Filmmaker J.C. Chandor is quickly becoming one of the most exciting and dynamic emerging American filmmakers today. Within three films he’s created a voice with distinctive preoccupations but eclectic forms. “Margin Call” is a talky ensemble piece set within the Wall Street collapse, while “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford is almost the opposite, an existentialist survival drama set on the high seas featuring one character who barely speaks.
His latest project, “A Most Violent Year,” is really a subversion of the gangster film right down to its title. While on the surface, the picture seems like a classic ‘Godfather’-esque crime drama about money, greed, power, the American Dream, and the cost of those pursuits, the film is actually much more nuanced, character-driven effort about the complexities of ambition, how veering off course morally can be quietly minute, and how our self-beliefs can blind us to the truths around us.
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Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales is a fascinating character we haven’t really seen on screen, and, with apologies to Michael Corleone, doesn’t have his fate foisted upon him, he makes his own. Abel might be modeled after the classic gangster characters, but he never loses his way nor crosses a moral line he cannot return from. This is an ambitious man who has sublimated his Latin-American identity to fit in. He doesn’t speak Spanish in public and urges his employees to do the same — presentation is everything, and so, to Abel, the face he presents to all potential business clients is familiar and trustworthy. But in his singular desire to succeed, Abel finds that his business, his family, and his moral code have veered off into an unfamiliar place.
With “A Most Violent Year” now on DVD and Blu-ray, we recently spoke to J.C. Chandor about his film, his cast, how it differs from “The Godfather,” and much more.
Classic crime stories are often about greed, power, and the cost of the pursuing these goals, but to me there are greater, more specific concerns in the film. Pride is a big theme here. The character’s ego, his vanity and how presentation is everything to this guy. Did that draw you in more than say, the outer layer of crime story?
The film was very much about someone who believes in presentation in that way. The husband and wife both believe and — not so much strictly for fashion’s sake — that there are real reasons why people dress up formally and present themselves to the world in certain ways. So we came up with this idea that this was a guy who sort of walked into a kind of formal painting of his own design almost. When he kind of presents himself to the world he is squared off on whoever’s he’s speaking to.
For me it was always about a family that was trying to sort of deny that all this — the crime and fear in New York in 1981 — was going on. They’ve moved to the suburbs, they drive around in these big German cars, in a kind of gated community, their offices are kind of like a compound — they’re trying to remove themselves form the reality of the day.
Of course, every business and personal decision that they’re making is affected by the period of time that they’re living in. By the end of the movie they realize you can’t cut yourself off of the reality of this violent culture out there in the world they’re trying to do business in. But that was certainly their hope. I think that formal presentation is certainly something we felt that the characters felt was very important.
You talked about their beliefs and denial as family and Abel is obviously very sure of himself. But then there’s this side of self-delusion or things he’s happy to not know. Can you talk about that a bit?
In all my films, I’m always interested in the idea of the perception of what we do every day, including the audience. Like “Margin Call,” the movie came out right as Occupy Wall Street [was happening] and people were living in the street. And most Americans at that time I think they certainly would think they had a far more direct relationship with people that were sleeping on the streets than these bankers that they were sort of protesting about.
But if you’re a middle class American, you have mortgages and families, you actually have a lot more in common with the Wall Street characters in the movie than you do with the people that were protesting. And that’s sort of part of this delusion that I’m interested in my characters and everything else.
Because if you’re not protesting, you’re in fact an active participant. So I’m trying to kind of play at times with your identity and who you think you are as opposed to who we really are related to not just other Americans, but people.
I’m constantly trying to play with that concept because I find the sort of hypocrisy of my own existence kind of interesting. I think I’m choosing to live my life a certain, ethical, ideal way, when what I actually did this morning, was drive a big car and do all these things that I may not agree with in principal.
I’m wondering if you think there’s one key line in the movie. One of my favorite is, “I’ve always tried to do the most right thing,” which is full of and delusion and denial.
Sure, but Abel is extremely pragmatic so he’s really saying, “look we all take a few shortcuts, but it’s not always as cut and dry as that.” There are very few people that actually live their life in a Mother Theresa kind of benevolence. And even bad guys are often trying to be the “most right” version of themselves. So I’m trying to explore what basically makes these guys human.
Right, but is Abel aware of that? When he’s saying “most right,” isn’t there a level of self delusion there?
Of course, he’s a total believer. He is certainly aware that he is not always right but I think in a cool way that’s never been a question for him. His world view is not as tortured as mine is. So he’s not beating himself up over it. What he’s saying is, “I’m doing the best that I can in any situation. If there are two paths I’m always going to take the one that the least evil for other people, for myself, for my neighbors.”
But he also has goals and his are more singular than most. He knows exactly what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s singular in that vision so if anything kind of comes in the way of that he always looks to circumvent that. I think he’s a true believer in the way the world is supposed to work, you do your best in a way that is hopefully not destroying other people’s lives, but he can’t allow people to fuck his life.
Look at his relationship with the kid Julian. He has an older brother kind of quality to him, but when he fucks up, he’s arrested and threatening Abel’s business that’s when he turns on him and basically says, “I’m not going to let this guy get in the way of my business.” I think that’s where he’s a true believer that human beings are best organized in a capitalist kind of way.
That it takes advantage of all of our weaknesses and tries to turn them into strengths. In his heart and would probably sit and argue with you for days on how he constantly tries to do the most right thing.
“The Godfather” is referenced a lot when talking about this film, but I see Michael Corleone as a very different character who crosses moral lines and has a very different journey then Abel. How do you feel about it?
Yeah look, the two things that “A Most Violent Year” was compared to was “The Godfather” and [the films of] Sidney Lumet and neither of those films were really direct influences. Most people kind of forget that “The Godfather” was a period film playing off of the original gangster films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.
There were things we were playing off of and looking back on it, one of them was maybe too cute. In ’81, when “A Most Violent Year” was set, in New York City “The Godfather” and Michael Corleone were a huge influence culturally on Oscar Isaac’s character. And especially as a businessman in Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, and Westchester, you’re doing immigrant business and he’s going to know about “The Godfather,” right? But if you look at these movies they’re totally different. Abel did not inherit a business from his Dad, which is about as structural a difference as you can possibly have given Abel’s motivations.
Right. Michael Corleone is foisted a whole dynasty upon him and it’s not who he is at his core. Abel is this ambitious, pragmatic person from the first second we see him on screen.
What I love in Abel’s mission was that he believes he’s fulfilling his destiny, the American destiny. It’s like Abel believes that he is destined for greatness and that he is better than other people.
And he fulfills that goal by the end.
Oscar always joked that the first play he ever did after Julliard he was being compared to Pacino. They do look alike, and Oscar’s pretty damn good at what he does — it’s a compliment, obviously — but I didn’t quite realize that that was going to play, because the characters to me were so different. Being compared to something like “The Godfather,” that’s not the worst thing in the world. I take it with a smile on my face, but the mission of these characters are different.
If you go back to [Brian De Palma’s] “Scarface,” Latin and Latin American men in American films have been mostly portrayed in two ways. One: this innocent immigrant peacefully trying to improve his life and work, or “Scarface” basically. There has been almost no portrayal of anyone in between who is not that hot-tempered, passionate stereotype. Oscar’s character is very controlled, very the opposite of that stereotype that the character is all too aware of the stereotypes of a Latin man. His character doesn’t want to be seen like a Latin thug at all. And I think the way the character is played is perceived a little bit like Pacino’s stoic way in “The Godfather.”
Yeah, the whole film is one big subversion in a way. Even the title. I think the title’s totally misunderstood.
Yeah, the movie is trying to subvert at every turn, but you know that didn’t work for everyone. Some people thought it had no pay off. And the title is the biggest subversion, frankly. The point was these people trying to live in their most violent year. And it was never supposed to be a sort of Tarantino, view of the “worst things” going on in that city at that time which were really bad. In any given day horrible things were happening, but what the movie was supposed to be doing was to show you how violence can creep into everyone’s life and changes how you live your life. How do you respond to it?
To go back to “All Is Lost,” navigating the open ocean — there’s no markers. And so it’s the famous thing for Columbus or anyone sailing: if you miss a degree every day eventually you’ll be going in the exact opposite direction.
How that relates here: what’s going on with these character’s live and their business, and what was going on in the world around them, they kept having to make these sort of microscopic corrections. Every day. Eventually, you’re not living the life you thought you were because of culmination of little mistakes.
It’s also very violent year in the life of this family. A guy comes to their house with a gun, their employees are assaulted, their trucks are stolen. If you take it back to human scale or imagine if it was your own life, it’s certainly violent.
There’s a wonderful femme fatal aspect to Jessica Chastain, but it’s not really played out in the traditional way.
Right. From a structural standpoint, everything about this movie is structured like a classic gangster film in that literally Jessica’s introduction into the movie, she’s sitting at a makeup table staring at herself and brushing her hair or putting on makeup.
So that was a fun kind of scene to do, the way that most gangster wives spend their lives doing that. And her last act in the film is a meaningful act basically, her signing that contract. So hopefully by the end of the film I’ve again gone against type and she’s realized that she’s literally the co-CEO of the company, she’s a financial officer and you can’t buy it without her.
So I gotta ask about “Deepwater Horizon,” what happened there?
It was a big movie and we had, in the classic sense of the word, creative differences. Both sides compromised a bunch, and I worked on it for a long time so it’s super sad for both sides of the situation, but it was a very large budgeted movie and I think it was scary for everyone involved. I think it’s a blessing in disguise for both sides. We would have been making two different movies and that’s never a good undertaking. Everyone needs to be making the same film or it’s a really miserable experience.
But look, I’m in a dream place. I spent 15 years of my life struggling to get to this position so that I could make feature films. I’m finishing up writing something right now that I may go do.
I would have loved to see what you would have done with “Deepwater Horizon.” Will you try on something big like that again?
Look, I love large-scale storytelling, but I think the weird thing with “Deepwater Horizon” was that it was real people’s lives. So I felt that I had to be very careful with those people’s lives, which is not something I had ever done before. But as far as large scale storytelling it’s something I’m super interested in and some of the projects I’m looking are of that size. I realize that if I am going to go with something on a larger scale, it would probably be something that is a little bit lighter in its topic. All three of my films have been a little dark. There’s showing bleakness and hopefully great strength, but they are on the dark side. So we’ll see. The hardest part of my job right now is it takes years to make a movie and you devote so much of yourself and life to it that you’d better make sure that it’s something you believe in and believe in the version you believe in or you’re doing yourself and your investors a disservice.
“A Most Violent Year” is available on DVD/Blu-ray now.