The Stories That Inspired Adam Sandler's Character in Uncut Gems

Stacey Nguyen
UNCUT GEMS, Adam Sandler, 2019. A24 / courtesy Everett Collection

Adam Sandler is already getting critical acclaim and Oscar buzz for his Uncut Gems role as Howard Ratner, a Furby-flaunting Manhattanite jeweler with a gambling addiction. This part is certainly one of his rare departures from comedy (think Punch-Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories), but is it based on a true story? Well, kind of.

How the Safdie Brothers Put Together Uncut Gems

Directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems has been a decade in the making. The brothers cowrote the screenplay with long-time collaborator Ronald Bronstein, going through 160 different drafts. For a long time, they referred to this passion project as the "diamond district movie" as they worked on films such as Lenny Cooke and Good Time. The Safdies had long tried to get Sandler for their film, but it wasn't until Sandler saw 2017's Good Time that he agreed to meet with them.

Who Is Howard Based On?

The Safdies based the crime thriller on the pulpy stories their father told them while he had a job in the Diamond District on the West 47th Street block. Their father, Alberto, worked for a midtown jewelmonger kingpin when they were growing up. He was a runner and a salesman, bringing jewelry from a wholesale dispatch to places like pawn shops and jewelry stores.

"He worked there for seven or eight years. And he worked for a guy named Howard who was an outsider in the diamond district, a real character," Josh Safdie said in an interview with The Wrap. "Our Howard is not even a little bit like the real Howard, but there would be no our Howard without the real Howard." Howard's character isn't flattering. The movie version of Howard is a Jewish family man but also a compulsive gambling addict with a mistress. In hot water with loan sharks, he attempts to retrieve a rare opal to pay off his debts, willing to risk his life and family along the way.

Instead of following the real Howard's story, the Safdies were more interested in his world. "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,'" Benny Safdie said.

According to an interview on Fresh Air, the Safdie brothers got in touch with the real Howard 10 years ago, and the first thing he told them was that their father owed him $3,000. What had happened was that Alberto quit after a fight with his boss. Howard asked for his car back, while Alberto asked for commissions. When he didn't get his commission, Alberto parked the car in an expensive garage. Alberto finally gave Howard the address of the garage when he received his commission, and it took $3,000 to retrieve it.

Luckily, the Safdies' father loved the movie, so much that he bootlegged it on his phone while watching it with them. It's really no wonder, though. Uncut Gems is definitely one of the best crime (if not true-crime) films of the year.