The Movies Of The Safdie Brothers, Makers Of 'Uncut Gems'

Dec 27, 2019
Originally published on December 27, 2019 5:14 am

Poor Howard. As the movie Uncut Gems starts, you can already tell the Diamond District jewel dealer (played by Adam Sandler) has a lot on his plate. And then you find out about the debts, and the gambling, and the marriage.

There's an unrelenting quality to Uncut Gems; it certainly took relentlessness to get it made. The movie has been the life's work for directors and brothers Josh and Benny Safdie: The two New York City filmmakers have been talking about making Uncut Gems as early as 2009.

Obstacles — like getting access to the tight-knit New York jewel trade for research — got in the way. So the Safdies made other movies. But Uncut Gems was always a "North Star project," and each film got them a little closer — deepened their skill set, got them more clout.

Those movies are more than just stepping stones, though. They each showcase different worlds and corners of New York.

Eugene Hernandez, the deputy director of Film at Lincoln Center, says the brothers were immediately some of the more unique filmmakers he'd seen: "Simply because they're so driven and focused and precise in the worlds they explore — but they're also kind of kooky."

Here's a quick primer on the filmography of the Safdies.

The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008)

What started as a commercial for the Kate Spade handbag company eventually became a movie about a kleptomaniac named Eleonore (Eleonore Hendricks). You follow her around New York City and watch her amble about; it's listless and meandering, but charming in its own way. The older Safdie (Josh) has a role as Eleonore's friend who goes with her on a road trip to Boston (in a stolen car, of course). Eleonore is driving. Also, Eleonore doesn't know how to drive. But things work out.

Daddy Longlegs (2010)

The Safdie brothers' parents were separated, and their relationship with their dad was the basis for their movie Daddy Longlegs. It's an empathetic look at a father who wants to be there for his two young sons more than he actually is — the type of dad who buys his kids hot dogs and ice cream after school, but doesn't know who their principal is, or how to talk to him. The movie got the brothers a lot of attention: It hit the festival circuit in 2009, was released in 2010 and at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards it earned the prestigious John Cassavetes Award.

Lenny Cooke (2013)

Lenny Cooke is a gripping non-narrated documentary about a star high-school basketball player who just never makes it at the next level. You see cameos from people who did make it, folks like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and they sting. The Safdies don't tell you why Cooke never made it — because there is no single why, just a bunch of them. The movie got talked about on the website WorldStarHipHop, which was enough cred to convince some jewelers in New York to open up to the brothers.

Heaven Knows What stars Arielle Holmes and is based on her experience as a homeless heroin addict in New York City.
Courtesy of Radius-TWC

Heaven Knows What (2014)

Josh Safdie met Arielle Holmes in the Diamond District while working on Gems. She was an addict and Josh convinced her to write her story into a book — which the brothers then adapted into a movie, with Holmes starring as a version of herself. Most of the roles in the movie were played by first-time actors — something that brings a sense of humanism to the Safdie's movies. Jennifer Venditti, a casting director who has worked with the Safdies for multiple movies, says that the brothers have a knack from bringing something special out of first-time actors: "Whatever your flaw is, whatever the thing that maybe someone else might treat you a certain way, judge you — they're going to lift you up for. They're going to see the beauty in it."

Good Time (2017)

The actor Robert Pattinson saw a still from Heaven Knows What and immediately got in touch with the Safdies. They tried writing him into Uncut Gems, but couldn't quite make it fit. So they fashioned this thriller about a small-time crook named Connie trying to gin up enough money to bail his brother out of prison. It's fast and heartbreaking, but leaves some space for quiet moments. There's a scene where he talks his way into the home of an elderly Haitian woman (Gladys Mathon) — it's a cramped home, but it feels warm and tender. And you know he's going to ruin everything.

Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted this story for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The movie "Uncut Gems" has been getting a lot of attention, especially for Adam Sandler's performance as Howard Ratner, a New York City Diamond District jeweler who, among other things, has a marriage that is falling apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

ADAM SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) It's 'cause you're mad. You're mad, and it makes sense. You can punch me if you want.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, thanks.

GREENE: The movie has been a decade in the making, a life's work for a pair of directors who also happen to be brothers, Josh and Benny Safdie. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this on the duo's career.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Josh is the older brother.

JOSH SAFDIE: Benny, can you...

BENNY SAFDIE: A very high...

J SAFDIE: ...Switch headphones? These ones are too big.

LIMBONG: And Benny's the younger one.

B SAFDIE: These are - yours are much - why'd you give me terrible headphones?

LIMBONG: They were born and raised in New York City where most of their movies are set. Their parents were separated, and their relationship with their dad was the basis for their 2009 movie "Daddy Longlegs." It's an empathetic look at a dad who wants to be there for his two young sons more than he actually is there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DADDY LONGLEGS")

RONALD BRONSTEIN: (As Lenny) Whoa, whoa, whoa, all right. Not on the floor, not - look. Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, stop.

LIMBONG: The type of dad who buys his kids hot dogs and ice cream after school but doesn't know who their principal is or how to talk to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DADDY LONGLEGS")

BRONSTEIN: (As Lenny) Don't reprimand me in front of my children. Do not reprimand me in front of my own kids, all right?

LIMBONG: The movie got them a lot of attention. It hit the festival circuit and the awards circuit. At the Independent Spirit Awards in 2011, it earned the prestigious John Cassavetes Award. Eugene Hernandez is the deputy director of film at Lincoln Center, which runs the New York Film Festival. He was there when the brothers showed it at Cannes.

EUGENE HERNANDEZ: They walked out on stage with Josh sitting on his younger brother's shoulders.

LIMBONG: He says even back then, they were some of the more unique filmmakers he'd seen.

HERNANDEZ: Simply because they're so driven and focused and precise in the worlds they explore. But they're also kind of kooky.

LIMBONG: In interviews for "Daddy Longlegs," the brothers mentioned their next feature, another movie partially inspired by their dad set in Manhattan's Diamond District called "Uncut Gems." Remember, it's 2009.

J SAFDIE: And we were hoping that it will be our last New York movie.

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: But obstacles, like getting access to the New York Jewel trade, got in the way, so they made other movies while keeping an eye on "Gems." Here's Josh.

J SAFDIE: "Uncut Gems" was kind of this North Star project for us. It was the meta destination. It was always - everything that we made in the interim was in service of making this movie.

LIMBONG: Each movie they made brought them a little closer to "Gems" - deepened their skill set, brought them more clout - but those movies are more than just stepping stones. They each showcased different worlds, different corners of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Crystal.

LIMBONG: There's a small scene in their 2017 movie "Good Time" where the main character, played by Robert Pattinson, rides a public shuttle meant for elderly people and people with disabilities to a tucked away neighborhood in Queens. And he cons his way into the home of an elderly Haitian woman played by Gladys Mathon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD TIME")

ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Connie Nikas) Is there any way I can use your phone just for, like, two minutes?

GLADYS MATHON: (As Annie) That's OK. That's OK.

PATTINSON: (As Connie Nikas) God bless you. God bless you.

LIMBONG: It feels tighter, more cramped than, say, Noah Baumbach's vision of Brooklyn but warmer than Scorsese's Manhattan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, unintelligible).

PATTINSON: (As Connie Nikas) It's freezing.

LIMBONG: Eugene Hernandez again.

HERNANDEZ: The Safdie brothers continue to bring certain places, communities, certain characters to life, sort of adding a richer kind of context to the kind of unique folks you see in a place like New York.

LIMBONG: That's partly due to who they cast - a lot of first-time actors and nonprofessionals pulled straight from whichever world they're making a movie about. Jennifer Venditti is a casting director who's worked with the Safdies on multiple films, including "Good Time" and "Uncut Gems." She says they have a knack for getting people who don't necessarily even want to be actors to find their own voice.

JENNIFER VENDITTI: Whatever your flaw is, whatever the thing that maybe someone else might treat you a certain way, judge you, they're going to lift you up for, they're going to see the beauty in it.

LIMBONG: In "Uncut Gems," there's one character, Phil, he's a raspy-voiced henchman type.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I'm Howard.

KEITH WILLIAMS RICHARDS: (As Phil) Phil.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) You don't bring him any water?

RICHARDS: (As Phil) I'm good on the water. I don't really need water. Thank you anyway.

LIMBONG: He looks like he's being played by a seasoned character actor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

RICHARDS: (As Phil) What'd I tell you? I said no water.

LIMBONG: But it was Keith Williams Richards' first role ever. They found him waiting for the L train.

VENDITTI: He was a little skeptical.

RICHARDS: I wasn't really on board with it, but these people were so nice.

LIMBONG: Keith Williams Richards says the key to the Safdies' success is in openness.

RICHARDS: And how they're willing to take a suggestion or, you know, how they search for the answers instead of saying, oh, this is what I want.

LIMBONG: What the Safdies found in Richards was the same thing they look for in any actor or story or setting - a moving detail or small beauty that you might miss because you weren't looking closely enough. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.