Screenwriting in UNCUT GEMS
The screenwriting in UNCUT GEMS is easy to take for granted. The film uses a documentary/realist style that almost makes it feel like a story the filmmakers just happened to film, vs. a carefully-scripted production.
But it was carefully scripted. In a recent podcast, “The Big Picture”, the Safdie brothers, the writer/directors of the film, revealed the script went through 160 drafts, over many years, and was re-shaped repeatedly for different actors.
Here’s where we must get into SPOILERS. If you have not seen UNCUT GEMS, don’t keep reading. This is your SPOILER WARNING.
The magic of the film, from a screenwriting perspective, is the constant, extraordinarily high level of conflict. From start to finish, Adam Sandler’s character is in nonstop existential peril. Achieving this requires screenwriting gymnastics that are remarkable, and worth exploring.
Ultimately, this is a film about a gambling addict, who is willing to take huge risks in the hopes of even larger rewards. That central idea drives the narrative at every turn. Adam Sandler’s character is in deep to dangerous people after failing to repay a loan. He buys a rare stone from Ethopia, and then allows Kevin Garnett to borrow it, in exchange for leaving a championship ring as collateral.
Sandler’s character immediately pawns the championship ring, needing the cash to pull of another gamble. Garnett later offers Sandler’s character 175 thousand dollars for the stone. Sandler’s character refuses, and then convinces his father to bid for the stone at auction, convinced Garnett will pay upwards of 200 thousand for the stone.
The gamble fails, and now Sandler’s must backpedal and sell the stone to Garnett for less than he hoped, but still more than 150K. He has seemingly won. Sandler’s character has made enough money to repay the men he owes, and survive.
This is where the screenwriting clicks into another gear. Sandler’s character spontaneously decides to bet all the money on Garnett’s game that night. Doing so literally risks his life. It’s a wild turn in the movie, but also makes perfect sense. It simply pays off the nature of Sandler’s character as a gambling addict, always needing that bigger high.
In the end, Sandler’s character wins the insane bet, but it doesn't matter, as one of the thugs chasing him for money simply kills him anyway just for the amount of aggravation he’s given them. It’s the equivalent of an overdose death, Sandler’s character pushed the limits with his gambling one time too many, and paid the price.
By sticking to this one core concept, of a gambling addict for whom the gamble itself is worth more than money, and simply escalating it at every turn, the Safdies crafted an incredible film.
How do you generate tension in your screenplays? What did you think of the screenwriting of UNCUT GEMS? Let us know in the comments below.