New York. 1981. Over 1 million crimes are recorded. There are over 60,000 aggravated assaults on record and over 2000 murders. Writer-director JC Chandor was thinking about his third film, the tragedy at Sandy Hook had occured, and he found himself searching through crime statistics. Chandor discovered that 1981 was statistically the most violent year in the history of the city, and became the basis for his latest film, A Most Violent Year.
Awards Daily joined JC Chandor after the film was named Best Film by the National Board of Review in Beverly Hills to talk 1981, his stars – Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, and the common theme running through his films.
Awards Daily: How are you?
J C Chandor: I’m doing pretty well, I’m writing a new movie. I’m about to go to the IMAX right now, and see a presentation on their new technology which is super exciting. I try to give everything I can to these movies, and then you launch them out into the world and you really can’t do much. I’ve learnt it’s like sending a kid off to college, you can check in on them, and you have to speak up for them, but for the most part you have to let them find their path, and for this one, I’m very humbled and just feel so thankful that I’m getting to do this for my life.
AD: How did you feel seeing the public reaction for the first time at AFI Fest?
JC: It was amazing, I had a screening with All Is Lost at Cannes where Mr (Robert) Redford was sitting next to me, and it’s overwhelming in a lot of different ways, and so I was quite confident at AFI that that was the movie I had intended to make, and that I had done my best. I try to have the philosophy that you’re putting it into the world, it’s not like a play where you hope everyone is going to do their part. These things are fairly static once you’re done with them. So, I try to come up with this strategy, that once you’ve done your best and put every ounce into them, I really can’t control anything else. So, that night, I let it go. It was a very strange night for me as I also had some family stuff going on, so it was a very maturing night.
There’s something about your third film. I’ve talked to other film-makers where you realize this isn’t for you and that you shouldn’t be doing this for the rest of your life. Or, that if anyone continues to give you the money or tools to do it, and it’s something you want to devote your entire life to. By your third film you need to know that either way. I had a wonderful confidence that I can do this job now and that I felt this was going to be alright no matter what happens which is not always the case on your first two films. It sort of feels that your career can be whisked out from under you at any moment, which it still can of course, but, not quite as delicate.
AD: What drew you to telling this story?
JC: It was two ideas I had that merged. I tend to write where I have three of four things in my head, bouncing around, gathering elements and pieces. I had been working on a story about a couple, a husband and wife who were in business together insanely ambitious. They were the equivalent of two jewelry stores on a small street, one remains the small store, and one becomes Pandora or some chain. What is it about that ambition? What is happiness? What are they striving for? I was playing that within the idea of immigrants or the first or second generation of immigrants within the United States building a business. Then I started playing that with movie violence, which is a very intense thing to my life.
I had finished All Is Lost and was trying to come up with what to do next, and I was being offered a lot of these very violent films to either re-write, adapt or direct, which I couldn’t really figure out because Margin Call was a thriller. Studio execs were like, “Put a gun in that, and you have a good piece of business.”
So, I was playing with what is violence in movies and basically a horrible act of violence – Sandy Hook shooting happened two towns over from me. I was bringing my daughter to school, and they had posted armed guards all over her school, they remained there for about a month. This idea of escalation started to gesticulate in my mind. The idea of, well, now you’ve made it more fun for one of those sociopaths, all that sociopathic kid has to do is sit across the street, he shoots this security guard at the school who’s supposed to make us feel safer, and he’s dead, and we’re right back to where we are and we’ve had three years where fourth graders had to walk past this security guard to “feel safe going to school”. So, the absurdity of that was in my head, and I ended up searching through crime statistics and came across this amazing year which was 1981. It was the year when the city was deciding to move away from the Wild Wild West of having everybody be armed, but it still was a time when horrible things were still happening in the city, so it’s that last year before crime starts dropping, but it became this touchstone year for me. At that time I was 8 or 9 and as a child, that’s when you start to realize there are other people outside of your experience. Culturally, Rap music was being invented a mile from where this movie took place. There was this great outcry of youth and arts and graffiti and street photography. All these amazing things were bubbling below the surface, which in the end took back the streets and made them safe again. Of course, no one knew that when it’s 1981. You don’t know if the city is going to go deeper into hell or as he says, “Work its way out.”
So, that idea of a character study and that idea of a classic gangster movie merging and something greater as a film and story potentially coming from that, was something I found fascinating. So, I went back and created these base elements of classic gangster movies that I had memories of.
AD: The film is beautiful to watch, there’s some captivating photography in it, how did you manage to capture that 80’s look of the city as it’s changed so much since?
JC: That’s a lesson learnt from All Is Lost. With All Is Lost, a month before we finished, I was like, “Is this ever going to be a movie?” All these different components, the visual effects were finished, with the storms, the skylines and horizons getting fixed. The music came in, the sound effects came in, which in that movie were so important. All those pieces come together, and then BOOM! Suddenly, it felt like this guy is lost at sea. A month earlier, that cut did not feel that way. So, I had confidence with this film, that if costumes, music, set design, automobiles, graffiti.
All that graffiti was period graffiti we licensed and digitally brought into the movie. So, that subway sequence in the movie is actually a subway car from that era, driving on a real subway track, but the MTA wouldn’t let us graffiti their trains. They didn’t want to revisit that. So, I asked, “What if I could find period art and superimposed it? It’s almost a tribute to what was and where our city has gone and has become?”
We tried to use every tool as a film-maker to subtlety bring in all those elements and when it comes together, BOOM! It works, you never know if it’s going to happen, but you can hope.
So, everything from the construction of their wardrobe, I didn’t want anything to feel anything over the top, but yet had to feel of that period.
The whole movie is about people isolating themselves from the violence or attempting to, moving to the suburbs, their office has a walled complex, they drive big German cars. All these things to insulate themselves from the troubles of the day. However, if you want to be an engaged member of society, at some point what’s going on outside is going to creep into your life.
The movie was about having all of that in the background until it wasn’t any longer, and it was suddenly staring them square in the face.
AD: Did you grow up in the Tri-State area and what were your memories of 1981?
JC: I grew up in New Jersey. I grew up in Middle Class, Upper Middle Class. My dad got richer as I got older. I have memories of 1981. I was 8-Years-old, My dad worked in New York City, and I used to visit him, so a lot of this comes from that. That the real damage from violence, and the waves that come out, and the way people change their lives as a result of it are really are what as a society are most damaging in a way.
AD: Let’s talk about Jessica and Oscar:
JC: I was looking at a lot of different actors. I was working with one actor before, talking to him about the script, but that didn’t work out. Jessica had been attached through the whole period to play the role of the wife. Then she started whispering about his classmate of hers from Julliard. “His mom is Guatemalan. His dad is from Cuba. He grew up in Miami. He got himself into Julliard.” He is the American Dream right? (Chuckles). I saw them interact with each other. They had never dated, but they had this great camaraderie without the bitterness of ever having had an affair. (laughs). So, there’s this wonderful shared history, and then this neat competitive streak which driven actors from drama school, which is similar to these characters. It’s healthy competition, just like any good marriage. They both came up in the same education, they had this innate trust. I had never gotten to work on a prolonged level with two actors. This was like an ensemble work, where I felt like I was just there with these people, working through something.
AD: Tell us about the characters Abel and Anna Morales?
JC: They’re both their own people, and yet, they come together to share one single goal. They are leaving a lot of other things aside to get to their goals. They’re having to make real compromises. You don’t win an Olympic Gold medal without missing a lot of opportunities. They want that greatness, in a weird way, Abel believes he can do that without having to pay certain prices. So, they’re fascinating characters for me. I’ve grown to love them. They’re representational of what’s best about this country, but also their shortcomings. I think they both are so sure of themselves and so self serious and present this formal reality to the world. So, when you see those moments where they crack, it’s sort of fun to see what’s behind that veneer.
AD: Your films tend to center on the notion of escalation crisis and meltdown. Would you say that’s the same of A Most Violent Year?
JC: I think these movies are all, if they share a DNA it’s that they are based on real people. People walk around with two feet on earth, just like you and I. They have problems like you and I do, but we are visiting them on a very extraordinary time in their lives where they really can’t stay where they are, they have to move. There’s a decision that must be made. Their lives are not going to be the same depending on which route they take.
So, in Margin Call, they almost didn’t have a choice. I used to say, the two paths were; one was a cliff, and the other was a really bad road. So, there was no good choice, there often isn’t when you paint yourself into a corner. That’s the other thing they all share, these characters have all put themselves in that position, it’s not a meteor coming at us that we had nothing to do with. We have put ourselves in the way of the meteor so to speak, and I think all the characters share that. Their situations, and from a directing standpoint, the challenges of how to tell the stories, hopefully I’m learning and trying new things and always trying to do different things. My general interest as a storyteller, hopefully shares a very strong DNA between all three films.