You know how that final sequence in Goodfellas is one heart-pounding show-stopping rollercoaster that keeps building tension and seemingly never lets up?
Imagine that for an entire movie. That's Uncut Gems.
The movie keeps you hooked for the entire dizzying run time, but even more amazing is HOW it does it.
We'll dive into that as one of our 5 reasons you have to go see this movie if you are a filmmaker or film lover. And we'll avoid spoilers.
Some of our reasons will get a lot of attention elsewhere. That's why we want to start off with a really big one, that every filmmaker can apply to all their work.
It's really just about how you handle exposition.
1. Show don't tell
Ever heard this before?
Of course, you have!
It's supposed to be one of the basic rules of all writing and storytelling. Somewhere along the way it was morphed, it's true definition lost, and it's superpower effects forgotten.
If we're talking about how badass Uncut Gems is we have to talk about its bones, and its bones are sturdy because the movie is fanatic in its devotion to the idea of showing and not telling.
What is show don't tell?
Show don't tell is a storytelling method that provides the reader with an experience through actions and behaviors instead of through exposition and description.
It's the writer's equivalent of "actions speak louder than words."
But the problem is writers only have words!
So this is why "show don't tell" is about learning to thread the needle.
How does a scene in a movie show us who a character is rather than telling us?
Show don't tell examples
Well, the most obvious 'telling' would be for a character to come into a room and say to another character, "Look, Howard Ratner, I know you're very busy and stressed out about what happened last week with your brother-in-law..."
That's exposition. And look, maybe it's critical that we communicate to the audience that:
a) Howard Ratner is stressed
b) Something his going on with his Brother-in-law.
But there are other ways to do this, right?
Can we SHOW all of this to the audience? Through behaviors and actions.
If we do that then we're doing a better job telling the story.
Because we're literally engaging the audience. They become active in storytelling. Inside their minds.
Because they wonder why Howard is acting so fucking stressed!
What's up with Howard? Throughout Uncut Gems we know Howard is feeling pressure from all sides because of how he's behaving. We don't know the full extent of the reasons, we don't know his relationships to his creditors, we don't know what his plots to escape his problems are.
It's all shown to us. The movie unfurls the tale before our eyes, without sitting us down and saying "look, here is the deal."
Now your audience's brain is working. Not in a way that's unpleasant for them, but in a way that they can't control. You have them wondering about what is going on.
Is the expository method of having one character describe Howard's state and the reason behind it ok?
Sure. You can have moments where a character speaks out loud some information the audience needs. To some extent, it may be unavoidable.
But the less you do it... the more engaged your audience is.
George Lucas, Akira Kurosawa, and the Safdie Brothers?
Yes, we're still talking about "show don't tell".
George Lucas famously cites Akira Kurosawa as one of his major influences. Specifically when it came to crafting Star Wars. What does this have to do with Uncut Gems?
A lot, actually!
Lucas said one thing he loved about watching Kurosawa movies was that he was plunked into the middle of a world he didn't totally understand. When he first watched The Hidden Fortress, he did not know the history guiding the plot. He did not know the rules or the characters. He was... transported. And his mind was active in figuring it all out.
That's why when he made his space epic he wanted to leave a lot of the rules unstated. He just wanted to throw audiences 'in medias res', and let them go along for the adventure.
Even if you know the diamond district in New York City, you do not know Howard Ratner, and you do not know the significance of the stone that the miners found in the opening minutes of Uncut Gems.
You will not be told much along the way either. Instead, you will be either on Howard's shoulder or up in his grill, for the rest of the movie. You will learn what is happening to him as it comes up in the natural course of things.
There are very few moments where a character will explain something for the benefit of the audience. Oh, it happens.
Kevin Garnett, playing himself, will come into Howard's shop and he will learn about Howard and what he does, but it will all feel somewhat natural because it will be through explainig his business to a potential client.
More importantly, tons of things will be left out. Things about Howard's desperate financial situation, things about his fractured family, things about his mistress.
Some things in Uncut Gems are never explained, and audiences will only be able to determine them once they've sat with the movie and considered the events.
Using what the audience knows
One stumbling block for creators when it comes to the idea of "show don't tell" is that there is a concern that audiences will not know what's going on.
There are a number of things in Uncut Gems that not every audience member will understand completely. This is better than ok. It's good.
Here are a few things, without spoilers, that the story covers with minimal explanation.
The Jewish faith, practices, and holidays.
Gambling and more specifically sports betting.
The NBA in 2012.
You might know a little about some of these things or even a lot about some of them, and it doesn't actually matter either way. You will learn what you need to because you'll be watching the characters' behaviors.
The filmmakers don't worry about what the audience might know about any of these things, they just let the audience experience the story, and then not knowing the specifics suddenly ads layers of interest.
It adds mise-en-scene as much as that gorgeous 35mm film grain adds to the image.
There are some motivations behind certain critical character actions that are left obfuscated forever. The story doesn't bother unveiling the reasons behind everything.
It is amazing how much you can draw an audience in when you decide to treat them like they can figure things out for themselves.
Ok, let's talk reason number 2...
2. Sandler Reborn
The Oscar buzz around this movie is around Adam Sandler. And while he was the first choice a long time ago, casting headaches forced the Safdies to take a circuitous route back to him.
Let's be honest, Adam Sandler hasn't had the best decade or two in terms of stuff people adore and respect. He's been plenty active, but his street cred took a major hit. He'll always be the comic genius beloved by many for his time on SNL, Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and even some others.
But he never quite found the crossover into 'serious roles', despite a few efforts, and his recent comedies haven't hit the same mark the early ones did.
One of the coolest things in this industry is when an established superstar shows audiences a side of their talent and charisma nobody saw coming. It's oftentimes a step towards an award.
It's almost always the step towards a role and film that achieve legend status.
In the case of Sandler and the Safdies, the right combination of timing and talents led to something amazing. A star we've seen for decades is reborn in a new light. Still hilarious, but now also tormented by demons both inside and out.
This is the Sandler performance for the ages, and it's a testament to the kind of energy and vision young filmmakers can bring to the table. They crafted a role, but they also were persistent in their pursuit of Sandler for it. Once he was onboard lighting struck on celluloid.
You have to see what they've created together, not just to enjoy it, but to be inspired by the idea that YOU should pursue your dream cast. You should consider what names large or small work in an interesting way. That's one of the main ways you get a movie made, after all.
Casting stars is more than getting funding. It can also mean layering your character and creating a new chapter in a storied career.
3. The rest of this cast
Casting Adam Sandler at the center of a dark gritty NYC drama is bold. Casting a number of people who don't act for a living around him is increasingly bold.
But the Safdies seem to have known exactly what they were doing.
Just as they were careful with how they treated knowledge and information in the story via show don't tell, they are careful again with talent.
Kevin Garnett, for example, is playing himself. But his persona as an all-in super intense NBA star comes into play here. Even if you don't know how Kevin Garnett approached the game (uber-competitive to the point of seeming crazed) you will pick that up as you watch, because it becomes a massive story point.
Mike Francesa is a New York sports radio personality, and in this story, he plays Howard's bookie. Francesa's voice is a distinct part of the New York sports fabric. Even if you don't know this, you will hear it in his voice because... that's who he is. That's what he brings to the table. The Weeknd's established fame is interesting since he plays himself here at the beginning of his fame.
There are other well-known talents featured in the movie; Idina Menzel, Judd Hirsch, Eric Bogosian, and LaKeith Stanfield, to name a few.
But maybe the biggest scene-stealer/show stopper is Julia Fox who plays Howard's mistress, also named Julia.
Fox isn't an actress by trade. She's an artist, model, filmmaker, and friend of the Safdies. She also was the basis for the character, which is again part of the hyper-real creation of the film.
This character is a femme fatale by way of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie. That dark, funny, and insane juxtaposition is the DNA of the entire movie.
The casting wasn't easy, and before Martin Scorsese became an Exec on the film, there was a table read with what the Safdie's call a 'bizarro cast'. But landing on the performers they did adds layers of realism and intrigue to the story.
Speaking of realism...
4. The gritty NYC movie we need
The last few decades have seen an ongoing love affair between filmmaking and what is considered 'dark and gritty'. It's sort of become a punchline itself, but it hasn't slowed everyone down in terms of constantly recasting ideas and IP as the dark & gritty take.
It might all come from a certain era of movie-making (the 1970s) and a certain era of New York (70s-80s), that some of us experienced first hand and all of us have watched. That dirty, grimy, old New York sticks with you.
Joker was one of the big movies this year that took us back to that time and place, except that it was really Gotham City.
Uncut Gems is extremely New York. And while it takes place in 2012, it has so much in common on a spiritual level with the Midnight Cowboys and Taxi Drivers of the world.
Here is a list of Josh Safdie's 10 favorite New York movies and... well... that's the list that Uncut Gems obviously owes a lot to...
This creation of New York, without using a period or film stock, is one way that a filmmaker can pay homage to the things that influenced them. How do the films you love seep into what you do, even if you aren't remaking them? Can you capture the spirit? The essence? The things that inspire you most?
One of the fascinating things is that Uncut Gems feels influenced by these movies, but it does not have much in common with them from a story perspective, it has its own unique voice and story to tell. Which brings us too...
5. Tell the story only you can tell
I lied. Show don't tell is the second most important reason to see this movie, if you're a filmmaker. The first is this one.
Recently I spoke with Michelle Satter, a founding Director of The Sundance Institute. One of the things she emphasized is how the Institute develops talent by helping artists tell the story only they can tell. That's also what Sundance looks for when programming.
Uncut Gems is a great example of this.
In the industry it becomes easy for us to think about the stories we think will sell. The ideas we think will be popular. The pitches we think might get us past one gate-keeper and in a room with the next.
We often all become experts on what will work for audiences at large. What people will want to watch. What they won't go for.
Every time people try to predict such things they have a very good chance of being wrong.
Here is one thing you can't be wrong about: what you like.
A satisfied audience of one is better than a satisfied audience of zero.
The Safdies were inspired to make this movie in part by a man they knew. They were also inspired by a world they were familiar with. They told it in a way that was unique to their reality, and their taste. This isn't a movie you could pitch in a room in Hollywood and convince anyone it'd play well in Texas.
Looking at that handwritten list of favorite New York City movies from Josh Safdie's Instagram account is a reminder of the personal nature of this type of story, how it has lived in him and his brother for some time now.
Here is the thing:
You should think about your versions of this type of storytelling. But you should also support examples of it when the marketplace presents it to audiences. Because whether you love or hate Uncut Gems, it's the spirit of filmmaking we want to see more of, right?
What's the story only you can tell in your unique voice?
Uncut Gems is in theaters now. Go see it.