How do you hold on to your morals in an increasingly immoral world? Given the dynamic three features that make up Academy Award-nominee J.C. Chandor’s filmography — crackerjack Wall Street thriller "Margin Call" (2011), elegiac survival story "All Is Lost" (2013) and now 1980s-set crime drama "A Most Violent Year" — it’s a question picking his brain day in and day out. Over the course of his still-young career, the director has shown a knack for exploring the moral ambiguities that arise from men in conflict with their pride and environment, while displaying a diversity in his storytelling that is staggering. He shocked the filmmaking community when he followed up a motormouthed ensemble thriller with a silent character study, and now he’s at it again as "A Most Violent Year" evokes the searing morality dramas of Sidney Lumet. Fortunately for Chandor, his bold range and astute storytelling risks are paying off, as "Violent Year" won the National Board of Review’s Best Film, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress prizes earlier this week.
But while the film’s place in this year’s competitive awards race remains to be seen, Chandor and star Oscar Isaac are clearly relishing the opportunity to bring the film in front of audiences craving more satisfying and complex adult dramas. Such was the case at Film Independent’s sold out screening of "A Most Violent Year" at LACMA’s Bing Theater Thursday night. Chatting with Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell, the men behind "Violent Year" enthusiastically discussed the power suits and powerful secrets behind the making of the drama film. From their early discussions to interpreting some of the film’s major themes, here are all the highlights from Chandor and Isaac’s spirited discussion:
A school shooting led Chandor to his subject matter.
The idea for a character-orientated crime drama had been bubbling in the director’s mind for quite some time, but the inspiration to finally embark on the project came about when a school shooting occurred two towns away from Chandor’s family home (he did not disclose the name of the school or town in which it took place). While his loved ones were not directly affected, the ripples from the violence that came into his town forced the director to reckon with the fallout that comes from such acts. Chandor was in the midst of editing "All Is Lost" at the time, and he remembered having to take his daughter to elementary school in the subsequent weeks only to see an armed police guard at the entrance.
"I’m pragmatic, and it’s horrible to say this,
but my first thought was that since there was a hill on the opposite side of the parking lot, you
were essentially giving another kid target practice of this guard at the front door, and then you’d
be right back where you were," said Chandor. "So it’s classic escalation issues. But in the
process you’ve sent 400 kindergarteners for several months by an armed guard to get
into their school, so what’s the real damage done there? You’ve essentially
altered all of these young kids forever." This moral altercation result of violence, even in a town miles away from the original act, took shape in the family and setting of "A Most Violent Year." The shooting prompted Chandor’s obsession with crime statistics as well, which brought him directly in contact with his 1981 New York City setting. "This period in New York City instantly pops out the moment you start looking at these kind of things," he concluded.
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Chandor and Isaac created an entire history for Abel Morales.
Although a background for the film’s main character is never mentioned, both Isaac and Chandor had numerous discussions fleshing out the character’s roots. According to the actor, both men agreed that Abel had come to America at age seven-ten after fleeing the violent civil wars of 1950s Columbia and Bogota. "There were horrors and atrocities happening, so the idea he
came from there made me think that he had a very intimate idea about what
violence is. And to then come to this country to change all that, to leave all that
behind, that allowed me to really find the drive of the character," Isaac discussed in excitement over the character-building process.
"The violence from his childhood is why he would’ve been sent away. He
would’ve come to the U.S. as this young kid, potentially staying with an uncle or
aunt, and seeing the late-60s explode and watching that city you grew to love as
your home fall apart in front of your eyes due to the same thing you were sent
away from as a child in the first place, that would cause someone to shut down
to a certain extent, but it would also force them to be so pragmatic," Chandor concluded, adding shades around who Abel ends up being in the film.
Chandor sold the project to Isaac through vision, not emotion.
In a movie of such tightening emotional stakes, one would think that the emotional structure is how Chandor pitched the vehicle to Isaac following original star Javier Bardem’s departure. But Isaac refuted these claims when saying that Chandor’s early conversations with him were all about vision. "The very first conversation we had about it was when
he took me out in Williamsburg and drove me over to the tankers right on the
water where we ended up shooting the second to last scene," said Isaac. "The first
conversations were actually less about what was happening emotionally and more
about the landscape, about showing me what the literal visions were. So he showed me tankers I’d buy and the view of Manhattan I’d
be looking out on. From there, he explained the world of it. He kind of kept
the actual emotional aspect of it quite mysterious. When I actually read the
script for the first time, it didn’t reveal its secrets to me right away. In
fact, it was very hard to penetrate. I’m so bored by business and money."
The emotional side of the story grew from Abel’s suits.
When Isaac finally got around to talking about the more emotional shades of the story with Chandor, the actor humorously recalled the director responding, "The suits are going to be amazing!" While huge audience laughter broke out, Chandor seriously wasn’t kidding when drawing the emotional state of the film right back to his protganoist’s stylish wardrobe. "He told me the suit’s are not about fashion, they’re his
armor. They’re power suits. It’s all about the strategy and the presentation," Isaac revealed. "Once I started infiltrating that, and really understanding that the heating oil
and all those things were just the commodity, that’s when I dug into the emotions of the character. He was really someone about
vision and optimism. When everyone was fleeing the city, he was choosing to
build and grow into that world. So it was about embodying the idea that he’s at war and his suits are his arm. Everything is
about presentation and he squares off against people all the time. Just the way
he sits, his coat creates a cement block. That’s really what informed the character."
READ MORE: National Board of Review Names ‘A Most Violent Year’ Best Film of 2014
Chandor’s battle with pride was another selling point for Isaac, especially since the theme twisted opposite Jessica Chastain.
When Abel declares, "Have pride in what you do," he’s more or less getting to the crux of what makes Chandor’s films so involving for audiences. "It’s a battle with pride," Isaac summarized. "Interestingly enough with his wife, I think he swallows
his pride a lot, which I think is the reason that relationship works. She demands to be the most powerful person in the room often, and as opposed to the
hot headed Latin cliché, he succeeds that power. He’s like, ‘Ok you need to have
my balls in a vice right now, that’s fine you can do that. If that’s what you
need.’ And she even says at one point, ‘You’ve always been so good at not
letting ego get in the way, don’t stop now because it’s me.’ The interesting thing is trying to maintain that sense of pride when
everyone around you is calling you a pussy basically. It’s about believing in
the singularity of your vision in hope that your choices are the right one."
Chandor drew inspiration from 1930’s gangster pictures.
One of the more intriguing elements to the film is how it plays out like a gangster picture while never buckling down and feeling like one.
of goes back to the 1930s gangster film. It follows all the sign
posts," confirmed Chandor. "The opening shot of Jessica is right out of any femme fatale role that’s
every been played. She’s staring right at the mirror in her night
gown combing her hair, but her last meaningful action in the movie is the
absolute opposite. He has to go outside for her signature to actually purchase
this thing, and it’s in that moment you realize she’s probably had more to do
with the day-to-day success of the company than he has. So in a way I’m playing off
that entire history of those films, but trying to do something different with
it and flip it on its tail. The women at the end, even though
she’s following exactly the same amount of screen time that she would have in a
classic gangster movie, she becomes something entirely different. It’s
hopefully a total different experience by the end. I’m trying to give you the same thrill ride
you would have from an ordinary rollercoaster, or genre picture, but when you look back you
realize you were going left when you thought you were going right."
Isaac researched business sociopaths to get into the shoes of the character.
Abel Morales is not a sociopath, but that didn’t stop Isaac from researching such figures despite Chandor’s reservations. "J.C. was not a big fan of my exploration of Abel’s sociopathic tendencies, but I actually did read a lot about sociopaths in
business and the idea of someone who puts on empathetic traits even though they don’t actually feel them as a means to an end," Isaac discussed.
While Chandor didn’t create the character with any sociopathic intents, he did realize the calculated nature of his protagonist and how he uses his business persona to get what he wants. "He’s not necessarily coming from a sinister place, but this is a guy who, when he walks into a room for
the first time, already has a painting he’s sort of composed. That same
philosophy of staring at the person until you close, he’s not going to stand up
when he’s established his position. He’s not going to move until he’s gotten
what he’s come there for or until he’s asked to leave."
The director used one of the film’s early scenes as an example, in which Abel goes to the hospital to visit a young worker who was beaten after his truck was hijacked by thugs. "There is
somewhat of a percentage that Abel cares about this kid in the opening scene," the director claimed, "but a majority of that
action is thought through too. He knows it will go over well. He’ll go back to
work saying he went to the hospital to look after this kid and that’s going to
be an effective leadership tool. The word will get out that he comforts his guys
when they go to the hospital, so that’s part of his leadership structure."
"And that’s the challenge of the performance," Isaac continued. "How do you
present someone who is that calculated in every aspect of his life, and yet
still feel like you’re getting to know what’s inside of him? I think the
moments with his wife, some of that stuff melts away and you do see the actual
moral emotions that are going on underneath. He’s calculated but he’s not detached. He’s incredibly attached to his goals and
incredibly emotional about what’s happening, but the struggle is to mask that
at all costs."
The pragmatism of business helped Isaac make sense of his character’s decisions.
One of the big moral divides of the film is the distinction between the moral individual and the pragmatic businessman. What happens when being pragmatic in the business sense also means compromising your individual morals? To help explore this duality, Isaac read the Marguerite Yourcena book "Memoirs of Hadrian." "It’s such an interesting dissection of ambition,
power, detachment and ethics, and how someone that is so ambitious and wants so much power still has a sense of trying be humane, or trying to do it
in the right way and not go about the path of mediocrity. I thought of him as
that. As someone who was trying to
transition from ambition to mastery."
"I never thought of his choices as moral
or guided by a moral code or a need for righteousness," Isaac continued. "The whole idea of not
wanting guns around him, I had a hard time understaning that at the beginning,
because if you’re living in this house wouldn’t you get a gun to protect your
family? But the more I explored that the more I realized that of course he
wouldn’t have a gun. It’s strategically a very stupid thing to do. Even if he
has a legal gun, someone will break into
the house and he’ll kill them and that will destroy the goal. He’s not
interested in being the owner of a few heating companies in Brooklyn. He has his eye on Manhattan and on getting in bed with the people at the top. If they
can just dismiss him as some Latin thug with a gun, then it’s all over. So it was all about interrupting Abel’s choices and strategies through that pragmatic lens."
Despite its ominous title, the film is all about optimism.
"It obviously has this darkness over it, but it’s the compromise
to accomplish your goal," Chandor stated. "Any goal that is worthwhile has meaningful compromises
that have to come with it. So you’ve got that singularity of vision that is
hard to watch obviously, but that opening action of the film is this great
sense of optimism. You’ve got a building on fire, New York was on fire and
people were abandoning it, but this guy is trying to be resilient there. That’s optimism."
"A Most Violent Year" will have a limited theatrical release starting December 31. A24 will expand the crime drama nationwide throughout January 2015.