Interview: Director J.C. Chandor Revisits A Most Violent Year


AFI Film Festival - A Most Violent Year - Screening

Back in 2011, when J.C. Chandor’s directorial debut Margin Call premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it received attention for its insightful look at the 2008 stock market crash and how one company and its employees dealt with the repercussions. Last year, Chandor directed Robert Redford in the Cast Away-like All Is Lost, a dramatic departure which was as sparce in its dialogue as Margin Call was heavily reliant on its screenplay (for which Chandor received an Oscar nomination).

Chandor returns to New York for his third film, A Most Violent Year, which stars Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain as Abel Morales and his wife Anna, who have successfully turned their heating oil business into one of the most profitable ones in the New York area. Other oil vendors have started to take notice of Standard Oil and after someone starts hijacking and stealing Abel’s trucks, he feels the need to change with the times, especially as he tries to get a loan for an important business deal that will make his company even bigger.

When spoke to Chandor a few weeks back, he was wearing a cool cap with the “Standard Oil” logo on it, which was a good lead-in to our first question about how the attention to detail made A Most Violent Year feel like a historical piece, even though it’s entirely fiction. I had been wondering if that was a real company.

J.C. Chandor: No.

CS: So you just based the trucks on real trucks?

Chandor: Yeah, it’s just oil trucks. That’s sort of what people do with their oil trucks. I mean, that’s good. It was meant to feel like a real company, but no, it’s obviously based off Standard Oil (which) was Rockefeller’s company.

CS: Which became Esso.

Chandor: Yeah, right, so Standard Heating Oil turned out to be… I don’t know how, but it cleared clearance.

CS: While I was watching the movie, I was like, “Oh yeah, I remember those trucks,” because I moved to New York in ’87.

Chandor: Well, you’re going to now see them everywhere. I mean, they’re still driving around on the streets right now. That’s how all the heating oil gets delivered to this point. A lot of people in this city have moved over to natural gas, but most of the small houses still run heating oil, and these trucks drive all over the place. I mean, now that it’s winter, you see them everywhere. Once you see one, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, they’re everywhere.”

CS: That’s what I thought. I moved to New York in ’87, but it very much seemed like it could have been based on something that happened even though it didn’t.

Chandor: Yeah, I mean, it’s based on a lot of real stories of a couple friends of mine. I had been building the relationship between Jessica and Oscar’s characters, that relationship, for many, many years, probably five years of collecting ideas about a husband and wife that are growing a business together, then I tried to figure out what the business was. I always knew they were going to be first or second-generation immigrants. It was definitely a story that I had been playing with, so I kind of stole ideas from everywhere I possibly could, and started to form what that relationship was going to be like. Then this other kind of tumbleweed started to form about this sort of dissection of violence in movies and what that was in my own life. I basically was getting offered these very violent films to write or rewrite or direct.

CS: This is after “Margin Call?”

Chandor: Yeah, exactly. So from about the time “Margin Call” finished through the edit of “All Is Lost,” I needed a job, so I was out there looking for jobs. I really was just kind of dissecting my own view of violence in films and what it was that attracted to me. I came across 1981. I basically was researching statistical crime statistics, basically, and 1981 sort of shockingly was the most violent year on record, for the most part, widespread across the city. So that happened to be a very big year. I was about eight or nine years old. I lived in New Jersey. So I’d come in to the city with my parents occasionally, and just a very formative time for this city, where this city really made a shift. It was either going to go down this wild, wild west, where people were walking around with guns shooting each other. I mean, the Bernie Goetz trial was that year, which is a famous watershed case. You know, the city chose a very different path, a very different path.

mostviolentyearchandor4CS: You talk about violence in movies, and gangster movies are definitely a genre people play with a lot and they’re often similar type things.

Chandor: Yeah, I mean, this movie’s obviously structured like an old 1930s gangster film. You’ve got the femme fatale sort of brushing her hair in the opening scene and the Jewish money lender. I’m hitting these sort of sign posts that are very classic kind of almost genre elements, but obviously, the hope is that the film is doing something that’s very different than that, that you’re getting that same journey you might from one of those films, from a rollercoaster element, that it still is giving you the thrills and the highs and the lows, but that it’s actually about something that is really a dissection of that, and trying to equate what our relationship with violence is and what escalation is.

CS: Abel Morales is a very different type of character than what we’ve seen. First of all, as you say, he’s an immigrant. You can tell he probably came from nothing and kind of built his way up to where he is now. He doesn’t seem like a violent person until he’s kind of pushed. Even then, it’s not the typical thing where he carries a gun all the time and he’s ready to shoot anyone who crossed him.

Chandor: Yeah, I mean, I’m playing against that. Obviously, the whole film is about playing against that escalation, and not so much for any ethical or moral reason, but because it’s mainly pragmatic. He just does not see that it makes sense from either a business or personal or anything else. It does not make sense to him as a rational act, you know? It’s about escalation, basically. If I do this, they are going to do that, then I’m going to do this, then they’re going to do that. You know, it’s sort of Ghandi, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. I think that’s in there for a very specific reason. It’s certainly not a mistake. That was what, for me, was most interesting about the film, was playing with how someone actually builds success. The movie is about closing a business transaction, basically. That’s the way most success in this country is made, is to actually have two or three parties come together, come to an agreement, and execute something without there being violence and all the things that in film and entertainment, we sort of use as our fail safes, just because it’s the easiest way to sort of ramp up the tension and ramp up the entertainment value. But it’s essentially lazy. It’s not looking for some other way to tell a story, basically.

CS: I’ve always had this theory that violence in movies kind of feeds real life. People who are involved in drugs will see “The Godfather” or “Scarface,” and they feel that’s the way they need to act because that’s how they’re depicted. Even prison movies I feel have influenced how people act in prison.

Chandor: Some people have commented, obviously, that Oscar, I mean, he’s been getting this since he first graduated from Juilliard, but there’s obviously similarities in appearances between he and Pacino, especially when Pacino was younger. The funny thing is what my dad always said was that the weeks following “Wall Street” coming out, suddenly all the people on the trading floor were wearing those suspenders. It’s almost like the movie can affect… so “The Godfather” and “Scarface” and those films were out when this movie was taking place. So Abel is a cultural being who’s alive in that time, so in a weird way, “Scarface” is probably the most sort of relevant, where he’s almost saying… because this is what a lot of Latin men, including Oscar Isaac Hernandez, which is Oscar’s name, said to me when he read the script (that) it was such a relief. There’s a lot of Latin businessmen in this country who do not shoot people and are not crazy. So have they ever been portrayed on film? Not really, actually. There’s a relief here that this is a guy who’s really doing everything he possibly can to distance himself from that sort of hot-blooded, hot-tempered Latin stereotype, basically. Just like those guys wearing those suspenders, that façade that he’s putting on, that coat is this big Brooks Brothers prep coat, basically, that he is using as a form of armor, to sort of defend himself against stereotype, in a way.

CS: When you did “Margin Call,” many people were really impressed by the fact that it really felt like that’s what was going on in those trading offices around the time of the crash. This is the same kind of thing, where I feel like you really must have done a lot of research into the oil business.

Chandor: Yeah, certainly I think over five or six years of looking into these people, and really my whole life… Look, one of my strengths for the job that I’ve been lucky enough to do here is I’m fairly observant, so I am constantly taking in things. And then able to subtly… nothing feels too on the nose, which is when I always feel movies get in risk of losing their grasp on reality. Even if it’s a narrative technique of, “Oh, we need to let them know that this back story element happens.” Those techniques are the things that actually screw you up and take you out of–at least in my films. They’re set up to kind of start and then they just go, so this movie was the same. I wanted to make sure it all felt one piece – and even though it’s a total fabrication of time and space and everything is shifting, the actual day to day moment to moment elements of it should feel real at any given time.

mostviolentyearchandor2CS: What was it like doing a period piece? I think with “Margin Call” you could probably have gotten away with a few years’ difference from when it really happened, but with this one, you’re in 1981 and there’s no way…

Chandor: It was very specific. So this was a huge undertaking, and the city looks absolutely nothing like it did. It’s just transformative. So it was a challenge. We sort of had to use every tool at our disposal, which is wonderful costumes, wonderful props and cars, wonderful production design and things we built or transformed, visual effects of things where we could erase certain things, lots of things. Or, in other cases, a lot of the graffiti in the film was actually licensed graffiti from period graffiti from the day. So, we then superimposed it and put it in the trains and on the bridges. Including some of that running sequence was actually shot in Detroit, of all places, where we went to get that level of decay that literally just doesn’t exist here in the city anymore.

CS: When you were writing, do you keep that stuff in mind, or do you feel like you don’t want to limit yourself?

Chandor: You do, but it never should be limiting in any way. I think one of the dangers at this point in my career that I’m at right now, is I’m typing words right now that I literally–unless something crazy happens–someone’s going to be saying them four months from now. That’s different, because if you let that get to be too much, where you know it’s a movie and you’re almost writing and you’re being your own line producer, where you’re like, “Oh, that’s going to be such a pain in the butt. I should set this in the day, because I don’t want to shoot it at night.” Not what you should be doing when you’re just thinking about servicing the story. So I am making it a real point in my career, on these last two movies, to make sure that I am writing for those characters. It’s heating oil because that’s a business this guy could’ve gotten into when he was 26 years old or whatever that case may be, but you have to ground these things in reality.

CS: But also, the experience you’ve had from these three movies, you know what could end up being a problem and you want to try and avoid having those problems on you’re next movie. That’s part of learning to be a director.

Chandor: I’ve talked to a bunch of other directors, and your third film is usually either the time where you kind of realize you probably don’t want to do this for the rest of your life and it’s just not meant to be kind of a thing. Or you do, and that there is something there that you really can grab onto, essentially, and that you are learning and getting better. But you’ve made a bunch of mistakes by that point, so every day was this sort of wonderful experience on this movie, where there’s always these insecurities about story and performance and things. Are you really getting everything you need? But the organization as a whole, I really started to feel like I had some control over it and knew what I needed to be doing.

CS: I guess it was one of the benefits and banes of being a writer/director who writes their own material. When you’re just a director, you can read someone else’s script and say, “Okay, yeah, I can do that or not.” When you’re writing, you kind of have to keep the possibilities in mind.

Chandor: No, and I’m pretty good about writing, because I don’t actually sit down every day and like, “Oh, I’m going to bang out five pages today.” I’ll write in my head for years and the story will be pretty significantly locked in, where I pretty much know where it’s going. It’s only through the process of sitting down and forcing myself to write it, that I actually get it out of my head. For the most part, the biggest problem I find–and I seem to be able to handle this–but I can see how it could become a problem, is that your words sort of become too sacrosanct. You wrote them, and so you would never want to edit that scene out because, “Oh my gosh, all the things you put into making it, basically.”

mostviolentyearchandor3CS: When you have actors like Jessica and Oscar, there’s also this collaborative thing, where you start working with them on set, you obviously can get some good suggestions from them.

Chandor: It was awesome. Yeah, I mean, my first two films were such a weird combination. The first movie, I had this amazing, established, wonderful cast, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just trying to get the movie that was in my head on film, basically. Luckily, I had amazing actors to do that with. And then the second movie was one actor and me, basically, staring at each other. So this was kind of the first time I really had a truly kind of… we were all the same age, or around the same age. We were all in sort of somewhat similar places in our career. We were all there for the right reasons. I think that’s exciting, to be working in that kind of a collaborative environment, especially when I hadn’t been, on those first prior films.

CS: I want to ask about the music, because when you make a period piece, there’s different ways you can go. You can play songs from the era. This one was great, because you opened with the Marvin Gaye song…

Chandor: Yeah, now of course, that Marvin Gaye song is from the early ’70s, so our goal with that was that he’s a fairly conservative guy. He’s in his mid-30s, so he’s listening to the music from his 20s, which is like what I often do when I’m driving around. So there is that needle drop that opens the movie, which almost fulfills that desire, that sort of Scorsese, like I want to hear a needle drop kind of thing, that the audience, when they’re going into a period film wants. But from that point forward, the entire score is just score. There are no real other needle drops. There might be some music playing at one place, but for the most part, it is score for the rest of the film. It’s the same artist that I worked with on “All Is Lost,” which is Alex Ebert, who’s this super-talented kind of pop musician, but also a composer. Alex is amazing at emotional contextualization. We’d have these conversations about what’s happening someplace, and then he’s able to communicate that through these beautifully subtle pieces, so that’s a relationship I love. I love him. He’s a wonderful guy. We have had a great collaboration with each other, but that was music. There’s a lot of things happening in that music that we researched, because it was such a transformative time for music. It’s crazy. 

CS: I re-watched the movie yesterday and it’s the first time I put two and two together that Alex was in this crazy punk band I was into called Ima Robot.

Chandor: Yeah, so Alex (Ebert) was in Ima Robot, which was his first label. He was a hippie. He always was, but the label that signed them forced him to dress up in these like… he was like a hippie punk, but they made him dress up like Michael Byrne in these mock turtlenecks and stuff. But he was also battling a drug problem at that time, so he sort of was a different personality, but with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, his new band, is certainly way more in line with who he actually kinda is as a person and certainly more in line with the music that I got out of him for “All Is Lost,” which is this much more sort of subtle, interesting undertaking.

CS: But I’d even heard Edward Sharpe’s music but never realized that it was the guy from Ima Robot.

Chandor: Yeah, that’s him. I mean, Edward Sharpe is like 12 people. They’re this huge raucous traveling circus kind of band, so I just thought that was wonderful.

CS: Did any of the other musicians play on this score?

Chandor: A lot of the musicians did. The credits are all Alex’s, because that band, I think they have a deal where they either all are there or not when the music’s created, but Alex certainly invited a bunch of their musicians to play on… I don’t know about this one because this score was mainly orchestra and stuff, but certainly on “All Is Lost,” a bunch of them played on that.

CS: I’ll have to check out more of their music.

Chandor: Oh, it’s great. You should wait. They’re about to release a double album that is all live performances, which he’s been mastering for months. So that’s about to come out.

A Most Violent Year opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 31.

(Photo Credit: Nicky Nelson/

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