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Filmmaker takes crew members to see films they worked on for the first time by Aaron Hunt

“I Had Hundreds Of Thousands Of Dollars Worth Of Jewelry In My Bag. Someone Could Just Steal Me.”: On-Set Prop Deneice O’Connor Juggles Uncut Gems

Deneice O'Connor watching Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems traffics in the upscale loot sold and loaned in the Diamond District. A bejeweled furby necklace and a pendant of Michael Jackson pinned to a cross are fan favorites in a claustrophobic rain of riches. But a rare black opal trumps the pile. Howard (Adam Sandler), a jeweler with debt gnawing at his heels, lifts one off the black market from the Ethiopian Jews who discovered them, and sees it delivered to his show floor inside a vacuum-sealed cooler of fish. As the gambit in some of his biggest bets yet, the opal might just clear his life’s debt and hopefully our anxiety in turn. 

Deneice O’Connor (If Beale Street Could  Talk, Russian Doll, High Maintenance), the prop department’s on set “Opal Quarterback,” looked after the opal and treasures that trade between one too many hands. Watching the film for the first time, O’Connor endured the tension mounted by the Safdie brothers film two fold by simultaneously reliving her own behind-the-scenes anxieties. Just as Howard implodes when Kevin Garnett (as himself and Howard’s biggest big-ticket customer) borrows his opal, O’Connor imploded recalling the time he accidentally knocked the gem against a chair, causing a nugget to break off. And just as Howard is chased down by his colleagues for the watches and jewels they loaned him, O’Connor dealt with the real-life jewelers in the film that lent her their precious wares and then came after her anxious to get them back. 

Everything from Garnett’s diamond earrings to the cash stacks strewn in Louis Vuitton bags were real.  If any of these tiny treasures were lost or damaged it would be an expensive liability for production and a betrayal to the locals kind enough to lend them. The prop opal itself was as truly priceless as it is in the film. Propmaster Catherine Miller and her team assembled hand-delivered opals from around the world and combined them into the singular “matrix” that you see as the singular uncut gem in the film. 

The props department likes to stow doubles just in case. But with their bounty of unique and valuable rarities they often couldn’t. Luckily, the valuables had O’Connor to protect them, to wince and groan and bear the weight of their fall. There was no role on the set of Uncut Gems whose obstacles so directly paralleled the film’s.

O’Connor came straight from propmastering Hulu’s Ramy to see the film for the first time.

[the credits roll] 

Deneice O’Connor

Filmmaker: It seems like you just endured the stress of the movie plus the stress of your time on set.

O’Connor Every time I watch something I’ve worked on, each scene I watch, I am reminded of what our day was like on set. What went right and what went wrong. For whatever reason, while I was watching this, I kept remembering when we had pizza!  Pizza is always kind of a thing on set. We had a ton of it on Uncut Gems, but it didn’t matter because we were going so fast.

It feels like the movie happened to all of us. And you just never know. I’ve watched things that I’ve worked on before where I just feel PTSD and cringe at how terrible it was. But this felt totally justified. There were some hard days but I’m totally cool with bustin’ my ass on something that’s going to be a good product in the end. The Safdies are fuckin’ crazy in the best way. They knew what they wanted, and they went for it. Good Time was so good and it was cool to see them get to work with more resources. 

I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like working with a lot of non-actors. Half of the people in the movie are “real” people. Most of the Diamond District people in the movie are really from 47th St, like Roman in the back, the woman who buzzed people in, Maksud [Yussi], He actually runs Trax NYC. Anyway, I learned about all of it. My boss Catherine [Miller, property master], definitely embedded herself into the culture, and we went through it with her.

And Adam Sandler is such a kind person. You can tell he has a family mentality and he pulls everyone that’s working around him together. It makes you feel good and it makes you want to work harder, as opposed to [voice mocking a diva] “Give me my glasses!” or something. 

Filmmaker: There are a lot of props in this movie. 

O’Connor: There are! I’m the one that has to make sure those things stay intact, keep track of them, and keep them safe. The history of how that opal came to be is a movie in itself. Catherine worked so fucking hard and then handed it off to me and said, “Okay, here’s this very expensive, precious, one-of-a-kind baby. Take care of it.” And then it gets tossed around, taken out of bags, it gets rubbed! Watching it on the screen churned my stomach. I did relive that! I’d pray they wouldn’t drop it all throughout filming it. I held my breath every time I saw it in someone’s hand while watching the movie. 

Filmmaker: How did you design the opal?

O’Connor: So it was obviously the most precious prop in the film. It had to be precious. It had to be perfect. They demanded that. Catherine did everything in her power to make it happen. She had to become a little bit of a geologist and do the research. 

Those opals were all different little pieces, and then we stuck them together to make one big piece. Which still makes sense because opals, from what we learned, when you dig them out, can take on many different forms. 

In one scene, KG [Kevin Garnett] had it in his hand and knocked the back of a chair and one of the opals popped out. He looked over at me and said, “Deneice. I’m so sorry.” But it was totally cool. We fixed it. We recovered very quickly, but all I could think about when I was watching the movie was that little nugget falling off. It was so stressful. All of the jewelry, all the watches, all the stuff you see up close is real.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me a little more about the journey of making that opal?

O’Connor: There was a point where I was posting on Facebook, “Do I know anyone in Ethiopia that can bring something back to us?” [laughs] Catherine eventually formed a tight bond with an opal dealer in Australia that one of the producers found. Travis actually had to hand deliver a large part of the opal back to Australia after the shoot was over.  It was different pieces of opals from all over the world that we acquired through mostly legal ways, [laughs], and then we worked with the scenic department to make the final product. It took on many different forms. Everyone wanted it to be right. Ideally you get it right the first time. It took a lot of times. Catherine never gave up. 

People will never think about this, but that opal was a prop, and it will be one of the more beautiful moments of Catherine Miller’s career. She spent a lot of time on research, getting to know the right people,  forging bonds with them and gaining their trust to let us use these precious stones.  Sometimes people are sorta excited to hear we’re doing a movie, other people want nothing to do with us. Some people in the opal community were even concerned that this might show them in a negative light. 

Filmmaker: I was going to ask what props were actually expensive, and which props were made to look so.

O’Connor: All the dressing in the background was costume stuff. But everything down to KG’s earrings, when he took them off, were real. I had to carry most of it in a backpack and be very covert about that. There were a lot of times I had hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry in my bag. Someone could just steal me.

That’s a good sign for a movie that I’ve worked on, when I can mostly forget where I was standing in the room. The last scene we shot of main principal photography was the colonoscopy scene. I think the proctologist was a real one, and we were all laughing so hard because of how monotone he described Adam Sandler’s rectum. I assume that’s how he really does it. It was another pure non-actor moment. 

Two days later, we went to the Mohegan Sun as a skeleton crew. It was only two of us for props. It’s always daytime at the Mohegan Sun. People are gambling at 8AM. I’d never seen anything like that place before. It was a really fun way to wrap up the shoot. Travis [fellow prop] won $400.00 from the penny slots. $300.00 flew out of my pocket in about 20 minutes.  I was pissed. 

Filmmaker: Could you discuss resetting the sealed package of fish the opal arrives in?

O’Connor: Oh my god, the fish. They did so much research on what fish would be used to smuggle something like that, what region it should be from, which was technically legal for us to use. We had like six coolers and a bunch of fish, a vacuum sealer, blue shrink wrap and “postage stickers”. We’d slice them, gut them, wrap the opal, stuff the fish, vacuum seal, rinse, repeat!  We had an assembly line because we did it maybe ten or twelve times. The four of us behind the curtain with our fold-out tables, shrink wrap dance, and continuity photos for packing sticker placement. That delivery guy is a delivery guy from the Diamond District. They plucked him out of there. He was very sweet and patient with our process for someone never having been on a film set before. 

Filmmaker: I’ve witnessed tension between the off-site segments of departments and their on-site counterparts. Do you deal with that?

O’Connor: Catherine’s super involved. She’s like the mega brain, and then it trickles down. For this one we were always there together. Dierdre [Kane], our shopper. Oh my god. She would run to a million different places. At one point we had to rush her from Long Island to Manhattan to catch someone before they got on a plane to Australia, to beg them to give us a prop and trust us with it while they left the country — and then we had to figure out a way to get it back to them. She did that at 5:00 PM on a Friday and it took her four hours round trip.

[O’Connor and I reconvene that weekend at Cafe Estrulie between her making runs for Ramy. Although these are her two days off, she is working]

Filmmaker: You dealt with so many cellphones. Specifically 2012 iPhones.

O’Connor: Apple supplies a lot of devices for shows. They typically push for their latest and greatest. That’s what they like to see on contemporary shows. But we had to find what made sense for the era. 2012 is not that long ago, but it’s just enough that a lot of things were slightly different. There were a lot of little things that we had to think about. Time moves so much faster now. In 2012 cellphones were a big part of our lives but not in the way they are now.  Apple sent us iPhones from 2012 and gave us access to the operating system used that year. It got tricky to keep them running practically. They constantly wanted to update to 2018.

When Catherine handed me the phones she told me, “Whatever you do do not update this device!” [laughs] And it’s in your brain to automatically say “yes” to those things. So I tried to stay very conscious to “cancel and ignore.” Adam instinctively ignored when the update popped up in one of the shots, and they chose to keep it in! I cringed at first, but it totally works. That plagued us for the entire time.  It was just scary.  

Usually when you do period stuff it’s the ‘80s or the ‘50s. I think this was even harder because the differences were so subtle. We are probably the only ones that even care that much and will know if it’s right or wrong but then there’s always that one person on Reddit!

Filmmaker: The props are so active here. They’re punchlines on their own or moving the story forward.

O’Connor:  Yeah, that’s something not everybody notices. That’s why when you tell people you do props they’re like, “What is that?” They always wanna say, “Oh, you’re doing the set design, the set pieces.” That’s not what we’re doing. Maybe if there’s a car that’s recurring in the film that does become a set piece, and that does become a collaboration between art department and props. But we’re kind of our own thing. The best case scenario on  a film is when the art department and props are in constant communication and look to each other for insight.  That’s something you notice real quick when you start a job. That’s where the tension is. Lots of eye rolling sometimes.

And then there are the gray areas — for example, dishes used in a formal setting. The designer comes up with the tone of the set, then the decorator decorates based on those wishes. The decorator’s going to place dishes to help add another layer to the tone. Once someone brings that dish in with food on it, it’s a prop now. It’s really important to maintain strong communication.  Often times one department assumes it’s the other’s responsibility then on the day no one took care of it. Those are awful, terrible moments. You have to be a little bit crazy and OCD to keep up with all of it.

Filmmaker: Are there a lot of gray areas like that to maneuver?

O’Connor: Sometimes. Both departments are squeezed in so many ways and have so little time that things get overlooked. But a good team will go, “I have this in the truck,” or, “I have this in the shop,” and they’ll make it happen. That happened to me recently with this bird perch. Technically I’m the one who finds the bird and the animal wrangler. The bird was playing on a perch in this really fancy house. We talked about the perch. There was never a settled moment about the perch. Both departments thought the other was getting the perch, and then we didn’t have one, and it was shooting in two hours. So both sides pulled it together and we made a perch! It was a beautiful moment that, on other productions, someone might have just thrown the other person under the bus and nothing would have gotten done. But we made it happen, and no one knew the difference. It’s probably even prettier than a regular perch. Sometimes it’s the happy accidents like that that can make things really special in the end. 

Filmmaker: It’s prop’s responsibility to get the animal wrangler?

O’Connor: Yeah, it’s funny. A living thing is considered a prop. On Uncut, we had these two guys wrangle the exotic fish in Howard’s tank. I’ve never met two people who knew more about fish in my life. They met at Petco and then started their own business together.

Filmmaker: I’ve been on set with a butterfly wrangler, which was literally one lady who could cull and command a bunch of butterflies, I guess, with nectar?

O’Connor: I’ve seen a cockroach wrangler. A big ol’ cockroach. The big hissing ones! 

Filmmaker: How do you wrangle those?

O’Connor: [dismayed] It was so strange. They know ways of tricking them. They use snacks! They raise them, so they’re very close with those creatures.  A lot of the animal wranglers live with animals. They all understand animals. They’re all a little bit strange in a very beautiful way because they all speak the language of animals or insects. 

I’m working with a dog right now [on Ramy] that’s a rescue pitbull. I’m only just now starting to learn about animals on set and how it all works. The trainers do a lot of preparation off set that we don’t see.  They practice lines with the dog so that she knows when to do a certain action based off a line of dialogue. So cool. My last couple of projects have been really fun because there’s been a lot of animals around and I love animals. Props get to connect with them and interact with them more than anyone. My last project I got to hug and walk a cow.

Filmmaker: Did any of the jewelry loaned to you from the Diamond District folks directly play?

O’Connor: A lot of the people in the Diamond District loaned us their watches, necklaces, and jewelry. So we had to take extra care to get them back. Howard’s loupe is one, and there were some pretty fancy necklaces that you see inserts of on the KMH showroom floor. Those came from Trax NYC via Maksud (Yussi). 

I never knew that thick gold chain was called a “Cuban chain” before Uncut. But yeah, we had real ass diamonds! The wardrobe department got real diamond studs for KG. That was another one of those weird things because he takes them off to get cleaned in a scene, so then it becomes a prop. Jewelry, except for wedding bands and rings or [items] specifically scripted, is a part of wardrobe. But once they take it off and hand it to another actor it’s a prop. 

Filmmaker: So what happens in that transition. Does the item come back to you? 

O’Connor: It’s a lot of communication. While they’re playing on screen like that I’m watching over them. But at the end of the day I give them back to wardrobe. Then in the morning wardrobe hands them off to KG, he puts them in his ears, he puts them on the jewelry tray, and they become a prop again. It’s important to keep communication about when the line is crossed. Same with a jacket, or if someone’s unpacking a suitcase. You want those clothes to look like that character’s. You go to wardrobe and ask if you can borrow some clothes and then they’re props.

Filmmaker: I think the worst thing that can ever happen on a set is when the set is only waiting on you, your job, your department. Everything and everyone stops to watch you do the one thing you forgot to or are slow to do. Can you remember an example of that happening on Uncut Gems? 

O’Connor: [laughs] totally. That’s always kind of happening…

Filmmaker: Everyone gets their turn.

O’Connor: They’ll wait on camera. They’ll wait on grip and lighting. They’ll never wait on props. Part of our job is that we should be fully prepared before we start working on a scene. They should never have to wait on anything scripted as props.  The exception is when we get a last-minute request. Most  of the crew understands we’ve just been asked to pull a rabbit out of our hat so they give us nervous smile and try to stay out of our way. 

But I had an oopsie moment. There was a situation with the fuckin’ cell phones again. They’re older so their batteries would drain really fast. I always charged them in between uses. [The directors] spent a lot of time on rehearsals and camera set ups. This particular day Howard’s phone rings with a pretty important call in the scene so I wanted to make sure it was good and charged for the call!  Ugh, just telling you makes me want to throw up! So they finally start shooting the scene, and I was on the other side of set from our carts, watching the monitor. The scene was this very delicate moment between Howard and Julia. It’s the first time we see him show real emotion. There’s blood and snot coming out of his nose — it’s this moment in the film where he realizes just how much he’s fucked up. Julia comes in and now there these two people who you don’t necessarily know if you like, but maybe this is the point where you start to like them. We were all feeling that together, watching it unfold, and then all of a sudden I hear Josh go, “Cell phone rings,” and I hear, “Where’s the phone?” I run across the back of the stage, grab the cellphone, army crawl into the shot and throw it up on his desk. I just broke that scene. They’re professionals, they came back at it, nobody brought it up later, but that was a rookie move for sure. Watching the scene I was like ,“ugh.” That will haunt me forever. But [the scene] was still really good! 

Filmmaker: You did that mid-take? 

O’Connor: Mid-take! Oh yeah! Like they were holding for me to bring the cell phone in. It was so embarrassing. That is everyone’s nightmare. 

The Furby

Filmmaker: I’m sure everyone else forgot.

O’Connor: I’m sure people forgot about that five minutes later. Props are to be seen and not heard, or we should not be seen or heard. We are props ourselves. [laughs] Get it in the shot, make sure we don’t lose it, make sure it’s accurate. I felt I was not a very good prop in that moment.

But I did think of a good moment, which was also in the showroom. The first time that the door locks on KG, his crew, and Demany, they’re like stuck between those doors and Howard is trying to buzz them in but he can’t… Roman brings the metal shavings out and pours them into the top of the thing. The fact that they showed all of those little steps made it seem like this is a real thing that’s happened somewhere in the Diamond District, a door jamming like that. 

They constructed that to look like two metal plates, but the way it was actually designed, there was a hollow hole there.. We started that day not knowing this and not having a plan for how his action would be received in that little hole. Sometimes in the script it’s like, “He pours the metal shavings down,” and that’s how it actually works. But then when you get on set we’re faced with the logistics part of the action. There’s all these little magic tricks you have to do. 

When the metal shavings don’t work and he takes the file and jams it in the door, there isn’t a real magnet there that in a real-life scenario would cause that file to work. So we had to create a way for that to stick. It had to be something soft and something that would hold it. So we pushed a bunch of clay down into that hole. So when he stuck the file down it it stuck and simulated the magnet effect! It was satisfying to watch that scene knowing how we rigged it.

Filmmaker: I have seen the prop department problem solve and fill the practical holes in screenplays on a whim. 

O’Connor: That’s our job. And I still underestimate the holes after 11 years. I still feel like an infant when it comes to props. There’s always going to be something new to learn and a new kind of problem to solve. I’ve seen first ADs who’ve worked for 30 years say, “This is the first time I’ve seen this happen” many, many times.

Filmmaker: How would you describe the size and scale of Uncut Gems?

O’Connor: You’re never going to have enough money. It’s always going to be a stretch. No matter where you are, even if you have more money this time than the last. It always wants to be bigger and bigger. It’s always going to exhaust everyone. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t know that. We know what we’re signing up for.  

But I don’t think this movie could have been done without going union. It’s just so big in its scope, and I think that the Safdie’s understood that eventually. [laughs] I think it was a little weird for them at first. I remember them flinching the first day on stage when the bells rang. I came from that indie world and think a lot of people my age did too. We’re not union family members. This wasn’t plopped into our laps. I’m glad I went that route though, I know it’s not for everybody. But it’s taken care of me; quality of life is up. Sometimes working on those indie movies you don’t eat, or you’re on your feet 20 hours a day. It doesn’t matter how nice those filmmakers are, they want to get their movie made, and people are going to protect them from understanding how exactly that’s coming together. 

I also know what it’s like to be spoiled and work on something that has plenty of resources. Then when I go to a set that doesn’t have that I can get kind of bratty about it. But I try not to forget it. Union stuff does gobble you up sometimes, but that’s what I loved about doing Uncut Gems — it felt like what my indie days in Texas felt like. It was dirty and also brought me to an understanding of the city that I wouldn’t have been afforded otherwise. 

The way the Safdie’s grew up and the friends they’ve made helps them really tap into that world and tell its story so well. They’re our age, but most of us here are all transplants. They’ve seen it all, they were here for 9/11, their dad worked in the jewelery district. They know a completely different side of the city than the rest of us may ever know. I’ve always been fascinated by that, and I think that’s what everyone notices when they first visit New York. It this ecosystem they want to be a part of. I love that I got to see and be a little part of that. 

You have to be a nerd to be in the props department, and this afforded us a very nerdy experience. I learned about the Diamond District, Jewish culture, rap culture, basketball culture… There’s this reference to why Jews love basketball so much that I would’ve never understood if I didn’t work on this movie, and now I kind of do? 

I was raised in a pretty white, Christian environment in South Texas, a very different life from New York. Working on this film afforded me insight into a world I would have otherwise probably never come in contact with. I think transplants my age are going to live here 30 years and never know about this life. Now they will because of Uncut.

 I appreciate this opportunity because I feel like nobody ever wants to talk to props or know anything about it. I just feel like this is my one opportunity to speak for all of props. [laughs] There’s so much I want to say about it.

The wrap gift

Filmmaker: Is there anything you’ve wanted to say that you haven’t got to? Any misconceptions you want to clear? 

O’Connor: Everybody thinks they can do props. Everybody thinks they can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But is the actor allergic to peanuts? Are they gluten free? How many takes are we gonna do? Do they have a spit bucket? Where are we going to make them? So many things to consider and plan. I feel very lucky to have been chosen to see the movie early. I’m one small part of the people on this prop team. The research and hard work, honestly, the dangerous situations they put themselves in to get some of the props for this movie… A lot of people will never know their names, what they look like, or the journeys they went through.

We live in a circus. We live really ridiculous lives. Everyone in film does. Travis [Anderberg], Dierdre, and Catherine, they’re the ones who made the props for Uncut Gems. I’m very proud of them. We have a group chat going.

[She shows me their group chat, one of them sent a GIF of the Furby necklace from the movie to the chat]

Everybody loves the Furby. It got a standing ovation I guess? 

Filmmaker: What was the wrap gift?

O’Connor:  These cool fuckin’ jackets. And you know what’s on the jackets? The opal, with a diagram labeling the different parts. The number one prop in the movie! 

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