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The Untold Truth Of Uncut Gems

The 2019 film "Uncut Gems" is a thriller in a realm all its own, a film so propulsive and full of tension that it is at once anxiety-inducing and transcendent. Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson called it "a feature-length panic attack, in the best way."

"Uncut Gems," co-directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, stars Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a diamond dealer with a gambling addiction. With the arrival of a rare black opal, Howard endeavors to pay off his debts while coming out on top, placing bets and making deals in an intricate house-of-cards attempt to win big. The cast of characters includes basketball player Kevin Garnett, who borrows the opal for good luck, his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox), and a host of authentic New York characters. The film's gritty aesthetic and heart-pounding pace made it both a critical and commercial success. Here are some hidden gem facts about "Uncut Gems."

The Safdie brothers worked on the script for nearly a decade

The project that would eventually become "Uncut Gems" was something that writer/director brothers Josh and Benny Safdie spent years refining. They were inspired by stories their father told about working in the Diamond District in New York City, stories Josh once described as "pulp-driven" (via Vox).

The Safdies took the screenplay through many iterations, the first of which was essentially an adaptation of their father's stories. Then, they expanded it to explore more people within the Diamond District ("At one point, the story was so sprawling we had people encouraging us to make it a TV show," Josh Safdie told Complex). Eventually, they pared it back down to focus on their main character, Howard.

All of these rewrites took place over several years, with stops and starts in between as other projects came up. With each project, the Safdies learned something new and improved upon their craft. Telling stories in their films "Heaven Knows What" and "Daddy Longlegs" got some elements "out of their system," as Benny Safdie said, allowing them to whittle away at the story (via Complex). "Good Time" was great practice for the team in terms of focusing on pace and plot. Co-writer and Safdie collaborator Ronnie Bronstein told Complex that it was after "Good Time" that "Uncut Gems" began to look like the film it eventually became: "Literally the day after we finished 'Good Time,' we were able to just dismantle the script, finally get rid of all these outmoded vestiges and rebuild it using the muscles that we developed."

The production had to gain the trust of the Diamond District in order to shoot there

An important part of the prep work for "Uncut Gems" involved the Safdies' efforts to embed themselves in the Diamond District. Because of the high-profile clients and handshake deals that take place in the area, the Safdies knew that they would need to win over the people in whose territory they'd be filming. "In the beginning I couldn't even pull out a phone to take a picture without someone coming out and grabbing my phone," Josh Safdie told Entertainment Weekly. "... It really all became about gaining the trust of the people who work there and knowing that we were not going to expose anyone."

Because it took so long to get the film made, the Safdies had a lot of time to make friends and connections within the Diamond world. They became friends with Joe Avianne, owner of Avianne & Co, and Avianne's son even appears in the film (via TIME). Eventually, Adam Sandler was also brought into the Diamond District fold, as he shadowed many jewelers and Diamond Dealers to prepare for his role.

Before Kevin Garnett, the script was written with many other players in mind

Over the decade Josh and Benny Safdie spent writing "Uncut Gems," they considered many different basketball players to star in the film. As avid Knicks fans, their first choice was Amar'e Stoudemire, and it was a run of Stoudemire's 2012 games that they originally wrote the script around. But the years went by, it became clear that Stoudemire wouldn't work for the project. So, encouraged by their agents at WME, the brothers rewrote the script for Kobe Bryant. However, by the time they finished that draft and got it to Bryant, they were told, "Oh, Kobe's only interested in directing now" (via Complex). Not to be discouraged, the brothers turned to a contemporary player: Joel Embiid. However, his game schedule wouldn't work with filming (via Entertainment Weekly).

At this point, the film was coming together and the Safdies needed to cast someone and rewrite the script. Their producers gave them a list of possible players, which included Celtics player (and Knicks nemesis) Kevin Garnett. "We saw Kevin on the list and at first it was tough," Benny Safdie told Entertainment Weekly. "But then you realize he plays with such passion and energy that of course it's going to work." Garnett had seen a documentary the Safdies made, "Lenny Cooke," and liked the film, and when the three men all met in person, the creative chemistry was undeniable.

It was important to the Safdies to use a real-world basketball team and real games

While it was an incredible challenge to rewrite the "Uncut Gems" script for each basketball player who could potentially star in the film, the Safdie brothers never considered simply creating a fictional situation. "We wanted that juxtaposition, that dichotomy, of a real world within the fictional world," Josh Safdie told Vox. "It increased the stakes and enriched the movie. It also would have been very expensive to cast an actor and stage the games," he added pragmatically.

While it might have been less expensive, using a real-life player and real games made the writing process very difficult. The Safdies would go through pages of basketball statistics trying to find a run of games that fit the structure of the film — a great game, a bad game, a great game (via Entertainment Weekly). When they finally cast Kevin Garnett in the role, everything fell into place: They were able to find a run of games that fit their desired time period and, as an added bonus, were playoff games, raising the stakes even higher.

Adam Sandler rigorously prepared for his role

Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, Josh Safdie recalled that, when Adam Sandler's wife Jackie saw "Uncut Gems" for the first time, she told Sandler "It wasn't you, it was a totally different person on the screen." Sandler's work in the film is indeed transformative, and that is in huge part due to the enormous amount of work he put into the role. "Even during downtime on set when Adam would be out of character, he would then just spend that time thinking about, like, why Howard did the things he did in character that day," Benny Safdie told Complex.

Prior to the shoot, Sandler spent months shadowing real jewelers in New York City's Diamond District, studying their every move. "There's a certain way you hold a stone with the tweezer. There's a certain way you have to hold the loupe," jeweler Joe Avianne told The Ringer. "He has to go to somebody who knows how to do this for a living. So he learned from us." With every tiny mannerism Sandler learned, he managed to change into his character Howard Ratner on a molecular level. The costume's teeth, glasses, and earrings helped even more, letting the kind and amiable Sandler truly become the flawed character of Howard Ratner (via New York Times Magazine).

The Safdies included many first-time actors and friends in the film

Josh and Benny Safdie are known for their "guerilla" filmmaking, using first-time actors, tiny budgets, and real-life settings. While "Uncut Gems" was their largest production to date, they still kept to this creative ethic, and the film is populated with many first-time actors and friends who are playing a version of their real selves. "Any given project with [the Safdies], there's going to be these sudden stars or these, like, wildly interesting, bizarre people that they'll meet through encounters on the street," the film's composer Daniel Lopatin told Complex. Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd, Trinidad James, and jewelry designer Greg Yuna all appear as themselves in the film, and among the first-time actors were a bevy of jewelers and characters that were cast off the street, including Julia Fox.

For the Safdies, this mix of professional actors, real people, and first-time actors is a magic recipe. "Our whole thing is that life is made up of lots of different actors," casting director Jennifer Venditti told The Ringer. "And there's an alchemy in mixing a professional actor with someone that maybe is a professional in the world that you're depicting." According to many different accounts, the Safdies do a wonderful job of making everyone feel comfortable and confident. Additionally, the professional actors are excited by the spontaneity the mix provides — Garnett recalled that Sandler never let a flubbed line halt the scene, but would take it as a chance to inject life into that moment (via Entertainment Weekly).

The Safdies wrote extensive bios and pages of backstory for each character

In order to fully realize the depths of their cast of characters, the Safdie brothers and fellow writer Ronnie Bronstein wrote detailed backstories for each character. "They wrote pages and pages of backstory –- how they met, how religious they were, what the history was with her father and how they got along and then things went sour or things like that — which was so wonderful and helpful," actress Idina Menzel, who plays Howard's wife Dinah, told Complex. For every moment in the story, the directors were able to explain a character's perspective but were also open to the input of their actors and subjects. Casting director Jennifer Venditti told The Ringer that she conducted long informational interviews during the audition process in order to find details and dialogue that could be incorporated into the parts.

The professional actors loved having such a wealth of material to pull from, but the first-time actors were often even more grateful for this extra preparation from the directors. "That's their gold," Kevin Garnett told Complex. "They're able to get you to be the best you that you can be." While the vast majority of these backstories and details never appear in the movie, they contribute to the depth of the film.

The Safdies were inspired by their Jewish heritage

Among the less-flattering attributes of Howard Ratner, the "Uncut Gems" character is scheming and materialistic. In some ways, the character has the attributes of an anti-Semitic stereotype — but that's just on the surface. For the Safdies, they find the way Howard wields his often-stereotypical identity as "a superpower" to be empowering, and a way to punch back at anti-Semitic tropes that have been forced onto Jews since the Middle Ages (via Slate). Additionally, the near-journalistic preparation Sandler and the Safdie brothers took in developing Howard is true to the spirit of the traditional Diamond District salesman. "The character was very accurately portrayed in mannerisms, clothing, jewelry, and even the love of the NBA," a former Diamond District worker said in The Times of Israel.

The brothers were inspired by American Jews in the early 1900s, who made their mark on society without backing away from their heritage, such as Lenny Bruce, Don Rickle, and Rodney Dangerfield. The film, which includes a Passover Seder, is very much steeped in the Jewish culture to which its directors belong. "I think the humor of the film is explicitly Jewish. I think that the concept of being a Knicks fan is explicitly Jewish. This concept of learning through suffering is very Old Testament," Josh Safdie told Slate.

The Weeknd was a fan of the Safdies prior to appearing in the film

One of the most memorable sequences in "Uncut Gems" takes place in the 10AK club, where The Weeknd is putting on an intimate performance. This reflects the year in which the film is set — 2012 — before the artist gained mainstream popularity.

Long before The Weeknd got involved with the film, he became friends with Josh and Benny Safdie. Apparently, he had seen "Good Time" and was a massive fan of the film, so he reached out to the Safdies himself. "As we got closer to production we became friendly with the Weeknd, who's a big movie guy," Josh Safdie told Entertainment Weekly. "We met through 'Good Time' — he was a fan of that, and just became friends."

The musician was also responsible for getting another real-life performer involved in the film: Trinidad James, who saw The Weeknd post about "Good Time" on Instagram. "I don't know Weeknd like that, but I do know he doesn't really just talk out of his ass," James told Complex. So James watched the film himself, and reached out to the brothers to congratulate them on it. The Safdies, who were already fans of James' music, asked him to be part of one of their movies, and the rest is history.

The costume designer searched high and low for the perfect 2012 looks

The film's 2012 setting presented a peculiar challenge to "Uncut Gems” costume designer Miyako Bellizi, as the time was neither long ago enough for the right items to be vintage, nor recent enough to use contemporary clothing. "It's a very tricky year. It's interesting, going back in time," Bellizi told Complex. "My favorite part of what I do is the research component. That year is going, like, back to Before Instagram... That was the height of Blogspot. [I had to] go deep into people's blog party photos." Bellizi scoured second-hand stores to find the items that fit the proto-streetwear style of the time, and encouraged many of the street-cast extras to bring their own clothing.

Main character Howard Ratner added another layer of complexity to the costuming, as it was important for him to be distinctly out-of-style, while simultaneously gaudy. Bellizi and consultant Mordechai Rubinstein interviewed jewelers in the Diamond District and even convinced the diamond dealers to show them their closets (via Vogue). They composited Howard's look from many of the real-life people they met, coming up with an out-of-date, "nouveau riche" aesthetic that is perfect for him -– from his mustard-colored shirt and worn leather sports jacket all the way down to his shoes.

Julia Fox is very similar to her character

Josh and Benny Safdie met Julia Fox years before making "Uncut Gems." At the time, Fox was a well-known socialite and artist in the New York City club scene, and because Fox and the Safdies were running in similar circles, it was somewhat inevitable that they would eventually meet. The brothers decided to base the "Uncut Gems" character on Fox, and then years later invited her to read the script. According to The Guardian, Fox's reaction to the script was to call up the Safdies and ask them "Have you been spying on me?" As he continued to work on the script, Josh Safdie said that he'd often call Fox and ask for feedback. "I would call her on a whim when I had writer's block, and I would ask her for advice. The character was just kind of constantly evolving to become more specific to her," he told the New York Times. In 2022, Fox declared that she was Josh Safdie's "muse" for the film, due to how much she and the character were intertwined (via Rolling Stone).

However, despite all these similarities, Fox was not immediately cast as Julia in the film. "They auditioned about 300 girls," Fox told The Guardian. "I heard Lady Gaga's name thrown around." Of course, Fox did eventually get the part, and the Safdies encouraged her to make it her own. In fact, the scene where Julia shows Howard her new tattoo was based on Fox's real-life experience (via Complex).

One of the stunts got dangerous for Adam Sandler

With a film as intense as "Uncut Gems," it's not surprising that the production occasionally took on some of that potency as well. Talking to Entertainment Weekly, Adam Sandler said that while he tried to leave Howard Ratner on set, he sometimes brought work home in the form of bruises. "The boys went at me pretty good — they beat me up I'd say maybe 120 different angles worth. And yeah I had some spots on my body," Sandler said, referring to the sequence where Ratner is kidnapped outside the school where his child's play is happening. At one point, Sandler tried to tap out when the scene was getting too rough, and luckily the stunt coordinator noticed before he choked.

According to the Safdies, this happened largely because they were working with first-time actors. "They were very professional, but when it's your first time ... it started to actually get a little scary one or two times," Josh Safdie told Entertainment Weekly. Eric Bogosian, the actor who plays Howard's brother-in-law, said he also took part in showing the ropes to the first-time actors. "I was like, guys, you do understand that if you actually break his arm or something, then he's going to have to stop shooting? " he told Uproxx, adding that the men were "a pretty sweet bunch of guys."