Anything Is Possible: Josh and Benny Safdie on Uncut Gems

By Adam Nayman

When discussing all-time NBA greats, the knock on Kevin Garnett was always that he couldn’t carry a squad to a championship. For all his unprecedented versatility—the shooting and ball-handling of a guard in the elongated body of a power forward—KG was defined by his need for better teammates. A high-school hoops prodigy who was drafted to the basketball wasteland of Minnesota—the league’s pre-Toronto equivalent of Siberia, in terms of reputation and weather  both—Garnett dragged the Timberwolves to respectability but not glory, falling short of the accomplishments of rivals like Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace. When The Big Ticket won his first (and only) NBA title with the Boston Celtics in the spring of 2009 (his 14th season), it was as a member of a so-called “Big Three” alongside Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, whose respective specialties of shooting from distance and slashing to the basket complemented Garnett’s trademark intensity. By triumphing in the NBA Finals, Garnett removed a giant asterisk on his résumé: the dreaded “Hall of Famer without a ring” designation. What remained was the considerably smaller caveat that he hadn’t done it on his own. But there was a certain poetry in that equation as well, with a star renowned for his individual brilliance being subsumed, fully and beautifully, into a larger constellation. 

Garnett’s willingness to be a supporting player informs his extended and hilarious turn as himself in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, even as its plot hinges on his dominance. Of all the ways to characterize the Safdies’ follow-up to Good Time (2016), it may be truest to call it the most NBA-centric movie since Space Jam (1996), which it resembles insofar as it’s about a high-stakes bet on a basketball game. More specifically, the film has been written (by the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein) around the action of a 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals game between Garnett’s Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, the broadcast footage of which is heavily interspersed (via superlative editing by Bronstein and Benny Safdie) throughout the entirety of the third act, by which point cash-strapped jeweller Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has wagered all the money he has—and owes around town to multiple parties willing and able to extract the proverbial pound of flesh—on Garnett’s statistical performance. Watching the game from inside a locked room in his shop in the Diamond District, separated from his creditors and their goons by bulletproof glass that only temporarily insulates him from the consequences of his actions (and, pointedly, gives him no place to hide), Howard is something more than a fan, or even a gambler: he’s a hostage to the exertions of a world-class athlete. And in this context, Garnett—who, in the film’s circa-2012 reality, is in possession of a precious Ethiopian opal lent to him by Howard as a motivational tool—is something more than a basketball player: he is, unconsciously, an extension of Howard’s aspirations, and the potential instrument of his fate.

Of all the debts that Uncut Gems owes to other New York City thrillers, the most obvious is to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992),which similarly integrated (radio) snippets of World Series games into its narrative—a Greek chorus testifying to the devastatingly bad luck of Harvey Keitel’s rogue cop. Like Ferrara, whose mantle of raggedy virtuosity they seem set to assume, the Safdies are fascinated by characters who generate their own outrageous fortune, and their collaboration with Sandler has yielded a worthy addition to their menagerie of world-class fuck-ups. But there’s also a significant difference in terms of how they work with their lead actor this time out. Arielle Holmes, the star of Heaven Knows What (2014), was a non-professional and an unknown, while in Good Time, Robert Pattinson managed (somehow) to fully disappear into a part that kept him onscreen in nearly every shot. (While we’re all making lists, his performance deserves consideration as the self-effacing star turn of the decade.) By contrast, Sandler can never disappear, ever—his Sandlerness precedes him, even when playing seriocomic parts in films like Spanglish (2004) and Funny People (2009) (where, of course, he was playing himself). It’s not even like the tacky Long Island Jewish drag and donkey laughter he adopts in Uncut Gems are much of a disguise: on the behavioural scale, he’s only a couple of notches removed from Little Nicky.

When Howard invites Garnett to his store to kick off his convoluted plan, the context of Sandler’s real-world fame as an NBA superfan (and constant courtside presence at Madison Square Garden) is inescapable, and the Safdies lean into it. No less than Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), they’ve styled Uncut Gems as a kind of meta-Sandler movie, concerning as it does an unrepentant, irrepressible man-child casually wreaking havoc on everything and everyone in his immediate vicinity. In lieu of PTA’s Tatiesque stylization, they’ve cultivated their signature chaotic hypernaturalism as a combination backdrop and launching pad for Sandler’s performance. (Whether or not A24’s online “Oscar for the Sandman” campaign yields a better result than their lobbying two years ago for Ethan Hawke in First Reformed [2017] is an open question.) 

Howard’s fixation on Garnett gets at something uncomfortable and fascinating in the Safdies’ work with regard to race—another connection to Ferrara, especially his King of New York (1990), in which the protagonist’s desire to be down with the black characters directly expressed something of his director’s own crossover fantasies. Uncut Gems begins with a prologue, seemingly directly styled on the Iraq-set cold open of The Exorcist (1973), describing the excavation of the opal from an Ethiopian diamond mine. In the process of its removal, we see a (black) miner grievously wounded; he suffers so that the jewel will make its way to Howard. This sequence’s implicit industrial-capitalist critique is complicated (if not compromised) by its unmistakably self-conscious budgetary flex: i.e., how did the kids who made something as winningly threadbare as Daddy Longlegs (2007) ever get to shoot something like this? As in Good Time,with its insidious motif of a white scumbag evading punishment by placing black characters in the line of fire, the question of what the Safdies are up to with such loaded imagery—and also by having Garnett become literally mesmerized by the opal and its in-built access to some ancient, collective diasporic consciousness—remains open, and troubling. Howard’s incongruously blinged-out appearance is more than than a sight gag: it’s an embodiment of appropriative posturing that’s no less obnoxious for being so embedded in popular culture (and NBA fandom), and which this very smart film is no less cognizant of for never quite addressing directly.

At this point, the Safdies are young masters of their own aesthetic, which was in formation at the time of Daddy Longlegs but felt more fully realized in Heaven Knows What:a roving, probing, pulsating audiovisual weave that doesn’t so much privilege pace over clarity as locate one in the other. Their movies can be exhausting, enervating, and even annoying (and Sandler, to his credit, achieves genuine annoyance in many passages here), but they’re never confusing, and the lucidity of their storytelling—which never wavers even when their characters have no earthly idea what they’re doing—has become one of contemporary American cinema’s true and distinctive marvels. Uncut Gems is the most complexly plotted movie they’ve made to date, but that complexity has more to do with Howard’s own self-sabotaging contradictions than external factors: supporting characters keep piling up—a wife (Idina Menzel), some kids, a mistress (Julia Fox), his brother-in-law crime boss (Eric Bogosian, capping a welcome renaissance started with Succession), The Weeknd, assorted henchmen—but only as a result of his own machinations. More than Good Time,with its cipher-like protagonist, Uncut Gems is a character study, and what it’s studying is the pure, unadulterated compulsion of a man who doesn’t see the value in anything—objects, money, people—if he can’t risk losing them. It’s not so much that Howard is dissatisfied with a life filled with love (a condition that, like Ferrara, the Safdies can depict without sentimentality) as that he needs, unconsciously and uncontrollably, to remind himself of how happy he is by inviting catastrophic loss at every turn. 

For those who can’t identify with these feelings, Uncut Gems may be an alienating experience. And yet, for all its fanatical specificity—represented most vividly by that crucial, repurposed NBA game footage and the shifting digits of its accompanying box score—the film is grasping more clearly than its predecessors at something universal. It’s a kind of ambition that can be viewed cynically by noting the film’s holiday-season rollout as Star Wars counterprogramming, but it’s also encoded on a molecular level by the Safdies in the film’s grace note: an unexpected, Kubrick-aping FX shot that brings the proceedings to a close by suggesting that, for all his rough-hewn singularity, Howard is made of the same stuff as the rest of us, and also that whatever games we’ve chosen to play all lead, fairly or not, towards the same outcome. Anything is possible, until it isn’t. 

Cinema Scope: Hi from Toronto, home of the NBA Champion Toronto Raptors.

Benny Safdie: How is that championship feeling?

Scope: Short-lived. Anyway, the first question I have for you guys is, what is the over/under on the Knicks this year? How many games are they going to win? 

Josh Safdie: I think 30. We need maybe 34 wins to be attractive to free agents, but the pool isn’t that great this summer. We’d need players to be divas and demand trades to get them to come here. Did you see that the Timberwolves players saw Uncut Gems the other day? Karl-Anthony Towns tweeted about it.

Scope: Yes, the question of which NBA players are going to tweet about Uncut Gems is, I think, a big subplot of the holiday season. 

Josh Safdie: Honestly, I told Benny this morning that I’m going to use all of the creative clout and power that this film could potentially yield in the NBA and use it as a recruiting tactic for the Knicks. I did it with Joel Embiid non-stop when he was potentially going to be the NBA player in the movie. I said, “Joel, we’re happy to put you in the film, but you have to commit to a future with the Knicks.” He texted me before the draft lottery to tell me that the Knicks wouldn’t get the top pick, and that we’d be stuck with number three, which is what happened, and I hated that. Anyway, if you know WorldWide Wob [NBA Twitter personality Rob Perez), he came to see our movie at the New York Film Festival, and he said that what was interesting about it is how it will canonize Kevin Garnett for a new generation of NBA fans. They all know him as an OG, but they don’t know him as The Guy in the NBA, or as the first of that new generation of high-school to pro players. And you know, his eccentricities are very real, but if you didn’t watch him play you wouldn’t know that. For kids, he’s the old weird dude. So this film is a perfect vehicle for the legacy of Kevin Garnett. 

Scope: You mentioned Joel Embiid just now; how many times did the identity of the player change over the course of the project?

Josh Safdie: One of the more meticulous parts of this decade-long journey was casting the character of the player, and tailoring the script to that player and his own personality, and writing it for him. It started with Amar’e Stoudemire when he was on the Knicks in 2010 and that run he had, where he had these stretches where he was just, like, possessed, which was important to the story. But the thing that was tough was every time we would go out to a different player, the agents would read the script and say, “Just do a find-and-replace in the script,” and put the new name in for the old one. And I’m not faulting these people, because they’re not writers, and they don’t know what goes into writing a role. We’re sports fans. That’s what Lenny Cooke (2013) was about: getting to know an athlete. You have to understand the nuances of each guy. What’s his relationship to money? What’s his relationship to capitalism? What’s his relationship to superstition? So each time there was another player potentially involved in the project, it affected the plot of the movie. With Amar’e, the role was heavier on the black-Jewish connection. With Kobe Bryant—who was interested—it was about the idea of greatness. 

Benny Safdie: And with Kobe, it was close to the end of his career, and so that became a big part of what we would have written. And then, once you change the player, you have to think about what that player is good at in terms of how it affects Howard’s betting. With Garnett, rebounds are just as important as points. The passion that he has for that changes the bet that Howard makes.

Josh Safdie: You’re doing this for Cinema Scope, so while we could talk about basketball for a long time, maybe we should talk about something else, which is that the thing that came in most handy on Uncut Gems was Benny and my shared obsession with—and study of—the reaction to direct cinema, the films reacting to Wiseman and the Maysles and Pennebaker. Like, we just rewatched Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) in honour of Robert Forster. In that era, you had directors saying in response to the direct-cinema guys, “Oh, you can do realism? Well, then we can create reality and make it feel more real than you ever could.” You’ve created a language, and then that language can be used against itself. Like David Holzman’s Diary (1967), or all of Iranian cinema. Or Bicycle Thieves (1949),which uses the footage of the crowd leaving the arena to heighten the plot and the emotions of the story. So Uncut Gems was the nexus of our obsessions, starting with basketball, which is a sport that’s very manic and very up and down, but fusing it with the concept of realism, using the language of documentary to sidle up to the plot and not just support it, but almost affect it. That’s why when the fair-use lawyers told us that we couldn’t change the outcome or chronology of the game, we loved those restrictions. We felt beholden [to] reality, which was helpful. We could write dialogue based on what actually happened in that game. 

Benny Safdie: That whole idea Josh was talking about also goes into the way the movie mixes big-time actors with unknown actors. I love the scene where Howard goes to pawn Kevin Garnett’s ring, and he’s acting opposite these two brothers we know who are real jewellers, and just seeing him interact with these real people, it folds into a new reality. It’s in no way, shape, or form real, but it’s very real. 

Scope: Of course, Adam Sandler can’t disappear. It’s a very studious, technique-heavy performance, but some actors simply are always themselves, to a degree. He’s one of them.

Benny Safdie: That was every exciting to us. With Howard, we knew that Sandler’s best qualities as an actor would take that character to another level, and make it so that you were rooting for him in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise. Sandler has this ability to take the most crazy, insane, absurd things and make you feel like it’s happening to a person on the screen. We loved that, and we leaned into it. We would create and play these moments with that exact thing in mind.

Josh Safdie: I love what you’re saying. Firstly, Punch-Drunk Love is vanguard forever. PTA saw the thing we’re talking about. We grew up with Sandler’s records and his movies, they were part of the fabric of our lives, and they became integrated into the lexicon of American culture. Like Benny said, Sandler as an artist is a sheer absurdist. He doesn’t sit around thinking about ways to turn absurdity into comedy: it’s actually how he sees the world. It’s how he expresses himself. It’s sincere. People can slag him for certain projects, but you can’t take away how he grounds these absurd scenarios in some sort of weird fear. That’s his Sandler universe. What made him so perfect for Howard, and why we wanted him from the beginning, was that even if he’s not likable, he’s lovable. He’s constantly making people laugh, making weird little jokes. He’s a Rodney Dangerfield in that regard, and Rodney was the reason we have Adam Sandler: he watched Rodney as a little kid. Al Goldstein and Rodney Dangerfield were the two people we discussed going into the movie. What we wanted to do with Sandler is similar to what PTA did, and when we met Paul for the first time, I told him that the genius of Punch-Drunk Love is that it was a Happy Madison movie but in the PTA universe. Sandler is like Jerry Lewis: he’s capable of doing anything. The difference with Uncut Gems maybe is that it’s about how the actor has been embedded in reality for like two decades. The thing about Howard from the very beginning is that he’s a kind of local celebrity in his world. We were adamant about that from the beginning. 

Benny Safdie: There are some things we tried to do stylistically to embed that stuff in the real world. Like, we wouldn’t close down streets. So people were walking through the set, through the background. It felt open, like everything was just being kind of captured. This is the biggest movie we’ve made, with a lot of infrastructure behind it, but the openness is still there. 

One last note on the Sandlerness of it all. A few years ago, somebody wrote something about the anti-capitalist nature of Sandler’s filmography. It’s there from the beginning, in Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996),the Capra remake he did [Mr. Deeds, 2002]…money is only ever a means to an end in those films, like a way to get to the Elysian Fields, but that’s it. It’s a means, not an end. Those are interests, and I think it’s why he’s such an approachable megastar. He’s not a snobby asshole, he’s a real dude. He doesn’t subscribe to the trappings of crazy capitalism, and so then when you put him into a world that’s just riding on the fumes of capitalism—he’s a jeweller, selling items that help you transcend your class—this weird thing happens. Things start meshing together, and it’s all very dense. 

Scope: One thing I thought about during Uncut Gems was this theme of compulsion, of characters who don’t just want to do things, but need to do them. That seems to be a throughline in your work so far, especially the last three movies: Heaven Knows What and Good Time and this one.

Josh Safdie: You’re mentioning movies that were birthed out of the trajectory of Uncut Gems. We met the actress from Heaven Knows What in the Diamond Districtwhile we were scouting locations for this movie; Robert Pattinson saw a still from Heaven Knows What and said he wanted to work with us. We thought Good Time was a chance to explore pace and genre filmmaking. So those films are all inside a certain arena, the same arena of Uncut Gems. But what’s interesting about impulsiveness and compulsiveness is the gambling element. What people don’t like to talk about with gambling is the intoxicating optimism: it’s always going to be OK; the next second is where it’s going to turn. That optimism is absurd and unrealistic, but there’s something incredible in it; it’s about living presently. Heaven Knows What is about addiction, but it’s also a dark romance, and the attraction to dark romance, which is where the Venn diagram overlaps with Uncut Gems.

Benny Safdie: Something we really wanted to include was where Howard talks about the beauty of betting. We wanted the last part of the movie to feel like what it is to truly care about a sport. You can’t help but be invested a hundred percent. That’s what Howard means. By putting money on something, you’re feeling something. It’s so intense. It’s something you normally wouldn’t care about. That game at the end, why does he care? He’s a Knicks fan, and the Knicks aren’t playing. The betting heightens it. And that’s where we get that pace in the editing. Starting with Heaven Knows What, we wanted pace, because with pace, there’s no way to be bored—and there’s no chance to stop and think.

Josh Safdie: The compulsion in the three films is there, but you can’t ignore also the meta-journey of making Uncut Gems. The scene where Howard comes in in that suit—and subconsciously, with that suit, we were obviously thinking about [Punch-Drunk Love’s] Barry Egan—after all he’s gone through to get that opal, he’s in a place that looks down on him: this genteel, WASP-y place, this auction house. He’s a man showing up with his wares. He walks up to the counter with them. Any filmmaker can relate to this. In this case, we spent ten years constantly putting ourselves out there to prove our worth, to prove that this subject is important and someone else will find meaning in it. You work and work and work. And then you go to a film festival, you show up, and there’s a program book and you’re in it, but you’re just one page. There are a hundred other pages, and your story, which means so much to you, is nothing to somebody else. 

There’s a line in the movie that’s so deep for all of us, even if nobody else picks up on it. This very tan actor, Wayne Diamond, his character shows up at the sports book, and Julie is freaking out because Garnett missed the shot at halftime, and he says, “So what, he missed the shot, who cares?” The entire movie rests on that—on those shots, on those plays—but he’s also right. Like, who cares? Who gives a shit that a leather-bound ball missed the hoop by a fraction of an inch? But in life, something like that can mean the world to somebody. So that compulsive aspect of the filmmaking makes it personal. Stallone wrote Rocky (1976) as a personal story about a struggling actor, and people said you can’t do that, so he spun it into a boxing movie. And then it had a new form and tapped into something. That’s what this was for us. On a personal level, the movie is about us seeing the beauty in characters, and the nuances of a personality. You can see an uncut gem and see it’s rough and raw and ugly, but on the inside it’s beautiful.

Benny Safdie: That’s why I actually see a connection to Daddy Longlegs. There you have a guy creating waves of emotion and energy, and they’re not good, but the fact he’s making that effort for everybody around him—there’s something inspiring about it. It’s about seeing the beauty in somebody that people would otherwise write off. 

Scope: Another thing I was thinking about is gentrification—not in terms of the onscreen neighbourhoods, but maybe your own filmmaking? You’ve gotten to a point where you’re working with a giant movie star for an Oscar-winning distributor, which is a kind of upward mobility, and very much tied to how the film can be packaged commercially. 

Josh Safdie: I hear you. But you know we weren’t allowed to make this movie until last year, because, for many reasons, we didn’t earn it. We might never get another shot to do a movie like this either. We swung for the fences. We had an opportunity, after some moderate success, to do horror movies where the scripts were already written, and basically to be directors-for-hire. We could have “sold out.” We didn’t. We kept figuring out a way to keep things going. Uncut Gems is the culmination of that.

Benny Safdie: When we made Daddy Longlegs,everybody asked us what we would do if we had more money. We said we would make a bigger paper tornado. In that movie, we had like 300 pieces of paper and a leaf blower, and that was a big scene for us. In our heads, we wanted the tornado to be like 20 feet tall, like an actual tornado, but we didn’t have the means for it. 

Josh Safdie: So to answer you in short, I’m not worried about gentrifying. We now know what we want, and we’ve proved that it works. You look at great filmmakers and how they make things work. In light of Robert Forster passing away, I was thinking about what happened with Jackie Brown (1997),and it’s amazing: Forster was basically working a day job when Tarantino approached him. You want to build to a place where you can do things like that as a filmmaker—you don’t have to compromise. I think that gentrification starts with compromises, and with commodification. I don’t think that this movie is that. If anything, it fortifies our desires and our instincts.