Benny Safdie: Right. We had just finished Daddy Longlegs, which was exploring our childhood and father and divorce, and we were still interested in mining that part of our lives. Gems was born out of the stories that our father told us about working in the Diamond District when we were little. There was a very nostalgic element to it.We thought, "OK, let's write this thing and get out and do it"—wide eyed, thinking we're going to get all this money to make the movie—but it didn't happen. We weren't ready to do that. It wasn't ready. But the journey itself was interesting. I think it only could end up where we are now because we learned things on the way.Josh Safdie: I like to think of it like a road trip. Your goal is to get to the badlands, but along the way, those people you put in the car, the hotels, the people who stay up and drive overnight, everything else becomes more memorable than the destination. But the great thing here was that the meta destination ended up being greater than every pit stop that we had on the way—because we had these experiences and educational detours.What sort of detours influenced the final film, then?
BS: There's a basketball element to Uncut Gems. So when that movie doesn't happen, of course you want to start understanding basketball. So we make Lenny Cooke.
So you sat on it and waited.
If any of these movies failed, Gems would've never happened.
The basketball documentary got us to understand LeBron James in a very human level, which actually informed the writing of the basketball player in [Uncut Gems]. We spent three years working on that. And then I'm in the Diamond District, trying to get a worm's eye view and write the contemporary version of the movie, getting rid of all the nostalgic junk from our previous draft.In that process, I meet a young woman, thinking she'd be good for Gems. Turns out she's not really from the Diamond District. She's actually street kid with a dope problem—we became friends, and then that grew and consumed me and we followed that.And then that became Heaven Knows What.
The toxic romance between the Elliot character and the Harley character in that movie was a huge part of an earlier draft of Gems. But we got that out of our system with Heaven Knows What. We were able to curtail it a bit and focus more on Howard and his family.
Good Time was unbelievably educational on many, many levels. It was the first time we worked with the script supervisor. It was the first time we worked with an assistant director!The whole idea was just trying to build the resume so that we can make this movie, get to Adam Sandler, get the budget. Because from very early on, we knew that Uncut Gems was not a cheap movie. We knew that it was an expensive world. It was a materialistic world. We knew that the materialism in that movie had to be real.BS: On top of that, if any of these movies failed, Gems would've never happened. If one didn't succeed enough, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to make the next one. And then we put everything into that next one.How many versions of Gems have there been over the years?
JS: I found 160 drafts on my computer. They were all full drafts. Some of those drafts have maybe 20 pages are changed—but they're 20 important pages.BS: And every time you go out to an actor who you really want to impress, you change it to fit them. Like, "Oh, this is meant for you." Which is crazy. But that's the work that went into it.
JS: That version of the movie never really materialized. We couldn't figure out a way to age him down.
What about Kevin Garnett? When did he get attached?
I found 160 drafts on my computer. They were all full drafts. Some of those drafts have maybe 20 pages are changed—but they're 20 important pages.
Pretty much before production. It was originally Amare Stoudemire, because we started in 2010. He's Jewish, so the themes of the movie kind of centered around him and his Jewish connection to this Ethiopian Jewish tribe. Then, around 2015, our agency told us that Kobe Bryant might want to act in a movie. So we spent weeks trying to figure out who Bryant's character was and how it was going to relate to Howard. Finally, we got it ready, and they're like "Oh, actually Kobe doesn't want to act at all, we're not going to send it to him."Then, it was Joel Embiid on the 76ers—until three months before production. But when production slipped into the season, we couldn't shoot with an active player. So we went to a very limited list of recently retired players who look like themselves in the games that we would need. We landed on Kevin and rewrote the script for him.He absolutely kills it.
BS: Now, you can't imagine it without it being Kevin Garnett! It's so perfect.JS: I'm telling you, it's like that road trip. Everything happened for a reason. It's like when you play a video game and on level four you get this weird flower and you just put it in your briefcase. Then you get to level 10, it's like, "Use the flower!"