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'If you are going to tell a thriller, it better be thrilling'

Filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie have once again proved they're the masters of heart-pounding cinema with electrifying drama Uncut Gems. The duo - and star Adam Sandler - tell Gemma Dunn what to expect


Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner

Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner

Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner

Adam Sandler has never been interested in the awards season buzz. The actor, who has garnered Golden Globe, Grammy and Primetime Emmy nominations throughout his illustrious career - as well as his share of Raspberry-winning flops - doesn't have time for it. Win or not.

So much so, a simple text or results email will suffice, he explains: "Like, 'You got this', or 'You didn't get that'. I'm like, 'Alright, just leave me alone man. I'm just glad we made a great movie'."

Sandler (53) is talking at the press junket for his latest film, Uncut Gems. A crime-thriller-turned-runaway hit that's seen the New Yorker rumoured for a Best Actor Oscar nod.

He plays Howard Ratner, a charismatic New York City jeweller who's always on the lookout for the next big score. But things come to a head when, after a series of high-stakes bets, he finds himself atop a high-wire act, balancing business, family and encroaching adversaries on all sides.

And who better to create some anxiety-inducing cinema than masters of the trade - and acclaimed Good Time filmmakers - Josh and Benny Safdie?

"This was a 10-year project for us," Josh says of the film, which stars everyone from LaKeith Stanfield to Idina Menzel, NBA's Kevin Garnett and even The Weeknd, aka Abel Tesfaye.

"But the original impetus was inspired by our dad's time working in the Diamond District and the stories that he would tell.

"You would always be on the edge of your seat listening to him... 'Well what did you do next?' 'What do you mean they poked your tyre - you knew they were following you, so you didn't pull over?'" he mimics. "He's like, 'I couldn't pull over, they were going to kill me!'

"But the stories were also comedic and ridiculous," he adds. "So then you start researching the Diamond District and there's this energy there, where people gamble on top of gamble and there's seven different things happening at once. You're trying to pay attention to it all, but it's a lot."

Perfect for a high-octane thriller, then. How did they keep up the pace?

"In the edit process, that's something we talked about a lot," recalls Josh (35).

"I remember there's a scene in the SUV and once we did the score, we dropped it in, and I was like, 'Let's take it out for a second because I'm going to have a heart attack...'

"There's also the scene when Kevin (Garnett) gets locked in," Benny (33) adds. "That was so intense and working through that edit too, it's like, 'Oh my God'.

"We wanted to sustain that pace and you have to figure out the valleys that you go through, but it's a conscious decision to think, 'okay, how can we do this through the whole movie and then also still build'."

"I'm actually starting to see people say, 'I saw Uncut Gems - I had the heart attack, I had it!'" Josh quips.

"It's like a thing to have and that's so weird to me."

"But we knew that we wanted to do a thriller and I like the idea of form following function," he follows.

"So if you're going to tell a thriller, it better be thrilling and how much more thrilling could we have made this movie?

"We also had the humour. Adam Sandler, thankfully, grounds this movie with some real comic relief."

Over the past three decades, Sandler has earned his stripes in comedy - from Saturday Night Live in his early 20s, to starring in countless Hollywood favourites, from Happy Gilmore and The Wedding Singer to 50 First Dates.

Most recently, he starred in Netflix dark comedy Murder Mystery, which saw him reunited with his Just Go With It co-star Jennifer Aniston.

But it's his venture into dramatic territory, with roles in such hits as Punch-Drunk Love, The Meyerowitz Stories and now Uncut Gems, that has earned him the most praise. The latter was hailed the "best performance of his career" by critics.

So how did Sandler prepare for such a feat? "I studied jewellery a lot hanging out in the Diamond District, met a lot of gamblers and I brought some of my own insanity, in my own thinking process, into the part," he says modestly.

If rumour has it, the star turned down the role back in 2012.

"They say I did but I never saw this thing, man!" Sandler protests. "My manager or agents might have said, 'He's busy' or something, but I don't remember getting this thing.

"I probably would've said 'yes' if I saw it, but I'm glad it happened now," teases the father of two.

The Safdie brothers - who admit his team passed up on it at the time - are too.

"The fact that he can go and do movies like Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish, and also do these comedies like The Waterboy, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, that go on to become American staples, is a testament to his range," says Josh.

"It's great when you meet a star and they are unique," he continues.

"He's unique because he's so himself and he's so grounded, and he's such a good person, but he's also nuts in the greatest way possible.

"His humour is amazingly strange and we've loved it forever since we were little kids, as that's the first thing we learned from him: his humour," he reasons. "And then of course his movies are just these iconic things.

"But getting to know him on a personal level and getting to see the work that he put into this..." he muses. "There's people who prepare for roles and there's people who just enter the roles and he did both at the same time.

"Now I watch the movie and he's not Adam Sandler, he's just Howard."

"He's totally invested in all of it," Benny chimes. "And the way we would shoot the film, he didn't know what his close-up was, so he would just be on that level the whole time. Even when he wasn't on camera."

"Sandler is a serious person," Josh finishes. "When I say 'workaholic', that doesn't begin to capture it. He's constantly working. He needs it to stimulate his brain."

So just what does the actor have lined up for 2020? "I don't know what the heck I'm going to do next..." he answers in the most Adam Sandler way possible. And that's that.

Uncut Gems is in cinemas now

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