Just how immersive is Uncut Gems, the cinematic Molotov cocktail from adrenaline junkies Benny and Josh Safdie? At one point, viewers get a glimpse of our protagonist, diamond district hustler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), from inside his colonoscopy.
“It’s the visual pun of meeting an asshole through his asshole,” Josh Safdie said recently, in an interview with Fast Company.
Ratner is a risk-prone entrepreneurial hurricane, constitutionally incapable of not trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. (And $15K out of that first dollar.) Although Uncut Gems only puts viewers physically inside of Ratner for a brief moment, the remainder of the film plunges us into the constantly shifting juggle session of his existence, daring us to look away. Someone is always calling to buy something from Ratner or sell something to him; someone else is stopping by unannounced in his Manhattan showroom—or his child’s school play—to collect on an outsize debt. There are bookies and brokers, soon-to-be ex-wives and girlfriends, authentically scuzzy bagmen, and former NBA all-star Kevin Garnett, for good measure. It’s hard to keep it all straight, just as a viewer, so one can only imagine the toll it takes on Ratner himself.
The plot of Uncut Gems is almost incidental: Ratner is trying to negotiate his biggest-ever score but keeps getting in his own way. Through masterful technique and thrilling performances, the film transcends its plot to become an overwhelming, full-sensory experience.
One scene in particular, though, boils down the manic energy of the film into one easily digestible dose. It’s the scene in which Kevin Garnett (playing himself), his bodyguard (Sean Ringgold), and fellow hustler Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) pay a visit to Ratner’s showroom and get stuck in the vestibule. Ratner and his staff are doing their best to get them out, with Ratner already discombobulated from morning phone calls after a night spent sleeping in his office. (Throughout the scene, a tag is visibly hanging out of the shirt he’s just thrown on.
Not a lot seems to happen, but on screen, it’s a capsule summary of Uncut Gems’ nonstop movement, jarring noise, and potent volatility. Below, Benny and Josh Safdie discuss the making of this scene.
Stressing the audience out
If this scene leaves anyone in the audience reaching for a stress ball, rest assured: It’s intentional. But it’s in the service of delivering necessary information in the most absorbing way possible.
Josh Safdie: How do you keep a thriller thrilling in a scene that has nothing to do with life or death? By raising the stakes. Increasing the tension.
Benny Safdie: This scene is all exposition, so the more tense and stressful it is, the better.
JS: In a weird way, the required energy and the required madness that surrounded the character was very helpful to us. It feels so naked when you’re just doing exposition, so you want to figure out the way exposition exists in real life because there is exposition in real life all the time. Someone will say, “You have to be here in 15 minutes.”
BS: “Or else!”
JS: That’s exposition that happens in life. And it’s not strange when it happens in life. So we tried to figure out ways to kind of sidle up alongside that feeling. And sometimes, the madness really helped allow us to kind of not cover the tracks of exposition, but in a weird way, support it.
Exploring the space
The claustrophobic feeling of the scene is a result of the fact that it’s all one big interconnected set.
JS: Being true to life of the guys in the diamond district, it’s such an overstimulated world. First you have this overstimulation [that] each space is over-designed. They’re filled with insane precious jewels and intricate jewelry and you have deal over deal over deal and gamble on top of gamble on top of gamble.
BS: We wanted to capture the energy of 47th Street [New York City’s diamond district], so we had this space and we built it with the hallway, the showroom, and the back room—all connected for the purposes of realism. You really did feel like you went into it when you walked in. You got out of the elevator, went down a hallway with all these stores, and then entered Howard’s store. And then right on into the back. It would’ve been much easier to just do each one separate, to get all the camera angles and whatnot, but we built it like it was a real location. So then we’re like, ‘Oh, let’s just shoot it like a real location. We shouldn’t keep ourselves so separate from each space.’ So we really did go in the back and out the front and everywhere else each time.
Passing the baton
Further propelling the immersive feeling of the scene is filming it as a single, flowing shot, following around whoever becomes the focus of the scene for that moment.
BS: The day before that shooting, we had our shot list all prepared, and it was something like 45 shots to get in one half-day. It was physically impossible. And we’re thinking about how do we show this in a way that would be interesting but also catch all of the craziness that’s happening. And it was like,’Okay, if we can somehow do this in one shot, that would be incredible.’ And so that was our attempt at doing the sweeping camera motion of it. The whole thing was done in one take. Then we got all the inserts that kind of magnify every moment, and the reverse shot of Sandler.
JS: What it did for the actors is it allowed them to feel the whirling dervish quality of the scene, that there’s so much going on. And I think that that added an element of dance to the whole thing because everyone had to be in sync for the camera movements. I remember LaKeith [Stanfield] was like, ‘That shot’s probably really crazy.’
BS: The idea behind it was to capture this feeling directly with like the handoff of responsibility. So you’re literally just panning with all of the baton passes to try and get these people out. You’re feeling the emotions and the speed that all these people are going through, trying to get them out. Then on top of that, we had somebody in the showroom also who isn’t a part of the scene, just a guy who is hanging out in the showroom, and we went back in later and ADR’d a whole scene that he’s having, narrating what’s going on in addition to the conversations that are going on in the scene. And we were worried, like, “Is this too much?”
JS: When we first started showing the edited version of that scene, I remember people just being like, ‘Whoa, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’
A symphony of chaos
The scene is also a cacophonous dirge of abrasive noises—a buzzer pressed over and over again, a ding-dong ring, a fist pounding on glass, and random mechanical whirring. Putting it all together was apparently like conducting a neurotic orchestra.
BS: When you get to the sound mix, you realize you can actually affect the sound both behind the glass and in front of the glass, and that became another added level of stress, where it’s kind of hard to hear the other person ’cause they’re behind glass.
JS: I think the musicality of it all also helped add to the banging, the percussive elements, Roman [Roman Persits] going into the back room . . .
BS: It’s literally trying to match your version of reality, which is like a hyperreality, to real life. The buzzer is so loud, and it’s the perfect buzzer. But we went back and watched a bunch of the showroom scenes and it wasn’t feeling real. It didn’t feel like what it was supposed to feel like. So we went back to the district and recorded a bunch of Foley and as we’re in the showroom we hear, ‘Oh there are other people talking.’ You hear that their cell phone rings are going off. So we added cell phones, and then we went into a bunch of jewelers to get their different buzzers. But when we walked in one where I was just recording sound, and then Josh was listening to the tapes back with the sound designer and he’s like, ‘What’s that noise?’ And it was this high-pitched ahhhhhnnn. He’s like, ‘What is that?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh wait, when we open the front door of this guy’s space, that noise went off until it was closed.’ So we put that in every showroom scene. Whenever that front door opens, you hear a very high-pitched noise and that adds a level of stress and this feeling of realness. In my mind, it broke the reality of that whole space. Like, it’s 100% real.
A frustration crescendo
Part of what stresses out the audience in this scene is watching the performers lose patience in a relatable way. It doesn’t happen all at once. Demany is completely over the situation within 20 seconds, the bodyguard takes a little longer, and then Kevin Garnett finally loses his cool a bit too. It’s all carefully calculated to elevate your heart rate.
BS: The scene builds in a way, as you’re moving through it. There’s a level of frustration that naturally builds and so it had to build to a certain level for Lakeith to get to the energy of him entering that back room when he gets out. Oh, and then there’s the bodyguard.
JS: He has my favorite line in the scene. I talked to that actor, Sean, and I said to him, ‘You hate small spaces.’ And he goes, ‘What?’ I said, ‘You’re claustrophobic.’ He goes, ‘Oh shit.’ He’s in there with Kevin Garnett, this really big guy, and it’s a small space. More stress. It wasn’t in the script for him to say ‘I’m claustrophobic.’ But then he picked the most perfect time to say it, when he realizes he’s trapped. And then he does that thing with the door to try to get out, and we actually built the stage so that those doors were locked for real. So he’s yanking on that back door, and it doesn’t open. Kevin Garnett is actually the most relaxed until when he gets out and he just lets out that sigh. I love that.