Entertainment

It Took the Safdie Brothers 10 Years to Finally Make 'Uncut Gems'

"If any of these movies failed, 'Gems' would've never happened."

by River Donaghey
Dec 9 2019, 5:38pm

Photo of Josh and Benny Safdie by Wally McGrady courtesy of A24.

There was a particularly bad rumor going around New York during the release of Good Time—the Safdie Brothers' brilliant, frenetic 2017 New York crime thriller starring Robert Pattinson—about how it was the duo's feature debut. You could hear people pass around the rumor in movie theaters after screenings or in gushing reviews from friends. It was always connected to some line about how incredible it was that the writer-director brothers seemed to appear so fully formed out of nowhere, with a movie that so perfectly encapsulates a certain feeling of New York City. It was, of course, completely wrong.

By the time they got around to making Good Time, the Safdies had spent almost ten years making films. There's 2010's Daddy Longlegs, their devastating heroin film Heaven Knows What from 2014, and they even shot a basketball documentary, Lenny Cooke, in there at some point, too. The brothers spent nearly a decade cranking out films before they ever made it to Good Time. And through it all, they were sitting on one idea that was always just out of their reach—a thriller set in Manhattan's Diamond District called Uncut Gems.

The movie was inspired by their father's stories of working in the Diamond District, but it was too big, too ambitious, for a filmmaking team who made Daddy Longlegs with a crew of four or five people working for free. So they stuck the long-gestating project away and kept picking at it, year after year, until, thanks to the success of Good Time, they had the means get it made. Now, finally, Uncut Gems is headed to theaters this week—and it was worth the wait. The film stars Adam Sandler as a jeweler who, thanks to a spiraling gambling addiction and a smuggled opal that's caught the eye of NBA star Kevin Garnett, has landed himself in the center of a unraveling scheme that could either make him or break him forever. It's an Oscar-worthy performance from Sandler but, somehow, Kevin Garnett manages to steal just about every scene he's in.

Gems is an obvious successor to Good Time. It is just as frantic, just as tightly scripted, just as New York. But where Good Time barely stops to let you catch your breath for its entire runtime, Gems is a more precise, expertly paced thriller. It's a huge leap forward for the filmmakers. So in honor of the release of Uncut Gems on December 13, VICE caught up with the Safdie Brothers to chat about the new movie, casting Kevin Garnett, and how their long journey to make Gems was, uh, exactly like one level in Mega Man.

VICE: You guys have been working on the idea for Uncut Gems since at least 2010, right?
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.

JS: Uncut Gems was a kind of pulpy, genre-oriented movie, but we had no experience in genre. We were coming from making these movies that were staunchly realistic. We were using people who've never been on a camera before. I was in a head space where, if there was no tape hiss on music, I didn't want to listen to it. I felt like the production removed an element of honesty from it. And it was just naive of me, but it was where my head was at. So we had no business making a pulp genre film then.

If any of these movies failed, Gems would've never happened.

So you sat on it and waited.
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.

Well, then Robert Pattinson sees Heaven Knows What, and he's like, "I want to do something with you. What are you doing next?" He wasn't right for the diamond district movie, though. But we meet up with him and get this strange, cage-y vibe from him, like he's on the run. So we said, "You know what? Let's learn genre. Let's learn pace."

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Photo courtesy of A24.

And so you did Good Time just to learn how to make Gems?
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.

Jonah Hill was supposed to star in it at one point. It would've been a very different movie with him instead of Sandler.
JS: That version of the movie never really materialized. We couldn't figure out a way to age him down.

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.

What about Kevin Garnett? When did he get attached?
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!"

BS: It's like in Mega Man, when you get the bubble!

JS: The bubble's the worst. It doesn't do anything.

BS: Except for the boss, Dr. Wily. It kills him within two shots!

JS: It all happens for a reason.

Uncut Gems opens in theaters on December 13. Until then, give the trailer a watch above.

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