Director J.C. Chandor discusses making “A Most Violent Year”
December 30, 2014
Three films into his career, it's tempting to call writer-director J.C. Chandor a cinematic chameleon. He's tackled seemingly very different movies in each of his outings: the 2011 financial thriller "Margin Call;" the mostly silent man-against-nature epic "All is Lost" last year; and now, the 1980s New York crime drama "A Most Violent year."
The new movie, which screens at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings Tuesday, is a tense tale about the (who knew?) brutal heat-oil business. It stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, a mostly ethical heat-oil magnate who has 30 days to gather $1.5 million to buy a key waterfront shipping yard property. Albert Brooks co-stars as his lawyer, with Jessica Chastain as his wife. As the clock ticks, Abel's oil trucks are getting robbed at gunpoint, the district attorney is investigating Abel's business, and his morals are tested mercilessly.
While the setting – a vividly realized, decaying 1981 New York – and the story seem a world apart from "Margin Call" and "All is Lost," the film thematically treads the same ground. Like Chandor's earlier ones, it's about desperation and how it tests men.
"You're seeing people really question themselves and have to decide who they're going to be and what they're going to be. … It's kind of like that's a moment of realization, where you come to some clarity," Chandor explained. "I think we probably have four or five of those in our lives."
What is very different about "A Most Violent Year," for Chandor, is its grand scope and the complexity of making it. It includes a shootout scene on a shut-down the 59th Street Bridge, an intense, extended chase scene that goes from the streets of Manhattan into its subways. Chandor said there are 72 locations in the film, covered during a 35-day, $20 million shoot.
"Not a lot of people get the chance to have a big canvas like this on a big period film in this day and age, when it's more of a drama," Chandor said. "So I feel very humbled and thankful."
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The movie is patiently paced. Which is a nice way of saying it's slow. But the deliberateness, in this case, works to ratchet up tension and put you in Abel's shoes. There aren't a lot of grown-up dramas like this being made these days, recalling the '70s heyday of Sidney Lumet, that combine a sumptuous visual style with a character study of a man's internal crisis.
"If you're trying to make a theatrical film that gets people to movie theaters and gets them to look at things in a different way in a two-hour period, that's what movies do really well: show these transformative times," Chandor said. "And most movies these days are more heightened than that, but they're not really based on actual mortals."
In one particularly memorable speech on salesmanship, Abel instructs a rookie salesman to keep eye contact with customers a little too long to make them uncomfortable. You see Abel use the tactic throughout the film in showdowns with investigators, union bosses, employees, and rivals.
That bit of inspired dialogue, Chandor said, came from his research into the business. He based the characters on a half-dozen heat-oil tradesmen. One of them – a friend whose father ran a heat-oil company in Queens – mentioned his dad told him this bit about exploiting eye contact.
"That was one that I just held onto and thought, 'Wow, what if that just became a guy's whole sales philosophy,'" Chandor said.
"A Most Violent Year," which will be released nationwide on New Year's Eve, won the National Board of Review's Best Film award earlier this month, along with Best Actor for Isaac and Best Supporting Actress for Chastain, and is being touted as an Oscar contender. Last year, "All is Lost" got snubbed in the major categories at the Oscars, after Redford opted not to campaign for Best Actor.
"It became this whole thing between the Academy members and Mr. Redford, where they wanted him to show up and ask for it, and he was like, 'Well, you know who I am. I've been around long enough. Look at the movie,'" Chandor recalled. "And so they had a stare-down and that was a bummer."
Before that, Chandor experienced the impact of Oscar buzz when he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for "Margin Call." The nod helped win him credibility with studios and the ability to make more movies, with more creative freedom.
"It's a form of publicity that actually does have actionable events for a filmmaker," he said. "[Redford] wasn't going to turn it into some political campaign, and he didn't. And I can't blame him for that. But it was a bummer. So this time I'm trying to feed it. If it helps bring publicity to the movie, great, but I'm not going to let it judge the movie in any way."