Adam Sandler, 'Uncut Gems' Team Talk Capturing "Frenetic" Nature of New York

Uncut Gems premiere during the 57th New York Film Festival - Cast - Getty -H 2019
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The A24 film, from 'Good Time' directors Josh and Benny Safdie had its home-town premiere at the New York Film Festival on Thursday night.

Hollywood is no stranger to making movies in and about New York. What's rarer is something as deeply or authentically reflective of the city as Uncut Gems, the latest film from directing duo, brothers and native New Yorkers Josh and Benny Safdie.

"This city is frenetic, and there's no other way to describe this movie other than frenetic," said Uncut Gems actor Eric Bogosian at the New York Film Festival premiere of the A24 film on Thursday night. "I mean, you absolutely get caught up in the energy."

In addition to the Uncut Gems creative team, the screening was attended by a handful of star Adam Sandler's longtime friends and fellow comedians, including former SNL castmember and current Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, as well as Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels.

The film — which is slated to hit theaters on Dec. 13 —follows Howard Ratner (Sandler), a jewelry dealer and gambling addict working in New York's Diamond District whose latest scheme to make a fortune selling an Ethiopian diamond to (then-)Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett doesn't go exactly as planned.

The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Todd McCarthy called the film "a career high" for Sandler. Some view the role as a step outside the typical for the comedian, screenwriter and producer, but Sandler is no stranger to characters like Ratner, having played against type in films like Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

The similarities between some of his past work and his latest role aren't lost on Sandler, and while the Uncut Gems star said he loves and works hard on his comedies, he tried to pull away from how he approached that type of "Sandler" character this time around. "I actually kind of consciously thought about how not to do something that I know I've done before in the past," Sandler told THR at the premiere. "I only got one face, I only got one voice, but I tried to think differently as a guy in one of these situations."

In the film, Sandler is joined by fellow screen regulars Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Idina Menzel, and Lakeith Stanfield, along with a smattering of non-actors including Garnett, musician The Weeknd, sports radio host Mike Francesa and others the Safdies seemingly plucked right off New York's streets.

"There's all these New Yorkers that are celebrities in their own right," said Uncut Gems actress and relative newcomer Julia Fox. "It's really cool to share the screen with these people. They're not regular people, but they’re non-actors who are also icons."

The choice to cast non-actors and even actors with a long relationship to the city can produce performances that feel more genuinely real, and Francesa says it's because they are.

"[The Safdies] said, 'We want you to give us the same thing you do every day on the air,' so that's what I did," Francesa told THR. "They wanted my attitude, which is what I — you know, I'm known for having that on the air."

Some might look at the Safdies' approach to casting as unconventional or unique, but the brothers say none of it is out of the ordinary. "Every single person who plays in the film, they’re all absolutely vertically integrated," the Safdies said in an email to THR. "In other words, there simply is no one else who could play these parts."

The cast combined with the on-location filming in Manhattan’s Diamond District, where the Safdie brothers' father worked, results in an energy Francesa called true to the "demanding and quick" nature of New York. For Bogosian, that feeling of a city “just bubbling with this unfettered expansion,” rings true in everything within the film, right down to the scaffolding around the buildings, "which are constantly there in this movie — like they never bother to clear them." It's the world, the actor said, New Yorkers really live in. 

“The city is a fertile ground for mania. You can’t walk from A to B without passing a hundred narratives,” the brothers and co-directors said. “We try to allow the scenarios we’re putting the performers in to trigger that feeling that comes with knowing you’re one noise in a cacophony of noises. It allows the privacy to feel yours.”

Bogosian, who had never worked with two directors before, said that New York feeling seeped into his creative interactions with the Safdie brothers while filming. The Safdies would often switch back and forth between giving the actor direction, and Benny Safdie would also stand "like right next to you" with a boom mic in the scenes. It's an experience that might sound familiar to New Yorkers, who are used to cross-noise and little personal space. It was different from what Bogosian was used to on a set, but he ultimately enjoyed the experience, he said, because it put the Safdies in the middle of the action. 

“We treat filming in New York like a construction site more than a movie set,” the Safdies said. “It fits the vibe of the city. No one really stops and looks at what’s happening because everyone is just working and moving together to get it done. When people pass through the set, the end goal is for it to feel like part of the city.”

That raw approach to crafting the film is what Fox said she loves about working with the directors, who she said have a great eye for characters and “are such New Yorkers, through and through.”

"It felt good. It's very free, in a way," Sandler said about the Safdies' filming style. "You don't know where the cameras are, and sometimes you don't know what you're shooting. Sometimes I didn't know whether it was a close-up or far away, if I was blocking my face or where to look. The cameras were in positions that I hadn't seen before, so I didn't know what was happening. It was very New York in that way."