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Adam Sandler shocked the world in late 2019 with his jaw-dropping and unforgettable performance in the anxiety-inducing crime thriller Uncut Gems. And now that everyone has seen the movie, or at least has the ability to do so with a Netflix subscription, this is the perfect time to look at how the star of films like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore ended up playing such a deranged and unlikable person, how NBA superstar Kevin Garnett got involved with the project, and other behind-the-scenes facts.
Like all high-profile film projects, the story behind this latest offering from the Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny) is just as full of twists, turns, and what-ifs as the movie itself. So sit back, try to relax, and prepare yourself for some of the crazy behind-the-scenes facts about the endlessly thrilling Uncut Gems. Please note there are spoilers near the end of this list, so make sure you've watched the Adam Sandler drama before starting.
The Safdie Brothers First Approached Adam Sandler About The Movie In 2012
The pairing of Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers seems like a match made in movie heaven in hindsight, but getting the famous comedy actor to sign on for the role was anything but a smooth or easy process. Josh and Benny Sadfie always wanted Sandler to portray the film's main character, Howard Ratner, but the actor (or at least his agents) passed on the opportunity as far back as 2012. In a 2019 Screen Daily article, Josh Safdie recalled that first interaction, stating:
His team passed because who the hell were we? Why should we get to work with Adam Sandler at that place in our career?
The Safdie brothers had only directed two features at that point in their career and were still five years out from releasing their breakout film, 2017's Good Time. So after that initial rejection, the pair started to look at different avenues while still never letting go of the idea of working with Adam Sandler. Good thing, too, because it was worth the wait.
Uncut Gems And Its Characters Were Inspired By The Directors' Father’s Life In The Diamond District
All the characters in Uncut Gems, no matter how big or small, come off as fleshed-out, broken-in people who you might see in any given jewelry store, or on the streets of New York City. There's a good reason for that. When coming up with the idea of the movie, and especially with the character of Howard Ratner, the Safdie brothers took inspiration from their father's time in the city's diamond district. As Josh Safdie told The Wrap in 2019:
[Our dad] worked there for seven or eight years. And he worked for a guy named Howard who was an outside in the diamond district, a real character. Our Howard is not even a little bit like the real Howard, but there would be no our Howard without the real Howard.
During the same interview, Benny Safdie said their father's experiences while seeing the diamond district's inner-workings was a key influence. In his words:
It was an inspiration for us to think, 'Oh, this world can be explored and mined for these incredible stories and moments that could only exist on this block of 47th Street.'
I'll assume he wasn't going for a pun when he said the diamond world could be "mined."
Jonah Hill Was Attached To Uncut Gems At One Point, But His Age Become A Problem
After the Safdie brothers struck out in 2012 when trying to dream-cast Adam Sandler for the role of Howard Ratner, they tried a second time, offering Sandler the role again in 2015. The answer was still no, however, which resulted in the directors pursuing other actors. During a 2019 interview with Vox, the Safdie brothers explained that they were considering working with Sacha Baron Cohen at one point before Jonah Hill came into the picture around 2017. Hill said he wanted to be a part of the project, but the actor's young age became a problem as Josh Safdie noted:
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 [Mid90s] and then the subsequent shooting of Maniac.
Jonah Hill is around 17 years younger than Adam Sandler, so that could have been a big swing in the opposite direction. After making the choice not to go with HIll, the brothers thought to try reaching out to Adam Sandler's camp one more time, and the rest is history.
Adam Sandler’s Wife Convinced Him To Accept The Role Of Howard Ratner
Beyond well-picked roles in Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and The Meyerowitz Stories, Adam Sandler has largely stayed away from darker, dramatic films throughout his career, which is what made his turn as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems so engaging. And even though Sandler saw a lot of potential in the role, he was initially reluctant to sign on. That is, until his wife Jackie Titone got involved. During a 2019 appearance on Ellen, Adam Sandler credited his wife with making the final push to convince him to work with the Safdie brothers on Uncut Gems, stating:
I read it and I loved the movie, but I was scared to do it. Then, I asked Jackie to read it. We do this together, me and Jackie, we discuss what I’m gonna do and she gives me strength and courage to jump into this stuff. So she read it and was like, ‘You have to do it.’ Right when she says I have to do it I go, ‘OK.’ I jumped in and I had to do so many scenes where bad things happen and I have to be naked and stuff – that’s terrible for everybody – but it was an amazing time.
Where was that kind of clutch advice whenever he agreed to make movies like Jack and Jill and Ridiculous 6, and some of the other more questionable Happy-Madison movies from the last 10 or so years?
Adam Sandler Surrounded Himself With Gambling Addicts To Prepare For The Film
Throughout Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler gives a performance that is unlike anything he's done in the past. At times in the movie, it's easy to forget that this is the same guy from Big Daddy. That's partially due to the extensive research Sandler conducted while preparing for the role, which included having multiple meetings with hardcore gamblers and people with other severely compulsive issues. He explained it during a 2019 Hollywood Reporter actor roundtable, saying:
I spent a lot of time on 47th Street. I gamble in the movie a lot, so I spent a lot of time with a lot of gamblers who had bad problems and lost a lot of things and lost their lives because of it... It's just their lives get thrown away and their family lives get thrown away. It's about where they are right now, and they discussed what the highs and lows were and why they couldn't stop and that kind of feeling.
Adam Sandler concluded his remarks by revealing that many of the shop owners in the diamond district welcomed him into their shops and their corner of the jewelry industry to provide more a more accurate portrayal. It's not every day that kind of request happens.
Julie Fox Made Her Acting Debut in Uncut Gems
Julie Fox's portrayal of Howard Ratner's mistress Julia De Flore was one of the highlights of Uncut Gems, providing one of the film's best performances. Looking at the way she handles her own with the likes of Adam Sandler and the rest of the film's stellar cast, you'd think that Fox was an accomplished actress, but this was Fox's acting debut. And while she had a great command of the screen throughout, Fox revealed to EW in 2019 that she was terrified on her first day, stating:
I got to set and I was saying to myself, 'What if I tricked all these people thinking I can act and that test was just a fluke?' After the first day, I definitely felt so much better, because I nailed it.
Indeed. Hopefully Julie Fox's performance isn't a one-and-done situation. It would be great to see more of her in the future in any number of roles, especially after her character's mad dash to place the proper bets at the end of Uncut Gems.
Idina Menzel Had A Unique Way Of Getting Into Character
Actors have their own personal ways of getting into the heads of their characters to better flesh them out, and that's very much the case for Idina Menzel, who played Howard Ratner's wife Dinah in Uncut Gems. Menzel revealed during a behind the scenes documentary (via Decider) that in order to bring out the over-the-top and disgusted demeanor of the memorable character, she added a personal touch to her method acting approach. In her words:
I just approached her like myself, but three tequilas in. [It's] what my accent usually is late at night, after a couple of drinks. So that was my method.
The Frozen II star also revealed in the interview that Dinah Ratner reminded her of a lot of the women she grew up with on Long Island. Especially the character's no-nonsense attitude and undeniable strength, as well as the restraint that is seen throughout her performance in Uncut Gems.
Adam Sandler Was Choked Out While Filming One Scene
Uncut Gems is as violent as it is anxiety-inducing with some of the most visceral and unexpected instances of the brutality when you least expect it. By the looks of it, the actors didn't hold back in their displays of violence, especially in one specific scene. During a 2019 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Adam Sandler shared the story about him getting choked out on set, stating:
These guys who were beating me up were really good guys, but they didn't ever do a movie before. So there was a stunt coordinator who would say like, 'You know, you don't have to really choke him.' . . . I was like trying to tap out. I'm punching the roof and they're like, 'Adam's in character,' and I was like, 'No, I really am getting choked right now.'
You can't blame the guys choking Adam Sandler during that particular scene. The actor totally lost himself in the character of Howard Ratner, so maybe he was just that convincing.
Kevin Garnett Wasn’t The Original NBA Player Thought Of For The Role
Uncut Gems is really just as much about professional basketball as it is about gambling, crime, or the diamond district, and so the movie required a major NBA star to add a level of the realism to the final picture. That superstar ended up being the great Kevin Garnett of the 2008 NBA Champions Boston Celtics, although the role was originally supposed to go another direction. During an interview with The Ringer in 2019, the Safdie brothers revealed that they thought of multiple players, including the late Kobe Bryant, before making Kevin Garnett the final pick. According to Benny:
Originally the movie was [Knicks star] Amar'e [Stoudemire]. We went down a little road - it was 10 years that we spent working on this thing. Then we rewrote it, briefly, to maybe do a Kobe thing. But the game has to center around Northeast games. They'd have to come into the city. And then our agents were like, 'Oh, Kobe wants to act.' And then, after like a week and a half of slaving over the script, they came back and said, 'He wants to direct. Never mind.' I thought, 'I just rewrote the whole movie to try to fit Kobe's persona.' Then it went back to Amar'e briefly, and then we said, 'Let's make it contemporary,' and it was Joel Embiid for a very long time.
It would have been undeniably great to see the late Kobe Bryant or even Amar'e Stoudemire in Uncut Gems. Still, there's just something about the intensity of Kevin Garnett that added a whole other level to this already tense movie.
The Smile On Adam Sandler’s Face For The Ending Was Conceived The Day It Was Shot
Uncut Gems ends with Phil (Keith Williams Richards) finally getting even with Howard Ratner after giving him the runaround for the entire movie. But despite being shot point-blank in the forehead and dying on the floor of his showroom, Howard's shows anything but fear and sorrow on his face, and is instead grinning widely. Speaking with EW, Adam Sandler and Benny Safdie revealed that the decision to leave Howard's corpse with a smile on his face was a decision made on the day of shooting, stating:
Sandler: When I read it the first time. I was as baffled as you were — I didn't know that was coming either. [To the Safdies] It was a decision [you made] on the day, right, the kinda smiling?
Safdie: "Yeah, yeah, 'cause Howard was having such a good time, you know? He was winning! It was so fun, this was what he was doing it for, and it just made sense.
Well, now you know some of the biggest behind-the-scenes stories behind your favorite Adam Sandler movie (that's not named Airheads). It was a long and winding road for the directing duo to get things going, but after 10 years, it looks like the Safdie brothers' project was a hit, even if it didn't earn Sandler an Oscar nomination. If you want to read more about the movie, check out these questions we still have as well as other great pieces here on CinemaBlend.