There’s a climatic moment in Josh and Benny Safdie’s 2012 short “The Black Balloon” where the titular character tries to free his fellow balloons from a van by breaking the vehicle’s back window. The scene was staged in an industrial area of Sunset Park, the camera on the opposite side of eight lanes of high-speed traffic.
“The probability of impact, of the glass breaking, the probably of it being blocked was probably 60 percent — a truck could pass by and that’s it, you miss the moment,” said Josh when he and his brother Benny were guests on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “But it was the only place you could see the action from, from my point of view. It added to it. It added to the stress of it, that there were cars running through, and subconsciously I think it makes the stunt feel less catered-to, which makes it feel less more happenstance.”
The brothers only had one piece of replacement glass, gambling that they might not get the vital third-act shot. It was worth it. Multi-track soundscapes, casting first-time performers, a long-lensed camera catching a scene staged on a busy New York City street – they’re key to grounding their stories in reality.
“The whole thing is they’re balloons that are moving through the air and breaking out their friends. Everything about it was not real,” said Benny. “And here we were approaching it like we’re catching people walking across the street.”
It’s a story the Safdies like to tell because both the approach and the gamble are emblematic of their 10-year journey to get “Uncut Gems” off the ground, a film with a third act that revolves around a series of real NBA games in 2012. The star player is a major character who, between hardcourt appearances, appears in the Manhattan diamond-district jewelry shop of the film’s protagonist Howard (Adam Sandler).
“The obstacle of working within the constraints of reality was always very exciting because we knew it would line up and work with fiction and reality in a very cool way,” said Josh. “But the player element… that was a mountain to climb.”
Take a moment to think about the restrictions the Safdies worked under to cast the role. The player had to be a star, someone who was capable of what the Safdies called “gem games” — absolutely dominating the court. He also needed to play a series of games back-to-back-to-back — one good, followed by a bad performance, and then, well, that would be a spoiler — in the New York City area. So, if he wasn’t a New York Knick, the games would have to be nearby, in Philadelphia or New Jersey. Lastly, the player would need to be someone the directors believed could comfortably play a fictional version of himself on screen.
Courtesy of A24
“The journey of the player character goes back to 2010,” said Josh. “It started off with Amar’e Stoudemire; we wrote it for Amar’e. Amar’e is Jewish, so that was the black Jewish connection. It was bigger in that version of the script. Over the years, it stayed as Amar’e as we kept trying to hustle and make this.”
Stoudemire started playing for the Knicks in 2010. By 2015 he was gone, but still did “Uncut Gems” table reads when he could. The Safdies started to vacillate on the restraints of reality. Determined to make the film, they contemplated inventing fictional games and took meetings with VFX companies. They even contemplated having Nike sponsor a fake NBA league for the film. “At one point, we were going to reconstruct Madison Square Garden in CGI, remember that?” Benny asked Josh, laughing at the thought of it.
Later, they reconfigured the role for Kobe Bryant; his agency reached out to the Safdies when the superstar Laker considered getting into acting. Bryant could mean a potentially larger budget, but the Safdies were never going to have games set in Los Angeles, where Bryant played his entire career. They scoured Basketball-Reference.com to find a rare stretch of Lakers games on the East Coast that could work for the story.
Beyond the logistics, Josh and Benny, who wrote the script with longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein, would have to quickly revamp the script to fit Bryant. The concept behind the Bryant version of “Uncut Gems” was the “gem” was a youth elixir that could restore him to his rookie years in the NBA. The entire motivation of the central character, and hence the film’s DNA, would have to change.
“The agency would be like, ‘What’s taking so long?” Josh recalled. “I was like, ‘I have to rewrite the whole script, that’s what’s taking so long, asshole.’ When someone says ‘What’s taking so long,’ they don’t realize our script was like a sweater with a little thread sticking out and you pull on one the whole thing is fucking unstrewn.”
Things didn’t work out with Bryant, and while making “Heaven Knows What,” and “Good Time,” the Safdies became friends with Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, and he wanted to collaborate. The idea intrigued the Safdies, and they were increasingly convinced that “Uncut Gems” should be contemporary — and that seemed possible with Philadelphia Sixers’ star Joel Embiid.
“So Joel [born in Cameroon] became the African connection,” said Josh. “This [gem] was taken from Africa, brought to America, and he wants to reclaim it, and that changes the script. He had some ‘gem games,’ and he’s in Philly, so it’s close, and he had a couple good New York games. It became a contemporary film for a year, year-and-a-half.”
Then they landed Adam Sandler to play Howard, a huge turning point — but when Sandler’s availability shifted to fall 2018, at the start of the NBA season, it meant not only was Embiid unavailable, but so was any other active player. The Safdies went back to Stoudemire, but he now had dreadlocks that didn’t match his playing days and he was unwilling to lose them. Now they needed a recently retired NBA player who stayed in shape and had late-career gem games in the New York area no earlier than 2012 — the year that The Weeknd became widely known.
Finally, the Safdies met and fell in love with 21-year NBA veteran and future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett, who at 43 looks remarkably like he could still be the same star player he was in the 2012 five-game East Conference Semifinals between the Boston Celtics and the Sixers, which became the centerpiece of “Uncut Gems.”
For Garnett’s character, he believed acquiring the gem would be the difference between a good game and a bad one, which leads Howard to try to solve \his many serious problems by gambling on Garnett and his Celtics. However, the Safdies made “Uncut Gems” without an NBA licensing agreement. Instead, they relied on Fair Use laws, which permits limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holders. In addition to giving producers Scott Rudin and Eli Bush’s lawyers a great deal to chew over, the end result was even more constraints.
“[Fair use] was part of the constraints in that [we] weren’t allowed to change any element of the game, at any point, and none of the chronology could be messed up,” said Josh. “Everything is third-party sourced and filmed off a screen.”
Adds Benny, who edited the film with Bronstein, “You can’t be excessive. We’re literally only using what they would be looking at, so if he’s watching it, you see what they’re watching and you cut back. Again, it’s the reality of the moment dictating what you’re seeing.”
To some degree, Howard’s on-screen gambling mirrors the Safdies’ own 10-year journey in making the film. Beyond betting that they’d figure out how bend their fiction to NBA reality, they parlayed the success of their last three features to make “Gems.” Like Howard, they had the gambler’s optimism of doing everything for a big payoff that may never come.
“I think it comes back to putting that camera across that [street],” said Josh. “You are taking a big gamble, but if you get it, it pays off. That’s why now, after this long journey, it’s a slightly strange feeling for me, Benny, Ronny — everyone who worked on this film the past 10 years. We did that. Now where do we start betting?”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and Google Play Music. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.