How the Safdie Brothers Shot Controlled Chaos in 'Uncut Gems'
We can learn a lot from the unique challenges the Safdie Brothers faced while making Uncut Gems.
Uncut Gems follows the story of New York jeweler Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler), who is drowning in gambling debt but keeps placing extravagant bets in the flashy world of 2012 NBA basketball.
Directors Benny and Josh Safdie are being hailed as film's next auteurs for their gritty, frenetic storytelling. Their 2017 film Good Time was a wild ride through the underbelly of small-time New York City crime and was in competition at Cannes.
In a recent interview with the Safdie Brothers, Vulture reporter Hunter Harris explores what makes the brothers so unique as filmmakers, and we've mined their responses for some helpful takeaways that can teach you unique ways to approach characters and action.
Let's get to it!
Let your characters have flaws
The Safdie Brothers have talked a lot about how much they love the main character in this movie, even though he's a problematic guy and not really that likable from the outset.
Here, they explain that they view Howard as the titular "uncut gem."
"Our entire life we’ve grown up with very flawed people around us, and we’ve had to see past those flaws, or excuse them, to get at something that makes them relatable, or human, or worthy of value," Josh Safdie says.
Benny Safdie agrees that you should "look at a flawed person and try to see who and what it is that makes them interesting."
Approaching characters this way will help you view them as fully formed humans on the page. Try to look at even your most despicable characters and understand their motivations and what is informing their behavior, even if that behavior is technically "bad." They will become layered, complex characters with relatable personalities.
The Safdies think these kinds of people are more interesting, like an impure diamond.
Do your research to set the perfect scene
There were some practical limitations on the movie, as the Safdie Brothers revealed. The story is set in New York's Diamond District, and they envisioned shooting in a real business, but that world is so exclusive and busy that it would have been impossible.
The Safdie Brothers compromised by building Howard's jewelry business on a soundstage.
To ensure that the stage had the correct energy for their shoots, they populated the set with real Diamond District employees. Sometimes, Benny Safdie says, those people did not even appear in the scenes.
For the exterior Diamond District scenes, they kept an open set and allowed the street to be populated with real people.
Josh Safdie reveals he spent years building a rapport with the jewelers of the Diamond District. He was initially stonewalled because he couldn't afford to buy any of the jewelers' products, but with patience, determination, and the right connections, he finally made his way into their back rooms and apartments.
Your projects might need the same level of complex research in order for you to gain access to an exclusive world or group of people. Gather legitimate credits and do good work that will show that you're a legitimate filmmaker.
Have patience, be polite, and network continuously and sources will be more likely to eventually open up to you. As the Safdie Brothers show, this could take years.
The film also stars Kevin Garnett (yes, playing himself), The Weeknd (yes, also playing himself), Idina Menzel, LaKeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, and Eric Bogosian. Uncut Gems will be released on December 25th.
What's next? Learn more from the Safdie Brothers
Are you going to see Uncut Gems? Why or why not?