Spring 2020


Harnessed Pandemonium

With Uncut Gems, Josh and Benny Safdie worked with a cushier budget, but their unvarnished style remained intact

By Margy Rochlin

Directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Contour RA by Getty Images)

One of the biggest questions that brothers Josh and Benny Safdie asked themselves before making Uncut Gems, their movie about Howard Ratner, a self-destructive Manhattan jeweler played by Adam Sandler, was how they'd preserve the scrappy, heart-pumping integrity of a Safdie brothers film.

Over the past 12 years, the New York siblings had grown adept at "stretching a dollar six ways," says Josh about their shoestring short films and features like 2009's autobiographical Daddy Longlegs and 2014's hard-hitting adaptation of Arielle Holmes' heroin diary, Heaven Knows What.

Even if Good Time, the Safdies' film prior to Gems, had their first big-name headliner—Robert Pattinson played a fast-talking hustler—and was made for an estimated $4.5 million, they hadn't yet worked with a union crew. "Going from Good Time to Gems, which was going from nonunion to a major, we were at first like, 'How are we going to bottle some of our energy? How can we [do] this with a bigger crew, with a lot more people around?,'" says Josh of their immersive brand of filmmaking, which often involves first-time actors and reducing crew size to bare-bones essentials, with Benny also running boom and occasionally acting.

In a way, Gems was the perfect next step: With a reported $20 million budget, they were still able to figure out how to do things Safdie-style. For example, after exhaustively scouring 47th Street for a place to use as Howard's Diamond District headquarters, they realized that on Fridays and Saturdays they'd be hobbled by a Shabbat elevator—one programmed to work automatically on the Sabbath in observance of Jewish law. "Just a nightmare for production, it stops at every floor," says Josh. "So we built [the showroom and back office] on a stage and treated it like it was a bound location. It was expensive, but we could do it exactly how we wanted it. We made sure actors could only come in through one door."

Because the Safdies believe that realistic performances depend on an air of looseness, they don't block out scenes or hold actors to hitting marks. Though they have a meticulous shot list, neither brother is likely to be caught shouting, "And… action!"

"Part of it is a self-conscious thing," says Josh. "I feel the history of cinema on top of me when I say it. But it's also like, 'Why does it start now?' I want to give the actors a feeling that it's always happening."

As for playback, they regard it as the enemy of momentum—and not just because it involves having one extra person on set. "It slows things down," says Josh. "You finish your shot and then"—he claps his hands together—"All right, let's check playback!' Then your energy is gone. People need to be excited."

Adds Benny: "The idea is that you want to create the illusion that everything is unspooling and is happening in front of you for the first time. Obviously, sometimes you're doing 15 takes and that is shattered. But you can get at that by eliminating playback and marks." He recalls the initial feedback from Idina Menzel, who plays Howard's understandably aggrieved wife. "She was, like, 'Oh, that's weird.' Then she realized, 'Oh, this energy is different.'"

Gems was their first brush with figuring out ways to preserve what a newcomer offers to the set while also addressing the needs of more experienced actors. "[First-timers] bring an ineffable sense of spontaneity," says Josh. "You could call it chaos. They don't have a map they're following."

He references a scene where Eric Bogosian's Arno, to whom Howard owes large sums of money, is sitting in the front seat of an SUV while his hired thugs rough up Howard in the back. "Eric has some of the most expository lines in the movie, basically how the plot unfolds," explains Josh. "So the first two takes, it's pure bedlam in the back seat. They're actually manhandling Sandler, ripping off his clothes. And Sandler's just moving his dialogue around to fit the improvisations that are happening. And Bogosian is waiting for his space to get his lines in."

The talking never ceased, and Bogosian started pounding the dashboard in a burst of frustration. "He was like, 'I don't know about you motherfuckers, but I've got lines I've got to say and you're fucking stepping all over them.'" Before take three, Josh spoke to Bogosian about how to deal with the pandemonium. "It's cheesy to tell an actor to 'work with it,'" says Josh. "But the reality is that [Arno] is posturing in the entire film. So I was like, 'If your character in this moment can't get a handle on the people he's hired, that's the movie. Make the space for the line. You've got to assert yourself—add a line like 'Shut up. Everybody shut the fuck up.' "And say it however many times you need to," says Benny.

From left, Benny and Josh Safdie discuss a scene with Adam Sandler on the set of Uncut Gems. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

The brothers can trace their interest in directing back to their New York childhood, splitting their time between divorced parents. Manhattan was their mother's home base, while their father lived in Queens. The latter had a hands-off philosophy about parenting and a Video 8 camcorder. They were still in elementary school when they made their first attempt at quasi-documentary filmmaking. In an endeavor to get their dad to give up cigarettes, they filmed a fake commercial, starring Josh as a "guy who smokes all the time and dies at a Knicks game," says Benny.

Their obsession with film continued through high school. Then later Josh, who was studying communications at Boston University, urged Benny, then majoring in physics at Oberlin College, to come sit in on his film class taught by Ted Barron. The first movie Benny saw was a classic example of Italian neorealism: Ermanno Olmi's 1961 coming-of-age tale Il Posto. A light bulb went off in his head. "These fake stories in these real places with real people? I just couldn't believe it," says Benny.

It's easy to trace a line between the neorealists' impoverished protagonists captured in real-life settings and the Safdies' desperate characters filmed in New York's unseen corridors. They like to say they cast their locations as carefully as they do actors. And they try to avoid closing down when they're filming on the streets. "The trucks have to be a little farther away," says Benny. "But it captures this feeling."

Their penchant for using very long lenses is all about protecting the vibe, about keeping the cameras at a distance so first-time actors can forget they're there. On Good Time, because they were dealing with very, very low light and pushing the film, it was often impossible to focus. The game changer on Gems, which was filmed on anamorphic 35 mm, was Chris Silano, their first assistant "A" camera, who introduced them to Light Ranger 2. "It's kind of unpopular in Hollywood," says Josh of the sensor unit that sits atop the camera and communicates with the lens and video feed. "If you don't understand it, it can be looked at as if it's auto-focus, but it's not." Adds Benny: "It's just more information."

And after years of doing everything on their own—including taking turns dashing off to Gray's Papaya for hot dogs to feed the cast and crew—they have thoughts about everything, including what's cooking at crafts services. "You start noticing how food affects people," says Benny. "And then it's like, 'No chicken parm for dinner.'"

They are equally passionate about wardrobe. On Gems, they wanted Sandler to sport real bling—a $200,000 watch, a $60,000 ring, $6,000 Cartier C Décor Rimless eyeglasses. "The movie is about materialism. You gotta have the real materials. It's an expensive world," says Josh, who notes that when Howard is assaulted by Arno's muscle and "his shirt comes off and his glasses fall off, he's thinking, 'Those are expensive glasses.' It does something to an actor."

It wasn't until Good Time, just three years ago, that they added a script supervisor and a 1st AD to their skeleton crew. So they admit to some occasional bouts of nervousness about their first union project, wondering what it would be like to step out of their comfort zone.

"In the beginning we were afraid," says Josh. "Then [we] immediately realized, 'Oh, my God, we have access to this immense talent. You can ask for the moon and they might get you the Hubble telescope."

Now they can't imagine being able to make Gems without a regulation-sized crew. "The script itself was impossible to complete in the time we had," says Benny of a shoot that lasted roughly 32 days, not counting pickups. "There needed to be a precision," says Josh. "If we were doing it the way we were doing it before? I don't know if we'd be able to do it."

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