say grace?” And it shows you that they’re just people that are actually getting caught up and they’re actually forgetting about their faith in the moment. That’s one of the best moments of the movie. But, when he and Emma attached themselves under the film in 2015, that was before we even made Good Time.
That was huge because it invigorated this project that was lingering around now, already four years old, five years old. And it was like, “Oh, we got this approval here and they brought money actually to the table.” That partnership ended up changing when Scott Rudin got involved three years ago, but Emma was very helpful in helping build out the crew and help with some of the union stuff. But Marty, we were told very early on, “He’s going to read your script and then he’ll watch one edit of your movie and he’ll give you thoughts.” But he was so deeply involved in The Irishman by the time we finally made our movie, and when he saw our first cut, he was like, “Don’t change a frame.”
Uncut Gems hits theaters everywhere on December 25th…