Many filmmakers fancy themselves to be multi-hyphenates who are able to seamlessly transition between screenwriter and director, but actually delivering on the promise of fulfilling the demands of of the two positions is easier said than done. Of course, if your name happens to be J.C. Chandor, you manage to make it look so natural and easy that anyone could do it.
The affable writer-director behind 2011’s Margin Call and 2013’s All is Lost — both of which were nominated for Academy Awards — is back in the box office with A Most Violent Year, a simmering crime drama that follows the struggles of a New York City fuel supplier struggling with his moral compass amidst a morass of crime, corruption, and temptation during the most violent year in the city’s history (hence the title). Though the title would connote plenty of gunplay, explosions, and gangland antics, the film plays out like a slow-boil homage to filmmakers of another generation, creating a creeping atmosphere of dread that permeates the proceedings. All of it makes for a wonderfully stressful, but rewarding viewing experience.
Recently, I caught up with Chandor at a Los Angeles press day where we discussed how he first became fascinated with the time period, why he chose to approach the subject matter in this way, and what he hopes to achieve with his latest work.
Nerdist: I was really fascinated by the film. I don’t think a lot of people really know about the conditions in New York in 1981. Where did this fascination first start, and what about that year sort of leaped out at you?
J.C. Chandor: Yeah, I’ve learned in the last couple of years a lot about my writing process, so I basically have four or five kind of tumbleweeds rolling around in there at any time. As I’m walking around, you could have done something on the way, and I’ll just kind of collect that thought, and it kind of – sometimes it goes and sits on the bench and it’s not right for any of them, but others it kind of gets in that collection.
So I had been working on an idea about husband and wives business – really, since I was a kid. My aunt and uncle have a business together. My sister’s best friend’s parents ran a roofing company that was actually called Standard Roofing, that sponsored my little league team, I just remembered the other day when I was talking about it.
And a lot of other family kind of businesses since then – friends of ours. So just kind of thinking about ambition and why some of those businesses remain. You know, two bakeries on the street – one’s goal in life is to make the greatest loaf of French bread ever, and they’re happy with that. The other ends up a supermarket chain. 25 years later, their ambition is totally different.
So that idea kind of tumbling around, and then there was basically a horrible act of violence near my town, which was the Sandy Hook shooting – the school shooting. I’ve got a young daughter and I was taking her to her school, and they had put armed guards at all the doors of this elementary school, and I just started to think about escalation. Where, like, now some crazy person is just going to go there and shoot that guard, and then we’re back where we were. But then as a result, we have 400 students in the world – well, really, 2,000 students, if you took the whole town, who have to walk by an armed guard every day to go to school, and somehow that makes sense to them?
And the school board, months later, kind of realigned and came up with a different solution, which was very simple. Two sets of locked doors, and the secretary of the school has to see you before she lets you in. A much better solution than turning your children’s elementary school into a war zone!
So this idea of escalation had come up in my mind, and randomly I had been – not randomly, I had been offered a lot of violent films to write and direct. I think Margin Call because it was sort of a thriller, but with no guns. The studios were like, “Hey, let’s put a gun in that and we’ve got ourselves a movie!” Right?
So I wasn’t getting A material, I was getting the B- versions of movies, which if you can imagine trying to think up seven new ways to cut somebody’s head off, as a writer, it can get a little depressing.
N: Yeah, exactly.
JCC: Especially if you have young kids. And the events happened right as I’m looking for a job, and in the middle of editing All is Lost, so I’m looking for my next job. I didn’t get paid a lot for that movie, needless to say! Those one-man-in-a-boat movies don’t exactly send your kid to college. [Laughs]
N: That gravy train!
JCC: Yeah, exactly! [Laughs] So, you know, I’m looking around, the next thing you know, I’m on crime statistics websites, which is the way my writing process works sometimes – I’m just looking around, and I saw this wave that crested in 1981, so that’s basically the most violent year on record in New York City history. At that time, those two tumbleweeds – this character study of this family, and then this idea of sort of studying the realities of violence, and what it really means to human scale.
Like, what does a gun – not what is the movie version of a gun on that table between us, but what happens to a room when there’s a real gun. And so the movie is about playing up the structure of all the memories, going back to the 1930’s of those classic gangster movies, whether they be The Godfather, Serpico – you go through all the references. But really, it goes way further back. It goes back to Shakespeare, almost – The Merchant of Venice, the movie starts with the Jewish money-lenders. I’m playing off of these time posts.
But yet, hopefully, if the movie is working for you, you realize there’s something else at play.
N: Going back to when you were talking about what they did with your daughter’s school in the wake of Sandy Hook – when there was a bomb threat at my high school, the next day I came in and there were metal detectors. It creates a climate of fear, and that was something that was very interesting to see reflected in the film, because there’s the climate of fear with all the drivers, everyone in Abel’s company. But I thought it was very fascinating how he was trying to reject this notion that violence is the answer.
JCC: Yeah, and it’s what Oscar [Isaac] and I were always saying – it’s not really an ethical argument that it’s making. It’s a pragmatic one. I mean, there is certainly an ethical argument to be made. The world shouldn’t have guns, blah, blah, blah, blah. But it’s more. What he’s saying is just, this ain’t gonna work! This is just the guard with the gun. Not to be horribly pragmatic about it, but great – now the psycho sniper 17 year old kid with the gun catalog gets to get a sniper rifle. Now he hides in the woods across the street. That guy with the gun is now out, and we’re right back where we were with the crazy guy, except you’ve altered all of these children’s view of reality.
So that goes back to this idea that the initial act of violence, which is horrific, but it is the ripples that go out that suddenly, five years later, no one’s walking around New York City past 7 o’clock at night. So those incremental changes for the negative can happen just as easily for the positive. I think that’s the one uplifting thing about the film, if any, is the optimism, which some people have trouble seeing.
This guy, he and his wife have been saving money for ten, fifteen years, and the building is on fire. New York City is literally on fire, but they’re going into the building and planning to stay, and they’re actually doing a very optimistic thing, which is saying “Tomorrow is going to be better than today. Don’t panic. Let’s not shoot each other. Let’s build business, and do this the right way, and the city will grow because of it.” Which, of course, happened. So the fact that this family is sort of the bellwethers of that is, to me, fascinating.
N: And I do think there is an optimism that permeates it, because Abel is faced with all these hurdles, all these challenges that seem insurmountable. He keeps getting knocked down, but he keeps picking himself back up, which is sort of the inspiring, Horatio Alger, pick yourself up by your bootstraps message underlying the whole thing.
JCC: Yeah, yeah. And yet it’s still not perfect, right? There is a price to pay for that. I think that’s the one sort of sadness that permeates the film. For every up there is a down, and so while he gets, as the kid in the last scene, Julian, says, “You ended up with everything you wanted, and I’ve got nothing,” basically. In Abel’s mind, that’s because that kid made one too many mistakes. Why would you run? At that moment in that scene in the movie, he says “Why would you run?” When you’re on that bridge, just stay there, and you would have been out of jail in a day or something, but ego and panic sort of combine, and the kid bolts.
So you can recover from that. I’ve made a mistake or two that are on that level, and I never got fully pinned for them, but if I had, that’s what this country does. You’re done. Sometimes you make, as Abel says, [mistakes] that you can’t come back from. I think it’s probably a little frustrating for some people that the movie doesn’t just give you exactly what you want, but that’s not the way – hopefully you’re getting the ride, you’re getting the same kind of thrill ride that you would from the sort of gangster pic, but with some other things going on.
N: Yeah. I think it’s good. You can’t always get what you want.
JCC: Exactly. You can get close, though.
A Most Violent Year is in theaters now. Read our review.