When I sit down with brothers Benny and Josh Safdie on a chilly Manhattan morning, Josh is noticeably animated. One suspects this is usually the case for both Safdie Brothers, who in the last 10 years have gone from directing tiny Sundance dramas such as Daddy Longlegs to Uncut Gems, a taut crime thriller starring Adam Sandler and Kevin Garnett. It’s even the latter film we’re there to discuss. But in this specific moment, Josh needs to share what custom jewelry dealer Izzy Aranbayev has just sent him.
On Josh’s phone, there is a video of Aranbayev showing off his latest masterpiece: a series of wall-mounted and jewel-encrusted decorations that spell out, again and in shimmering letters, “UNCUT GEMS.” It’s dazzling. It’s also an example of what Josh calls “outsider art.” As one of the entrepreneurial leaders of New York’s fabled Diamond District, Aranbayev is described by the Safdies as a pioneer of bling culture, and a helpful resource on Uncut Gems where Sandler plays a fast-talking diamond dealer who is constantly in over his head. And the parallels between the film and the real world of insider diamond dealing runs the gamut from the intentional—Aranbayev’s son Jonathan Aranbayev plays Sandler’s son in the movie—to the surreal.
“Just recently there was a crazy robbery in their shop,” Benny says, revealing it happened right before Uncut Gems’ Telluride Film Festival premiere. “They stole millions of dollars of jewelry at gunpoint, and it’s just like, that still happens. It’s this place where people think, ‘Oh, I could just do that.’ It’s unreal to me that that’s possible, as there’s so many cameras everywhere, but there’s still this mindset of ‘I can go and accomplish that.’”
That Diamond District mindset is something the Safdies have chased all their lives. Indeed, the basic story elements of Uncut Gems have been percolating ever since they completed Daddy Longlegs and wrote the first draft of Uncut Gems in 2009. And while the story was carved and sculpted since then, especially after co-screenwriter Ronald Bronstein came aboard, they knew from the outset they wanted to make a crucible about a Diamond District gambler named Howard and a seemingly mystical opal he loses to an NBA player (an eerily good Garnett in the finished film). That’s because they’d been living with the idea of Howard, and the seedy world they imagined he’d inhabit, their whole lives.
After all, their father once worked in the Diamond District.
“The pulpy vision that we he had [of this world] lived in the nostalgic, amazing pulp stories that our dad told,” Josh says. And none of the stories were more colorful than the ones involving his boss, a dealer named Howard. While they have only vague memories of meeting a real-life Howard once—when he got their father the cheapest Subaru on the lot for business travel—it was in the retelling of stories that a noirish folklore came to exist.
“Howard from back then, in my head, is almost like a myth, a fake [person],” Benny explains. “He’s built by these secondhand memories from our father telling us who he was. So you have this idea of who he is and where he came from, and then from there you build on that. It was the seed of the idea.”
Both brothers are quick to point out that Sandler’s Howard Ratner is a fictional character and not directly based on anyone, but it was that kind of primal energy exuded by the real Howard and the real Diamond District that carried over into Sandler’s career-defining performances. Or as Josh puts it, “The attitude towards life, which was basically, ‘Fuck it before it fucks you,’ you know what I mean?”
That attitude might’ve been there from the beginning, but the movie it was channeled into was a long time coming. While the Safdie Brothers always had Sandler in mind as their unique Howard—a hard and fast-living dealer who even gambles with his family’s lives—it took years to come to fruition. In fact, the Safdies sent one of their earlier drafts to Sandler’s team in 2011 and only cryptically heard back that “he passed.” This would be news to Sandler years later when he approached the Safdies after seeing their 2017 thriller, Good Time.
“I was embarrassed to tell him that, because you don’t want to embarrass somebody,” Josh says. “We’ve gotten to know actors of certain ilks over the years, especially someone like Adam who’s so down-to- earth. He doesn’t want to hear that there’s this moat of people around him that are preventing things from getting to him, even though he knows that’s the reality.”
Josh eventually broached the subject a month after they started working together and Sandler admitted it never got to him. With that said, the brothers consider it fortuitous as it gave them more time to hone their craft as young directors, and earn their stripes in the industry.
“Weirdly the way I’m starting to see the movie industry works is you have these calling cards,” says Josh. “It’s like a resume, but it’s a public resume. So okay, you made this movie, and we thought after making this small film, Daddy Long Legs, which we were so proud of… we thought we were going to parlay this modicum of success and go and get this? It was cocky of us in a really stupid way to think we even had the right to talk to someone like Adam Sandler.”
And yet when Sandler came aboard in 2017, it was kismet. There are few actors as naturally ingratiating to audiences—and good at playing likeable goofs who refuse to grow up. Casting most actors as a character who’s ostensibly a monstrous narcissist, complete with a midlife crisis as he leaves his loving family to pursue a relationship with his much younger assistant Julia (Julia Fox), could be risky. But Sandler’s natural charm make Howard endearing, even when he’s irritating. Sandler’s own personal experience as a father also helped give greater depth to Howard’s ocean-sized flaws.
“I think that one of the biggest things he brought was the idea that Howard is kind of moving away from one life and that is his family,” Benny says. “He wanted him to be aware of how his kids fit into what’s going on with his life. He needs to feel for them and really kind of want to make sure they’re okay. He needs to care about them in a much, much deeper way, just because he thought that was important.”
Josh adds that more than caring; it’s Howard letting his children know they’re important. “It’s just the recognition that I’m doing something that people are going to say is wrong.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t do it, of course. While Sandler’s input definitely adds resonance and a greater emphasis to the family, such as when his estranged wife (Idina Menzel) calls him the most annoying man in the world, it also highlights the implicit tragedy of a guy who spends the rest of the movie often overcompensating in his hustle. He can apologize to his daughter for leaving her school play early, but she still saw him fleeing at curtain call with two leg-breakers nipping at his heels.
“He risks everything because he’s like, ‘I’ll just win it again next time,’” Benny considers. Josh, meanwhile, sees it all rooted in Howard’s love of the game—big reward and big loss.
Says Josh, “When I watch a basketball game and a team has the final shot, right? There’s 13 seconds left on the clock, and they’re down by two. That’s a much different feeling than if it’s a tied game and they’re playing with house money. Basically they’re going to take the final shot to win it, [but] if they miss the shot, they don’t lose, they just go into overtime. But if they’re down by two… I enjoy watching that final play. I want to see, I want to know, with your shot, you’re either going to win or you’re going to lose. And like lose.”
Audiences will be able to find out whether Howard wins or loses when Uncut Gems opens on Friday, Dec. 13, but it seems the Safdies are already ahead.