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New York State of Mind: The Hallucinatory World of ‘Uncut Gems’

How the Safdie brothers re-created—and embellished—a very specific slice of midtown, as told by their collaborators, stars, and friends

Getty Images/A24/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note, May 25, 2020: This story was originally published during Uncut Gems’ theatrical run. We’re resurfacing it now as the film begins streaming on Netflix.

Jonathan Aranbayev was, in his words, just goofing around when the three ladies saw him, a 14-year-old kid hanging out on 47th Street in midtown Manhattan last summer in front of his family’s precious gems business, Avianne & Co. “Then I walk in the store,” he says, “and these ladies walk in, and they ask where am I.” His cousin found him in the back and delivered strange news.

“He’s like, Jonny, these three ladies, they want to see you, they want to talk to you, they want to film you,” Arabayev says. His uncle, standing nearby, was skeptical. It wasn’t until later, after the casting scouts had left the building and his father had gotten a phone call from a major motion picture producer, that “we started understanding,” Arabayev says. “Like, we started realizing that this is real, you know?”

The teenager is speaking by phone from Los Angeles. He has never been to California before now; the farthest west he’s ever traveled has been Florida, he thinks. He’s in town with his family to attend the premiere of Uncut Gems, in which he was cast as Eddie, the earnest oldest son of a slimy, toothy diamond dealer named Howard Ratner, who is played by Adam Sandler with award-buzzy abandon. It is Aranbayev’s first IMDb credit. He turns 16 on December 24, one day before the film’s national Christmas release. His role is limited, though not insignificant; in a movie full of inventive and at times amusing forms of dread, a scene in which Eddie has to pee is both comedic and crushing. His character is obsessed with basketball in the movie, but “I’m more of a gamer,” he says. Describing how it all happened, he tries to remember some film industry jargon.

“First,” Aranbayev says, “I had to go to the—I forget what it’s called. To see if they want me to be in the movie? You know, like, you show up, you do what you gotta do?” He’s talking about the audition, for which he didn’t really prepare. “I didn’t really know what I was going into,” he says. “So I just did it. My dad’s like, just go in and do your thing. So I just did it.” On his Instagram account, Aranbayev posted a short clip of himself successfully doing his thing at the audition, magnetic in a Billionaire Boys Club jersey.

For the past decade, writers-directors-brothers Josh and Benny Safdie dreamed of (and tried) making what they would often refer to in interviews as “the diamond district movie,” a passion project that, while not directly autobiographical, was highly personal. Their father, Alberto, had worked for one of midtown’s jewelmonger kingpins for years during the Safdies’ childhood. His stories of the eccentrics he met and the places he wound up were family lore. Over the years the Safdies pursued and made other projects, like a basketball documentary about Lenny Cooke and a crime caper called Good Time starring Robert Pattinson After Dark, but the diamond district always loomed. They did research and developed contacts up and down 47th Street, refining their understanding of the people and the place, obsessing over authenticity and access. And so, when Uncut Gems was finally getting made, who better to play Howard’s boy than an actual child of the biz?

Aranbayev is one of many first-time actors—don’t call them nonactors—with vital, vivid roles in Uncut Gems, many of them playing characters but all of them selected to just be themselves. The lines between person and performance aren’t so much blurred in the movie as they are woven. The result is hyperrealistic and surreal, warping one’s perspective, like focusing too long on a word or staring too hard into a diamond. With an exacting but still iterative vision, the Safdie brothers built the glittering, grungy onscreen world of New York not only by collaborating with their longest-time creative partners, but also by seeking involvement and input from outside insiders, like basketball star Kevin Garnett, who plays Kevin Garnett, or performing artist The Weeknd, who also appears as a next-big-thing vintage of himself.

Or Aranbayev, as Eddie. “He just had that feeling of what Howard’s son would be like,” says Jennifer Venditti, a New York–based Uncut Gems casting director, “because he is the son of someone like Howard.” She interrupts herself, doubling back, and leaving the hallucinatory world of Uncut Gems for the real one. “I mean, his father is not like Howard!”

You don’t want to be like Howard Ratner, an impulsive schemer and compulsive gambler who has a wife and kids out on Long Island and an employee-girlfriend in the city and a ledger that just never balances but most definitely will by tomorrow, he swears. Sandler-as-Howard wears garish Gucci with the tags still dangling; he hawks mega-bedazzled Furbies; he gets stuffed into trunks and pushed into fountains; he connects with his son almost exclusively via FaceTime small talk about the NBA. His facial hair: yikes. His face: publicly slapped by henchmen as fair warning. His wife, played by ice-cold Idina Menzel of Broadway and Disney fame: square-jawed, hates him. His latest venture: smuggling into his claustrophobic jewelry bunker a rare, raw chunk of trippy black opal, a rock that is never far from his mind even as everything around it gets far out of hand. (In this way, the black opal kind of is to Howard what Uncut Gems was to the Safdies for years: an ongoing chase.)

And yet there are a whole lot of people out there, particularly in the tri-state area, who are like Howard whether they like it or not. He is extreme, but he’s still a type: successful yet insolvent, blustering and bluffing, located in midtown, unacquainted with shame. As the Safdie brothers explained it last year to longtime (and recently semi-re-retired) sports talk radio host Mike Francesa, one way to think about Howard is that he’s not all that dissimilar to some of the tightly wound guys who dial in to WFAN on the regular.

This resonated with Francesa, another of the movie’s first-time actors, who plays a restaurateur-bookie named Gary. Speaking by phone during a commute from the WFAN studios in Manhattan to his home on Long Island, Francesa remembers it being the only macro note he was given by directors the day he filmed his two scenes with Sandler. “We want your tone when you talk to a caller and you’re mad at them,” Francesa says. “I just knew what tone to give them. And although they make you do a million takes, because they change camera angles and they do all different stuff, I just was able to give them what they wanted right away, and they were very happy with it.”

The shoot took place over 14 hours at an Upper East Side restaurant called Nino’s, not far from where Uncut Gems location manager Samson Jacobson used to live. The place appealed to filmmakers in part because of its colorful owner, Nino, and his choice of decor. “There is this insane mural that he has up there that has, like, every conservative type of hero painted on, and every Italian hero as well,” says Jacobson, whom the Safdies described as “a total G” on the Big Picture podcast in 2017. “It’s overwhelming and overloading. There’s a Giuliani. I think Bo Dietl’s in there! When we saw the painting we were all just kind of looking at each other like, do you see what’s on the wall right now?”

Uncut Gems is the Safdies’ version of that mural, in many ways, with Garnett and Menzel and The Weeknd and Sandler and Francesa and Eric Bogosian and Tilda Swinton’s disembodied voice and Lakeith Stanfield all painted into the same unsettling, entrancing picture. “Our whole thing is that life is made up of lots of different characters,” says Venditti, who has now cast three films with the Safdies. “And there’s an alchemy in mixing a professional actor with someone that maybe is professional in the world that you’re depicting.”

Francesa had theoretically appeared on big and small screens before, though only with his voice. In a 2003 John Leguizamo film called Undefeated, he can be heard casting aspersions over the airwaves on Leguizamo’s character, a boxer. The old show Mike and the Mad Dog was playing in the background during one high-profile hit on The Sopranos. It was exactly that ambient local ubiquity that drew in the Safdie brothers, who are huge sports fans. (Even Nino’s owner, Nino Selimaj, says that while most of Sandler’s famous mid-’90s comedies existed outside his frame of reference—“in the restaurant business,” he says, “there is no time”—as a Yankees fan he was for sure familiar with the most famous voice on WFAN.)

Over lunch, Francesa remembers, the Safdie brothers told him “the typical story” of their familiarity with his oeuvre. “We started to listen to you in the back of our parents’ car,” Francesa says, imitating how the story typically goes. “We’ve been fans forever. Blah blah blah. Grew up listening to you. Your voice is in our heads.” The Safdies wanted that voice to be in everyone else’s head, too.

Ronald Bronstein, the Safdies’ longtime creative partner, has somehow never seen Happy Gilmore, nor is he any kind of sports fan. (The appreciation he has for Francesa exists more on a purely aesthetic and, as he puts it, “psychopathological level.”) Even so, Bronstein is a guy so essential to the franchise that Jacobson describes him as “the third leg of the tripod.” He wrote Uncut Gems with Josh Safdie, edited the film with Benny Safdie, and is speaking by phone from Los Angeles, on the morning of a red carpet premiere, about the way he mines small hostilities for inspiration back home in New York.

“Like, if I’m on the train,” Bronstein says, “I will zero in on the person closest to me who I imagine to be most likely to have a problem with me. And then I will spend the rest of the ride just sort of mapping out the dialogue for a confrontation that only exists in my own mind. And then, you know, I’ll in turn take that dialogue and then just funnel it into my work. So that’s, like, that’s my method of writing.” A few minutes later, reiterating how this all goes down, he gives a more detailed, though still imaginary, example that involves reading Proust and leveling accusations of halitosis. This image—a preemptively aggrieved genius muttering, “You lookin’ at me?” to himself—likely resonates with anyone who has been to New York City and most specifically to midtown Manhattan.

A nexus of global commerce, a punch line, a big mood, midtown is both an entry point to nearby outsiders—for the first half of my own life, I experienced New York City as a place entirely bordered by the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, the theaters of Times Square, and the escalators rising up from the NJ Transit level of Penn Station and into Madison Square Garden for a Knicks game—and a no-man’s-land for locals to pass through, again and again, when they’re heading somewhere else in a cab. On every block in midtown, at all times, the steam rises through the subway grates and mixes with the steam rising from the roasted nut and hot dog carts, creating an olfactory Voltron of hot air. It is a sprawling place, vertically and horizontally, subdivided into infinite pockets of crowded clutter.

It’s home to the garment district, and to the fringes of the flower district, and to that one cursed building where that one weird ex lived, and to the diamond district, each a world unto its own. Growing up on the north shore of Long Island, Bronstein used to tag along with his father to his garment business near Seventh Avenue, “just winding my way through the back rooms of these, you know, shmatte peddlers,” he says. Jacobson remembers visiting the overwhelming wonderland that was 47th Street Photo back in the day. “The summer of ’94, in general, was just like one of the best years of my childhood,” he says. “The [NBA] Finals, the Rangers won the Cup, I went to Hot 97 Summer Jam that year.”

Jacobson grew up in the city at the same time as the Safdies, and has become part of the brothers’ increasingly influential orbit of recurring NYC-based collaborators, which also includes Bronstein, the casting director Venditti, the moody-MIDI composer Oneohtrix Point Never (a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin) and the production designer Sam Lisenco, who went to Boston University with the Safdies. Lisenco guesstimates there was a 10-to-15-year stretch of his life when he saw one or both brothers every day, “just breathing the same oxygen,” he says, including on multiple trips to eat Chinese food together on Christmas. He was a producer on the Safdies’ first feature, 2009’s Daddy Longlegs, a loosely autobiographical mumblecore film about two young brothers spending some chaotic time with their divorced dad. (Bronstein plays the titular long-legged daddy.)

Lisenco and Jacobson have now worked together multiple times, both on Safdie projects including Good Time and on other movies set in the city, such as Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Their contributions to Uncut Gems are perhaps best encapsulated by Howard’s crash pad apartment, a study in tacky midtownish entropy that Lisenco decorated with suede wallpaper, lots of Lucite and “reflective black surfaces,” and a fish tank. (The Safdies love fish tanks.) Jacobson cites the apartment in The Fisher King as an influence, and says they had 80-90 places under consideration for Howard’s pad, choosing the one they did in part because of the mirrored walls that ran the length of the space.

“There were a lot of conversations that we had,” Lisenco says, “about not just what the character’s economic status was, but also what they would have strived for had they been wealthy when they were young enough to be developing their tastes.” Howard, he says, “is the kind of guy who really had to have the Sony Trinitron, even though flat screens had already come out, and it’s like five minutes outdated even when it was brand new.” This is in line with Howard’s behavior throughout the film, whether he’s on the streets of midtown or in the audience at an auction house: flashy, but always just a little bit behind.

Francesa is proud that he didn’t even have to go through wardrobe to appear in the film. He wore one of his own suits—pinstriped—and a Rolex watch “my wife gave me for Father’s Day when my twins were born” that he says is the only bling in his life. “That’s the only jewelry I own,” he says. “I don’t own any jewelry. I’m not a jewelry person. I don’t wear any jewelry.” When the Safdies say they had Francesa’s voice in their head, this is it: repetitive just in case you missed anything definitive. “They have you there because they love the spirit of you, and who you are already,” says Venditti of these sorts of castings.

The Safdies are known for creating volumes of content about the backstories of their characters, as they did when working with Pattinson in Good Time, but the flow of information goes both ways. Part of Venditti’s casting process involves little bits of improv but also extensive interviews with the “real people” spotted by casting scouts that yield information, and sometimes even lines of dialogue, that can be incorporated into their roles in the movie. “I think it was great for Adam,” she says about casting, for example, 47th Street jewelers and their offspring, “because, you know, he gets more insight. The more people that are from the block, the better for him.”

Francesa calls Sandler, approvingly, “a conglomerate” whose range he respects. “That’s a real different role for him,” he says. “I liked that he has the guts to expand himself and do that.” He sounds like a guy talking baseball, and during filming with Sandler, he was: The two chilled in Sandler’s trailer during a long lunch break between scenes and watched the 2018 NL Central tiebreaker between the Brewers and the Cubs.

That there even was a trailer with satellite TV to hang out in is something that wasn’t the norm on the filmmakers’ productions. Bronstein says that much of the camera work in Daddy Longlegs was shot from afar on long-focus lenses, and when he did things like carry a refrigerator on his back down the sidewalk he was doing it on the real city streets. Even Good Time, which had Pattinson and the studio A24 attached and was the Safdies’ biggest production to date, had a madcap energy: a chase through the New World Mall in Flushing was technically done with permission, but on the day of the shoot it was not so much staged as it was unleashed. “Josh and Benny,” says Jacobson, “are, in a way, kind of like my relief from the Hollywood world.”

This time around everyone had to dot a few more i’s than usual. “[The filmmakers] really wanted to hang a body out of a window on 47th Street,” he says. “And it’s not just as easy as to say to the guy that owns the building, like: ‘I’ll pay you X amount of dollars if you let me do that.’ Like, the Office of Emergency Management needs a heads-up.” There were more irregular communications channels to manage, too: During shooting, randos would approach Jacobson “out of the woodwork,” he says, “telling me they ran security for the block, and that they should have known we were coming, because a billion dollars, every three hours, goes in and out of the block.”

Still, there is still plenty of room for organic onscreen magic when you spend so much effort combing the city for faces and people, unknown and well-known alike, who can tell real stories about their worlds. “I mean, I’m 15,” says Aranbayev, who is one of them. “My parents look at me like I’m old enough to do whatever I gotta do. I come in and do sales. I’m just a salesman, right?” It’s easy to see why he appealed to casting scouts. And then there’s Keith Williams Richards, one of the guys doing the window-dangling in that scene, who has such a classic-character-actor mug (David Rasche meets Willam Dafoe) and attitude that it is shocking to learn that he was street-cast and that, according to The New Yorker, he’s a former longshoreman. Julia Fox, a downtown-chic party girl IRL who plays Sandler’s magnetic flame, Julia, told The New York Times that for a time she would run into actresses who would tell her they were up for the role of, essentially, her. In a role credited only as “Handsome Older Man” is a bronzed dress designer named Wayne Diamond, who Bronstein says used to party with his uncle on 7th Avenue in the ’70s.

All this working with actors who haven’t done this before sounds like something that could cause a real headache for a film editor. “You know,” Bronstein says, “there’s a reason why actors don’t step on each other’s lines. There’s a system in place to create—to ensure that you will be able to deliver a consumable product at the end of the process.” But professional actors or not, that has never been how the Safdies work. “These guys, on the set, are just breaking these rules left and right,” he says. “When you have people that are allowed to just talk over each other, and then on top of that, you’re also miking up everybody else in the room and allowing them to have the freedom to talk, whether they’re on camera or not, when you get into postproduction it’s like a giant surgery. It’s like performing surgery on a Tetris.”

This fall, when Uncut Gems was screened at Lincoln Center during the New York Film Festival, the actors took a curtain call up on stage. (“It was such a wild, wild bunch of people,” says Lisenco.) This being New York, the crowd greeted Francesa with particular zeal. “I think a couple of the actors were like, what the heck is going on here?” Francesa says; he remembers Judd Hirsch, in particular, as looking pretty confused. “I don’t think he realized,” Francesa says, “that this is my audience on a daily basis.” Watching the film for the first time at the screening, during a scene starring Handsome Older Man, Francesa was delighted to recognize a Mohegan Sun hotel room, the one he always stays in. “If I’ve stayed there once, I’ve stayed there 50 times,” he says; once he was snowbound there for days. (So was Jon Bon Jovi, who gave everyone a free concert.) And he also got to chat with that scene’s actor, Wayne Diamond, just two rookie thespians conversing about their roles in one of the year’s biggest films. “I met him at the thing,” Francesa says. “He was a real character.”

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