A deeper slice of Adam Sandler and ‘Uncut Gems’ … and a Kobe Bryant connection?
By Tom Hoffarth
There’s far more to spin from our latest Los Angeles Times sports media column, the monthly Sports Media Misery Index where we lead off with some perspective on the new Adam Sandler film “Uncut Gems,” already out in L.A. and New York with a national release on Christmas Day.
Directors/writers Josh and Benny Safdie admit they never thought they’d allow an actual Celtics player to be in their project — but Kevin Garnett has a major role.
Their goal from the start was to have a player from their beloved Knicks, Amare Stoudamire, play the NBA star role. Not at all a cameo role.
Some media reports mention that Kobe Bryant was originally attached to this script.
Yeah, well. Kinda.
From our conversation with the Safdie brothers: When they were shaping the script in 2010, their agents at WME suggested they aim big when it came to casting an NBA star to fill the key role in their story. Conveniently, Bryant was also a WME client.
“The way it works is, they throw out names (as suggestions for the film),” said Benny Safdie. “But that’s a different way of how we work. When we’re writing the script, we find out – this is the person who wants the role, and we’ll spend a ton of time making it just for them, then hand it to them.”
Which is how they imagined Sandler in the role from the start. Then waited him out.
Josh Safdie said when their agency suggested Bryant, it led him to “read as much as I could about him, find every candid interview and video piece, because I’m trying to understand who he is.”
Josh said his storyline would have been back then about how this uncut gem not only was giving character Howard Ratner the confidence to be a big-time gambler, it would be “Kobe’s youth elixir, giving him the idea that he could be ‘the man’ again, the Mamba, having that killer’s edge.”
As a result, the focus would have been on Bryant’s then-record-setting 61-point game at Madison Square Garden he had with the Lakers against the Knicks on Feb. 2, 2009. Five seasons later, the Knicks’ Carmello Anthony eclipsed that with a 62-point game.
So just two weeks after the WME people proposed the Bryant idea, they asked the Safdies for a script.
“I was telling them, this takes a lot of time, I gotta Page One rewrite this thing,” said Josh. “So finally, we get it to them and we hear, ‘Well, Kobe doesn’t want to act, he’s more interested in directing.’”
In a Dec. 13 column that mentioned this Bryant-“Uncut Gems” connection, ESPN’s Zack Lowe said he reached out to Bryant for a comment, and was told Bryant never heard of that story before, and the Safdies never met or spoke with him.
“We saw that, and for him to reach out to Kobe for a comment, that’s kind of embarrassing, because it never went to him,” said Josh. “It was never a blip on his radar. It was only a blip on his management and agent’s team. And not even that, really. They were just discussing it.”
Besides, the Safdies didn’t really think that Bryant, a West Coast player, would fit well in this scenario about an East Coast-based jeweler/gambler.
“That was always a stretch for us, kind of out of context,” said Benny.
“A Laker doing an East Coast run on a five-game road trip? It doesn’t have the same allure as a regional player would have,” said Josh. “Amare was always the first choice. He even did a table read for us in L.A. That’s when we started focusing on games he played in that would contemporize the film.”
As the film moved along toward the 2016-17 range, Joel Embiid became a player of interest for the role, based on the rising arch of his NBA career. It didn’t hurt that he had a connection to Cameroon, as the story was about a gem taken from Africa. But once production of the film started to slip into the actual NBA season, it became apparent that Safdies would have to find a retired NBA player who had more time to commit to it.
Stoudamire started to lose interest and even told them he wouldn’t cut his hair to match up to the game footage they had pulled to include in the new script.
What about Dwyane Wade? Chris Bosh? They were vetted.
Garnett ended up making more sense, as the Safdie brothers discovered in talking to him, finding out his love for pro wrestling and the art of stirring up a crowd. The key was discovering a stretch of games during that 2012 series against the Sixers that played right into the roller coast ride of success-failure that could be attributed to the gem. The producers worked out an agreement with the NBA to use the ESPN clips as they were actually presented — nothing could be taken out of context or switched around as far as even one rebound or shot taken just to fit into the script.
“We found a three-game stretch that happened to be in that playoff series – which wasn’t the plan, but once it lined up, we leaned into it and it turned out the playoff games were the most intense basketball you can get,” said Benny.
And as it turned out, Embiid was so far along in the process that his manager, Jenny Sacks, ended up playing the role of Kevin Garnett’s manager in “Uncut Gems.”
Recently, there was more written about how Rajon Rondo, Garnett’s former Celtics teammate and a current Laker, had a role in the film as well but missed a plane flight to do it and his scene was rewritten.
There’s also more about how the Safdies’ recruited Clippers coach Doc Rivers to record some audio of a halftime speech that was inserted into the film to give it more of an authentic look. Rivers did the audio right at the time he was helping recruit Kawhi Leonard and working a deal for Paul George, but wouldn’t reveal any of it to the Safdies at the time.
More about “Uncut Gems”:
== The movie’s link to RottenTomatoes.com
== A 4-for-4 star review from RogerEbert.com
== From the New York Times: “Uncut Gems,” the latest from the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, blows in like a Category 4 hurricane. It’s a tumult of sensory extremes, of images and sounds, lurching shapes, braying voices, intensities of feeling and calculated craziness. So, naturally it stars — why not? — Adam Sandler as a cheat, liar, loving dad, bad husband, jealous lover and compulsive gambler who can’t stop, won’t stop acting the fool.”
== From The Hollywood Reporter:“Sandler’s performance shows that time may have provided him peeks at the errors of his ways, but the fact that he’s continued to get away with things gives him the confidence to carry on, without lessons learned. It’s a helluva part, and Sandler aces it.”
== From the L.A. Times: ” ‘Uncut Gems’ is a thriller and a character study, a tragedy and a blast. It’s a throwback to the sordid ’70s crime pictures once popularized by filmmakers including Martin Scorsese (a credited producer) but also a snapshot of a highly specific time and place — one informed by stories the Safdies heard from their father, who worked in the diamond district himself.”
== The Bill Simmons podcast with Sandler and Garnett at this link.
== From “Jimmy Kimmel Live”: