Creating the intense world of Uncut Gems

Production designer and repeat Safdie Brothers collaborator Sam Lisenco talks to us about gaining trust in Manhattan’s insular Diamond District, reinforcing Adam Sandler’s character through design, and how the film became a love letter to a disappearing New York

A healthy portion of the Safdie Brothers’ movie Uncut Gems is capable of inducing heart palpitations. Perhaps that’s why it’s attracted countless (rave) reviews that use cocaine as a metaphor. However, it’s another kind of addiction that courses through the film’s veins: jewellery dealer Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, is a serial gambling addict who scrambles around New York City on a vertigo-inducing mission to offset his spiralling debts, lies and tensions.

Josh and Benny Safdie often look to their native New York as the backdrop for their intense breed of cinema. As with acclaimed 2017 thriller Good Time, the brothers once again drafted in production designer Sam Lisenco to bring the city to life in A24/Netflix hit Uncut Gems. He’s known the brothers for years: he first met Josh, the eldest, all the way back in college, where they studied, lived and collaborated together. Back in New York, he lived with Josh, followed by Benny, together creating branded content to cover rent.

“There was probably an eight or ten-year span where I saw one or both of them every day for the majority of the day,” Lisenco says. “I think at this point my relationship with them has reached such a familial level that there’s no niceties!” While the brothers can be “incredibly, incredibly specific and narrow in scope about certain particulars that they use as back story elements”, Lisenco is in the position to push back. For him, it’s all helped by the fact that their “overlapping youths” have forged “a mutual language of the characters that inspire us”.