Not long after filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie finished working with composer and music producer Daniel Lopatin, on their first collaboration, they already started talking to him about their next project — a drama based in New York’s Diamond District, about a wheeling-and-dealing jeweler who bets more than he can afford.
Lopatin, who also goes by Oneohtrix Point Never, was on board for the story that would eventually become Uncut Gems, out in theaters this Friday (Dec. 13). The film’s main character, Howie, would be played by Adam Sandler, who seems to channel the worst traits of many of his most unlikable characters into a singularly intense performance. Lopatin’s synth-soaked score drives the rhythm behind Howie’s scummy, ambitious heart. It’s an artificial sound, full of repeated heavy beats, creating an ominous tone throughout the anxiety-ridden film. Howie’s almost always on the move, and Lopatin’s work gives the sense that the character is actually on the run from his impending downfall.
Lopatin and Josh Safdie spoke to Billboard about their collaborative style, and why you’ll want to stick around for the last song that plays over the credits.
When did you first get in touch with each other?
Josh Safdie: We found each other. I guess when you put your tastes and yourself out there into the world, you end up finding kindred spirits. The way we used Isao Tomita’s music in [2014 drama] Heaven Knows What got to Dan, and he heard that we were interested in working with a composer and doing a bespoke score.
We met and immediately hit it off. I showed him some pictures of me actually meeting Isao before he died, so he understood our respect for a) electronic music and b) using music presently in a score. We’re not looking for underscore, we’re actually looking to cast a soundtrack, as opposed to creating one and having it live underneath. He was really into that.
After your collaboration on crime drama Good Time in 2017, when did you start working together on Uncut Gems?
Daniel Lopatin: I think we basically just rolled right into it. I don’t particularly remember a moment where it was decisively like, “Will you do this? What’s your schedule?” I think we were just spitballing from early on like we did with Good Time. Then at some point in the winter of 2018, we just started talking a little bit more specifically about stuff. I remember there was some back and forth about, like, Jerry Goldsmith synths and orchestra combo work, and then we just kind of fell right into it.
Safdie: I’ve always wanted to experiment with music, and I never really felt like I understood it or I could get into it. Not that I do now, but on Good Time, Dan created the illusion that I was composing some parts with him. Beyond the artistic result, what came of the collaboration was a deep friendship.
That was apparent immediately after, that we were just scratching the surface of what we could get into together, because Good Time really was — I love that film and I’m proud of the score, but you know, the score was a singular thing. It was a pulse that kind of returned and exited. [Uncut Gems] is more of a medicinal new-age soul of a film, which is more difficult, and I wanted to get into that with Dan.
What does your collaboration style look like?
Safdie: The way our collaborations work is we edit the film, and we do these kind of Bizarro Frankenstein scores using existing music, a lot of kinda library music, a lot of new-age music. We sometimes combine three or four tracks and remix them and re-edit them to fit the scene that we want. So we give the scene a color and a pace more or less, and then Dan watches that and the conversation begins, so he knows generally where we want to go.
In terms of the score itself, I basically work with Dan intensely for a while, and it starts with filing through all of the library sounds and all of his synthesizers, noting which ones evoke which feelings, so that we have an arsenal of sound that we can pull from. Then, he sketches and composes.
It’s a very involving nocturnal process. Benny has two kids so he just lets me go and work with Dan, and then we bounce things off of Benny in the wee hours of the night when he wakes up and sees these video bootlegs off the screen.
Lopatin: Usually, Josh will come over and actually be in the studio for many hours at a time, sort of reacting viscerally to sounds, which are usually like the starting point, as opposed to maybe other things. Although there are moments where I will just concoct something and send it over as a demo or whatever. But typically, I want to see him sort of titillated somehow by a sound, and then that sort of paves the way for progressions to emerge – or melodies or themes.
The roadmap to any cue is surgically laid out for me by Josh, who uses temp [existing music that works like a guide for what a score should communicate in a scene] in a way to give me a map of the dynamic from moment to moment. That isn’t unique, but what it is that a lot of the time he cuts up records he likes, not other scores. It’s not a temp score. It’s a wildly Frankenstein musical taste.
Lopatin: On Uncut, it’d be like three different slices of an eight-minute-long Vangelis piece rearranged into this thing that had really specific energy for absolutely specific moments on-screen. He’s taking stuff that was made in the studio by someone just rocking out and making records, and then, he’s jiggering those sort of little moments he hears. That’s an energy thing that we need right there, and then it’s my job to figure out how to turn that into something bespoke. It’s tricky and it’s fun, but it’s also just a headache.
How do you prepare to score a movie?
Lopatin: Anything I do ahead of seeing the film is basically cursory. For me, I absolutely need to live in a tank, I have to be in a suit with the character. Especially in Josh and Benny’s films, the score’s primary function is to be like the id or the superego of their main character’s trajectory. It’s really that inner world to their main characters. So until you really sit in that insane performance by Sandler and you just tether yourself to it emotionally, it’s really, really hard to guess. I was doing all kinds of things to try to help myself in advance, but none of it worked.
Once you’re working with a rough cut, is Josh also working with you at the time to give you notes and ideas?
Safdie: I’m sitting right next to him at the machine and he even let me play on a few tracks. I became obsessed with a couple of chord progressions that I could do, and he would record me live and as I added some cues. In terms of the collaborative process between me and Dan, he’ll take the morning or something to write, and then I will come in and review, and then we’ll write together in a weird way and build together and produce together.
When do you know you have a sound for a major character like Howie?
Lopatin: Josh really wanted this cosmic [quality] beyond Howard’s immediate sense of himself to be built into the score. So, you had this inside/outside dynamic where you have Ratner, who’s a hustler in the Diamond District and he embodies the material reality of the Diamond District in all these amazing ways. And then you have the inside world — Howard’s literal inside, his body — his vague sense of spiritual connection through this opal.
He’s kind of sussing out what’s going on here, and he senses that there’s something else. There are other things in the world other than all his superficial ambitions and desires, but he can’t quite put his finger on it – and then they start folding into each other. So right there, all of that is already plenty to work with for me sonically.
Safdie: Moog Synthesizers made a few patches for us that were inspired by the IBM and the Windows booting boot up sounds. There was also this Vangelis improvisation that was very inspiring to me in the writing process, so there were some sounds in there from the CS-80 that Moog helped replicate. The cues that moved me the hardest are that the final cue title track “Uncut Gems” and then there’s a cue called “F–k you, Howard” which is a reinterpretation of a heightened Symphony no. 88, which was actually used at one point in our edit.
We rifled through basically the entire Moog synthesizer library, his other synthesizers in the room, and then we went through Omnisphere, which is a computer-based synthesizer, so it’s basically pirating sounds. I did look for specific, almost earthy melancholic sounds that had a cosmic twist. There was an inherent sadness in a lot of the sounds that I was attracted to, but there was also this beautiful optimism in the other sounds that I was attracted to — because that is Howard in a nutshell. He’s somebody who’s so beautifully optimistic, but you know there’s a melancholy attached to it, because it’s the optimism of a gambler. You know that the chances of that optimism panning out are usually slim-to-none.
Lopatin: To me, a saxophone solo — or any solo, but particularly saxophone solos — reeks of New York City. The sound of somebody trying to sell you something. It’s the sound of being romanced by the city. And it’s the sound of all the incredible music that has emerged out of the city for the last hundred years.
Also, we used a choir and these male and female shouts, so that was very much metaphorically playing into Howard and Julia’s relationship — and their passion, which reaches a kind of screechy, fever pitch. They’re constantly sparring, and that’s part of what the choir does at moments. All the synth stuff, the weird new-age influence, is something me and Josh share a lot. We just love those records.
Any artists in particular?
Lopatin: Well, one that we always end up coming back to is Emerald Web, which is like this incredible husband-and-wife duo from the ‘70s and ‘80s who made a lot of new-age records — but that’s not giving them credit because they’re really unique. They were definitely elevating the genre. I don’t know, they just hit different. And there’s also a lot of flute and synthesizers, so you can see a lot of Emerald Web in the score.
A number of critics and viewers have noted how anxious the movie makes them feel and part of that is rooted in the soundtrack. Was that intentional, or is it just reflective of Howie’s world?
Lopatin: I actually think that compared to Good Time, the score [of Uncut Gems] to me is much more beautiful, ethereal, it’s more orchestral, it’s goofier. But the score’s like an hour and three minutes, or something crazy. I don’t remember what exactly it is, but there is a lot of score in the movie — and there are some cues that are just straight up, Good Time-style pumping sequencer and tight cues for a couple of moments, that it basically becomes an action thriller and we go into that mode. Then the rest of it really varies and is really quite eclectic but very dense.
What’s weird is considering my reputation as someone who experiments with sound and some really weird stuff, I’m really pretty conservative when I go into a film score situation, because I’m very aware of the idea that this isn’t an opportunity to indulge in every color of the rainbow, do whatever I want. You try to understand what the needs are in the film and just work towards that.
However, the Safdie Brothers don’t really function like that. I’m there on some level to be wild, and they’re down for that – they kind of require it. They want it to hit that way. I have to start breaking certain kinds of orthodoxies to get the dosage right, to get the potency to fit for things to actually impact and animate and amplify what you’re seeing on screen. It’s a really interesting, very different way of working than I think many directors do. Personally, that’s really gratifying because I get to unleash these very, very wild arrangements.
I also had read somewhere that you had done some music with The Weeknd for the film, since he also has a part in the movie — but it eventually ended up getting cut?
Lopatin: No, I think Abel and I were just making music [for fun]. There was a piece that only a couple of years ago, it was being considered for the end credits in the style of, like, an Iggy Pop collab for Good Time. This was something they considered, but it didn’t end up happening.
How did you decide on what music to play over the credits?
Lopatin: If you’ve seen the film, there’s this really amazing Gigi D’Agostino song at the very end over the credits that is like a wild palate cleanser, like you just experienced all this shit and then there’s just weird early-‘90s trance.
Safdie: The Gigi D’Agostino track! Over the 10-year process of making this film, that’s the song that’s remained at the end since the very beginning. The lyrics to that song are, for lack of a better word, deep but cheesy. That’s kind of Howard in a sense. He’s a deep guy, but his ways of going about it sometimes are a bit cheesy. It is ultimately a love story between Howard and Julia, and that’s what that song kind of [about]. It’s about standing by somebody regardless of their behavior, and that’s really the movie. That’s why it’s called Uncut Gems, you have this rough exterior that people deem invalid, and when you dig down underneath it, there’s actually a lot of beauty there.