Director JC Chandor explains to Alistair Harkness why he put his career on the line to make A Most Violent Year
‘I’M FASCINATED by risk,” says JC Chandor. The writer/director behind the financial crash thriller Margin Call and the survival drama All Is Lost may be understating things when he says this. Risk, after all, has driven his career, defined his choices and provided him with the subjects for his films. Both the aforementioned movies explore the consequences of betting big in a capitalist society and the new film he’s sitting in a London hotel room to discuss is built around a character striving to stay on the right side of the law as he attempts to pull off a complex real estate deal in New York.
A Most Violent Year is Chandor’s third film and his most ambitious to date. Set in 1981, when New York’s crime rate hit an all-time high, it stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman married to a gangster’s daughter (Jessica Chastain). As the movie opens, Abel has taken it upon himself to expand their successful oil heating business into a legitimate empire at the very moment the city is crumbling and lawlessness is rampant – a course of action that threatens to bring his hitherto stable world crashing down around him. If it sounds like classic gangster movie territory (and there are gunfights in the streets, car chases through derelict neighbourhoods and overcoats straight out of Dick Tracy), it thrives on the drama inherent in its protagonist’s insatiable desire to “grow and drive and move on and take risks”.
“You’re seeing this couple at a time in their lives where they could stay right where they are,” says Chandor of the thinking behind the plot. “They’re doing well in tough times, so why not chill the hell out? But to the ambitious, driven individual, when crime rates rise, property values usually drop and he’s thinking, ‘This is the cheapest I will ever get the property that will allow me to grow’. So when everyone is leaving the burning building that is New York City at the time, he decides to take an absurd risk because of this opportunity.”
Chandor took something of a risk in casting the film. In talks with Javier Bardem for the lead, it became clear to the director that Bardem wanted Abel to be less ambiguous, so they parted ways. On the recommendation of Chastain, he turned instead to Isaac, whose break-out turn in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was just starting to hit the festival circuit. “Some other older actors looked at the part, but she started to talk to me about this young guy whom she had gone to Juilliard with: his mum was Guatemalan, his dad was Cuban, he’d grown up in Miami, and he’d walked into an open audition for Juilliard and got in. It was crazy American dream stuff.” Of course it hasn’t hurt that Isaac’s subsequent casting in the new Star Wars movie has boosted the profile of A Most Violent Year, making Chandor’s decision seem even more fortuitous. “Ha! Yes, poor Oscar. He’s probably just on the verge of not being able to walk down the street.”
Chandor’s career has gone from strength to strength in the three years since picking up a best screenplay Academy Award nomination for Margin Call. Still, he reckons spending the previous decade-and-a-half honing his skills in the hope of one day getting to make his debut was, in retrospect, an absurd risk. “The risk to me was that I might not get to make a film because they’re incredibly expensive.” Following it up with a film about a guy alone on a boat – as he did with All Is Lost – wasn’t exactly a guaranteed way to keep that momentum going either. “It was seriously risky as well,” he says. “But I knew that if I did a good job and did really well with it, people would think I could do anything. That was a risk that I very clearly analysed from both sides: do I just do a staple, run-of-the-mill, Margin-Call-in-a-law-office-with-a-gun movie, which were the movies I was being offered, or do I do something totally different?”
There was, however, a pragmatic side to that decision as well, something he says fed into the character of Abel in A Most Violent Year. “I know from watching my friends and competitors over the years that going down what seems like the safe route isn’t always the safe route.” With Abel, he wanted to create a character who took the concept of risk versus reward seriously. “He’s taking very calculated risks. He’s not taking risks because he wants to.”
The same applies to Chandor. As much his films differ from one another, there’s a definite thematic through line that suggests the emergence of a signature style. Indeed, A Most Violent Year could be considered something a conceptual prequel to Margin Call thanks to the way the criminality Abel is trying to minimise to secure his share of the American dream is eventually legitimised by the traders on Wall Street. “Absolutely,” says Chandor. “The year I chose to set the film is a turning point for New York City. The city was so violent at this time that a decision had to be made: was it going to become the Wild West, where everyone is walking around with a gun and a holster? Or was it going to move towards a kind of legitimacy where something has to be lost in that process as well? There’s no perfect path.”
Chandor, who spent his early teen years in the UK, has long been interested in the dramatic potential of economics. His father was a mid-level banker who grew disillusioned with the industry. “He was sort of like the Kevin Spacey character in Margin Call. He was not running the company, not uber-wealthy, but doing better than most people on planet Earth, no doubt about that. And he really believed in what he was doing until the last ten years of his career, when he saw this crazy level of excess and irrational thinking come into play.”
Chandor’s disillusionment stemmed from his post-college life in New York, where he witnessed his friends – and the western world in general – go on a decade-long debt binge. “That’s what Margin Call was really about. It was about all these different generations gorging themselves on debt. Which is risk. But for me, the core dilemma that I like to look at is where capitalism, the regulatory world and human beings’ inner decision-making intersect.”
He realises he’s losing me so he simplifies it with an analogy. “Say there’s two crackers on this table,” he says, slapping his hand down on the coffee table between us. “There’s something reptilian inside of me that wants them both, even though you’re freaking sitting here. It’s only through education and teaching and everything else that I understand we should share them. But there’s this capitalist reptile inside all of us that makes us want both – and some have it more than others.” He lets out a laugh. “I feel like I could make movies about this for the rest of my life.”