Movies

The Safdie Brothers On All The Crazy Casting Hoops That They Had To Jump Though To Make ‘Uncut Gems’

Before I met with Josh and Benny Safdie at A24’s offices in Midtown Manhattan, I had been warned — actually “warned” is a strong word; maybe “advised” is better — that they were a little weird. What’s funny is that maybe to normal people referencing the Tom Cruise movie The Firm and the Bizarro episode of Seinfeld is “weird?” But, to me, this just all came off as references similar to those me and my friends would make in conversation. (I’m open to the possibility that I, too, am “weird.”)

Now, what is a bit jarring is the breakneck speed that the Safdie Brothers converse and throw ideas out, which, yes, fits their style of moviemaking completely. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a sometimes shady, sometimes on the level New York City jeweler who has about 20 “deals” going at one time, and every single one of them feels like it could collapse at any time, bringing the whole tower of cards down with it. Kevin Garnett plays himself and he takes a liking to a rare opal in Howard’s possession that Garnett thinks brings good luck. Howard loans the opal to Garnett, but this opens up even more problems as many, many debtors come looking for Howard. The best way to explain this movie is to imagine the spinning plate magician, and the anxiety when one of those plates starts to wobble.

But Sandler initially passed on the film, which then went through a whole host of lead actors and basketball players, which the Safdies detail ahead. But, as they say, fate was on their side and now Sandler is getting the best reviews of his career.

I still love that way back before the premiere in Toronto some guy yelled, “Give an Oscar to the Sandman!”

Josh Safdie: I couldn’t believe that.

Benny Safdie: I know. How much are we paying him? I was right behind Sandler when they said that.

That guy hadn’t even seen the movie yet.

Benny Safdie: He felt the energy in the room, but that was a cool screening. It was the first time where I realized, oh my God, people are along for this ride through and through.

Josh Safdie: We said it will be the first and last time I watch the entire movie.

Really?

Benny Safdie: Yeah, we’ve had to watch it so many times. But, with an audience, with an unsuspecting audience…

“Unsuspecting” is an interesting word here. You can warn people as much as you want, but it does not prepare people.

Benny Safdie: You’re so on Howard’s speed from the beginning. Like alright, this is how I’m going.

Josh Safdie: It’s funny, because the original version of the script had a 40-minute opening act. It was the same movie, and it was just taking too long to get to the opal. Because the movie is called Uncut Gems, and we weren’t meeting the gem until minute 42.

Benny Safdie: Scott Rudin told us that when he did The Firm, (Tom Cruise’s character) got the job in seven minutes. And it’s like, alright, and it’s called The Firm.

That’s the comparison? The Firm? I just rewatched that recently. But, yes, Mitch gets the job right away.

Benny Safdie: In the book I think it spends like 150 pages on him getting other jobs, getting fired, and then he finally lands the job at The Firm. And Rudin told us when he was watching the first cut, which was about maybe 30 minutes longer or something. And he was just like, “I love it, but it’s called Uncut Gems, we have to meet the gems.”

So take me through the casting. Because Sandler said no. But then Jonah Hill was officially attached and had to leave?

Benny Safdie: There were a lot of people in between.

Sacha Baron Cohen was one?

Benny Safdie: He was never attached, but we went down a year-long thing with him. Harvey Keitel at one point…

Josh Safdie: When Sandler said no, we were like, okay, fine, back to the drawing board. We were like, who can we get to here? And the guy who inspired the initial story, it was an older guy.

Benny Safdie: He wasn’t that old?

Josh Safdie: He was in his sixties when our dad worked for him. This guy was in his sixties. So we decided, let’s age up the character. So we aged up the character, and the character was a lot about him being old. And Harvey Keitel was amazing. And we went down a road with him for a little bit. Maybe about eight months or something. Maybe less than that, maybe six months.

Benny Safdie: It was him and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Josh Safdie: It was him and Amar’e. We did a Shabbat dinner at Amar’e’s house. We went to his house, and Harvey Keitel was there with his family and Amar’e’s family. And eventually it was just not right. It wasn’t the movie we wanted to make.

Wait, how many different basketball players were considered?

Josh Safdie: Oh man, it started with a Amar’e. Then briefly we rewrote it to try to get Kobe. We never even submitted it to Kobe. It was Joel Embiid for a year. And he’s on the Sixers, and he’s an African player. And the themes of the movie worked really well with an African player. And then Sandler couldn’t shoot in the summer, so we had to shoot in the fall. So we couldn’t use an active player. Then we were like, fuck, let’s go back to Amar’e. And Amar’e wouldn’t shave his head to match the games that we had to shoot around. So then we were like, okay, who is left? And we looked and Kevin Garnett … fate is a real thing. It was meant to be Kevin’s role from the beginning — even though we hated him as Knicks fans. And then I remember we made Heaven Knows What. And that got critical acclaim and actually ended up getting Martin Scorsese attached, which really lifted the profile.

It’s remarkable how far this goes back.

Josh Safdie: Yeah, he really lifted the profile of the movie, when Marty attached himself. And he actually attached himself in the middle of our courtship with Sacha. Actually, before we went to Sasha, we tried one last go at Sandler. Sandler’s team in 2014 or 2015 just, again, said not available.

Oh, so you never even spoke to Adam?

Josh Safdie: The first time in 2010, it was like, “Who the fuck do you guys think you are?” And it felt weird.

Wow.

Josh Safdie: Well they didn’t say that. But they were right. Who did we think we were? To try to get the biggest movie star like that. You know what I mean?

Benny Safdie: I only know that he loved our first movie.

Do you think they even ever took it to him?

Josh Safdie: Well, his manager, Sandy, claims he read the script in 2011, and remembers it, but it just wasn’t right at the time.

So how did Jonah Hill fall out?

Josh Safdie: So what happened was is that we did a table read with Sacha Baron Cohen. Actually right at the time when Marty attached himself, we did a table read. It was like the Bizarro Jerry episode of Seinfeld. It was Bizarro Gems. It was Sacha Baron Cohen. Riley Keough who was playing the Julia character. Asad Berg who was playing The Weeknd’s role. Amar’e Stoudemire was playing Kevin Garnett’s role. Isla Fisher played the Dinah part. Jerry Ferrara was in it. John David Washington was playing Lakeith’s part. Tom Sizemore was doing the Bogosian part. It was like a really weird reading.

Benny Safdie: John David was great though.

Josh Safdie: J. D. was amazing. He’s a very talented actor. He would have been good in the movie, but we couldn’t figure it out.

Benny Safdie: I got really in love with Lakeith too. Lakeith should know that.

Josh Safdie: And then Jonah was a fan of Heaven Knows What. And we had a couple of friends in common. So then he took us to lunch and said, “Guys, let’s collaborate.” And he hadn’t read the script, but he knew about it. And we couldn’t get Sacha to commit. So we’re like, okay, we have this big star here saying he wants to do the movie, now that Scorsese’s involved. Jonah’s like, “Scorsese is one the few people I take orders from.” That’s what he told us. And he’s like, I want to collaborate with you guys. So we’re like, okay, you’re an amazing actor and it would be kind of cool to work with a peer. Someone our age. So, he attached himself. And we had a really hard time figuring out a way to age the character down.

Benny Safdie: So we had a really hard time. We aged the kids really young. The whole thing. I mean, it’s not that it’s unrealistic that people can be 34 and have eight-year-old children. It’s also the way that you would attach to the character is very different. If Howard’s younger, the lovability aspect is a little bit different.

Josh Safdie: The patriarchal quality disappeared a little bit. So we had a hard time. And he, for timing reasons, got very involved in his own film, Mid90s. And because he did that he also kind of had to do Maniac. It was like a two-thing. The two together. So then he became unavailable. So it was fate again.

Did you go back to Sandler right after that?

Josh Safdie: Well, we made Good Time. We were at Cannes with Good Time, and it was like, okay, let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s go back to Sandler. Let’s try to get Sandler one last time. And he was at Cannes with The Meyerowitz Stories. We were there with Good Time. He was there with his wife. That’s it. He wasn’t taking meetings. That’s what’s beautiful about it. Cannes, the most commercial place you could go. He was just in the South of France with his wife celebrating a movie that he did. So we couldn’t get the meeting. And then a few months later, he saw Good Time, and then called us immediately.

That’s all that changed? You didn’t have to change anything in the script?

Josh Safdie: Well, we ended up collaborating intensely. Intensely.

What specific thing did he not like?

Josh Safdie: It wasn’t he didn’t like anything. He loved the script. He was afraid of the character, because the character was kind of moving around so much. And he’s such a family guy and the fact that this guy was kind of running away from his family. And we had to explain to him that he’s not running away from this family. He’s running away from the stasis of suburban lifestyle. And he’s a guy who can’t sit still and he’s afraid of resting on his laurels and in a weird way, having the family, was that.

Benny Safdie: We really said to him that we’re not the kind of people where it’s our way or the highway. It’s an open conversation.

So you’re attached to making a new 48 Hours movie. Is that real?

Benny Safdie: What happened was, yes, we got hired to do it. I actually recently met Walter Hill, for the first time, which was amazing. He’s a hero. And he was a big fan of Gems and Good Time. We got hired to do this thing. I didn’t want him to think that we were going to remake his movie. Because the idea of remaking a movie, remaking the style of it, is so stupid. If anything you’re just going to take a story and retell it. Yeah, so he’s like, “I watched these two movies, and I’m thinking these guys aren’t in shortage of original ideas.” I said, “Well, here’s what happened, Mr. Hill, is we got hired to write a remake. We did a couple of drafts for Paramount and they were like this isn’t really the movie. I mean it had the general players kind of, but it wasn’t a remake.”

If you watch it today, there is a lot of stuff that has to change.

Benny Safdie: Yeah, of course. Beyond that, it was just not the general premise of the movie. It was like 48 hours, but my point is that it was original, and that’s what it’s being spun into. We’re embracing the original elements of it.

And do you know who you want for it?

Josh Safdie: Well, the thing is, right now, it’s hard to focus on anything but Gems. Because we spent ten years, and all of these sidetrack movies, to get to this point.

But you understand why it’s such a fascinating next movie, right?

Josh Safdie: Well, we don’t know if it’s next.

Benny Safdie: You don’t know what the next year brings. You know how Hollywood works.. You don’t know if we’re going to do that, or we’re going to do this. So the bottom line is we have to rewrite it as something more, expel all the things in it that we were clinging on to for the remake element. And we’ll see. We’ll see if it’s something we want to indulge in.

‘Uncut Gems’ opens in theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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