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howard holds up a diamond encrusted furby from behind the jewelry shop counter Image: A24

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Cutting through the chaos of Uncut Gems, the best movie not nominated for an Oscar

Josh and Benny Safdie made a crazy risk, a gamble, and it’s paying off

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Green Book. Argo. The Artist. The King’s Speech. The films all carry the noble distinction of winning Best Picture in the last decade of the Academy Awards. They’re also movies I definitely saw but barely remember.

The Oscars aren’t everything. While the 2020 nominations, announced on Monday, found room for some films of truly high quality (Parasite, The Irishman, Little Women) and others that are technically impressive (Joker, 1917, Ford v Ferrari) and not much else, the voting body did not find room for what might be the year’s purest explosion of grotesque, postmodern cinema: Uncut Gems.

Love it or hate it, Adam Sandler’s wheeling-and-dealing tragicomedy consumes the viewer, burns itself into the brain, and still manages to be memeable as hell. Writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie spent nearly a decade soaking up the stories from New York’s diamond district and winding them around a high-speed crime saga. An Oscar snub might wash Uncut Gems from the history books. Well...

howard ratner says I disagree in uncut gems Image: A24

Clustered around pop culture — everything from a Celtics mid-2010s playoff run to the ironic resurgence of Furby — Uncut Gems is ferocious in execution and unsettling in its specificity. At times it’s like a war movie; in others, it’s checking the boxes of a typical Adam Sandler comedy. The Safdies, bright stars in the emerging wave of millennial filmmakers, seem to give everything to the movie, and with a wicked pulse, the movie gives it right back to the audience. At no point does it cater to mass audiences or dampen its effects to become closer to an “Oscar movie.” Which seems to have worked out: Uncut Gems has already made $44 million at the box office, and become A24’s biggest release ever.

Left forever dizzy by my favorite movie of the year, I spoke to the Safdies about realizing the world of Uncut Gems through the lens of their own obsessions.

Polygon: So where did you get the bejeweled Furby?

Josh Safdie: The Furby we made for the film. Like everything in the movie, form follows function. And we were trying to figure out through the character: what would be the most iconic piece that he kind of started his career with? And so you have to ask, when was Howard popping? When was he really in his stride? We realized was the late ’90s. And we looked up the trend, which was to take toys and pop culture items and bling them out. Then there was something so stupid about the Furby. There’s something also so sad about the Furby, the eyes of a Furby — they look so trapped. So the idea of taking this this thing and encrusting it in diamonds and gold, it just dealt with the scenes of the movie that are being trapped inside of materialism.

Benny Safdie: Wasn’t that a Happy Meal Furby? The one we have was modeled off a Happy Meal Furby.

Josh: I bought one off of the internet yet and then I gave it to the props department. I said, “we need to turn this into jewelry.”

howard (adam sandler) walks down the street in new york city
Howard (Adam Sandler) walks down a New York City street, his personal hell
Photo: Julieta Cervantes/A24

The Happy Meal Furby feels like a distinctly millennial prop. Scorsese is not telling his prop department to find room for a bejeweled Furby. Do you see the film possessing a uniquely millennial energy?

Josh: I think that we live in the age of chaos and we live in the age of pervasive noise. There’s so much noise, and everyone has an opinion, and your own noise is your own private noise. Every once in awhile I’ll have an out-of-body experience and I will see our own work through that analysis and it’ll mean something to me. I’ll see the setting of which we’re making work right now. But as with anything, you don’t really think about any of these things when you’re making them. We spent 10 years making this project, eight years of which we’re deeply rooted and deeply embedded in the diamond district on 47th street in the contemporary world of social media, of local celebrity, and in the postmodern age of bling. I think it had to inform it on some level.

Benny: Now that you mentioned that, I’m realizing, okay, maybe the way that we could think, Oh, it’s possible to cram this amount of information into something from all these different angles and points of view only can come from the moment that we’re living in, because your brain can go in all those different places. And so I guess that actually got us thinking of it from that point of view. It’s like, Oh yeah, maybe we realized it’s possible to translate that to the screen.

How do you create that level of mania without losing your audience?

Josh: It’s tricky. Working with [cinematographer] Darius Khondji ... he’s such a formalist. His reputation is that he takes his time and that every image is kind of slaved over. But we worked on a Jay-Z music video with him to basically introduce him to our style. We sat down and discussed the film and to him it was like any other project that he went through. It’s heavily shot-listed. It’s beat by beat shot-listed. And then there’s also these storyboards that I draw.

But then he got on set and he realized that our shot list and storyboards act as these kind of North Star maps. We’re not going to try to bend life to the shot lists, we’re going to bend the shot list to life. And sometimes, every once in awhile, we’ll be extra stubborn about mannering a shot to be stylistic in its formation. So that, in a weird way, there’s a juxtaposition that your mind is subconsciously breaking down in the same way it’s doing by watching Adam Sandler go up against Keith Williams Richards, the guy who plays the heaviest bookie.

howard (adam sandler) and julia (Julia Fox) walk across the street in their club clothes
Howard (Adam Sandler) and Julia (Julia Fox) storm out of the club
Photo: Julieta Cervantes/A24

Benny: There was a funny moment with Darius on set where ... we don’t like to have marks down for the actors, and Darius had done this whole lighting setup for a very specific spot in the back room. And he looked at me, he said, “But, Benny, please just have the actor stand right here. Tell him to stand right here.” And I said, “Darius, I can’t, I can’t do that.” And he’s like, “Why just tell him not to stand there!” And I said, “If he doesn’t want to stand there, he’s not going to stand there. I’m not going to tell him to do that.” And it was this kind of amazing standoff between us. And I was just like Howard at one point in the movie, he won’t do something, he won’t make a phone call.

We want to preserve this feeling of life and realness happening even though when you’re on set, it’s the most manufactured kind of environment you could be in. And especially kind of when we’re shooting, there are so many shots that we want to get, so many different points of view. And then when we get to the edit, we want to include all of those points of view. Because when you have that point of view rooted you move between them, it creates an interesting energy.

Josh: I think that when you add enough details to a picture, the excessive amount of micro starts to add to the macro. And I think that that’s that very feeling that you’re responding to, like the amount of time and dedication that goes into the decision-making of, you know, what kind of ring does Howard wear? What kind of mousepad does Howard use? What kind of tattoo is Julia going to get? When all of these hyper-specific details add up. I think that the overall effect is this kind of controlled chaos because they all are manufactured, as Benny says.

Are a lot of the specific choices born from things you’ve observed in the past or present? Howard’s kid has a wall of superhero memorabilia, and the entire room felt replicated, despite being mundane.

Josh: In a weird way, what we’re doing is journalism. In the eight years of going into people’s homes, and sometimes the homes come from people in our own lives and other times they come from people who were trailing and getting to know the world, you walk in and you see ... this movie is very much about the trappings of materialism and if there is any spirituality in consumerism. So when you have a shrine of expensive collectable toys in your son’s bedroom, maybe Howard bequeathed to his son this concept, maybe Howard collected cars or collected watches, but his son is going to collect toys, that’s going to be his status symbol.

We talked about this with the actor who played Eddie. He was entrepreneurial about it. He would parlay two toys and he was up on the trend before someone else in order to trade for one that they might not see the value in. These are the things that we did as kids in some regard. And then there’s that moment when he’s talking about Howard with the bet. You can kind of see the seed of the father in his son. I love the shot from behind when they’re walking in the hallway — they have the same exact gait.

But the elements of production design, the specificity that goes into it, all of that stuff that takes place in his jewelry shop and in the hallway, that’s all a set. To us that was a compromise to not shoot that on location, but the logistics of shooting on location were impossible. So we went above and beyond to try to tell a story in all of the props. We did that on our earlier films. We would feel closets with stuff in a rented apartment because we would have first-time actors who are children. We don’t want them to ever think that everything is artifice, and so we wouldn’t want them to open up a closet and not see stuff that would belong to their character. All this stuff in forms, the acting and the performances.

Benny: We’ll shoot a lot of close-up shots and piece it together, but even still, with those close-ups, we’re still filling the entire space. There’s no such thing as like the production design to the frame. The space is full and it has to feel like it’s real when you walk into it.

Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Adam Sandler stand on set in new york city
Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, and Adam Sandler on the set of Uncut Gems
Photo: Julieta Cervantes/A24

The movie takes place in the 2000s, but there’s a retro vibe to the music that envelops most of the action. How did you bridge that?

Josh: I will say that advertisements for [casinos like] Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun were very ... there was something about them. It was like, it’s called Mohegan Sun. It’s capitalizing and exploiting Native American aesthetics, and for the sake of pure, unbridled, cold capitalist, consumerist, materialist culture. Gambling in a casino, where you can go and buy everything that you just won with your earnings.

And there was a certain aesthetic ... with Darius, one of our creative North Stars was not a photographer. He’s used to working with filmmakers with an array of photography that is inspirational, and we talked about other films, but our big North Star, which made him crazy, was the postmodern architecture and design of Michael Graves.

Michael Graves embodied a certain sort of functional, ugly beauty, the idea that something can serve a function with kind of an excessive beauty that only the postmodernists saw. Using things that are normally used for function as form. That drove him crazy. He would tell us that the lighting was so garish and ugly, and we would tell him that it was Michael Graves, and it drives him crazy still to this day. “For the next film, can we please never hear Michael Graves?”

Benny: So we could have picked another postmodern architect.

It’s funny though, with Michael Graves, you kind of come around to appreciating what he was doing. But once you’re locked into that frequency, it’s one of the most incredible frequencies to be on. Darius and that showroom — he got really into it though because every light had a different color temperature. It was so bright, so garrish. He had never done anything like that before in his life, so it was very exciting.

Unlike so many of Sandler’s movies, Uncut Gems was gestating long before he was involved. How did you rebuild it around him?

Josh: We went out to him because we thought that he was one of the only people who could have made Howard lovable. And that comes from someone who’s being “on” all the time, in the tradition of Rodney Dangerfield. And we also knew that Sandler was one of the few iconic American actors who can take the most absurd scenarios and ground them in this strange brand of realism. It’s going to sound like any of those iconic movies from his past are realist films, but for some reason they read that way. In his world, they are real. And that was very important to us. And Howard is somebody who is hot and cold. That’s it. He’s a very moody guy.

Benny: And there’s something with Sandler, everybody says, “Oh my God, he’s so unlikable, I just wanted to yell at the screen and tell him to make the right decision.” But if you think about that, you only yell at the screen for somebody to make the right decision if you’re rooting for them. You want him to make the right decision because you want him to succeed. Sandler brings that to it, that ability to root for him amongst all the most absurd situations. He’s just such a lovable, sincere person that you don’t think that he’s making the decision to kind of hurt anybody. You know, it’s coming from a better place.