Josh and Benny Safdie are two of the most highly regarded young directors in the movie business, but they also happen to be mid-30s New Yorkers who grew up listening to “Mike and the Mad Dog” on WFAN.
So they knew exactly what they were looking for when they cast a small part in their new film, “Uncut Gems,” that called for an old-school, high-end New York bookmaker: Mike Francesa.
“We loved his voice,” Benny Safdie said early Friday morning at an afterparty following the New York Film Festival premiere of the movie, which is scheduled for release in December. “He’s a New York legend.”
The co-director added, “There is a video online of him talking about the guy [listening to him] on the LIE, which is very inspiring,” an apparent reference to a Newsday interview from December of 2017.
So it was that last year the Safdies set up a meeting with Francesa, at which the directors told him they wanted him to be himself, even if he was playing a guy improbably named “Gary.”
“We talked about the Knicks and this sport and that sport, told stories and we sat there for two hours,” Francesa said on the red carpet before Thursday night’s screening.
“They said, ‘Listen, you know how you’re getting on a guy and just killing someone on the radio?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ They said, “That’s what we want.”
Francesa has two brief scenes with the movie’s star, Adam Sandler, one at a restaurant table and the other in the kitchen, in which Sandler discusses bets he is placing.
The directors told Francesa “you’re sick of this guy,” and to “just react to that. We’re not going to tell you what to do, just react to that. Basically, it wasn’t me being me, but it was me reacting the way I would act.”
Said Sandler, “He was phenomenal. He was really relaxed. Luckily, it’s in his sports world. He knows his stuff. He knows his history, and I’m sure he’s seen a gambler here or there. He was just dealing with a gambler who was in a little bit over his head.”
One of the few instructions to Francesa was that he add a curse word to spice things up.
“I did, and that was in the trailer and I got calls about it on the air saying, ‘I thought you didn’t curse!’” Francesa said. “I said, ‘Well, I cursed in a movie, which I gather is ‘R’ rated.’”
That it is, and with good reason. This is no lighthearted Sandler comedy. It is a tense, grownup film – albeit with funny moments – that has generated Oscar buzz for Sandler.
It also has a strong sports theme – or at least a sports gambling theme – and features a meaty supporting role for the former NBA star Kevin Garnett, set primarily in 2012, when he still was playing for the Celtics.
“I feel like I was part of something special here,” Garnett said after the screening. “I’m not going to take this opportunity for granted . . . I was absorbing, learning. I will say this: I did tell the brothers that if they do another movie, I want to be a villain.”
Francesa shot his scenes in one day last year and admitted he was nervous about it.
“They told me to dress the way you want but dress the way you think a rich bookie would dress,” he said. “So I wore a pinstriped suit.”
He thought he had “hit it out of the park” on his first take. “And they said, ‘That’s perfect. It was perfect,’ but I wound up having to do it 25 more times, but the same way with every camera changing, then they move your watch and they move the thing on the table and you’re like, ‘How many times do I have to do this?’”
During one long break, he went to Sandler’s trailer to watch a baseball playoff game with him.
Francesa walked a red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2017 for ESPN’s documentary on “Mike and the Mad Dog,” but Thursday’s event at Lincoln Center was of a far greater magnitude. The crowded afterparty at Katz’s Delicatessen attracted celebrities including Chris Rock and Jimmy Fallon.
“The movie is a big deal,” Francesa said. “What amazed me was how many people I heard from about the trailer – people I hadn’t heard from in 40 years.”
The film is set for limited release on Dec. 13, and wide distribution on Christmas Day.