I’m not sure what to expect from Joshua and Benjamin Safdie. The New Yorkers have, over the last decade and a bit, taken successively greater leaps towards cinema’s high table. Their early feature Daddy Longlegs, a rough comic drama, was a surprise inclusion at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight in 2008. Lenny Cooke, a basketball documentary, and Heaven Knows What, the powerful tale of a heroin addict, attracted greater levels of attention.
More recently, the brothers have skirted awkward corners of the mainstream. Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson as a useless ex-con, and the incoming Uncut Gems, in which Adam Sandler plays a financially embarrassed diamond dealer, establish an aesthetic that, while acknowledging predecessors such as Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes, clatters its way into hitherto unexplored territories. Both films are funny and exciting. They are also deafening, scary and just a little alienating.
One wouldn’t be altogether surprised to encounter two characters from a Dostoevsky novel. They’re not that. Josh and Ben have just learned that the New York Film Critics Circle has awarded them the best director prize for Uncut Gems. Take that, Scorsese and Almodóvar. The boys positively bounce on the shared sofa.
“That was insane. The people that we were with is just crazy,” Ben says. “It’s a true honour.”
The Safdies turn out to be merry chatterboxes. Josh (the slighter one with the beard) speaks in a more deliberate, measured tone. Ben (so good as Pattinson’s mentally disabled brother in Good Time) is at home to a delighted cackle throughout. The first issue at hand is the complicated history of Uncut Gems. They have been planning the film for a decade, but events kept getting in the way.
“About 10 years ago, after Daddy Long Legs, we became inspired by these stories our dad would tell,” Joshua says. “When we were little kids, he was working as a runner and salesman in the Diamond District. They were always entertaining. These would make for a great film. The first version wasn’t right. It was more episodic …”
There’s a lot more where that came from. While Josh is working through the ups and downs of Uncut Gems, let us ponder what a peculiar beast it turned out to be. The plot is skeletal. Sandler plays Howard Ratner (more about the resonances of that name in a moment), a desperate jeweller trying to flog a valuable gem before the bookies lose patience and nail him to the nearest wall. The bustle and hustle are exhausting. The tension is incessant.
All those years ago, the brothers were certain that Sandler was the man for the job. But they were struggling independent filmmakers and he was among the biggest stars in America.
“We tried to get it to Sandler,” Josh continues. “He said no. Well, we couldn’t even get it to him. Our movie wasn’t high profile enough. We made a basketball documentary. That was our first educational detour. Ha ha!”
“That was only supposed to take six months and it took four years,” Ben adds.
We thought about Sacha Baron Cohen. We thought about a more serious version of Borat. That is what those guys are like. They are Uzbecki Jews
In the process of their research for what became Uncut Gems they encountered a young woman in the Diamond District called Arielle Holmes. Her struggles with heroin and crack cocaine inspired Heaven Knows What. Holmes played a version of herself in a film that generated ecstatic reviews without quite breaking out of the arthouse. It did, however, attract the attention of one R Pattinson. That admirable actor, endlessly supportive of upcoming talent, allowed Good Time – their first entry in the main competition at Cannes – to move forward, and the film’s success finally persuaded Sandler to pay attention.
“We had a look at a lot of other actors,” Josh says. “We thought about Sacha Baron Cohen. We thought about a more serious version of Borat. That is what those guys are like. They are Uzbecki Jews. We did a table read with him and some very interesting people – Isla Fisher, John David Washington, Tom Sizemore – and that all seemed fascinating.”
Martin Scorsese came on as executive producer. Jonah Hill was interested for a while. But Sandler remained their first pick. Anyone who still suspects that he is good only for whining like a ninny while Rob Schneider pours spaghetti sauce over his head clearly hasn’t seen his work in Reign Over Me or Punch-Drunk Love. No less a judge than Daniel Day-Lewis has expressed himself a massive Sandler fan.
“It was funny to hear Adam talk,” Ben says. “’They want to meet me? But they already know what I can do. Yes or no?’ But he understood. ‘Okay, I’ll meet with them.’ We always knew we needed him to be in this film. Howard is a person who is going to test you. And you get that from Sandler.”
So, what is Sandler like? Rightly or wrongly, we feel we have some grasp of what makes Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio tick. But the inner Sandler remains hidden. He does few print interviews. He’s rarely heard talking about anything apart from the current project.
“He is a fascinating guy, a very unique person,” Ben says. “He has a burning desire to overwhelm himself with something inspiring. But he is also a very private person. He gives everything to the person he’s talking to. He was such a movie star in the nineties. He blew up in such a big way. After that he wanted to make sure he had a private life.”
Their path towards professional filmmaking was an unusual one
Like Sandler, Ben and Josh are proud Jewish sons of New York City. Their parents split up when they were children and they spent time travelling from dad in Queens to their mom’s new family in Manhattan. They’ve made no secret of the fact that it was their father’s tales of the Diamond District that inspired Uncut Gems. I worry for them. Though he has his good points, Howard comes across as irresponsible, dishonest and unfaithful. I’m taking it that he’s not a version of Mr Safdie.
“No, it was an introduction to that world,” Josh says. “He gave us access to that world. From there it grew into actual research on the Diamond District. The similarity is there. They are both people who have their flaws and you have to look past those to find the gem inside. You are confronted with this person and you find yourself on his side.”
They certainly seem to have been fond of their dad. Josh and Ben began experimenting with cameras when they were still kids. As they tell it now, their eccentric early projects were often aimed and impressing or influencing the older Safdie.
“We made a film about a smoker who loves the Knicks and who dies of lung cancer. We knew our dad watched the tapes, you see,” Ben says.
“Yeah, it was sort of a commercial,” Josh continues. “We wanted him to watch it because we wanted him to stop smoking. We also made a film about a basketball player that I was in. Funnily enough I was always acting. Now you do all the acting. Ha ha!”
Their path towards professional filmmaking was an unusual one. Josh found himself making a short film to promote Kate Spade handbags and, almost by accident, saw that project escalate into his first feature. When the boys came back together, however, they discovered that the work profited from their brotherly camaraderie. The films look like nobody else’s. They also sound like nobody else’s. Music that might elsewhere be described as “ambient” is cranked up to pneumatic-drill levels. Background conversation swells. City noise forms a constant underscore. No film school teaches you to do it this way.
“We had people on set saying: ‘This is a bad idea. You don’t want to do this,’” Joshua says. “We let them know we have done several films already. We know what we’re doing.”
Usually extras in the background mime conversations, leaving the actual “rhubarb, rhubarb” to post-production boffins. But the Safdies encouraged those in the periphery to talk away.
“There was one moment where we stopped filming because there actually wasn’t enough talking in the background,” Ben says. “Then we get to post and you find that you need to add more. We had people doing more background dialogue. We added buzzers. We added sound from the street. It’s so amazing. There was a scene and in it you hear a siren come up. We hear these crises in the distance start and then fade away. That’s city life.”
I get the sense that there is little the Safdies haven’t thought through in detail. This is chaos at its most ruthlessly organised. But there’s always some detail you overlooked. Not until they crossed the Atlantic did they realise that Howard Ratner’s surname had wider associations in the world of jewellery. Astonishingly, it is now nearly 30 years since Gerald Ratner, founder of the company that bore his name, nearly ruined himself by referring to one of his own products as “crap” in a speech.
“We just learnt that two interviews ago from the BBC and thought: ‘Yeah, that seems so appropriate,’” Ben says. “Here’s another guy you can’t forget. A dramatic rise and a dramatic fall.”
The moral was: don’t disrespect your fans.
They nod vigorously. I have no fear they’ll take any of their’s for granted.
Uncut Gems is out now; it streams on Netflix from January 31st