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Now that we’re in the final days of TIFF, it’s safe to say that Uncut Gems has emerged as one of the festival’s most impressive and idiosyncratic films. After a triumphant collaboration with Robert Pattinson on 2017’s Good Time, the Safdie brothers join forces with Adam Sandler—who plays Howard Ratner, an unscrupulous jeweler lost in an elaborate web of deceit—for a film that somehow takes their signature brand of visceral filmmaking further than ever before.
Earlier this week, the directors were joined on stage by Adam Sandler and several other members of the cast for a Q&A that revealed how this carefully scripted crime drama became a waking nightmare with documentary authenticity.
Adam Sandler delivers arguably his finest performance to date, which may stem from the fact that most of the cast stayed in character all day long. “We stayed with it a lot,” he said, giving extra recognition to co-star LaKeith Stanfield. “Keith stays with it more than anybody I’ve ever seen. When we’re not shooting, he just stays focused. The day starts early when you’re shooting a movie and it goes deep and this was a great long shoot… everybody here, we knew we were making a real different movie and it was really exciting for all of us, so we all did the best we could.”
Playing Howard’s increasingly horrified wife Dinah, Tony-winner Idina Menzel had a great deal of praise for Sandler—and the Safdies’ unconventional methods. “They yell out different improv lines,” she explained. “They just yell ‘em out. One’s yelling them right in front of you and the other one’s yelling from behind the monitor and then you’re trying to keep track and then they say, ‘Go back to the script,” and you’re like, ‘What the f**k is the script anymore?’ I don’t even know. But it’s just great because that’s what freed you up and then you just don’t feel like you’re shooting anymore.”
While Sandler acknowledges that there was plenty of riffing on the set, he credits the Safdies (and their frequent co-writer Ronald Bronstein) with creating a screenplay that made it all possible. “You wrote an incredible script,” he told the filmmakers. “Whenever we riffed, it was off of what you were bringing us to. They never stopped working on the script and re-writing and re-writing and re-adjusting on the day. They never stopped. These guys are hard working guys. Morning and night and the entire mix, the entire score… they just don’t let go. Not one frame of the movie isn’t important to these guys, so it was an honour to be in something like that for all of us.”
Sandler also credits the Safdies with devising a visual strategy that made it necessary for the actors to always bring their A-game. “It was different than any movie,” he explained. “You didn’t know what lens they were on. You didn’t know what was a close-up. The cameras were put in positions that we weren’t aware of what was what and what the coverage was, so every take you gave it your all.”
As the actors lost themselves in this uniquely immersive shoot, the usual rules of film production slipped by the wayside. This was particularly apparent to actor Eric Bogosian, who couldn’t believe the level of reality around him when he joined the shoot. “My first day on set was the night of the school play and we’re chasing Adam,” he said. “I’m in the SUV and already I know I’m in a very different reality because Keith [Williams Richards] and Tommy [Kominik] and Louis [Anthony Arias]… can’t wait to get out of that SUV and go kill somebody and Adam… (to Sandler) you start to run, you book and these guys jump out of the van and go after you like mad dogs and I’m going, ‘This is different. The star’s doing stunts. He’s going to get killed out there and they’re going to actually kill him.’ And then I knew we were in a different reality.”
Uncut Gems hits theatres in December.