Interview: Josh And Benny Safdie On Perfecting Tension With UNCUT GEMS

A conversation with the maniacs responsible for one of 2019's best films.

Josh and Benny Safdie's filmography reads like a series of escalatiing anxiety attacks, and their latest film, Uncut Gems, is the heart attack at the end of the tunnel. In one of the best turns of his career, Adam Sandler plays Howard, a jeweler in New York's Diamond District with a gambling problem – one he almost willfully refuses to treat with the seriousness it deserves, especially with violent loan sharks trailing him all over the city. We follow Howard through a series of confrontations and ill-advised maneuvers to place a bet that could solve all of his problems – or effectively destroy his life. The Safdies have delivered a master class in building tension in their most visceral and immersive work yet, and I was thrilled to speak with them about creating what is, in my estimation, a perfect film, as well as their experiences working for the U.S. government (yes, really), subverting genre tropes, and the ultimate cosmic message behind Uncut Gems.  

I think I'm finally no longer tense from the experience of seeing Uncut Gems. My jaw was tight, my neck hurt after. 

Josh Safdie: [Laughs] Really? Welcome to my life.

What the hell is wrong with you two?

[Both laugh]

No, I know you're both nice, relatively normal guys. I'm just in awe of the intensity, and how the film immerses you in this anxiety-driven narrative. I don't know how else to ask this except – how the fuck did you do that?

JS: You know what's interesting is that, how we do it – it took years and years. Basically, the past two movies – Heaven Knows What and Good Time – were almost tied to Gems directly. Arielle Holmes [star of Heaven Knows What], we met her in the Diamond District. Those movies were basically educations in making this movie. There's a reason why we made them on the journey to making Gems. I watched a movie at home once called Straight Time, with Dustin Hoffman and Harry Dean Stanton and Theresa Russell. Great movie. And I was recalling it to a friend, and I'm like, I'm sitting there in the theater and I'm on the edge of my seat, and they're like, "What? Where did it play?" And I was like, Oh, sorry, no, it was at my house. There was this immersive quality to it that I only associated with the theatrical experience. I think that that immersive quality, that shoving the audience into the world, is a very unique experience that only exists in movies. With this in particular, we wanted to really put you in the subjective world of this thriller, and what is a thriller? A thriller is a work that ebbs and flows with the intention of when it's going to release tension, and that tension release is actually when you learn the most about the character and the plot.

So we really analyzed that to – from our point of view, I don't know about other people – perfection. 

Benny Safdie: If you look at the auction scene, it's not an action event, but approaching it like an action movie. This needs to be covered like a car crash or any big stunt that you do, you have to get all the angles. So, approaching the movie of the point of view of the characters in it, and then using that to dictate the pace – because if somebody in the movie is reliant on it, the weight is there from that point of view. 

It seems like something where you'd have to be constantly modulating the tiniest things...

JS: For sure.

There's the one scene where everything's hitting the fan at once, but it's all these seemingly manageable things that pile up, and then Sandler's got the tag on the back of his shirt – which somehow makes it... 

JS: That scene, when we were editing it, we devised – I actually know where you're going with that. We devised it in the direction as one steadicam shot, and then in the edit we cut it. I remember watching it, and that scene and the scene in the SUV were the two scenes where I was like, Ooooh, I'm feeling it. And that's exciting because you've sat with the work for 10 years and you're still present and you're still feeling it. You're accessing different feelings. He's got the tag on his shirt, she even says, "Howard! The tag is still on your shirt!" He's got a superstar NBA player stuck between two doors.

BS: In that scene, if we covered something like we would normally cover something – 150 shots. It ends up being a ton of edits, yes, but let's do this in an interesting way that shows the space and where they are and actually understands where everybody is, and it was one shot as Josh was saying. There's a buzzer, [makes buzzer sound] close-up of the buzzer – like everything has this...

JS: Almost like Potemkin. When I was a kid, at our elementary school they had this – you know, in order to decide who gets to go into a special art class, they give everyone in the school an 11x14 piece of paper, and they say, "Do whatever you want with it." I remember sitting there and drawing, and I looked at the dimensions – my dad used to take us into the city and we would hang out in Central Park a lot, so I drew a bird's eye view of Central Park. But I drew these, like, street-level scenes throughout, but it felt like there weren't enough details. So I went through and added so many details to it, and I got into this special program, which was the first major artistic encouragement from the outside and it was amazing. But I remember the teacher saying to me, "I'm feeling anxious looking at this." And she's like, "Why did you add so much to the drawing?" I said, "Because there's so much going on in the world." I wish I still had that drawing, I don't know where it is, but I remember that's when I started to think that details are everything. God is in the details. 

BS: And it should be impossible to show all of those things in a movie. It should not...

JS: I love that you noticed the tag!

Because it drives me nuts! It's another layer of something that's just wrong

JS: It was such a thing. It was such a decision on set to keep the tag, and I remember Ronald [Bronstein, co-writer] was like, "Come on! Get rid of the tag!" And I was like, No. You know, Howard woke up and started his day in such a frantic pace that he just threw on a shirt and didn't even think there was a tag on it. That speaks to history. That's what's important. 

BS: But then you've also got the fact of, where do those shirts come from? Oh, there's people who come by and sell all this stuff. There's constant history being built on screen. All these details in it, and there's that moment in that one where I don't understand how we have all this coverage of what's going on because it jumps behind the glass – that's not a two-camera thing, but it literally feels like one event that's happening. It almost shouldn't have been possible to get all of that, but it's there.

It's so meticulous, and the only other film I've seen this year on that level is Parasite. Two completely different films, but both perfect in my estimation. 

JS: Oh, wow, thank you. Jesus. I have this friend – we're doing this zine for A24, and we're doing one for this movie – and his name is Sammy, and he's a cartoonist, and he's saying, "The movie's perfect!" And I'm like, Shut up. And he says, "No, the only criticism would be is that if someone doesn't like it, it's just not for that person. Otherwise it's perfect." And I'm like, But it's for everyone, right Sammy??

I was just saying to a friend recently that I hadn't had a movie fully knock me on my ass this year. There are plenty of great movies, but none had given me that visceral reaction I love. And Uncut Gems did that. I was clawing at my own face. 

JS: It's that adrenaline. It's like a drug for people. I didn't really see that potentiality at all until the trailer dropped. I'd never been a part of something like that before, but when the trailer dropped it was this thing. I was getting hit up from people who I tangentially knew, like, 12 years ago. "Hey man, remember me? I just saw your trailer, it was on Sports Illustrated." There are just so many entities in this movie that it's reaching all these different people. We spent 10 years working on this thing, so we better have had time to think about everything, you know what I mean? If we didn't, then we're not doing it a service. It makes me feel bad that the next film we're not gonna have 10 years to work on. We're almost actually conceiving of projects that we're looking at long term, and we're doing these smaller projects in the short-term leading up to it. We're trying to decide what is the next long term project, what is the next "north star"? Because these north star projects, they take time to build, they take time to coalesce. 

I talked to Bong [Joon-ho, director] about it actually because Parasite – the specificity of that is so... That's what I'm telling student filmmakers that I'm talking to now – it sounds so generic, but I tell them, "Young filmmakers, you just need to find your voice." It took me a long time, I was imitating a lot of shit, but when you find it, it's there. It's like Oh my god, that's how I speak. But now I'm realizing it's all about specificity. Thinking about every single thing that goes into a scene is very important. Why is the character putting this on? Did they throw clothing on in the morning, or did they spend time thinking about it? Did they think about it the night before? These are the things that change the way someone takes on their day.

BS: We did something in Curacao, it was like a government outreach thing where the U.S. government just brought us over there to talk about movies.

JS: Weirdly enough, we've worked for the U.S. government a bunch.

BS: A bunch. 

JS: Overseas. It's very weird when you think about it. We did it in Russa, we did it in Lithuania, and Curacao. That's weird. We got paid by the U.S. tax dollars.

No way.

BS: Yes! Yes! We stayed in like, these ambassador hotels. It was insane. So we got to Curacao, and they're like, "Alright, this is the plan." And we're like, Well, this is what we're going to do. I was showing movies at this school, and nobody spoke english at this school. They were all these American movies. So then I was like, "Oh, here's a silent one. You'll actually be able to bond with this one." I remember sitting down with all the people, and the diplomats were looking at us like, "Look, you guys have to spend seven hours with these people. That's what the rules say," but we were like, "We don't think you understand. What we're about to do is going to take a lot of mental energy. Just give us two, and you'll see what happens." We sat down with all of the kids – some were 12, some were 16 – but we sat down with all of them and asked, "What was the dream that you couldn't forget?" So all these kids came and told us about their dreams and stuff that had happened to them. And it was like, "Okay, that's it! You need to make a movie about that." 

JS: The one I think about a lot is the kid with the...

BS: The baseball player. In Curacao, one of the only ways off the island is baseball, so an enormous percentage of the population exceeds at baseball. It's crazy. He said, I remember very vividly, "I was sliding into homeplate, and I was one of the best players at school, and sliding into homeplate my foot snapped in half." Broke his ankle and he was like, "That was it." And I thought, my god, we need to do something with that.

JS: It's a horror film.

BS: That moment, and then that happens, and then what? The one I actually think about – there was this kid, very religious kid who said he loved cooking. He was very upset about everyone who was outside on Sundays, and he also wanted to work on a cruise ship. I was like, man, a lot to work with here. And there's a lot of cruise ships there. There's ways you can work this in, it's incredible.

JS: Back to Gems, back to Gems

BS: This is something we couldn't shake. This was a movie we couldn't shake, couldn't stop thinking about. And you had to come up with all the details to fill it out.

JS: But I love hearing that you were kind of taken aback by the movie – 

Oh, definitely.

JS: Because we made a thriller, and like I said earlier, the point of a thriller is to do exactly that. So often do I find myself watching these thriller movies where it's like, okay, now they're gonna give me this plot, and now we're gonna go into that, and you're just waiting for it to get back to the part that's actually thrilling. And I get it, sometimes you need to see the valleys before you can reach the peaks, but these are the things we were focusing on.

You subvert some of those tropes, too. There are a couple moments in the movie where I really thought it was going one way – like when Howard is in the closet and Julia comes home... 

JS: When you're writing these things – you know, I was talking to Bronstein about these moments. They're red herring moments in a way. We wanted for a long time that guy at who shows up like, "This Rolex is fake!" – there's another scene with him that we cut, actually. We wanted to [give] him even more of a dark horse quality, like he would be the one you're not thinking about that does something.

I kept thinking he was going to come out of nowhere and stab Howard or something.

JS: Exactly! So it ends up coming into it, also, in the quiet moments – when you have this life that's so jam-packed with confrontation, the quiet moments are when you start to feel weird and naked. 

BS: People kept thinking about when [Howard] is taking out the trash that something's gonna happen to him when he gets to the top of – 

JS: ’Cause it's a foreboding shot. 

BS: People read into those moments just because of the momentum that's there.

JS: Take for instance the moment, the scene where he's hiding in the closet to do something loving to Julia and you get that text – that sext exchange.

That moment is also so awkward in a way, like, "Dad, stop texting that lady like that!"


JS: Yeah, it's funny because we conceived that scene as – he has this relationship that's no longer a secret. His wife knows about it. We wanted to come up with a way that played with the elements of genre and thrillers, so he hides in the closet, and usually when someone hides in a closet, something bad's gonna happen. They're gonna get found, they're gonna discover something. People always assume something bad is going to happen, that she's gonna come in on the phone, yapping about how nasty he is or how she's trying to take advantage of Howard or something. But in that moment – in the most voyeuristic moment – he sees that she actually does love him. She's actually so excited that he's gotten this thing, and she herself brought Smith & Wollensky steak, just like he did. And they have this moment, and he realizes, "Oh my god, this girl – she actually does love me." Then it turns into a playful moment, but we're playing with genre tropes. That was something that was actually fun for us to envision and enact. I love moments like that.

BS: The pace of the whole movie moves with a snowball effect, so when you get to those quiet moments, it almost feels a little uncomfortable. Like, what's gonna happen? Why are we slowing down? Because you're so used to that momentum. 

JS: It is funny, though, because Sandler's comedy records, which we discovered at a very young age... 

Oh, man, same. 

JS: They're very sexual! We learned a lot. Eight years old, nine years old, listening to it.

BS: The weightlifting thing was really intense. 

JS: But they're working out. They're not having sex. But we wanted to bring that element of Sandler's comedy to this movie. We wanted to take what Sandler represents and kind of line it up with the movie so that it feels natural.

It's such smart casting. In the Q&A guys talked about how long you were chasing him, and I'm glad you waited it out because so much of this movie really does depend on us rooting for Howard, and as the audience we come into it already loving him and being on his side. 

BS: That's the only way that this works. At some point you wanna shake sense into him ’cause you want him to succeed. That's why that works. If he was a terrible person who was making these terrible decisions, hey, dig your own grave, I don't give a shit. But here you really do want him to make the right decision. You scream at the screen, but that's coming from a place of love. 

I really wanted things to work out for him.

JS: It did work out for him.

I mean... Okay, without saying anything spoiler-y, that whole climactic scene in the vestibule is so great because he creates this audience for his spectacular bullshit...

BS: Yeah, yeah, they have to see, you know? 

He just drags everyone into his orbit, which plays into the thematic stuff I love in the film – the talismanic quality of objects and certain people. There's also the cosmic aspect, and how all people and things are ultimately just matter. It's all atoms. 

JS: 100 percent. Thank you. That's something we talked about with Bong a little bit because his movie centers around a rock, too.

BS: You look at an atom and it's just like a solar system, a hurricane and it looks just like a galaxy. They're all the same thing.

JS: But I question myself all the time, like what is the spiritualism of this Diet Coke can? You know? In the end, that's why at the very, very end, it dumps you out into space. To go through that journey, to go through the [Josh says something spoiler-y]... and it reveals that Howard himself is the uncut gem.

BS: I actually don't want to spoil anything. Let's just say: At the very end, it reveals...

JS: That Howard is the gem! That's not a spoiler! It is a spoiler in a spiritual sense, but it doesn't tell you what happens. 

I love this because there are times when I feel overwhelmed and I'll just stop and touch the wall, or a table, and I think about how we're not really touching anything because it's all just atoms on atoms...

BS: Yes. And if you think about people with anxiety and how they handle things, they have to compartmentalize and break everything down into smaller, more manageable steps or parts. 

JS: Think about this: There are two guys, and one's in Ethiopia, and their daily life sucks. They are being exploited in the place that they live. These Asian miners came in and are exploiting these people because they were entrepreneurial, they were enterprising. And everyone's getting paid, and it's fair, it's free market or whatever. But someone in that mine has to worry about getting their leg snapped off, whereas someone in New York is thinking about some illegal free throw – the duality of that... I think we're all on this same rock together. You have two people on opposite sides of the planet. One's worrying about his leg getting smashed and the other's worrying about someone hitting a free throw in a playoff game, which might as well mean nothing. But they both have the severity of life and death. That, to me, is fascinating.