Casting changes, Harvey Keitel, and a Tom Cruise movie helped turn Uncut Gems into one of 2019's must-see films and a strong contender for Oscar.
Uncut Gems is one of the best movies of the year. It is also one of the most brutal and tense experiences you'll ever have in a movie theater.
The Safdie Brothers (Good Times), along with star Adam Sandler and executive producer Martin Scorsese, have told a seedy, warts-and-all crime drama about a shady AF New York jeweler named Howard (Sandler), his obsession with the titular opal from Africa, and the equal parts violent and squeamish the consequences of that obsession have on both him and his family. Especially him. (The movie is inspired by a real-life figure brothers Benny and Josh Safdie knew that worked with their father.)
Sandler delivers a career-best performance, but we almost missed out on it. It's well-known that the Happy Gilmore actor passed on the project -- back in 2010 (!) -- when it was first offered to him. But what isn't well known are the other actors that the filmmakers had circling and involved in the movie at various points in its development. In an interview with Uproxx, the directors revealed how they eventually landed Sandler -- but not without some serious logistics headaches from the respective stars of Hugo and 21 Jump Street, respectively.
How 'Uncut Gems' Cast Sandler
It took almost 10 years for Uncut Gems to get made. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jonah Hill were both involved with the project, but Benny Safdie says the former was never really attached.
"[Cohen] was never attached, but we went down a year-long thing with him. Harvey Keitel at one point…," Benny said.
Keitel was approached after Sandler said no. As Josh Safdie explained to Uproxx: "We were like, 'who can we get to here?' And the guy who inspired the initial story, it was an older guy ... He was in his sixties when our dad worked for him. This guy was in his sixties. So we decided, let’s age up the character. So we aged up the character, and the character was a lot about him being old. And Harvey Keitel was amazing. And we went down a road with him for a little bit. Maybe about eight months or something. Maybe less than that, maybe six months."
Benny Safdie: It was him and [basketball player] Amar’e Stoudemire.
Josh Safdie: We did a Shabbat dinner at Amar’e’s house. We went to his house, and Harvey Keitel was there with his family and Amar’e’s family. And eventually it was just not right. It wasn’t the movie we wanted to make.
Scorsese attached himself to the project after the Safdie's feature film, 2014's Heaven Knows What, received critical acclaim upon release. Josh Safdie says that once Scorsese got onboard, that "really lifted the profile of the movie. He actually attached himself in the middle of our courtship with Sacha. Actually, before we went to Sasha, we tried one last go at Sandler. Sandler’s team in 2014 or 2015 just, again, said not available."
The first time they spoke with Sandler, it was in 2010, and, according to Josh, "it was like: 'Who the fuck do you guys think you are?' And it felt weird."
What also could have felt "weird" for audiences was seeing Jonah Hill in the lead role, which the production flirted with.
Josh Safdie: So what happened was is that we did a table read with Sacha Baron Cohen. Actually right at the time when Marty attached himself, we did a table read. It was like the Bizarro Jerry episode of Seinfeld. It was Bizarro Gems. It was Sacha Baron Cohen. Riley Keough who was playing the Julia character. Asad Berg who was playing The Weeknd’s role. Amar’e Stoudemire was playing Kevin Garnett’s role. Isla Fisher played the Dinah part. Jerry Ferrara was in it. John David Washington was playing Lakeith’s part. Tom Sizemore was doing the Bogosian part. It was like a really weird reading.
Benny Safdie: John David was great though.
Josh Safdie: J. D. was amazing. He’s a very talented actor. He would have been good in the movie, but we couldn’t figure it out.
Benny Safdie: I got really in love with Lakeith too. Lakeith should know that.
Josh Safdie: And then Jonah was a fan of Heaven Knows What. And we had a couple of friends in common. So then he took us to lunch and said, “Guys, let’s collaborate.” And he hadn’t read the script, but he knew about it. And we couldn’t get Sacha to commit. So we’re like, okay, we have this big star here saying he wants to do the movie, now that Scorsese’s involved. Jonah’s like, “Scorsese is one the few people I take orders from.” That’s what he told us. And he’s like, I want to collaborate with you guys. So we’re like, okay, you’re an amazing actor and it would be kind of cool to work with a peer. Someone our age. So, he attached himself. And we had a really hard time figuring out a way to age the character down.
Benny Safdie: So we had a really hard time. We aged the kids really young. The whole thing. I mean, it’s not that it’s unrealistic that people can be 34 and have eight-year-old children. It’s also the way that you would attach to the character is very different. If Howard’s younger, the lovability aspect is a little bit different.
Josh Safdie: The patriarchal quality disappeared a little bit. So we had a hard time. And he, for timing reasons, got very involved in his own film, Mid90s. And because he did that he also kind of had to do Maniac. It was like a two-thing. The two together. So then he became unavailable. So it was fate again.
The directors re-connected with Sandler at Cannes in 2017, while the actor was there promoting his critically-acclaimed Netflix movie,The Meyerowitz Stories.
From there, the directors said they and Sandler collaborated quickly and "intensely."
And that their producer, Scott Rudin, was also helpful in shaping the story that was nearly a decade in the making. With some help from... 1993's The Firm.
In the original version of the script, audiences didn't get to the opal until way late in the story -- because the movie had an overly-long first act.
Josh Safdie: In the original version of the script, [we] had a 40-minute opening act. It was the same movie, and it was just taking too long to get to the opal. Because the movie is called Uncut Gems, and we weren’t meeting the gem until minute 42."
Benny Safdie: Scott Rudin told us that when he did The Firm, (Tom Cruise’s character) got the job in seven minutes. And it’s like, alright, and it’s called The Firm. In the book I think it spends like 150 pages on him getting other jobs, getting fired, and then he finally lands the job at The Firm. And Rudin told us when he was watching the first cut, which was about maybe 30 minutes longer or something. And he was just like, “I love it, but it’s called Uncut Gems, we have to meet the gems.”
What You Can Learn:
"No" isn't no in Hollywood. Sometimes, most of the time, it means "not right now."
And while tolerating the despair of waiting and actors attaching themselves and getting your hopes up only to shatter those hopes when they leave -- that sucks. A lot. And it's par for the course in the industry.
Whether it takes a decade to realize that vision, or more or less time, the only constant is your and the passion you and your collaborators have for your project. As challenging as it can be to maintain that passion and drive, it's more worthwhile than giving up. Because if the Safdies gave up, we wouldn't have their best movie.
Uncut Gems is in theaters now.