TORONTO — Adam Sandler was waiting to be thrown into a midtown fountain on Sixth Avenue for a scene in Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” when he noticed a familiar face on the sidewalk.
The Safdies like to capture as much authentic New York energy as possible in their films and frequently plant their cameras across the block for scenes like the one Sandler was about to shoot. So Sandler was hiding in a parked car, trying not arouse any attention, when he called out to the passerby.
“I say, ‘Lorne!’ He looks in the car and gets in and talked to me for a minute,” recalls Sandler of spotting his old “Saturday Night Live” boss, Lorne Michaels. “I said I’m doing this movie — I’m going to fill you in on the young and the hip — with the Safdie brothers.’”
“He goes, (here Sandler dons the requisite Michaels impression) ‘I know the Safdie brothers. They grew up in my building,’” Sandler says, laughing and shaking his head. “I can never get anything over on Lorne. I thought I had one cool thing.”
The central setting of “Uncut Gems” — the 47th St. diamond district — is just a short walk from the NBC studios at 30 Rockefeller Center where Sandler broke through in the early 1990s on “Saturday Night Live.” As far as Sandler has travelled since then — and his latest will strike many as his greatest departure yet — the wild, chaotic, unhinged “Uncut Gems” is just a stone’s throw from Sandler’s beginnings.
It’s not that Sandler hasn’t since proven his considerable dramatic range. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” revealed the sensitivity beneath the genial man-child persona of his comedies. And while Sandler has never strayed from stand-up or the broader comedies he’s currently churning out for Netflix, he has consistently dipped his toe into drama every few year, including the James L. Brooks romantic comedy “Spanglish” (2004), Judd Apatow’s meta comedy “Funny People” (2009) and Noah Baumbach’s family drama “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” (2017).
But the scuzzy, frenetic neo-realism of the Safdie brothers is something else, entirely. In it, Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a gemstone merchant and compulsive gambler whose wide web of debts, betrayals and schemes render his life a mad scramble. He’s like a plate-spinner who drops every plate but keeps throwing up five more. His downfall, and perhaps his destiny, is perpetually and harrowingly close at hand.
The Safdies first sent Sandler their script in 2012.
“I kept hearing about the Safdie brothers and that they wanted to talk to me about a movie,” says Sandler. “I didn’t know their work, so I started with ‘Good Time’ (the Safdies’ previous film, starring Robert Pattinson as a small-time hustler). I watched them all and I loved them. We would talk on the phone and then we met each other. I mean, we are very close. We talk all day, all night about everything. I love these guys.
“When I was making the movie, I just gave them 100% trust. I just felt like I wanted to be in their world.”
For years if not decades, Sandler has consistently declined interviews with print journalists. But on the morning after “Uncut Gems” made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, he sat for an interview with The Associated Press alongside Josh and Benny. They had spent a late evening partying together and Sandler was regretting not eating after the premiere. “What a mistake,” he said while the Safdies laughed.
Moments before the premiere of “Uncut Gems,” one audience member hollered “An Oscar for the Sandman!” By the end of the movie, most in attendance agreed, too. Sandler’s performance has been arguably the most acclaimed of the 53-year-old’s career.
“Uncut Gems” is an especially intense experience. If you remember the loud, discombobulating drug-dealer scene in Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” “Uncut Gems” runs at that high-pitched frenzy for pretty much its entire length. For the Safdies, it’s long been an obsession. Howard is based loosely on a boss of their father. Though Pattinson once pursued the part and Jonah Hill was momentarily attached, the directors felt strongly about Sandler being right for it.
“We wanted Howard to be lovable. Likable is another question, but lovable is something real,” Josh says. “We grew up idolizing him. The records, the movies. I just recently told Sandler I was crying watching ‘The Wedding Singer’ on a plane. You can just feel it in the actors opposite him. People just feel like they’re involved in something ineffable.”
Though separated by nearly two decades in age, the Brooklyn-born Sandler and the Queens-bred Safdies have become close, a friendship forged on basketball (they are equally dedicated Knicks fans), a shared sense of humour and a New Yorker’s lack of pretense.
“Since we agreed to worked together, which was pretty quick after we met, we have been nonstop ‘Uncut Gems,’” Sandler says. “Morning, afternoon, night.”
“I don’t want it to end,” says Josh.
They are simpatico in thinking, for example, that it’s both hysterical and perfect that famed New York sports talk radio host Mike Francesa has a small role as a restaurateur-bookie in “Uncut Gems” — just one ingredient in the movie’s strange brew of fiction and reality. (Former NBA star Kevin Garnett also plays himself.) Sandler’s initial reticence was alleviated in part by the strong approval of Anderson, who shot part of Sandler’s last stand-up special, “100% Fresh.”
“When he saw ‘Good Time,’ he was like, ‘Oh my God. Those guys,’” Sandler says. “These guys did something to Paul that stopped him in his tracks. When Paul saw this movie, he texted after: ‘Still in the theatre. Can’t move.’”
Plunging into the cinematic world of the Safdies led Sandler into some unlikely places for a movie star with more than $2 billion in box office to his name, and not only that fountain on Sixth Avenue. There’s also a memorable scene in which Howard ends up naked in a car trunk and a messy nightclub run-in with Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd.
“Abel was a very nice, gentle guy to me. He just wanted to be nice to me as a human being, not throw me on the ground,” says Sandler. “We wanted Abel ultimately to spit in my face.”
“The way we approach violence in all our movies, when you see violence unfold in a non-organized way, it’s really sloppy,” says Josh. “I got punched in the face really badly once. I got knocked out. The only thing I remember from the moment is falling to the ground and seeing a little girl with her mother turn and yell. You kind of want to get at that feeling with violence.”
The Safdies imagined Howard as an insatiable, larger-than-life figure, like porno publisher Al Goldstein or comedian Rodney Dangerfield. But they also say he changed over time, becoming a kind of living document that they funneled details from their lives into.
“Ultimately, he’s a hyper romantic person. He’s a gambler. All gamblers are really romantic people,” says Josh. “You want to slap them around. Their romance gets sort of gross at that point. He’s a mystical guy. He believes in things.”
More than anything, that’s what Sandler grabbed onto.
“I love when the guys told me he was a dreamer,” Sandler says. “It’s a case of: You see other people have stuff. No matter where you go, no matter what house you look in, you do think: ‘How come they got that? They got it figured out in that house.’ I think he thinks everyone else has it right, and he’s like: ‘I want it right.’”