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Adam Sandler And The Safdie Brothers Discuss Manic Thriller 'Uncut Gems'

In a new film by writer/directors Josh and Benny Safdie, Adam Sandler plays a jewelry store owner and gambler who's deep in debt. The brothers' father worked in Manhattan's diamond district.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Adam Sandler is famous for his comedy films and his work on "Saturday Night Live" in the '90s. But he's also given some terrific performances and dramas. He stars in the new manic thriller, "Uncut Gems," which was written and directed by the Safdie brothers - Josh and Benny Safdie - who are also with us.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jeweler in Manhattan's Diamond District who always has a deal or a con going on and never stops talking. And he's a gambler. He's made a lot of money and lost a lot of money and is deep in debt to a loan shark whose men are after him. He's trying to talk and gamble his way out of the predicament he's in. The Safdies' father worked in the Diamond District when they were kids, and they heard a lot of stories.

"Uncut Gems" won the Best Director Award from the New York Film Critics Circle. The National Board of Review gave Sandler the Best Actor Award and the Safdie brothers the Best Screenplay Award. The film has five nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Feature, Director, Screenplay and Male Lead.

Here's a scene from "Uncut Gems," with Howard - Sandler's character - placing bets with his bookie on the Boston Celtics and player Kevin Garnett.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UNCUT GEMS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What do you want? I already made your bet.

ADAM SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I know. I know. I've got to change the bet. I've got $21,000 here. So you add it on to the 19 grand, that's $40,000 in all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Scrap the whole bet?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Scrap the whole bet. I want to make a six-way parlay. Celtics-Sixers game, what's the line now?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Still plus one.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Plus one, OK. So I want to the Celtics to cover. I want the Celtics halftime. I want Garnett points and rebounds, Garnett blocked shots, Celtics opening tip. Do you take lightning bets?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah, but you don't want any part of lightning bets. Come on.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) Fine, $1,000 a point, OK? Take this. And this is a gift from me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's this?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I just - for just tolerating me for all this time, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, no, no. I already have a Rolex. I don't need your watch. Listen - it probably fell off a truck anyway. Listen; but what do you know? Garnett this, Garnett that, what do you know?

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I don't know. I just know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, I'll tell you what I know. That's the dumbest (expletive) bet I ever heard of.

SANDLER: (As Howard Ratner) I disagree.

GROSS: Adam Sandler and Josh and Benny Safdie, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film and the awards and nominations.

JOSH SAFDIE: Thank you.

SANDLER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask one of the Safdie brothers first - and you can decide which one takes this - to describe the character Adam Sandler plays. I've already given a basic introduction, but give us your take on the character.

BENNY SAFDIE: Howard is an optimist. He's a nauseating optimist. He's - a.k.a. a gambler. He's a dreamer. He's a guy who wants to be - he wants to return to his place at the table that he fought so hard to eat it. And, you know, the movie's taking place at a time in his life where he's, you know, trying to parlay everything to get that triumphant moment again.

J SAFDIE: And he - he's a little tough, you know? He won't back down. You know, he's not - he won't - he's not settled in his place. You know, he wants to go bigger.

B SAFDIE: Howard is in the tradition of the great 20th century Jews who we - you know, who stood for so much to us - the Rodney Dangerfields, the Lenny Bruces, the Al Goldsteins, you know, the Borscht Belt community who were able to - from the outside - look at the - look at life and wryly comment on it all the time - and in particular, most importantly, Rodney Dangerfield. Dangerfield was huge for us.

J SAFDIE: And then there's also the Adam Sandlers, you know, who are huge.

B SAFDIE: (Laughter).

SANDLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Why did you think of Adam Sandler for the role?

B SAFDIE: There really - in our heads, there was nobody else. You know, there was only one person who we knew could ground absurd situations in total reality, you know? In all of his films, when you're watching them, you truly believe what's going on is happening to him. It's an incredible skill. And for this, you'd really need to root for Howard for the whole movie to work. And he brings such a humor and a - just a presence that's - it's - you can't - nobody else could do it.

J SAFDIE: It's tough speaking about him in front of him right now.

SANDLER: I'm not looking.

J SAFDIE: (Laughter) You know, it's - Sandler has a - you know, Adam, you've got a really, really unique thing going on in life. And, you know, you have a way of making people, you know, making characters, like Benny said, ground these absurd characters, making them lovable and making and giving a soul behind the eyes of the characters.

And it's just - I don't know what it is. I don't know what it is. It's something ineffable. It's seeing the desire and the struggle behind the eyes to get at something great. And that exists in your real life. And it naturally - and that - and you want to be overwhelmed by something great all the time...

B SAFDIE: And you have...

J SAFDIE: ...So that you get lost.

B SAFDIE: And you have to love Howard.

GROSS: Let me bring Adam Sandler in. Adam Sandler...

SANDLER: Yeah?

B SAFDIE: (Laughter) We could talk about him all day.

SANDLER: Yeah, this is nice.

B SAFDIE: Don't get us started.

SANDLER: Terry, you shouldn't interrupt that kind of thing.

GROSS: Yeah, sorry about that.

SANDLER: Thank you.

GROSS: So when they offered you the role, did you initially want it? Did you see yourself as this character, Howard?

SANDLER: Well, I saw Howard. I wasn't sure I could do it. Their passion was strong about Howard and about the movie. And my first instinct is, I'm scared because I don't want to let these guys down because I could feel how great of a piece it was when I read it.

And then also, you know, I do have a wife. I do have kids. I get nervous about even pretending to be a bad guy. I get nervous about that and what - how it could affect my household and stuff like that. So I'm a little bit nuts like that. I don't think that's the way you should think in life. But this is kind of what I do think.

And then I just - you know, initially, I saw their other movies, the Safdie brothers, and just realized that these guys are doing something exceptional and new and had their own voice. And I knew it would be something great, and I'd feel like I'd miss out on something if I didn't do it. And my wife read the script. And she was like, you just have to do this. This movie is incredible. And as an actor, how are you ever going to see a part where you get to do these many emotions and ups and downs and go through as much as this guy is going through?

And so I just - once my wife - you know, we're in the same house - she gives me the go-ahead, it just makes life feel much easier. And then I jump in and jump in hard.

J SAFDIE: Thank you, Jackie.

SANDLER: (Laughter).

GROSS: What were your fears about the effect this character would have on your family before your wife said this is a great opportunity and you should do the film?

SANDLER: I think I just - you know, I just probably think about having to be this guy and the day and the actual scene we're shooting and just - I'm really - I love being with my family a lot. I love being with my - and being a part of their day. And I don't know. It just mess - it messes your head up sometimes when you're deep in a character, and you're just present for that and doing things that you wouldn't do in real life to your family. And - I don't know. Maybe it's just - I shouldn't be an actor if I talk like this.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: But I do screw - it does screw my head up, until I got the go-ahead. And then I'm - then I'm good. I just - very connected with my wife. And we like to feel comfortable with each other and give each other - you know, back each other up kind of thing.

So I guess, you know - and then also there's the - my kids are going to see this movie someday. And I know if I saw my father go through what this guy goes through, I probably - it would mess my head up. So, you know, I overthink it. But this is how I was thinking.

GROSS: What did you do to physically take on the character? Like, you're wearing false teeth. You have clothes that you don't typically wear. Why did - and maybe this is a question for the Safdies, too - why did you need false teeth?

SANDLER: That was these guys. These - they came up with that. Tell them.

J SAFDIE: I think that the - you know, and again, this was - we spent 10 years working on this movie, including going out to Sandler's team 10 years ago and getting the no. But we - you know, we...

SANDLER: Strong no, we gave you. Pass, buddy.

J SAFDIE: (Laughter) Get better.

B SAFDIE: It was actually worse then. It was just silence.

SANDLER: (Laughter).

J SAFDIE: Just get better, and come back to us. You know, what you do is - with a movie like this - and with every movie, really, that we work on - you have to - there's the journalistic component of doing your research and doing - getting to know the world firsthand and from a primary source, you being the primary source.

And I saw a lot of - it was a status symbol. A lot of jewelers, a lot of people we came across in that world, you know, cap their teeth and, you know, as a status thing. So it was - you know, everything kind of comes from character and character biography.

B SAFDIE: And we had seen - there was a - there's a documentary by Nick Broomfield about Heidi Fleiss, the...

J SAFDIE: Hollywood Madam.

B SAFDIE: ...Hollywood Madam. And it's - there's this character, Ivan Nagy, and he's just got this smile. And it's infectious. And at any moment, he turns it on, even in the worst situations. And it was so interesting. And I don't know, and then we tried it out. We did a bunch - five months before we were shooting, we did a bunch of tests just to see how these things would feel. And yeah, chain...

SANDLER: It helped a lot. It helps just that knowing I'm not Adam Sandler in the part, just that I - they gave me a mole. They gave me - my hair was different. My glasses helped.

J SAFDIE: The earrings.

SANDLER: The earrings helped. And the clothes being so different, it just helped me definitely dive into a different person.

J SAFDIE: Terry, in the beginning, actually, the very, very initial impetus was, you know, we thought, let's really try to camouflage Sandler as much as possible so that when we were doing the research in the Diamond District - because we did - with Sandler in particular, we did it together. We wanted to see, can we take this fictional character and stand him up against reality? And will it stand that test?

And it did. The first few times we went to the block, no one recognized you. And you were just kind of - it allowed you to be more like a sponge, a malleable...

SANDLER: Right.

J SAFDIE: So there was a pragmatism in it as well.

GROSS: How did it feel to not be recognized, Adam?

SANDLER: Well, that would last maybe 40 seconds. But...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: But it felt neat. It felt neat. I like sitting back and watching and learning from everybody. I - these jewelers on 47th Street that the Safdie boys and Ronnie, who also wrote the movie - they were so excited about us making a movie about the block. They let us into their lives. They taught us so many things, so many thoughts that go through their head when - while they're selling and their day-to-day family life and had a - it was great to not be recognized, just kind of sit there and spy on them.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Adam Sandler, who stars in the new film "Uncut Gems," and Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed the film. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed the new film "Uncut Gems," and Adam Sandler, who stars as Howard Ratner, the owner of a jewelry store in Manhattan's Diamond District. He sells some very valuable gems but also has a supply of fake watches. He's a compulsive gambler, bets on basketball, is in deep debt. And each scheme he has to pay off the loan shark just keeps getting him deeper and deeper - things keep getting worse and worse, and you feel his time running out.

Adam Sandler, you found the voice for this character. This character is a fast talker. He's always trying to convince people or sell people on something. He's just always taking chances. He always says things he can't really back up. And he doesn't stop talking.

SANDLER: Yes.

GROSS: You found the rhythm, and you found the music in that character's voice.

SANDLER: Right, yeah.

GROSS: Can you describe finding the voice and what that voice is?

SANDLER: Well, that voice is, you know, was written. And then also we - after getting to meet a bunch of guys on the block, there were certain aspects of certain guys I met that - I would think of their rhythms and how they talked and how they - I mean, I'll tell you, I think I - in my head, Howard talks a lot not only to - he just wants control. He wants control. When you - he wants to control the what we're talking about because I don't think he likes sitting and thinking too much. I think he likes hitting.

And he's a very sensitive guy. He's sensitive to what everyone's thinking in the room, so he takes care - he's talking to one person dead on, and then he hears something going on on the right. He makes sure and take care of that situation, includes everybody. It's a guy who likes to run the room. And so that's why. He's just hypersensitive.

It's, to me, very stand-up comedian. Like, when I'm - when you're on stage and you're performing at a little club, and you're telling your jokes, and the 10 people in front of you laugh, but the guy on the left doesn't laugh, you'll see most comedians will go over to the guy who's not laughing and try to include him in a certain way. And I feel that Howard's sort of like that.

B SAFDIE: Totally.

GROSS: The movie is so much about speed. You know, the Howard character is really manic. The neighborhood in Manhattan is really chaotic and kind of manic. And Howard has to make a lot of money really quickly to pay off his debts. And the speed of the movie is manic. I mean, I'm almost imagining you there with stopwatches saying, OK, 90 seconds, the scene is over. Time for another scene.

SANDLER: Wow.

GROSS: I mean, there's so many different scene shots, and it's like - it's constantly changing to a new scene or new location, or there's an edit because everything is just constantly manic. And I want you to talk a little bit about creating that non-stop energy in the film.

J SAFDIE: You know, when we were writing the script, we did over 160 drafts over the course of 10 years. And when Scott Rudin got involved as a producer three years ago, he was looking at the script, and he saw over 160-page script. And he says, Josh, how long do you want this movie to be? And I said, the movie's going to be 90 minutes. And he says, well, how is that possible? It's a 160-page script. I said, it's going to be a 90-minute movie conceptually.

GROSS: (Laughter).

J SAFDIE: And because we - when we did our research in the Diamond District, it was - that was - time turned into something else there because there was so much happening at once, and there's so many different narratives happening. That one guy had six different deals happening at the same time. When you do your research there, you'd be - 30 minutes in the Diamond District is the equivalent of seven hours anywhere else. It really - it felt - it was exhausting to spend the days there in a - but exhilarating also. And it was also absurd and thrilling. And there was, you know - even though there was no crime happening, there was a sense of criminality because you just see these handshake deals. And it was a barbaric world. So it - everything kind of was informed by that research...

B SAFDIE: Yeah.

J SAFDIE: ...And by that experience, you know?

B SAFDIE: And then just on set, the way we would kind of work is we would have this - everybody is allowed to talk. You know, the extras in the background are allowed to talk. Actors are allowed to step on one another, you know? There's no marks, and we don't have playbacks. So there's this feeling of propulsion, of just the scene happening in reality. And so then what you kind of - when you come to the edit, you have these amazing moments that you've tried to capture as real, you know, in quotes. And then we start like a documentary, and we take the scene from where it was born on the set. And then it kind of takes on a new life, and it gets kind of shrink-wrapped. And we approach everything with such a sharp knife.

GROSS: The main character, Howard, is a big basketball fan. It's like - he not only bets on it, but he loves the sport. And there's a scene that's almost, like, funny - I don't know whether it's intentional or not - in which he's - it's a very high-pressure situation that he's in. I won't describe it because I don't want to give too much away. But he's basically watching the game on TV. He's got a lot of money on it.

SANDLER: Right.

GROSS: And he's kind of, like, narrating the game. It's like he's a sportscaster on TV. And he's like, I like doing the game.

SANDLER: Right.

GROSS: And Adam Sandler, it's - you're so manic when you're doing it.

SANDLER: Yeah.

B SAFDIE: (Laughter).

GROSS: And I'm wondering a couple of things - one is if you improvised any of that, but also if you did any of that as a kid - like, if you'd watch a game and get so caught up in it, like, you'd be the sportscaster.

SANDLER: Oh, man, that's good. That's good. I mean, we had the games. These guys deliberately wouldn't show me the games, so I could react for real. And I was given the freedom to - it was great stuff written, and then also given the freedom to react and say things. And I am, in real life - since I'm a kid, I've been very vocal watching games.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SANDLER: I am a true insane person in my house with sports. And the wife and family are like, oh, no. Oh, no. The Yankees have a big game today. And, like, they think about leaving the house. Just - I have big mood swings and really scream at the screen sometimes. And yes, it was fun to be Howard, but also, I did connect with Howard a lot.

J SAFDIE: We actually - there - that scene is much longer in - when we shot it. So I actually was thinking it would be amazing on your television to have, like - you know how you have closed captioning - if you had Howard captioning for the game.

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: You'd hear him react. It's so funny you bring up that clip because there's - it's so - you're so - you were so perceptive on set looking at things because you're going crazy. Oh, that's a foul. That's a foul. And I go like, wait, nobody did get it. He did get it. And then you totally just take all of that - and you're like, oh, that's a foul. In that moment, (unintelligible). But he did have it. That counts. That counts as one, you know?

SANDLER: Right, right.

J SAFDIE: And you're telling everybody.

SANDLER: Yeah, yeah.

B SAFDIE: And you're just so aware.

SANDLER: It's so funny, Terry. When you bet on a game - which, I do bet sometimes, and I watch - you watch so close when you have money on a game and it means something to you. It's not only the money. It's - you made this decision in your head. You told everyone on the planet, this is going to happen.

J SAFDIE: Totally.

SANDLER: So you're watching the game with such - it's just a different energy. And honest to God, when you make a bet on something and the game starts at 7:05, it's - you start - your body is shaking at 2 in the afternoon going, it's coming. It's coming.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: And so you are - when you get to that actual game, there is so much excitement, you can't contain it. You're screaming at each thing. The funniest thing these guys said is - at the beginning of the movie, when I make my first bet and you see my first bet, I'm carrying on like a crazy man. And you see the score is 2 to nothing.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: It's like, nothing has happened yet. I'm still like, oh, my God. We're in trouble now.

GROSS: (Laughter) My guests are Adam Sandler, who stars in the new film "Uncut Gems," and Josh and Benny Safdie, who co-wrote and directed the film. After a break, the Safdie brothers will tell some stories from when their father worked in New York's Diamond District, where the film is set, and Adam Sandler will talk about his comedy songs and how he started writing them. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Adam Sandler, who stars in the new film "Uncut Gems," and Josh and Benny Safdie, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Ronald Bronstein. The Safdie brothers also wrote and directed the film "Good Time." Unlike most of Sandler's movie roles, this is a dramatic role. He plays Howard Ratner, the owner of a jewelry store in Manhattan's Diamond District. He deals in precious gems, along with Rolexes that probably fell off the back of a truck. He's kind of addicted to gambling on basketball and is deep in debt to a loan shark who sent his men out to collect. The Safdie brothers have a personal connection to the story they've written.

So Josh and Benny Safdie, your father, for a few years when you were very young, worked in the Diamond District. What did he do?

J SAFDIE: He was a runner and a salesman. So a runner brings jewelry from one place, like, you know, a wholesale dispatch to a jewelry store or a pawn shop. And it started off in the five boroughs, and then he - when he would go and do these deliveries, he's, you know, a charming guy, and he would end up selling more from the inventory. So then they would - he would come back with memos and slips. And then he'd have to go back out. And then he ended up getting this car from the business, and then he would drive around in the tri-state area. And it was a very thrilling time. And he - you know, actually, when we met up with our dad's boss 10 years ago, the first thing he said to us is, your dad owes me $3,000.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: And the story behind that was that when he was really getting into it with his boss - and he ended up, you know, getting engaged to women who worked there - and he, you know, had a big fight with him, and he basically said, I quit. And the guy's like, all right, like, give me my car back. He's like, well, not until you give me my commissions. And they had a stalemate. And eventually - so our dad was like, you know what I'm doing to do? I'm going to find the most expensive garage in New York. I'm going to put the car in that garage. And I - and he told his boss, listen - you know, when you pay me my commissions, I'll tell you where the car is. So when he finally paid him, he gave him the the address of where the car was.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: And it was at this expensive garage, and it was a $3,000 bill to get the car out of the garage.

GROSS: So Adam Sandler was worried about playing Howard because he thought it would have a bad effect on his family. You wrote and directed this movie inspired by your father's work, in part by his personality, in part by people he knew. Are you not afraid about the impact (laughter) that this movie is going to have on your father?

B SAFDIE: Well, it's so different. You know, it's totally fiction, you know. The - over these 10 years, you know, the three of us, Josh and Ronnie, you know, working on this, it was totally fabricated to the point where you have no idea where the reality is and where it begins. And I think what's interesting is when you're - when you watch on the screen, it feels so real.

J SAFDIE: When we showed our dad the movie - and he was so - I mean, I watched it sitting next to him, and he was so engaged with the film, and he was speaking out loud the entire time. At one point, he pulled out his phone and started to bootleg the movie on his phone.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: And I told him - I said, what are you doing? Put the phone away. He's like, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so excited.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: And, you know, there's a scene where Howard is in the closet texting with his girlfriend, and my dad just let out - he goes, I love this guy. I love this guy. And, you know, he - when the movie finished, he just said, it's R.J. MacReady. It's "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." It was - he was so in awe. Movies to him are these, you know - are the - is this - is the Socratic method. You know, it's - to him, you watch a movie to understand your own life. And it was that.

It was like, for him, his kids had made this thing, this titanic thing - a movie, you know, with a capital M. And it was such a - that was amazing. And I think that he's - since he was a kid, he's gotten totally lost in movies. And, you know, he showed us movies a lot when we were kids and asked us to find answers in them. So it was - in short, Terry, no, we're not. But he's a - you know, he was really mesmerized by the movie, which was awesome to kind of see.

B SAFDIE: (Laughter) Yeah, he...

GROSS: What did your father do after he left the Diamond District?

J SAFDIE: He worked at - as a - for American Express briefly. And then he worked as a graphic designer. Then he worked as a Web person. Then he worked as an ice-cream shop manager. Then he worked as a - briefly, at the gas station, I think, in Israel (laughter).

B SAFDIE: (Laughter) Yeah, the...

J SAFDIE: Then he worked - he's had real estate. Fish - he sold fish for a long time. I mean, he's had a lot of jobs.

GROSS: Got it. All right.

B SAFDIE: Yeah, there - the idea of showing movies to understand was a big one. You know, it's like, at one point, when our parents - they were divorced, and there was a whole thing going on. He's like, OK, you're about to go back to your mom. I'm going to show you guys "Kramer Vs. Kramer." And he's like, I'm Dustin Hoffman. And it was like...

J SAFDIE: And your mom is Meryl Streep.

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: So it was like, when we got to our moms, she's like, why are you guys so angry at me right now? And then she - we told her why. And he's stretching and he's bending reality to his own wishes, you know, to get what he wants.

GROSS: So Adam Sandler, my impression is your family wasn't as, quote, "colorful?" (Laughter).

SANDLER: Well...

B SAFDIE: No, your dad was very colorful.

SANDLER: We have...

J SAFDIE: Your dad was big. Your dad was big on this...

SANDLER: My dad was big. And we all love - my family's definitely got its own thing. It's not not the same as the boys, but I do...

GROSS: What's your family's thing?

SANDLER: Well, we're very close, very close and involved with each other. And my dad - but my dad was the man. We all looked up to him, and he can - he was a quieter guy, but when he was funny, it was great.

B SAFDIE: I was talking to your cousin. He's like, oh, my God...

SANDLER: Yeah.

B SAFDIE: ...When he was watching the movie, he's like, that was him.

SANDLER: I'm a little - I look like my dad...

B SAFDIE: Yeah.

SANDLER: ...In the movie sometimes. And my dad had the goatee, and he combed his hair back.

B SAFDIE: Yeah.

SANDLER: My father used to wear gold chains around the neck and some rings on occasion. But my dad was a badass, for sure.

B SAFDIE: Yeah, he looked like a tough guy. Yeah.

SANDLER: Big dude - 6'2".

J SAFDIE: Yeah.

SANDLER: Two-fifty. Kind of - you didn't want to cross him kind of guy. He was cool.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Adam Sandler, who stars in the new film "Uncut Gems," and Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed the film. They're brothers. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed the new film "Uncut Gems," and Adam Sandler, who stars as Howard Ratner, the owner of a jewelry store in Manhattan's Diamond District. He sells some very valuable gems but also has a supply of fake watches. He's a compulsive gambler, bets on basketball, is deep in debt and keeps getting in deeper with each new scheme he comes up with.

So the character of Howard is Jewish, and a lot of the people who - in the Diamond District in New York are Jewish. And there's a scene at Howard's family Seder, and his extended family is there. And I think it's perfect that the part of the Seder that you show is the recitation of the plagues - the lice, the pestilence, the hail, blood, frogs, boils, slaying of the first born. This is God's punishment of the Egyptians who are enslaving the Jews and refusing to acknowledge God. So...

SANDLER: That's always the biggest hit at the table, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: Well, dying is a big hit.

SANDLER: Oh, yeah. Dying, yeah.

GROSS: Since everything is going wrong for the character, the plague seems to be, like, the perfect part of the Seder...

J SAFDIE: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: ...To emphasize. But I'd like you to all share with us what Seders were like in your family when you were growing up.

B SAFDIE: That's great.

J SAFDIE: (Laughter) Yeah, we - it depended on which side of the family we were with.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Because your parents divorced, yeah.

B SAFDIE: (Laughter) Yes.

J SAFDIE: Well, this - and the Sephardic side versus the Ashkenazi side. You know, the - there's - I think I found the afikoman every year.

GROSS: That's the matzo that you hide...

B SAFDIE: Yeah.

SANDLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...For the kids to find, yeah.

J SAFDIE: Which I was surprised to learn that it's never been in a movie before.

SANDLER: That's insane.

J SAFDIE: It's not - is it even in the "Rugrats" Passover special?

B SAFDIE: No, I don't think so.

J SAFDIE: Yeah. It's...

B SAFDIE: Yeah. I think - yeah.

J SAFDIE: It's so ritualistic. And...

SANDLER: That was the only reason I showed up to the table.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: Exactly.

SANDLER: When are we going to look for that matzo?

J SAFDIE: I remember I would get - from my great-grandfather on our mom's side, he would always have these very crisp - like, I didn't know it was - how that was possible - these $1 bills. They were so crisp. And it was just so - you'd find this matzo, and you'd get this insane thing. As a kid, what is this - money?

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: Yeah. It felt like, when you saw that crisp dollar bill, you felt like - especially from, like, an ancient man, you know...

J SAFDIE: (Laughter) Exactly, it was...

B SAFDIE: This guy is, like...

J SAFDIE: Yeah, and...

SANDLER: I think I carried on so much one year when I didn't find it and someone else did that the rest of my childhood, my family would, like, tap kids on the shoulder and go, let Adam find it.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: He's psychotic. I'm telling you. For the benefit of the rest of the night.

B SAFDIE: Tearing the apart the whole...

SANDLER: Yeah, exactly (laughter).

J SAFDIE: I remember - I know that - I remember in one particular Seder the - you know, the...

GROSS: Wait - can I just interrupt and explain for people who don't understand? So...

J SAFDIE: Yes, sorry.

GROSS: So the - at the Seder, you hide the matzo.

SANDLER: Right.

GROSS: And the kids are supposed to go searching for it, and the kid who finds it is rewarded with a bit of money.

SANDLER: Yes. Or a gift or something.

GROSS: A gift or something, yeah.

SANDLER: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: It's often a bit of money (laughter).

SANDLER: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. Anyways, I interrupted you. Go ahead.

SANDLER: A crisp buck or two.

GROSS: Yes.

J SAFDIE: (Laughter) Yeah. I remember one - in one Seder, post-recline, we had this relative named Shaul (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: You know, these names. And he would entertain everybody with these stories. And they were - there was no way they were realistic.

B SAFDIE: One of them was about him wrestling a whale (laughter).

J SAFDIE: He was swimming in the ocean, and this eye showed up next to him, and he beat up the whale. I was like, what?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: Ah, this did happen. Don't take it away from Shaul.

J SAFDIE: But the recline after the meal is also a very important part of the holiday - the holiday.

GROSS: This is when everybody passes out from having eaten too much?

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: Yeah.

SANDLER: Good one, Terry.

J SAFDIE: But - and that's when you kind of - you start to see people section off, the people who you're close with. And you really are taking in the night.

B SAFDIE: And there is that moment after the kind of - it was - yeah, there was - one side was more Reformed than the other, so you'd have different levels of, like, how deep it goes and how long that Seder is.

SANDLER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

J SAFDIE: But that moment after the Seder, where you spent all this time, and it's just - you can just be with your family.

SANDLER: That was the best.

J SAFDIE: Yeah. Yeah.

SANDLER: Yes. Yes. I'll tell you, my father, Terry, wasn't afraid to skip a page or two.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: It was like, I would see my father eyeing some food, and I'd be like, oh, good, he's about skip three pages. He's hungry.

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: And then Ronald Bronstein, who we wrote the movie with, in his family, the tradition - every...

J SAFDIE: This is amazing.

B SAFDIE: Every Pesach, he goes to - you know, his whole family gets together. And at some point, his mother retreats to the closet and digs up her bat mitzvah dress...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: Wow.

B SAFDIE: ...And tries it on to prove to everyone she can still fit in it.

SANDLER: Incredible.

B SAFDIE: It's great.

GROSS: There's a scene kind of like that in the movie (laughter).

J SAFDIE: Exactly. Yeah.

B SAFDIE: Right.

J SAFDIE: So when Ronnie...

B SAFDIE: He actually was so excited because he hadn't - he didn't tell her until she saw the movie. And it was a total surprise when she was watching.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SANDLER: His mom, yeah?

B SAFDIE: And his mom is really proud. She's still proud she can still fit into that bat mitzvah dress.

GROSS: I want to say, in the movie, this is not a dress anybody would still want to fit into.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: Good one.

GROSS: So Adam Sandler, you've done a lot of comedy about being Jewish. What did being Jewish mean in your family when you were growing up?

SANDLER: It was definitely a big part of us. And, you know, we went to temple, you know, not every Friday. It happened once or twice a month. My mother was very heavily involved in the temple and helping out and doing charities and B'nai B'rith and all these organizations. My mother was very - when she was a kid, was kosher and from an orthodox family. And then when she married my dad, they - I think it was Conservative for a bit, and then they became Reformed. We - I grew up Reformed.

And it was just - we weren't a very religious family. We were just very - my parents were proud to be Jewish and made sure we were proud and just, you know, celebrate fun holidays and know our history and, also, just defend our history when people were saying things that weren't - I remember when - that was kind of big in our house, that something negative's being said or an anti-Semitic remark or that - don't let it go unheard. Make sure that you acknowledge it and correct it or, you know, stand up for the - your family.

GROSS: When you were young, you moved to New Hampshire...

SANDLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...And went to a school where there were very few Jews. I think there were, like, two Jews in your class or something.

SANDLER: Right. Sure.

GROSS: So did that make you more conscious of being Jewish? And were you seen...

SANDLER: Probably.

GROSS: ...As being different as a result of it?

SANDLER: I'm sure when I lived in Brooklyn and, you know, we were next to the Epsteins, it was a lot easier...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: ...Than - it was always me and one other Jewish kid in class, and when we had to say, like, we're not coming to school for Yom Kippur, that was like - we'd look at each other like, here it goes. Let's see how this goes over.

(LAUGHTER)

J SAFDIE: But if it wasn't for that, we wouldn't have had "The Hanukkah Song."

SANDLER: I guess.

(CROSSTALK)

GROSS: "The Hanukkah Song" - I love "The Hanukkah Song."

SANDLER: Yes.

GROSS: And we're going to play it now, if that's OK with you, because...

SANDLER: Oh, my goodness.

J SAFDIE: Amazing.

GROSS: ...This is so wonderful. I love this song. We'll play the first version of it that you did...

SANDLER: Got you.

GROSS: ...On "Saturday Night Live." And hey, it's the season, right?

B SAFDIE: Right.

J SAFDIE: That's right.

GROSS: And here's how it came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SANDLER: (Singing) Put on your yarmulke. Here comes Hanukkah - so much funukkah (ph) to celebrate Hanukkah. Hanukkah is the festival of lights. Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights. But when you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree, here's a list of people who are Jewish just like you and me.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: David Lee Roth lights the menorah. So do Kirk Douglas, James Caan and the late Dinah Shore. Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli? Bowzer from Sha Na Na and Arthur Fonzarelli.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: (Singing) Paul Newman's half-Jewish, and Goldie Hawn's half, too. Put them together - what a fine-looking Jew.

(LAUGHTER)

B SAFDIE: Yeah, man.

J SAFDIE: Wow.

GROSS: (Laughter).

B SAFDIE: That was some good Jewish people right there.

J SAFDIE: Yeah, that was great.

B SAFDIE: That was - I knew Arthur Fonzarelli would get an applause break, man.

GROSS: (Laughter).

J SAFDIE: It was great to hear as a kid, too, because, you know, you're reminded that there's only 14 million Jews in the world. But then you're - there's this pop - piece of pop culture that's just - you're given. There's so much Christmas stuff.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Adam Sandler, who stars in the new film "Uncut Gems," and Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed the film. They're brothers. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed the new film "Uncut Gems," and Adam Sandler, who stars as Howard Ratner, the owner of a jewelry store in Manhattan's Diamond District. He sells some very valuable gems but also has a supply of fake watches. He's a compulsive gambler, bets on basketball, is in deep debt. And each scheme he has to pay off the loan shark just keeps getting him deeper and deeper. Things keep getting worse and worse, and you feel his time running out.

Adam Sandler, how did you start doing music in your comedy? Did you want to be in a band when you were growing up?

SANDLER: Yes, yes, yes.

GROSS: Were you ever in a band?

SANDLER: Yes, I was in a bunch of bands, Terry. I was in a band in sixth grade. Me and Lex Lianos - he was the drummer. I was the guitar player. We were in a band called Still Young...

J SAFDIE: I love that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SANDLER: ...In sixth grade.

B SAFDIE: Wow.

J SAFDIE: That's unbelievable.

SANDLER: And we played at the...

J SAFDIE: That's incredible.

SANDLER: ...School talent show. We played "House Of The Rising Sun."

J SAFDIE: That's amazing.

SANDLER: We brought the house down, man. We did all right, me and old Lexi.

GROSS: Did you know it was about a house of prostitution when you sang it?

SANDLER: That's - Terry, I still didn't know that. Thank you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

B SAFDIE: I didn't know that.

J SAFDIE: Yeah.

B SAFDIE: It's crazy.

SANDLER: That is what - that's so funny, Terry. But you got to admit it's still a great one. Old Eric Burdon can rip that pretty loud. And I sang it. And guess what? My father at my wedding - my father, unfortunately, had lung cancer, and he was at my wedding. And when he was sick, he said, I'm going to make it to the wedding. Don't worry. So anyways, he was going through hell. But I got up there. My wife brought my guitar, and I sang the "House Of The Rising Sun" up on stage with the band just to - just because my dad always dug that tune and loved...

J SAFDIE: Amazing.

SANDLER: ...That I jammed that one in sixth grade.

J SAFDIE: I love that your band was called Still Young.

GROSS: So after sixth grade, were you in bands?

SANDLER: I was in bands all throughout high school - Spectrum, Messiah, Storm, Final Warning.

B SAFDIE: This is amazing.

SANDLER: Yeah. We were all - everybody was good. We all liked to jam. That's all I did was jam and jam and jam.

J SAFDIE: That's good.

GROSS: Were you the lead singer usually?

SANDLER: I was the lead singer, played lead guitar. And it was the best - I mean, going to your friend's house, going to the basement or in my basement. That's all we did was jam and jam and play Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and Aerosmith. And that's all we cared about was that. And then I got to NYU, so the band broke up in New Hampshire because everyone went to different colleges. And I thought maybe I'd start a band in - at NYU. And then I saw these guys playing, and everybody was literally 20 times better than me. I was like, what the hell is going on at this school?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: Everybody was Eddie Van Halen. And so I said, yeah, yeah. My - and I did stand-up in high school. I did it one time at the end of high school. My brother talked me into it, and I said, let me get back into that stand-up thing, man. I can't compete with these rockers.

B SAFDIE: The thing is, when you do stand-up - oh, my God. That's so hard, you know? It's like - I imagine them looking at you...

SANDLER: Right.

B SAFDIE: ...Being like, oh, my God. How the hell do you do that, you know?

SANDLER: I was dumb enough to not even know it was hard. I was just like, I can't handle the guitar.

B SAFDIE: But the guitar - but the music - I mean, the Farley track...

SANDLER: Yeah.

B SAFDIE: ...From the last special is...

SANDLER: Yes, yes.

B SAFDIE: ...Unbelievable. That solo - I feel Farley in the room.

SANDLER: That's cool.

J SAFDIE: It's very cool.

SANDLER: That's cool.

GROSS: No, that is so moving, that song that you did. Like, part of it's really funny. This was when you hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 2019, and it was your first time back since you were...

SANDLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Fired (laughter), which you also sang about. But no, this song is so moving and funny. In fact, can we hear a little bit of it? Is that all right? We have it cued up ready to...

SANDLER: Sure.

GROSS: Yeah, OK.

SANDLER: Thank you.

GROSS: So this is the tribute to the late Chris Farley, who died of a drug overdose - I guess it was about 2002 or something.

SANDLER: Yeah, that makes sense. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think you're right.

GROSS: It was a couple of years after he left the show, which is the same year you left the show. Anyway, so here's Adam Sandler hosting Saturday Night Live" singing about Chris Farley in a very Springsteen-ish...

SANDLER: Yes, yes. For sure.

GROSS: ...Kind of mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

SANDLER: (Singing) First time I saw him, he was sweeter than honey. Plaid jacket and belt too tight, and he wasn't even being funny. Then he cartwheeled around the room and slow-danced with the cleaning lady. He was a one-man party. You know, I'm talking about - I'm talking about my friend, Chris Farley.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDLER: (Singing) On Saturday night, my man would always deliver, whether he was the bumblebee girl or living in a van down by the river.

Oh, that sounded cool, man. Thank you.

GROSS: It was great. How did you start combining music and comedy? Because you wanted to be a musician and realized, though, there were people much better than you, and you got into comedy and probably realized, like, oh, my God, there are brilliant comics.

SANDLER: Yeah.

GROSS: But you carved out, like, this really unique place for yourself, both in the kind of comedy you ended up doing, but, you know, in combining music and comedy together.

SANDLER: Right. Yeah, I think it was - I don't know the exact thing. My roommate, Tim Herlihy, who I write most of my comedies with, I think he might have brought it up. You know, I wrote a song parody or something, and I knew once I had a guitar in my hand and I was onstage - I used to get so scared onstage and so nervous when I didn't have a guitar. And I'd forget my lines, I'd forget my jokes, that kind of thing. And then when I started playing guitar onstage and singing funny tunes, I had more confidence than usual. At least I could - I knew I could play guitar a little bit, and I knew the lines already from the song. I was like, OK, memorize that. So let me just try that.

When you're just doing stand-up and you got to go from joke to joke to joke, and you forget the order or you forget what the heck the punchline is or what the subject was, man, you're - that is a rough one, especially - I was so young. And I would stare at people going, we paid for this idiot who's forgetting his lines? So the guitar helped relax me.

GROSS: What was your self image when you were young?

SANDLER: Man, I was cocky as - I can't believe how cocky. When I look at pictures of me, I'm like, that idiot was cocky? I really thought I was so good at so many things. I was - I thought I was great at sports. I thought I was great at guitar. I'm talking about when I was, like, you know, from 8 to 18. Even older - even in college, I was cocky. I don't know what the hell my problem was. And then the smarter I got, the less cocky I got.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: The more people I met - that's what happened. The more people I met, I was like, jeez, this guy knows everything. I know nothing. Why am I so confident?

GROSS: All right. Well, congratulations on the awards and the nominations. Adam Sandler, Josh and Benny Safdie, thank you so much for coming to our show.

J SAFDIE: We had a great time. Thank you.

SANDLER: Thank you.

B SAFDIE: Thank you for having us, Terry.

GROSS: Adam Sandler stars in "Uncut Gems." Josh and Benny Safdie co-wrote and directed the film.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Charlize Theron, who plays Megyn Kelly in the film "Bombshell," or Julie Andrews and her daughter, who co-wrote Andrew's new memoir, or with Craig Whitlock, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post who secured internal government documents about the 18-year war in Afghanistan through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE'S "CHORO MALUCO")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF URI CAINE'S "CHORO MALUCO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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