clock menu more-arrow no yes

Adam Sandler’s starring role in Uncut Gems almost didn’t happen

Directors Josh and Benny Safdie thought seeing the comedian on a screen at Cannes was as close as they’d get to him.

Adam Sandler, wearing dark glasses, tents his fingers in a shot from the movie Uncut Gems.
Adam Sandler plays jeweler Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. But he almost didn’t.
A24

Uncut Gems is a feature-length panic attack, in the best way. Adam Sandler turns in the performance of his career as Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer in New York’s Diamond District who’s always on the hunt for the next big deal. He ends up in hot water when he lends an opal to Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who plays himself) for good luck before a game, then starts pawning possessions to bet on the outcome.

Directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, who drew on stories they heard from their father to make the film, Uncut Gems boasts the same heart-pounding intensity of their 2017 film Good Time, but with a bit more polish and panache. It’s a thoroughly fun thrill ride, a perfect study of a man who’s both an eternal optimist and an irrepressible screw-up. You can’t help but root for Howard — while wanting to grab him by the throat and shake some sense into him — and for the Safdies, whose command of their craft is pure pleasure to watch.

I met Josh and Benny in New York City a few weeks before the film’s release to talk about how they signed Adam Sandler to their movie, casting Garnett, and how the movie changed over its decade in development. Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, follows.

Alissa Wilkinson

So how did you get Adam Sandler in this movie? I know it was a long road.

Josh Safdie

The project started in 2009, after we finished a movie called Daddy Longlegs. Me and my brother wrote the first version of the [Uncut Gems] script, which was very much inspired by our nostalgic attraction to the types of stories that our dad would tell all the time, pulp-driven stories. The first iteration of the script was somewhat episodic and unfocused — it was centered around our father and his boss. It was a two-hander. [Frequent collaborator and Uncut Gems co-writer] Ronnie [Bronstein] got involved almost immediately after that, and then the script started to take the beginning of its shape.

It always centered around one character who was doing everything he can to prove that he’s still got it. That he can still achieve something greater than he actually is, so that he can prove that he belongs, kind of like in Rocky III. We knew that in order for this person to realize his impossible dream, he had to do some things that were, in the moment, maybe unrighteous. But in the end, his vision was righteous.

So we knew that we needed a character who you loved, who had this patriarchal quality, who was lovable and could be grounded in absurd scenarios. And from the very beginning, we knew it was Adam Sandler.

Sandler proffers a jewel-encrusted Furby on a chain in Uncut Gems.
A24

Who did we think we were to even think we could get to Adam Sandler? Couple that with the fact that the script wasn’t ready to be even read by him — thank God he didn’t read it until after [he saw] Good Time.

In 2015, we tried to get him, and we were told he was unavailable for the dates that we needed him. I said, “Okay, well, we’ll move the dates around.” And they’re like, “No, no, he’s unavailable.” So I said, “Okay.”

We went down the road with Sacha Baron Cohen for a little bit. Then Martin Scorsese got involved [as executive producer], which really elevated the profile of the project. Jonah Hill wanted to work together, and we thought it’d be really cool to work with our contemporaries. But we couldn’t figure out a way to “youth” the character down. Eventually Jonah got carried away and got swept up with his own film [Mid ’90s] and then the subsequent shooting of Maniac.

Finally, we were like, “You know, let’s try with Sandler one more time.” In the meantime, we’d made a documentary called Lenny Cooke, we made a movie called Heaven Knows WhatI discovered the main character working in the Diamond District — and then we made Good Time when [Robert] Pattinson saw Heaven Knows What.

By the time we finally met Sandler, we were at Cannes together. We didn’t actually meet him there, but we both had films at Cannes. We couldn’t get the meeting with him, but I remember being at the Meyerowitz Stories premiere. I didn’t know that, as a Cannes filmmaker, you get this hotline number where you can get good seats, so I was sitting way in the back of the balcony, and I remember just looking at the screen when the red carpet arrivals happened and seeing Sandler arrive and being like, “This is the closest I’ll ever get.”

But he did this really endearing thing at Cannes on the red carpet. They don’t let you walk up the stairs with anyone except for their designated people. But he walked up, did his bow, and then ran down to grab his wife and walked her up. And that says a lot about why Sandler is such a lovable person. He can do these really dirty jokes about his wife and his family, but he ultimately is such a grounded person who wants the best for everybody.

Alissa Wilkinson

I met him there that year, too, and he told this story about always being mistaken for Ben Stiller.

Josh Safdie

I think that’s actually rooted in a weird cultural antisemitism, where they’re just like, “Oh, the Jewish guy.” It happens all the time when people are like, “I loved him in Something About Mary.” And I’m like, “That’s Ben Stiller.”

Benny Safdie

There was a similar time period where they were in a lot of similar movies. They’re very different.

Alissa Wilkinson

Why is this movie set in 2012?

Josh Safdie

The pragmatic reason is that the central character in the movie is a basketball player.

The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Hosts An Official Academy Screening Of UNCUT GEMS
Benny Safdie, Kevin Garnett, Adam Sandler, and Josh Safdie at a screening of Uncut Gems in December 2019.
Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

Benny Safdie

We never actually talked about it. There was no “have to,” you know? We chose this, which I think is very important.

Josh Safdie

What do you mean?

Benny Safdie

The fact that we’re centering around a real basketball player and real games.

Josh Safdie

Oh, yeah.

Benny Safdie

We never would have said, “Oh, let’s do it with a fake person and a fake team.” In our heads, we had to use the real player and the real game.

Josh Safdie

We wanted that juxtaposition, that dichotomy, of a real world within the fictional world.

Benny Safdie

It’s enormous, yeah.

Josh Safdie

It increased the stakes and enriched the movie. It also would have been very expensive to cast an actor and stage the games.

Benny Safdie

Of course.

Josh Safdie

But because the movie changed a lot over the course of a decade, each casting process came with needing to meet the [player]. You see their persona, and if they’re capable of playing themselves. You see their motivations and see if they align with the motifs of the movie. Then you get pragmatic and look at their actual games. You need them to have had one great game, one bad game, followed by a great game. And that recipe, that demand, is actually probably the most important when picking the player.

We wanted to find the character who has a passion and who you’d believe in this story.

Benny Safdie

Everyone’s like, “Oh my God, these games were actually around Passover! Even better!” But if the games didn’t line up we would have changed the Jewish holiday in the movie, you know?

Josh Safdie

The Jewish holiday changed twice based on the games that we found. The whole script was a real Jenga tower. It was tough.

Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, and Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems.
A24

Alissa Wilkinson

So when you describe the film, what do you say it’s about?

Josh Safdie

The film is about belonging. The film is about cheating God. The film is about the cosmic coincidence, that in the same moment you can have a miner in Ethiopia worried about a machine falling on his leg, a microsecond in which he’s worried about his life. And on the other side of the planet, you can have a jeweler to whom the outcome of a free throw shot, in that same microsecond is a concern of his. We’re all in the same place together just looking to feel like we belong.

Benny Safdie

It’s a movie about trying, you know? Just like really just going for it.

Josh Safdie

It’s about gambling and betting, and what does it mean to gamble? What does it mean to actually put everything on the line? And for what? Why do you do that? Why do people feel like they have to win?

Benny Safdie

And family.

Josh Safdie

Providing. What does it mean to provide and provide in a real way? What does it mean to be satisfied and overly satisfied, and is there spiritualism in materialism? Is there spiritualism in consumerism?

There’s a lot of stuff going on.

Uncut Gems opens in theaters on December 13.