In a variation on that old joke about going to a fight where a hockey game breaks out, go see JC Chandor’s new movie A Most Violent Year and you will swear a 70s Sidney Lumet breaks out. That’s a silly notion; this is the latest film by a rising director in Chandor, who debuted with Margin Call and followed by putting Robert Redford mano a mano against nature in All Is Lost. And this film is set in 1981, significant in that it set a high bar for violence in New York. But it sure feels like a 70s film, an unhurried build of tension as an immigrant (Oscar Isaac) chases the American dream by risking everything to expand his heating oil business. He tries to succeed legitimately, but finds it near impossible because of all the politics involved, and the danger created by the corrupt business he has chosen. And all around him is evidence of the cultural New York melting pot and the atmosphere that made those films so compelling. Here, Chandor explains the film that so far won the National Board of Review’s Best Picture Award, garnered Isaac Best Actor and Jessica Chastain Best Supporting Actress.
AWARDSLINE: You’ve got a seam running through your future films a little bit now.
JC CHANDOR: That’s why I was sort of giggling when everyone was saying how different they all are — because they are, obviously, in their structure and how they’re made — but hopefully the collective journey makes sense.
AWARDSLINE: It’s definitely about these people who are really progressively sort of melting down and not knowing quite which way to go in their lives. Is that your intention?
CHANDOR: No. I mean, what I do love telling, which is what they all have in common, is when regular people on planet Earth who live amongst us, have a period in their lives that either affects them — the extraordinary week or day or month in their lives where you obviously really learn who a person is. In this day and age, to get people to go out there and see a movie, you need to make sure that the event feels like it is worth that journey. My specialty is seeing those real people when they’re being tested.
AWARDSLINE: You really get into eras or the places that you’re talking about too.
CHANDOR: One of my favorite scenes in Margin Call is when Stanley Tucci is sitting on the stoop of his townhouse going over these numbers of a bridge that he built. It was a wonderful lesson for me as a writer. I had an idea for that scene and then I found this random website that catalogs every bridge in America. People are fascinated with how they’re built and how they’re used.
AWARDSLINE: This movie brings up so many interesting moral, ethical issues. The Oscar Isaac character, Abel, doesn’t go in the expected way you’ve seen time and time again.
CHANDOR: I’m playing off your memory of gangster movies. There’s a history of those characters in American films where there is that hot blooded family man who’s going to go off the handle and you’re waiting to see this guy, you’re almost building up bloodlust. You want this guy to man up and turn into a freaking gangster. It makes sense that he would do that. Abel is just pragmatic, he understands if he’s going to reach his goal of being a huge businessman and make it to Manhattan, he cannot get caught up in this bullshit that is going on in his business. That’s a pretty cool thing, to be able to see him struggle with that.
AWARDSLINE: And you have some really cool chase scenes.
CHANDOR: I know, they worked out. That one with the tunnel was going to be something else but I found the tunnel at the last minute and realized that it made perfect sense that he was actually being wooed into that confrontation. It was like he was being invited in and it just pulls you in and pulls you in.
AWARDSLINE: There’s going to be inevitable comparisons to Sidney Lumet, you know, and that’s a great thing. And a little bit of William Friedkin, I mean there seem to be some influences here.
CHANDOR: I wish I could say I was one of those directors that knew every movie ever made, and every scene from them. But what it is, for me, is it’s memories of those movies from my childhood and from this formative period in my early 20s when I just watched every movie on the planet.
AWARDSLINE: You seem to be, like Lumet, a real actor’s director. They seem to really thrive.
CHANDOR: I want them to do the work for me. Everyone, if you look back at who I’ve gotten to work with, it’s a Murderer’s Row, so I’ve been insanely fortunate. When I’m there working with them, I’m just loving watching the way they’re interpreting something that I wrote and at that point it kind of becomes theirs, which is amazing.
AWARDSLINE: The next one you’re doing is Deepwater Horizon.
CHANDOR: It’s Lions Gate, it’s a big, big movie, it’s an original, not a sequel, and they’re spending big. We’re going to actually build that rig and bring it up from the bottom of the ocean. I give Lions Gate credit, they’re pretty bullish on it.
AWARDSLINE: Is Mark Wahlberg going to be in it?
CHANDOR: He is. That’s done. I just met with Mark yesterday morning actually, again, and he’s really cool, man. He’s like one of those guys that like good things have happened to and it’s because he works really hard, he’s really smart, he’s really talented, and he’s nice. He’s obviously, you know, kind of a key to getting it. It’s exciting to see more of these bigger storytelling, kind of big-budget films, going back into the more, you know, kind of Earth-based, you know even though Gravity wasn’t Earth-based, but you know you what I mean, it’s human.
AWARDSLINE: I’m so excited because, when you see a studio like Warner Bros coming out with a press conference saying, “Here’s our next ten comic book movies through 2020.” I wish they would come out and say, “And here’s our next ten, really original, really fascinating, movies.”
CHANDOR: They don’t know them yet. I do give those guys credit they really are aware, you know across the board, trying to hit their numbers, so you know it’s crazy the way they’re sort of time-stamping. We’ll see. If they overdo it, man, it’s going to be a problem.