All those approaching “A Most Violent Year” anticipating a fast-paced shoot-‘em-up will wind up rather surprised. Not disappointed, as the temperate drama they’re actually sitting down for is leagues better than your standard crime thriller, but certainly surprised. Writer and director J.C. Chandor is well aware of this. In fact, he seems quite proud to have created a film that might turn its audience’s relationship with cinematic violence on its head.
Chandor himself is a surprising entity. Though he towers above most at well over six feet tall, he’s as amicable and easygoing as anyone you could hope to meet, especially considering the grim and daunting nature of his three films to date: the sociopolitical “Margin Call,” the solemn survival story “All Is Lost,” and his latest, perhaps bleakest entry.
Chatting with us towards the end of a long day, Chandor is nonetheless excited to dive into the complicated nature of his effectively violence-free movie about violence. It was no twist of chance that the multi-hyphenate decided to take on this feat of genre subversion, and that he decided to do so at this time in American history.
It feels like you had a unique challenge ahead of you in creating a crime movie about a guy whose intention is to commit as few crimes as possible.
Yes. If you pitched it that way, someone might have looked at you askew. But my process always starts as a writer on these things. So it’s not as if I knew that’s what the movie was about before I started. The metaphor I use for it is sort of like a tumbleweed picking up new little twigs along the way. My brain works in a way where I can have two or three of those going on in my head at any one time, and this movie was sort of like two of those merging together: There was this story that I was building about this husband and wife couple who were building a business together. Basically, they were first or second-generation immigrants, and I was really trying to think about ambition, and happiness, and that singularity of vision that you need to build a business. Especially if you want to be a Rockefeller, like these guys do. They’re insanely ambitious.
So, I had that story growing for probably five years, or something. Then, this other idea of violence—and violence in movies, frankly—was sort of rumbling down the street. I was getting offered all these violent films to write or later, once my career started to take off, direct. And I was struggling with that. I love a good Quentin Tarantino movie as much as the next guy. “Pulp Fiction” was formative in my early high school career of film loving. But I was not being offered the Quentin Tarantino scripts, needless to say. I was getting offered the B-minus projects, and really debating if I was going to spend three years of my life to devote to these undertakings that were not really doing much with violence in any kind of interesting way.
And then, a horrible, horrible, violent act happened about two towns over from me. I live out in the country, and Sandy Hook Elementary School happened. I have young kids, so I was dropping my first grader off at school after that happened—right around this time—and there was an armed guard at the front door of her elementary school, suddenly. A couple of days later, I started to contemplate this idea of escalation. You have this one horrible act of violence, and all the people who are immediately affected by it are forever changed—obviously the victims, the victims’ families, the perpetrators, their families, and all those immediate people.
Yeah, wow, that was so brutal and heartbreaking.
But the real damage from an act of violence from a society’s perspective is the waves that go out. People start to change the way they live their lives. And I’m seeing this right before my eyes. And it just wasn’t pragmatic to me. If your goal is to protect schoolchildren from sociopathic 17-year-old boys who have access to assault rifles, which is what they were trying to do with this armed guard, then giving him target practice at the front door of a school, to me, did not seem like a rational act. All that kid’s got to do is hide in the woods for 10 minutes, shoot that guy at the front door, and now we’re right back to where we were with an unguarded school. Except we’ve now changed 500 school kids’ view of what has to be school safety. That they now need an armed guard at the front of their school, and all the things that come along with that.
So, luckily, a couple of months later, the school district kind of righted itself and came up with a far smarter way of protecting, which was just two locked doors. And they have to be buzzed into the school now. Which is still different. It used to be a big open door, and anyone could come in. But it’s not the same as having a fucking armed guard at the front door.
So how did that lead to “A Most Violent Year”?
So, I’m sitting here looking for my next job, stressed out because “All Is Lost” is a movie about one guy on a boat, alone. [Laughs] And, you know, that’s not exactly box office gold. And this happens. So, the next thing I know, I’m looking at crime statistics, and I’m trying to find the most violent year in New York City history. I had no idea what that was, but it turns out to be 1981. I zero right in on that, and I realize that ’81 is so transformative for so many different other reasons besides just that.
The city basically totally changes its entire outlook on how it’s going to handle handguns, and its future, and what it wanted to be. It was either going to be the Wild, Wild West… There’s this famous case called the Bernie Goetz trial where this guy shot a guy on the subway. That trial was a watermark. Was this the Wild West, or were we going to do something totally different?
And then, rap music is literally being invented about a mile from where this movie takes place. The arts of the city were exploding. There was this energy. Which is what we’re all living in now, the repercussions of that, which is people taking the streets back, basically.
That seemed like a pretty awesome time to set a movie. Also, I was about eight or nine years old at that time. I used to visit my dad [in New York]. He worked here. We lived in New Jersey, but we’d visit. When you’re eight years old, that’s sort of when you start to see the world… you become aware that there’s something bigger outside of your immediate little “thing” where you’ve been living. So, I have a lot of childhood memories about coming into the city and visiting around that period.
Once I found that—I literally had titled the movie before I found it. I was like, “What if you called it “A Most Violent Year” and you find out what is the most violent year?” So if it had been 1796, the movie would probably be set in 1796. I mean, I knew it wasn’t going to be that, but that’s how that happened.
You then have these two tumbleweeds. This character study and this idea of analyzing movie violence, and they merged together into this story. And the idea of structuring it like a classic ‘30s gangster film, which is basically what it is. There’s two chase sequences, a femme fatale, a Jewish moneylender. There’s all these signpost issues of what a gangster movie is, and you’re sort of playing on that audience’s desire for that. By the time you get there, you then do start to know who your characters are, but it never all clicked… everything I just said is only in hindsight. I never knew all of that was all happening in my brain as it was happening. I was just reacting to it as a writer.
You do set up all these archetypal characters, but you also subvert expectation. You mentioned the femme fatale with Jessica Chastain’s character. And another character that struck me was Christopher Abbott’s character.
He’s the bad guy. His name in the script is “Thug Number 1.”
But he’s not a monster. He’s a very courteous guy. He tries to help out Julian [Elyes Gabel].
Well, it’s fascinating to me. Most bad guys… I’ve met some people who “cause problems,” and they’re pretty charming, helpful people. Most of the time. Sociopaths are sociopaths, but that’s never really been my specialty. So, if you’re just talking about criminal activity, those people are businessmen. And in this is a very tough time in New York, so to get drawn into that wouldn’t be hard. It’s hard to find a job.
So, Chris’ character is actually one of the reasons I cast him. Chris is a friend of mine. I knew Chris. I actually wanted him to play a different part, and then I thought about it, and I was like, “This is actually perfect.” So, Chris is “Thug Number 1.” I think we ended up giving him a name, but it is that archetypal “the bad guy.” But all he wants is the money. He wants the oil. He wants the guy to jump out of the thing, and it’s only when the guy doesn’t jump out of it that he really beats down on him a little bit. Everyone is always very pragmatic in the movie. They’re just wanting what is simplest… which is sort of what we all want.
You were talking about being offered all these crime movies, and being hesitant to take them on.
Not just crime—violent. Of all different genres. But I think because “Margin Call” was a thriller, the natural progression was, “If he can do that, just put a gun in it and it’ll be really interesting.”
Right around that time of Sandy Hook, I think is when the conversation started up around the question, “Do violent movies cause these tragedies?” Did that play into your mind?
Of course. I had been waiting for 15 years for my opportunity. I made “Margin Call” with some success. I then kind of took a flyer and made “All Is Lost” next, which is a very, very different movie. At that point, we were in the middle of editing “All Is Lost.” I didn’t know what the reception was going to be to “All Is Lost.” I had no idea whether that movie was going to end my career or not. So, it’s a very fragile state. And I’ve got young kids and a family to support.
And so, I’m looking for another job. I’m writing this, and I’m writing some other things. But I’m like, “Maybe this is the time to just take a job for a job.” Right? So, in the middle of that, I’ve got all this stuff coming in… and then something like that happens, which wasn’t too much time after [the Aurora shooting]. I’m like, “Is that really, after all this time and all this work, what you want to do? Or do you want to double down?” The answer was, “How do you try and give the audience some of those same thrills of a B-level action pic?” Give them that same roller coaster ride, or close to it, but kind of turn it on its head and actually have it be a significant piece of storytelling, that is actually asking the audience to engage in it and think through decisions that they make in their own lives. That seemed like a neat opportunity for flipping that on its head.
But it was horrible. I’m getting sent these things, I’m reading them, I’m like, “Am I really going to spend the next three years of my life thinking of new ways to blow somebody’s brains out?” Which is not what I wanted to do. Especially under the guise of everything that was going on.
Going back to the setting of the year 1981, can you talk a little bit about the social politics in the film? There’s that one moment that I love: Oscar Isaac’s character Abel is talking to Julian, and Julian says a few words in Spanish, and Abel interrupts him and says, “No, in English!” Obviously a reference to racial politics and immigration, but we also see a lot with gender roles—with the Chastain and Isaac dynamic—and the unavoidable oil wars metaphor.
It’s all there. That’s all in the script. It’s what I’m trying to do. You have to pay attention and listen, but all the information is there. Jessica’s father was a neighborhood corner store gangster. He wasn’t some don or something, he was literally small-time. They were working there; I always imagined it was like a two-truck operation, a little puissant thing that he was basically just using to launder money through. Jessica and Oscar take it over, and they’re a dynamic team. Suddenly, they buy it from her father, and they’re growing it into this huge business.
What I’m trying to do within that is fit in as much as I possibly can for people who are actually paying attention while giving everyone else a pretty decent ride. Look, Oscar’s character was an immigrant in the United States. We came up with a back-story. He probably came when he was seven to 10 years old. He probably stripped away everything that someone in the 1950s, late ‘50s, when he came here would have to have done. An Hispanic immigrant at that time, if he wanted to be in business, would have had to almost strip away that heritage and become a “prototypical American.” Which, obviously, Oscar has done. His character speaks with very little accent, unless it’s when he’s in a heated exchange—that’s when his accent sort of comes up. He believes you have to over assimilate, almost. That’s why he’s teaching Elyes’ character, that Julian guy, “Only in English.”
Jessica’s character is great, I love it. In the beginning of the movie she is literally brushing her hair and putting on makeup. It’s like the classic femme fatale introduction of any movie. But by the end of the movie, her last action in the film is signing that purchase contract. At that point you realize, she’s like the CFO of that company. She probably has more to do with the success of the company on a day-to-day level than he does. And she’s pretty ballsy in the interim. So, I tried to flip that. Jessica and I talked a lot about her character. When her dad did sell the company to them, it was almost a prerequisite that Oscar had to be the CEO in that sale. To her father’s mind—in the early ‘70s, late ‘60s—he would just never have left that business to his daughter, to a woman.
So, in ’81, the characters the Lefkowitzes—which are the grandfather [David Margulies] and granddaughter [Annie Funke] who he goes to get the loan from—that’s sort of the first generation where somebody would feel comfortable leaving the company to a woman. But Jessica’s character kind of came around a little early for that. She’s doing everything within her power of what is allowed within those gender politics of the day. I want these films to try and be as universal as possible, obviously, and be about basic ambition, basic human traits. Love. Love of family. Love of city. Love of community. All those things we battle with, or I battle with in my life. What are you giving to, and what are you giving up to get certain things. But while that’s going on there’s certainly a lot more than can be going on, too.
“A Most Violent Year” opens on December 31st in limited release.