uncut gems

The Story Behind the Uncut Gems House, and the 83-Year-Old Widow Who Owns It

To Rose Leviton, the Safdies are just “two young boys” who made a movie in her kitchen. Now that it’s on Netflix, she might even watch it. Photo: A24

In the 1980s, Marvin and Rose Leviton — “no relation to the electrical company” — decided to build their dream house. Both had grown up in Brooklyn: Rose in a working-class walkup in Bedford-Stuyvesant; Marvin in Williamsburg, where he sometimes had to steal groceries to put food on the table. They had met back in the ’50s, when Rose did her friend a favor by showing up to a blind date. Then, she says, “We fell in love right away.” She was 16, he was 17. They were together the rest of his life.

They got married, had kids, and eventually, the kids had kids. Rose was a housewife; Marvin started out as a truck driver, then became a salesman for a paper company. He did so well that he was able to buy the paper company. They were middle-aged, comfortable, and financially secure. It was time to upgrade.

So they moved from a condo in Oceanside, near the south shore of Long Island, to Old Brookville, by the north shore — 30 miles in terms of geography, more than that up the ladder of success. Working with an architect, they built the house they’d live in together until Marvin’s death: a five-bed, four-bath on a leafy, private road. It had a gigantic light-filled living room, a step-up tub, and a beautiful swimming pool that Rose loved. “Where I came from, that was like a mansion,” she says.

Rose's house, in Uncut Gems and real life. From left: Photo: A24Photo: Debbie Regan
Rose's house, in Uncut Gems and real life. From top: Photo: A24Photo: Debbie Regan

Three decades later, the house would enchant another pair of New Yorkers moving up in the world. In the summer of 2018, the Safdie brothers were hunting for locations for Uncut Gems, the follow-up to their critically acclaimed Good Time. The film would revolve around a jeweler named Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) as he attempts to pull off an interlocking series of deals, pawns, and long-shot bets on the 2012 NBA playoffs. The Safdies came up with detailed backstories for each of their characters, and if viewers were going to welcome Howard into their hearts, it was imperative that the movie welcome them into his home, too. The location team’s first instinct was to look for the perfect residence in Jackson Heights, where most Diamond District guys live in real life, but the homes there turned out to be all wrong.

“The houses were too much,” said Samson Jacobson, the movie’s location manager. “They were these knockoff Italian mini-mansions. Just really, really tacky. They wanted to tell you that everything was imported from Italy, which means you knew it was all imported from China.”

This was not the vibe the Safdies had in mind for Howard. “Howard’s world was the Sharper Image catalogue,” Jacobson explained. “Like everything was the absolute best thing you could buy in 1985, but by 2012, it still all looks like 1985.” Howard’s aesthetic was Trapper Keeper binders, postmodern architecture, the kind of house a certain slice of the millennial audience would remember from their childhoods, but which subsequent years of gut renovations have left an endangered species.

“A lot of people look back on architecture and interior design from the ’80s, and they want to erase it as fast as they can,” says Jacobson. He felt the same way before working on Gems, when he was swayed by the Safdies’ passion for the era’s design. “Now, I think it’s actually the last exciting time when we tried to come up with a creative imagination of what the future could be.”

The work of architect Michael Graves was a key touchstone for Howard Ratner's '80s-inspired aesthetic. From left: Photo: KM Newnham/WikipediaPhoto: Steve J. Morgan/Wikipedia
The work of architect Michael Graves was a key touchstone for Howard Ratner's '80s-inspired aesthetic. From top: Photo: KM Newnham/WikipediaPhoto: Ste... The work of architect Michael Graves was a key touchstone for Howard Ratner's '80s-inspired aesthetic. From top: Photo: KM Newnham/WikipediaPhoto: Steve J. Morgan/Wikipedia

Luckily, Rose did not make many changes to her ’80s dream house. “I keep it in great shape,” she said. “I don’t neglect. Everything is taken care of.” After Marvin died in 2005, she kept living there in the summers. (She spends winters in Florida.) She didn’t date. “When you’ve had a wonderful husband, you’re not interested in anything else.”

A few years back, Rose saw an article in the newspaper about a woman named Debbie Regan, who specialized in connecting homeowners with film and photo shoots that needed locations. Rose wasn’t exactly a film buff, but it sounded like a good idea. “When you come from a background like mine or my husband’s, you look to make extra money,” she says. “No matter how much you have, it’s never enough.” So, despite warnings from some family members that a crew might wreck the place, she got in touch.

“She was old-school,” Regan recalled. Rose didn’t just send an email, she also wrote a letter. Regan showed up, took some photos, and added the house to her listings. They had some bites from productions, but for a while, nothing ever came of it. “In this business, you’re the bridesmaid more often than you’re the bride,” Regan says. “And she was the bridesmaid a lot of times.”

Rose’s living room. Photo: Debbie Regan

In Uncut Gems, Howard’s Long Island home acts as a refuge, both from the grit and bustle of the Diamond District, and the coked-up sleaze of the pied-à-terre he shares with his mistress. It’s supposed to represent cozy upper-middle-class domesticity, but still retain that essential Howard Ratner ambiance. With production looming, none of the 70 or so houses that scouts had found were exactly right, so Jacobson turned to Regan, with whom he’d worked in the past. When she showed him Rose’s home, he thought, This is the one.

“Her living room was this big open space with sharp right angles,” Jacobson says. “The shapes are very much Trapper Keeper shapes — spheres, curved rectangles as opposed to hard corners. They reserve the hard corners for triangular angles.” Its color scheme, too, was ’80s postmodernism at its peak: full of bright whites, whimsical coral pinks, and plenty of glass.

Besides its perfectly preserved period design, the house itself turned out to be an uncut gem. In locations as in characters, the Safdies love places that vibrate on their own specific wavelength. “If a house has a particular funky Easter egg inside of it, something that’s just so uniquely this person’s thing, it makes them want it more,” says Jacobson. In Rose’s house, that turned out to be the bathroom, which had marble flooring, and was covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. “Everyone was like, You’ve gotta see this bathroom,” the location manager recalls. “You find those Easter eggs, and that seals the deal.”

For location scouts, Rose’s bathroom was the pièce de résistance. Photo: Debbie Regan

When it came time to film, production offered to put Rose up in a hotel, but she preferred to stay home and see what it was like to have a movie shoot in her house. She found the crew very accommodating. They fixed some water problems she was having, and left it spotless after they were done. She even got to meet the cast. “Adam Sandler, the way he’s in movies, he’s the same way in public,” she says. “He would sing, tell jokes. Very entertaining. Down to earth. He has a mother the same age as me in Florida.”

And the Safdies? “The two young boys, they’re so sweet. They’re both very nice, too. I got their backgrounds: One has a child, and the other one doesn’t. The people that work for them tell me they’re very good directors.”

The crew was charmed in return. “Rose couldn’t have been sweeter, and it couldn’t have been easier to deal with her,” Jacobson says. Sometimes she was even a little too helpful. Often during filming, Rose would see a cut-up lemon on the kitchen counter. As she’d done for decades, when she saw a mess, she cleaned it up, almost without thinking. Finally, a crew member intervened.

“They talked to me: ‘Are you throwing the lemon in the garbage?’ I said yes. They said, ‘Please, don’t do that. We’re using it for the movie.’”

Rose still hasn’t seen Uncut Gems yet, though her grandkids have, and were jazzed to see their grandma’s house show up. She says she’ll probably check it out once it hits Netflix. If so, she’ll find a dark portrait of the American Dream, but Rose herself remains a believer — just look at the house. She and Marvin came from nothing, but with hard work and a little bit of luck, they were able to build a life for themselves there. “In other words,” she says, “you can make it in America.”

The 83-Year-Old Widow Whose House Wound Up in Uncut Gems