Uncut Gems: Interview with the Directors Josh and Benny Safdie

Interview with Josh and Benny Safdie

Origins of movie:

JOSH: We made a movie called Daddy Longlegs, which was kind of an attempt
to understand things that happened when we were younger from an adult
perspective. It was about how memory forms. We finished Daddy Longlegs
in 2009 and pemiered it in 2009. And we immediately started writing the first
version of this movie called Uncut Gems. It was the movie we wanted to make
immediately after Daddy Longlegs.  That first version of the script was very loose. It was completely charged by desire to be entertained by stories that our father would tell from when he was working in the Diamond District. He worked for a guy, actually, named Howard.

Adam Sandler’s Character

BENNY: He’s not based on anybody.
JOSH: He’s an amalgamation of a lot of people. I am not Howard, but there’s a lot of me in Howard. He’s nothing like our father. But the things he’s doing in the movie resonate with the type of person our father was.

Is your father alive?

JOSH: Our father’s alive. Our father’s a young guy. He’s like sixty now?
BENNY: Sixty-one.

Age when father stopped working in the Diamond District?

JOSH: I was six years old. But I have memories of him working there. I remember Howard. I remember the little car that belonged to the business. A
shitty little white car that we always drove around in… That was where he met
his fiancée for many years, who wasn’t a very good person, she had issues, but
whatever. He met her working in the Diamond District and in the jewelry trade.
All the stories he told were like these mini-pulp genre films. Every one was like
a pulpy story that you wanted to see. Every single one!

BENNY: The things that happened in the district couldn’t happen anywhere else.

JOSH: Weirdly, none of them made their way into the movie. The first version of the script started with a lot of seeds of those stories that we kind of fantasized about. We tried to insert our own point of view and our own perspective on these characters. But the first version was very free-form. It almost read like a television pilot, that was the criticism at least, where at best you’re simply introducing all of these characters. It was a first pass…We had this initial idea, of a story set in this barbaric, seemingly outdated corner of the world. It took place on 47th Street in New York City, in a world that is very antiquated. The economy there is all cash-based. It’s all about your word, and handling these things that people project value onto. And there are these ancient little things scattered amongst all these modern elements: the jewelry and the gemstones. And swirling around all of that was all this crime and deceit and greed.

None of the stuff that is considered currency, and none of the precious metals and gems, actually have any inherent value.

JOSH: No. Not even cash. It’s just paper. Anyway, we got that version out, and after that was when we started to include Ronnie. After Daddy Longlegs, a very deep collaboration was born with Ronnie.

Ron Bronstein, the regular writer and editor

BENNY: Funny to think of him only through those titles, but yes.
JOSH: Once we started working on it with Ronnie, we dug deeper. We mined and it became a bigger and more complex film. We came to realize this was a big movie. But we didn’t earn our stripes yet to make a big movie. Daddy Longlegs was a small movie. Our next feature after that ended up being an even smaller movie than Daddy Longlegs, because we couldn’t get the money we needed—-to make Gems. We ended up making a documentary about a basketball player Lenny Cooke. That documentary actually came next, before Heaven Knows What.

Basketball

BENNY: It functions more as an addiction.

JOSH: Ever since we were kids. I remember the Knicks losing in ’94. I was ten and I was so deeply hurt. To this day I can’t hear or see John Starks and not feel
some type of way… Basketball is a deep love of ours because of the mania of
the game.

BENNY: In the documentary, we were really looking at a fallen idol—that’s who the character was. That journey took three years, making the documentary.
It’s funny, with that documentary we really learned more about fictional
storytelling, because in a documentary there are certain parts of the story
you can’t leave out.

JOSH: But along the way, there was always a meta-destination, which was Uncut Gems. When we were in the Diamond District doing research in 2013, I met a young woman named Arielle Holmes who was very interesting and dressed very nicely. And I said, “You should be in our movie.” Then I got to know her a little bit more. Turns out that her life was not what I saw on 47th Street. She was homeless with a heroin addiction. I ended up guiding her and paying her as a job to write her life down, and with Gems not taking off, we got totally wrapped up in this other world. So, we ended up adapting her pages and going on a tangent and making Heaven Knows What. Which in a weird way is kind of buried in Uncut Gems, because at the center of Heaven Knows What is this kind of toxic but also very, very hyper-romantic relationship. Which I guess
became the Julia and Howard story in Uncut Gems.

BENNY: From the get-go, there was always this pulp-genre element to Uncut Gems, but working with Ronnie, that element started to become more specific and bigger. There was this a crime element to Gems that we weren’t fully ready to tackle.  We didn’t really know how to do genre. And then we went and did Good Time.

Influence of 2001

JOSH: It’s funny you say that because 2001, arguably one of the greatest movies
ever made, was weirdly very inspiring in making this movie—the concept of
the universe existing in each of us. We are actually the aliens. We are all these
vessels for human wonder. We are all these individual monoliths. We all have
these crazy stories to tell.