Interview: Alistair Harkness – New Safdie brothers film Uncut Gems looks set to dazzle

It’s a few days before Christmas and I’m on the phone with Josh and Benny Safdie, the filmmakers du jour thanks to their new thriller Uncut Gems. Set to be one of the most talked-about movies of 2020, in part because of a nerve-jangling central performance from Adam Sandler, it’s certainly a trip: a raw, nervy, disorientating, at times even hallucinatory, character study of a shady New York diamond dealer (Sandler) whose anxiety riddled existence is replicated for our viewing pleasure with almost masochistic glee.

Adam Sandler makes Jewish jeweller, basketball obsessive and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner compelling
Adam Sandler makes Jewish jeweller, basketball obsessive and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner compelling

The brothers themselves are in fine fettle – well, Benny is; Josh is ill. He’s still on the call, but as he croaks while introducing himself, he’s barely able to talk, so barely does, jumping in only once to name the filmmakers – John Cassavetes, William Friedkin, Vittoria di Sica – who have inspired him the most. Otherwise he’s content to let his younger brother speak for both of them. At 33, Benny is two years Josh’s junior and the more recognisable of the two thanks to the starring role he gave himself playing Robert Pattinson’s mentally challenged brother in their last film, Good Time. That movie was the one that started expanding the Safdies’ appeal beyond the festival circuit, which has been hip to their frantic, immersive aesthetic since they separately wound up at Cannes in 2008 – Josh with his feature debut, The Pleasure of Being Robbed; Benny with his short film, The Acquaintances of a Lonely John.

“It’s weird that we started out making films separately,” Benny says. “It was mainly down to geography; it wasn’t through choice. I was in Boston [finishing film school]; Josh was in New York. But we found that when we made a film together it just got deeper. You fill in the gaps with each other.”

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That first collaboration was 2009’s Daddy Longlegs, a movie loosely inspired by their own precarious New York childhood with their divorced father, a somewhat unreliable figure who nevertheless kickstarted their filmmaking obsession by constantly documenting them on his newly purloined video camera. Inevitably the boys got curious and started using it themselves to make their own zero budget bedroom blockbusters. As it happens, though, their father is also the source for Uncut Gems.

“He was working in the Diamond District when we were younger so he would tell us all these incredible stories about being a runner and a jewellery salesman on 47th Street,” says Benny, referring to the street in Manhattan lined with buzzer-entry-only shops fronted by gem-filled window displays.

“They were like these incredible pulp fiction tales full of unbelievably intricate schemes and all of it happening within one city block in New York. I realised it was a world we wanted to explore.”

They penned the first version straight after Daddy Longlegs, coming up with the essence of Sandler’s character: a Jewish jeweller, basketball obsessive and compulsive gambler named Howard Ratner – a name likely to elicit a few guffaws in the UK on account of the character sharing a surname with a certain infamous chain of British high street jewellers. “We just found that out,” laughs Benny.

Though they planned to make the film a decade ago, they kept getting distracted by other projects. There was a basketball documentary (Lenny Cooke); a feature film called Heaven Knows What (which they based on the life of a homeless addict they met while doing research for this); and then Good Time, which happened because Robert Pattinson had seen Heaven Knows What, loved it and emailed them to say he wanted to work with them. “He wasn’t right for the Diamond District movie,” explains Benny, “so we wrote something else for him, which became an exercise in genre pacing.”

In short, everything they’ve done has fed into the version of Uncut Gems that exists today. “It wasn’t as if this movie was a weight on our backs for ten years,” confirms Benny. “The things we were making were, in a weird way, educational detours.”

They also know they wouldn’t have got Sandler a decade ago. That came about thanks to their growing reputations and the fact that Martin Scorsese – who felt an affinity with their ferocious style – signed on as an executive producer. It’s Sandler who makes the film so compelling. His ability to simultaneously be likeable and obnoxious is a skill that continues to confound some critics who wish he’d stop making goofy comedies and just do auteur-driven movies like Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories.

But it’s precisely his innate likability as a performer that makes him so right to play the protagonist in a movie that ultimately examines the cosmic cost of importing rare black opals from an unregulated African mine (a brief Ethiopian-set prologue sets the global context for this very specific New York story). “The humour of Howard is important,” Benny elaborates. “He’s like Rodney Dangerfield: he’s always on. Being a stand-up comedian was how Adam related to Howard.

“On stage, when you see someone tuning in, you play to that person and that’s how Howard is. He’s watching everybody. Sandler’s innate comedy skill is hugely important because this movie doesn’t work unless you’re rooting for Howard. Howard might do bad things,” he adds, “but he’s not a bad person.”

The only drawback of working with Sandler was the impact his superstar status had on their under-the-radar, run-and-gun style. “It is something we were conscious of,” says Benny, launching into a story about his brother getting upset one day because he’d spotted a big movie crew setting up on streets they were planning to use, not realising that the trucks were for them. “It’s a much larger footprint than we normally have. But we carried ourselves like a construction crew, not a movie crew. We’re trying to create a ‘nothing to see here, move along’ vibe.”

If the advance reaction to Uncut Gems is anything to go by, they’ll have to get used to this increased visibility. The industry’s awards machinery is kicking in fully behind them with plenty of Oscar-chat for Sandler.

“It’s crazy,” says Benny. “Adam did so much work and time and prep, so it’s cool he’s actually recognised for that. It’s not something we’re paying attention to while making the film, but now it’s like, well, we’ve spent ten years making this movie, we should put some time into getting it out there.”

Uncut Gems is in select cinemas from 10 January and on Netflix from 31 January