Every screenwriter wants to craft a taut and exciting story that keeps viewers riveted from first page to last. Not only are most amateur scripts not up to it, even many produced scripts fail to achieve this. The Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems script is one of the rare screenplays that meets the challenge. This article will illuminate how the writers create and sustain tension throughout the Uncut Gems plot by putting relentless pressure on their protagonist, and by amassing many obstacles and complications.
Uncut Gems Script
Click to view and download the entire Uncut Gems script PDF below.
WHO WROTE Uncut Gems SCRIPT?
Written by Josh and Benny Safdie, and Ronald Bronstein
Before co-writing and co-directing Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers collaborated on four previous features: The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), Daddy Longlegs (2009), Heaven Knows What (2014), and Good Time (2017), their breakout feature starring Robert Pattison and Jennifer Jason Leigh. They have also made a number of short films and documentaries.
Ronald Bronstein has co-written and edited all of the Safdie brothers’ feature films.
The Uncut Gems script went through more than 150 drafts over ten years before the writers finally felt it was ready for production.
Structure of Uncut Gems Screenplay
Inciting Incident/Protagonist Goal
Spring 2012. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), successful jeweler and inveterate gambler, owes money all around Manhattan, including 100k to a creditor named Arno. Early in the film, Arno’s thugs rough up Howard and threaten him. Howard, in mortal peril, has to come up with the money in a hurry to pay him off.
Plot Point #1
Kevin Garnett (KG), NBA superstar, visits Howard’s jewelry shop. While browsing, a rare opal is delivered from Ethiopia. Garnett asks to buy the stone, but it’s not for sale, as Howard has already promised it to an auction where he says it will fetch $1 million dollars. He lets KG borrow the stone overnight as a good luck charm but takes his Celtics championship ring as collateral.
Sensing that KG is going to have a big game, Howard pawns KG’s ring and uses the money to bet on the Celtics game. Howard wins the bet only to discover that Arno has had the bet cancelled, leaving Howard without the money to pay him back. KG doesn’t return the opal the next day and Howard can’t get it to the auction appraiser ahead of the opal auction. The clock is ticking on both the auction and his debt to Arno.
The auction appraiser calls Howard and tells him that if he doesn’t get the opal to her by the end of the day, she’s pulling it from the auction. KG finally brings the opal back. He wants to buy it for 175k, but Howard tells him he’ll have to buy it at auction.
Plot Point #2
The opal is appraised at far less than Howard estimates, and won’t generate the money he needs. Howard asks his father in law to bid against KG at the auction to get the price up, but KG decides not to match the bid. His father in law ends up having to buy it, and Arno's goons attack Howard on the street for not having the money.
KG decides to buy the stone from Howard after the auction, but instead of paying off Arno, Howard decides to bet the money on KG — now in possession of the opal — having the game of his life that night. If Howard wins the bet, he will net a million dollars.
The creditors show up at Howard's shop for the money. Arno and the thugs beat Howard and threaten to kill him, while two other goons chase after Howard’s mistress Julia, who is placing the bet for him in Atlantic City.
Back at the shop, Howard locks Arno and his thugs in the bulletproof security chamber and forces them to watch the Celtics game with him. Howard is all in now. If he wins, he can pay off all his creditors and be set. If he loses, he’s dead.
The Celtics win and Julia escapes Atlantic City with the winnings. A triumphant Howard releases Arno and the goons from the box, prepared to celebrate. The thugs, however, are in no mood. Enraged by being imprisoned and insulted, they kill Howard and Arno and rob the jewelry store.
Uncut Gems Script Takeaway #1
Put pressure on the protagonist
One of the most important tenets of screenwriting is to make life as hard as possible for the protagonist. One of the tried and true methods for achieving this is to bring pressure on him from multiple antagonists and situations. Then squeeze the circle of antagonism more tightly as the story progresses until it seems impossible to resolve the situation.
In this scene, KG has just left the shop angry because Howard won’t sell him the opal. Compounding the situation, Howard has a fallout with his colleague Demany, who brought KG to the shop in the first place. As you read, count how many problems come to a head at once.
In the span of just a few pages of the Uncut Gems screenplay, Howard’s self-inflicted issues with KG, Demany, the appraiser, his doctor, and Julia all come to a head simultaneously. This ratchets up the pressure on Howard, and the tension in the script as it enters its final third. The pressures on Howard in this scene include:
- Demany goes into Howard’s safe to retrieve the fake Rolexes he keeps there, only to discover that Howard has given them away.
- Demany goes into a rage while Howard tries to get important medical news.
- Demany poisons the saltwater aquarium.
- Howard rushes out to meet the appraiser, only to discover that the appraiser is leaving town for the weekend.
- Julia shows up and they argue because he mistakenly thinks she’s been cheating on him with the Weeknd, who she met — and Howard attacked — in an earlier scene.
As dramatized in this scene, the protagonist often brings pressure on himself through poor choices and selfish behavior. This is the case with Howard in the Uncut Gems script, a low-character guy who never seems to learn from his mistakes.
Uncut Gems Script Takeaway #2
Create obstacles and complications
Obstacles and complications share a story function to make life more difficult for the protagonist as he pursues goals. Howard pursues several goals throughout the Uncut Gems story: to retrieve the opal; to repay Arno; to keep his family together; and to make enough money to clear his debts and get flush again. A number of obstacles stand in his way. These include:
- Other creditors come after him for money.
- KG doesn’t return the opal when promised, and eludes Howard as he tries to get it back.
- Howard's wife won't let him back into her life.
Screenwriters should understand the different functions of obstacles and complications. In this scene, the movie sets up KG’s infatuation with the opal, which will lead to many of the obstacles and complications Howard faces.
An obstacle stands directly in the way of the pursuit of a goal, while a complication...
- Unexpectedly changes the circumstances and forces the protagonist to adjust the original goal or strategy for attaining it.
- Almost always raises the stakes for the protagonist.
- Also functions as revelation and surprise.
Obstacles and complications work best when they gather steam throughout a script, coming one on top of the other. To make these pay off, it’s important to set them up properly, clearly establishing the stakes.
UNCUT GEMS SCRIPT TAKEAWAY #3
Pile on your protagonist
The Safdies are especially ingenious in the way they create complications for Howard in the Uncut Gems screenplay. These complications come fast and furious, constantly upending Howard’s plans and setting in motion a chain of events that spiral out of control.
- Arno cancels a bet that Howard would have won, leaving Howard without the money to pay Arno what he owes him.
- The auction appraiser tells him that if he doesn’t get the opal to her by the end of the day, she’s pulling it from the auction.
- At a family dinner for Passover, Arno is revealed to be part of Howard’s extended family.
- The opal is appraised at far less than Howard estimates, leaving him with less money than he needs.
- KG decides not to bid enough to buy the opal at the auction.
You can see how the writers make obstacles and complications coincide in the Uncut Gems script excerpt below:
All of the pressure, obstacles, and complications, along with Howard’s character flaws — which he doubles down on, rather than tries to change — come to a head at the crisis and climax.
With Howard betting his business, his life, and the safety of his family, the stakes are now as high as possible.
But in his arrogance and impetuousness, and in the grip of his gambling addiction, Howard has miscalculated the human component. Even though he wins a million dollars, Arno’s thugs kill him.
Howard loses by winning. The Uncut Gems story underscores this irony by ending with KG being interviewed after the big game, saying, “When you win, that’s all that matters.”
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In Uncut Gems, Safdie Brothers craft a taut and exciting story that keeps viewers riveted from first page to last. If you want to read more great scripts, we have Pulp Fiction, The Goodfellas and The Godfather in our screenplay database. Great screenwriters read lots of scripts. Get started today!