Some people dream of riches, others fame, and others love. For the past ten years, Uncut Gems filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie have dreamed of Adam Sandler with a nervous overbite, teeny drill-mount glasses, and twinkling diamond-stud earrings. They dreamed of him scampering around 47th Street with both the swagger of someone who owns the place and also the glancing-over-the-shoulder anxiety of someone who could be eaten alive at any moment. They dreamed of him holding a big, beautiful Ethiopian opal. And they dreamed of him laying everything on the line—money and his family’s future, but also actual life and death—with that gem and Amar’e Stoudemire’s performance in a single basketball game.
The details were subject to modification over the years. When Sandler initially turned the Safdies down, they considered Jonah Hill or Sacha Baron Cohen as their protagonist, Howard Ratner. The year the movie was set would be dictated by the basketball player they got. When Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t pan out, they turned to Kevin Garnett, and they locked the film in 2012. But the Safdies had a vision for the way they would make the movie—how big it needed to be, the style they’d shoot it in, the story they wanted to tell—and when it came to their vision, they wouldn’t compromise.
And so, for a while, the dream remained a dream. The Safdies did other work—a lot of it. They made short films; they adapted Arielle Holmes’s junkie journals; they made a documentary about the flameout basketball phenom Lenny Cooke. Hell, they turned Robert Pattinson into a grimy, always-moving con artist. They developed a distinctive fast-and-close, dizzying New York style, and a reputation for tapping into what’s left of the city’s underworld. The movies they made were, on their own, some of the best of the decade. But they were all, at least partially, in the service of their dream. “We joked that we would be 70 years old when this movie eventually got made,” Benny says.
Now, 35 years ahead of schedule, they’ve done it. The movie they’ve been dreaming of, Uncut Gems, hits theaters next week. The journey’s given them perspective. “When spaceships travel to the end of the universe, they're pointed towards Saturn, and then they slingshot around Saturn and it slings them off to another planet, and then it takes that gravity to go even further,” Benny says. “So that's the trajectory that it took. It wasn't just a long straight path through nothing to get here.” Where the Safdies go from here, they’re not sure. After so much hustling, they’re trying to just savor the moment.
GQ: Adam Sandler gives an all-time-great Sandler performance in this film. Prior to this movie, what did you guys like about Sandler?
Josh Safdie: When Benny and I were kids, we used to love his comedy records.
Benny Safdie: The only thing we saw of him was his picture on the covers, and then hearing his voice inhabiting these worlds.
Josh: There's a track on one of his first records where Sandler plays a guy who's messing with his friend. And they just keep f**king with him and f**king with him and f**king with him. And it starts to break free from the actual stiltedness of a comedy record. But then his movies came out and were these absurdist stories with these heroes at the center that were anti-capitalist in a weird way. But they were also really funny. And the character was very emotional and very moody. It was in the tradition of these heroic 20th-century Jews that we idolized. And from a very early stage, we knew that Sandler's lovability and his humor were paramount to the success of the movie on a creative level. It's a tense thriller, and it needs his comedic timing in order to add these bits of comic relief. And it was the only version of the movie that I think could've worked.
Sandler’s character, Howard, is a compulsive gambler. Are you guys gamblers?
Benny: Both of us are gamblers in the sense that with every movie we've put everything we have into the movie and parlayed it onto the next movie. And if that one fails, hey, you're screwed. So I can relate to putting everything on the line.
But in the sense of actual gambling, Josh is a heavy gambler. He can get into it. When Daddy Longlegs came out, we were doing a self-created press tour for it where we got out to Seattle and then we were going to drive down to Los Angeles, doing Q&As and stuff along the way. And as we were driving, Josh would clock all of the casinos that were there. And we would find the casino, find the campgrounds nearby, drive to the casino, gamble, and then go back to the tent, which was a very sad thing. And there was one time where we got into the casino and we made a good amount. I took it and put it all in my pockets. I said, "I have to use the bathroom. I'll meet you outside." So I leave, but then I can't find Josh. And I see him on the opposite side of the casino, sitting at a table, and he's just kind of nodding along. And as I get to the table, the woman says, "You just lost," and she takes all of the chips away. I say, "Josh, what are you playing?" He says, "Give me a second." And the woman is actually teaching him how to play the game he's playing. It was just insane. It's just the pull of the next thing.
Josh, has gambling ever presented actual problems for you?
Josh: Financial problems, sometimes. But I recognize that it's a problem for me, and I deposit back that urge and feeling into other avenues.
One of my favorite objects in the movie is the diamond-studded Furbies. How did you find them?
Josh: We didn't find those. We made them. When I first started getting into research in the diamond district, the first thing I was taken aback by was the portraiture of culture through the objects that were made. There were a lot of trends. There was a fun quality to the pieces that were made. But they're outsider art. They come from Russian immigrants sitting in closed Plexiglas rooms building the molds out and then encrusting them with diamonds. It's this idea of taking pop culture and canonizing it with wealth. And that was immediately symbolic, the trappings of consumerism. When we actually had to come up with what a Howard thing would be, you look at his biography, and he made a name for himself in the late '90s. So what was popping in the late '90s? Oh, Furbies were the craze. So then you look at a Furbie and see these sad eyes, and the meaning of the film jumps out at you when you think of encrusting a little living creature with gold and diamonds. And you see the eyes, and then you move the eyes and you realize, "Oh, my God, they're totally afraid." They don't understand what it is they're encased in.
Do you think that returning to 2012 was nostalgic for actors like Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd?
Benny: The thing Kevin kept saying is, "I would never be doing this." He's playing an alternate version of himself, and the fact is that it was fun for him to play up that part of things—being in New York for a playoff game. He had fun with leaning into another person. Kevin was bringing suits and clothes that he had back then. When we did the post-game interview with Garnett, he had a lot of fun going back and talking about the future of the team together, reliving an alternate history there.
The Weeknd was nostalgic in a different way. He looks back at that time as a time when he was a real punk. And he really wanted to get into that and go super far with the role. Abel re-created the hair.
Josh: For Abel, performing in the clubs he was performing in, he would never do that nowadays. And we made the old Weeknd hair out of real hair. Abel very ceremoniously cut off all that hair because he felt like he was kind of wearing the hair at some points. He got rid of it to start a new identity, a new chapter. So when he put it back on and was in a nightclub, in a weird way it was freeing for him. He was like, "I used to be in a place where I could be a total punk. I wasn't selling out arenas. I was hacking night clubs because I was this mysterious, elusive figure." And the grime of the lifestyle he was living then kind of came forward and allowed him to be more of a punk.
I know you guys created really detailed character bios for Good Time. Did you do that for this film?
Josh: Absolutely. We did it for every character. For Sandler's character, for instance, there was a photograph on the wall that Howard took with Miles Davis, but a late-period Miles Davis, when he got kind of scary looking. And Howard kind of idolized Miles Davis, and he convinced everyone he was friends with Miles Davis based off this one picture. He would go around showing it to people, telling them he was a good friend, when really he just saw him on the street once and took a picture with him. There was a lot of stuff like that. There was a thing about Howard showing up in a Puffy video.
In the film, Sandler’s character presents this big opal that acts as a good-luck charm for Kevin Garnett. Do you guys believe in good-luck charms? And do you have any?
Josh: I wouldn't call them charms. I have objects that I've deposited a lot of meaning into. If I lost [them], I'd feel remiss, I'd feel astray. In particular, when Benny and I went to visit Dachau concentration camp, we both broke off a piece of barbed wire. It was really rainy and cold, and Benny and I drifted off from the tour and went over to a ditch near the fence area, and we literally bent and ripped off pieces of the stray barbed wire. German tourists were looking from the path at me and Benny, these two Jews, literally almost bleeding. And that's a piece that we hold close to ourselves as a reminder that anything could be taken away from you at any moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.