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If the goal is intense realism, as with ‘Uncut Gems,’ the editing should be invisible

‘Uncut Gems’ filmmakers and editors Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein.
“Uncut Gems” co-director Benny Safdie and co-writer Ronald Bronstein also edited the film with the goal of keeping it intensely real.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

With their frenetic new thriller, “Uncut Gems,” starring Adam Sandler as a charismatic Diamond District jeweler, Josh and Benny Safdie have officially entered the pantheon of the great sibling filmmakers. But the brothers’ sensibility has also been shaped by another prominent collaborator, New York-based filmmaker Ronnie Bronstein, who has served as an editor, screenwriter and even lead actor on the Safdie brothers’ movies.

As both a screenwriter and an editor, Bronstein worked on the Safdies’ critically acclaimed, immersive accounts of New York street life — “Heaven Knows What,” “Good Time,” and now “Uncut Gems.” Bronstein and Benny Safdie might not share an official family bond, but, according to both members of the editorial team, their collaboration has begun to feel seamless. “Both Benny and I have an overdeveloped fear of boring an audience,” Bronstein says. “And we’re both very anxious people by nature.”

“You want things to move,” Benny adds. “We are editing solely for the movement of emotional or plot narrative. There’s no room for anything that veers from that.”

Their shared aesthetic originally stemmed from mutual admiration. Josh Safdie had seen Bronstein’s film “Frownland” — an underground classic that the New Yorker called “one of the most unusual and audacious American independent films ever made” — and Bronstein had seen and loved an early Safdie short.

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“I was working as a projectionist at the Museum of the Moving Image,” Bronstein says, “and [Josh] came and just accosted me and told me that I had to star in this movie he was writing with his brother.” That film turned into 2010’s “Daddy Longlegs,” in which Bronstein plays a divorced Lower Manhattan projectionist who treats parenthood as a high-wire act.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense,” Bronstein says. “I had never acted before, and I haven’t acted since. But through a war of attrition, they wore me down, and I agreed to do it on the condition that I would have some control over what fell out of my mouth. So organically I started writing with them.”
Though Bronstein and the Safdies spent years as micro-budget indie upstarts, “this was the first movie where we were professionally paid to only do our actual jobs,” Bronstein says. “In the past, I was working as a projectionist and doing all the editing in the projection booth, and Benny was editing all his scenes in his apartment.”

They would divide up the scenes based on their respective strengths. Bronstein said he sees human exchanges as “little existential medieval jousts,” so he handled most of the shot/reverse-shot scenes between two people. Benny was always the action person, taking on “any scene that involves lots of movement and energy.” With “Uncut Gems,” Bronstein says, “we’ve now worked together long enough that we’ve merged sensibilities.”

Benny says he mentally separates his on-set work as director from the postproduction process of editing. “Once you sit down to edit, you’re starting from zero. You’re watching every take and seeing how the movie unfolded from that point on. There’s a freshness to it. You want every part of the process to be alive, and you don’t want to be beholden to certain decisions made before.”

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Adam Sandler plays an impulsive jewelry dealer in Josh and Benny Safdie’s thrilling, unnerving tour of Manhattan’s diamond district.

As a screenwriter, Bronstein also negotiates a dual role, a “unique position” that he frames in positive terms. “I don’t have to be sensitive to the work of the writer, because I don’t have to be sensitive to myself,” he says. “So when I go into a given scene, I don’t even have to honor an assembly or honor the intentions of the script. I can go straight into the material as it was developed and captured in camera on the set, and I can start rewriting the scene.”

Because the Safdies’ directorial process is committed to the elimination of artifice, postproduction can get extremely complicated. “When we’re cutting a simple shot/reverse shot of two actors talking to each other, there could be 10 people, all miked, having separate conversations in the background,” Bronstein says.

“Having those people talking in the background is totally essential to getting the best performance out of the leads that are actually on camera. But once you get into editing, you have the two actors talking over each other, so you have to find a micro-beat inside a given take so that it could match with what somebody off-screen is saying at the same time on the shot that you’re cutting to. Sometimes it just comes down to a breath between syllables!”

As editors, Safdie and Bronstein are constructing a multimedia jigsaw puzzle in service of an intensified realism. Like master thieves, they try not to leave any trace of their handiwork.

“We’re trying to remove all direct signs of control and craft from the process,” Bronstein says. “As a result, the editing must be invisible.”


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