There’s a certain rhythm to Uncut Gems and the way it reaches for things — for basketball, for jewels, for wins and losses, for takeout from Smith & Wollensky. It revels in its own excess: every single character is talking at once, trying to buy or sell or cut a deal. It’s the Diamond District in 2012 when our hero, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), is trying to play the part of 47th Street’s slickest salesman. A pack of debt collectors are on his trail, but he compulsively — romantically, maniacally — keeps placing bets. When a middleman walks NBA power forward Kevin Garnett into Howard’s jewelry store, every moment after feels like a miracle and a curse all at once. Will Kevin come back with the black opal Howard loaned him as a token of good luck? If Howard can auction it off, is it worth as much as he says? What’s the Weeknd doing here?
Gems’ directors, the Safdie brothers — Benny, 33, and Josh, 35 — talk like the movies they make: they’ll jump up to act out a story or pull out a cell phone to show a photo, speaking fast and a lot as they try to keep up with their next thought. A question about a set can easily prompt an erratic anecdote about the time they walked in on some guy curing meat in a random building in midtown Manhattan. I believe them when they tell me that they rewrote their movie several times, first basing Howard’s saga around Amar’e Stoudemire, then Kobe Bryant, and then Joel Embiid, before finally landing on Garnett. Each time, the story of an impossibly lucky gem was reimagined to fit the particulars of each NBA star’s career. “All of this is a box we put ourselves into,” Benny says. “We say, ‘Oh we had to do this, we had to do that.’ We didn’t actually have to shoot with a real basketball player and use real games, we chose to.” Throughout the course of a conversation with Vulture, the brothers discuss their alternate Uncut Gems plots, the real-life Diamond District figures they befriended, and, of course, what the name of their movie even means.
Josh Safdie: I was trying to explain the whole “gems uncut, cut my gems” thing to someone. They were like, “I don’t get it.” I was like, “Well, this is my take on it.” You want to know my take on it?
Hunter Harris: Yes.
JS: I want to know your take on it first.
No, no, no. I’m interviewing you, I want to hear what you guys have to say.
JS: Here’s my take on it … Am I non-judgmental? Yes, that means my gems are uncut. Am I on edge? Yes, my gems are uncut. Do I have depth underneath the surface? Yes, my gems are uncut. If my gems are cut, I’m like naked, ready to be seen. I’m potentially dangerous. Uncut is very dangerous, but cut is extra dangerous, because it can have a sharp point. My value is hidden if my gems are uncut, so I have a deeper, bigger value. I might be a little flawed, but I’m worth it. That’s gems uncut.
Ah, I see.
JS: Ultimately I think it’s just a very fun play on words, but also, I think it’s deep. And yes, my gems are uncut.
Benny Safdie: It’s also, like, “Who are you to cut my gems?”
Sort of, “Have you no decency?” Benny, the last time we spoke, you said that you thought of Howard as literally an uncut gem.
BS: The idea is that he’s rough on the outside, but if you scratched below the surface, you see the beauty, and you see these things that you didn’t quite know were there at first glance. You need to understand him to really love and know who he is.
JS: To me, Howard being an uncut gem is like a corollary to the movie being a radical humanist film, which is kind of in a weird way, all of our movies. Our entire life we’ve grown up with very flawed people around us, and we’ve had to see past those flaws, or excuse them, to get at something that makes them relatable, or human, or worthy of value. In the jewelry trade, uncut gems are major gambles. You have to be a genius with your eye to find one [that is actually valuable].
BS: It’s not easy to do. If you look at a flawed person and try to see who and what it is that makes them interesting, you learn more about people in general. If you see a stand-up person, sometimes that can make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. It’s like, “Oh, I’m not that good.” So if you see somebody who has flaws or issues, it reflects back on humanity in a bigger way.
There’s something else that just popped in my head: if you take a diamond, and it’s like a rough —
JS: I hate diamonds.
Josh, why do you hate diamonds?
JS: I mean, look, when you see an IF diamond — an internally flawless diamond — the purity of it is remarkable: “Wow, that actually exists.” It’s beautiful to see a solid take the form of a liquid with a diamond. That is beautiful. But it’s the general PR huckster-ism of the diamond industry. Diamonds aren’t rare. Ultimately, they’re kind of boring … I’ll take an Indian Star sapphire any day over a diamond. I’ll even take like, a cat’s eye. But like opals in general — I mean, a pigeon’s blood ruby, whoa.
Why opals, specifically, for this movie?
JS: Very early on, when we were deciding on which stone should be in the film, it happened to have been right when Ethiopia started to publicize their black opals. It was a big moment in the geological world. The Australians, who are known for their black opals, were actually really pissed about it. They’re like, “Uh-oh, we can’t corner the market anymore,” so they started an anti-Ethiopia PR campaign. And, sadly, the Ethiopian opals didn’t have longevity to them. They started to craze and crack, they were less valuable, which was unfortunate.
JS: White opals are very unlucky, but the black opals are very lucky. And they’re brilliant. You can see the color in them. And they don’t have the superstition against them that white opals have.
BS: Some people are afraid of them.
JS: Not black opals, no.
JS: Well there’s a stigma against opals in general, but people who know gems and energies and things, the black opal is an exceptional gem.
BS: But there is something to this idea that people can be afraid of a gem, afraid of an opal.
JS: White opals are predominantly very unlucky, yes. Particularly the Italians, they fucking hate them. They won’t go near them. But, the black opal was considered the antithesis of the white opal. There’s a specific color pattern to a black opal — it’s called the harlequin pattern, which is like the most valuable color pattern. Anyway, that’s why I prefer a black opal to a diamond.
I want to talk about basketball. Were there other NBA players you reached out to, before Kevin?
JS: It started with Amar’e Stoudemire, who was a Knicks player in 2010. That’s when we started the project. He’s famously a Black Jewish person, so the themes of the movie presented themselves in that way: Ethiopian Jewish tribe. Beta Israelites. Black opals, which were found by a Jewish tribe in the Beta Israelites in Welo mines. Amar’e is a very spiritual person. He calls himself the “spiritual gangster.”
But about 2015–2016, we were having trouble getting financing, finding the right person to star as Howard, and our agency suggested casting up and going with Kobe Bryant. But Kobe — they didn’t understand the themes of the movie. He’s a West Coast person, we needed East Coast games. Because we had to write around the reality of the games.
JS: But then I was like, “You know what? There’s this one game at the Garden that Kobe dropped 60 points. Let’s make that the gem game. And the gem will become a youth elixir, and [the movie will] be about reminding everybody who’s the man.” In that version, Howard’s like trying to reclaim his initial win. And, so then we spent two weeks rewriting the whole script, changing the vibe and the themes of the film.
JS: Around Kobe. And then our agents are like, “No, no, no. He doesn’t want to act anymore. He wants to direct.” And I’d just spent two weeks fucking writing this thing! He’s like, “Yeah, we’re not going to send it to him.” I was like, “What the fuck?!”
So then we ended up with Joel Embiid. Because we were like, “You know what, we’re going to update the movie. It’s going to be a contemporary film. You want to use a contemporary player.” And Joel Embiid presented himself. Before he was even playing in the NBA, he was a legendary Twitter user. He trolled Rihanna. He’s amazing. Hilarious, you know what I mean? And, so I was like, “He could be interesting. He could play into the comedy of the film, because his humor is dry and droll.” We ended up meeting him through his manager, and his manager ends up in the film.
Who is the manager in the movie?
JS: She plays Kevin’s manager, Jenny Sachs. This is the way the cosmos works: she’s studied psychiatry, and worked at a needle exchange. She weirdly saw Heaven Knows What [the Safdies’ 2016 film]. No one in the sports world saw Heaven Knows What, but she did. She was like vouching for us to Joel, and then we became friends with Joel. And I started going to the Sixers games, and working with Joel, and understanding. Then the themes of the movie became even more overt, with an African player. I was just like, “Oh, this is about reclamation, this is about being empowered by reclamation.” Joel was into that, things were moving. Now this is the Joel Embiid movie.
When I was writing the scenes, I would send them to Joel. Joel would read them, but mostly Jenny would be like, “I don’t know if he can do that. I don’t know if this is too much. This scene might be too much to ask of him.” I got a little nervous about that. But in the end, I knew he was such a cocky guy that it would have been fine. And then the schedule pushed into the NBA season, and we couldn’t use an active player. So then we had a list of other players who were recently retired. We went back to Amar’e.
BS: The list wasn’t like this [gestures widely] long.
JS: Amar’e wouldn’t shave his head to match the games that we had to cut in between.
BS: But the thing is … [laughs] all of this is a box we put ourselves into. We say, “Oh we had to do this, we had to do that.” We didn’t actually have to shoot with a real basketball player and use real games, we chose to because—
JS: We did have to.
Because how else do you make this movie?
BS: That’s the point! But everybody’s, “Oh, just cast an actor.”
JS: Someone did try to push that on us.
BS: Really, that is an idea that was put out there. I’m like, “Maybe you don’t understand. Having a real player, and having a player act, and then using those real games on the television creates a good alchemy.”
JS: Once we saw the new list [of available retired players], Kevin Garnett’s name was on it. As a Knicks fan, I was so, like, “We can’t put Kevin Garnett in the movie. I hate him.” But that was when my film intelligence was kind of eclipsed by my insane, schizophrenic, Knicks’ fandom, where I actually couldn’t see past what I normally would have realized, which was that me hating Garnett is actually a testament to his incredible acting ability, and how he plays a great heel in the NBA. He can get people to despise him, based on his performance on a nightly basis of 20,000 people.
BS: And when we were talking to him, just the way that he told stories — I’d never seen anything like it before. He would set you up in the room, show you where people were sitting, who was behind him, the noises that were happening, the way the door closed.
JS: Put it this way, he sweats when he tells a story … You have to remember, he’s a superstar. He went from high school to the pros.
BS: He kind of underplays [his performance in Uncut Gems], like, “Oh, I was just playing myself. I was just playing myself.” That’s a very difficult thing to do, because you have to be comfortable.
JS: He’s playing the self that he created for the NBA.
So tell me more about the Diamond District, and re-creating this world that feels at once very alive but also hermetically sealed. How did you make that happen, particularly when Howard’s actual shop was built on a soundstage, right?
BS: For us, it was actually hard because we like to shoot on location all the time. To do that on a stage was out of necessity. We couldn’t physically shoot in a real jeweler’s place. We wouldn’t have had a lease long enough, and getting up and down in these buildings is insane.
JS: The lease wasn’t the problem.
BS: No, it was mainly just getting in and out of [a jeweler’s shop]. There’s a certain amount of elevators, and there’s so many people going up and down all the time. We wouldn’t have been able to get all the stuff in there to build it out. We had this whole idea that people would be coming into work on the district, they would kind of breathe this energy. So, once we moved into a stage, it’s like: How do we re-create that feeling, that vibe? By bringing a bunch of people there who worked in the district that are in the movie. Sometimes they weren’t even in the scene, but we had them there just to kind of breathe the energy.
JS: To me, the first major compromise of the film was agreeing to shoot the business on a soundstage. And by the business, I mean his showroom, his back room, the hallway, the elevator bays.
BS: But, for [the shoots that did take place on the streets of the Diamond District], we really wanted to capture the district as it was, kind of unfettered from us. Even though we were having a footprint there, we didn’t want to disturb it. We kept it open, which you have to. Legally you’re not allowed to close the street, because it’s business. We embraced that fully. There’s people just walking in and out of the frames, all the time.
JS: In 2012, after the first nostalgic draft was finished, I went and started to involve myself deep in the research in the Diamond District. It’s a very consumers’ materialist world — me not being able to buy anything there was actually like a major inhibitor of getting deep in with anyone.
So how’d you do it?
JS: I had to bring press clippings in, and try to prove that I was a real filmmaker. And, over time, those clippings became a little bit more impressive. Two years into my research, we made a documentary about a basketball player —
This is Lenny Cooke?
JS: Yeah, that reached the Diamond District crowd. They do a lot of business with athletes, and a lot of athletes were talking about the movie. They also stay on WorldStarHipHop, and the trailer blew up on WorldStar. I actually brought Lenny to the diamond district once, because he used to go. He went to Jacob the Jeweler. There was a jewelry shop called Rafael and Co., who were very helpful to us in the beginning, letting us see how the business operates. But there was another guy named Joe Rodeo. I had a friend, and the friend has since passed, but he was a real character. He was from New York. His name was Tuna. He loved going there, and making a big show of buying shit from these guys, like a watch, or what have you. Finally I was in, because I was now with someone who was buying stuff. When I got to go to the back rooms, I took photos. I wasn’t sure that I was ever going to get back to this specific upstairs spot, because it’s pretty private. I took so many pictures the first time I went in there. I probably took like a hundred pictures of the weirdest stuff
BS: How about Joe?
JS: This guy. His name isn’t even Joe! We met him and someone called him that, and they just went with it for a while. They were just like, “Yeah, Joe.” It was so strange. Joe owned a building — 20 West 47th. His son Alon married into a very big family on 47th street, the Nektalov family. There’s a great New York Magazine piece about Nektalov. Nektalov was murdered on Sixth Avenue. It’s a crazy story.
Oh my God.
JS: So the Nektalov family is Leon Diamonds, and they were huge on the block. They were very hard to get in with. Richie Nektalov ended up helping [us]. That’s whose Rolls Royce it is in the movie that Judd Hirsch gets into.
BS: That’s Richie Nektalov’s house, too, and he’s also in the Passover scene.
JS: So, the tentacles were wide, you know? Eventually I got in with Joe and his son Alon. And Joe was very skeptical of us. Like, ‘Who are these guys? Can we make money off of them?’ And I was just trying to earn my place. They showed us this huge penthouse. When I went up there for the first time, there was a guy curing meat, living on an air mattress. I have pictures of it. This guy had a bunch of meat hanging up from the ceiling.
BS: This is on Sixth Avenue and 47th Street, in the middle of Manhattan! It’s unbelievable.
JS: He’s curing meat! I’d told them I knew all these interior designers and architects. So he’s like, “If you can help me turn this into a lounge… ” — he had this big vision for it, with a sauna, and all this stuff — “I’ll help you in exchange.” So I ended up hiring an architect. I brought in this legendary interior designer, who weirdly has also since passed, Jim Walrod.
And then what happened?
JS: I said, “I’ll do this for you Joe, in exchange for a six-month lease on a space in your building.” It was the perfect size, but as Benny was saying, it became very impractical to actually shoot in it.
BS: Once you accept that okay, we’re not going to do it on location, we’ll do it on the stage, you get to design. The design of [Howard’s shop] is just crazy to get into the details. We could design parts of the space to be a certain height, based on Kevin Garnett’s height. So when he goes in, he looks much bigger.
JS: We made the ceilings about half a foot shorter, to make him look taller.
BS: Basically we have this whole space outfitted to look so real, and yet it’s totally fabricated. Every light was on its own color temperature, its own brightness. It was the most complicated lighting setup you could possibly have.
JS: This has nothing to do with 47th Street.
BS: It does. It’s about capturing the vibe. You literally go so far to fake it, to make it look real.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.