Guest of Honor

Filmmaker J.C. Chandor on Violent Years and Famous Toll Booths

Filmmaker J.C. Chandor was Oscar-nominated for his very first film, "Margin Call." Next came the lauded "All is Lost," and, now, "A Most Violent Year," the gritty tale of an up-by-his-bootstraps immigrant trying to do business ethically, while surrounded by the corruption and violence of 1980s New York City.

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Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s picked up an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for his debut film, “Margin Call,” about a Wall Street firm on the cusp of the financial crisis. His next movie, “All is Lost,” featured an acclaimed solo performance by Robert Redford. Now, Mr. Chandor’s latest is “A Most Violent Year.” The drama is set in 1981, amid a New York City was wracked with violent crime, and stars Jessica Chastain, and  Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, an up-by-his-bootstraps immigrant trying to grow his heating oil business ethically, while surrounded by corruption. The National Board of Review just proclaimed the movie, which opened in New York and L.A. in December, the best film of 2014. It opens nationally on January 30th.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: Where did you get the the idea for this film?

J.C. Chandor: I’ve been working on a story about a husband and a wife who are building a business together, and all the complexities that come along with that. That’s sitting there, bouncing around for five or six years, and then right in the middle of that, a horrible, violent act, which can often times, in the creative process, things that you don’t think will ever steer you to towards something, do. So, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings happened about ten minutes from my house, and I had a first-grader at the time. I was dropping her off at school, and my first reaction, when I drove in the day after that all happened, is there was an armed guard at her school. I was somehow pleased with that. It made me feel better, in a way.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You just felt safer, dropping your daughter off?

J.C. Chandor: Yes! I don’t know. It was weird, right? I didn’t know that at the time, but I was like, “Oh, I guess that makes sense. Yeah. That’s good.” Then, in a weird way, this idea of escalation starts bouncing around in my head. That led to me wasting time and looking on the internet at crime statistics, and zeroing right in on 1981 as a really interesting year, a transformative year, for the city.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, it sounds like violence was something that was on your mind. It’s clearly in the title of this film, yet this isn’t a terribly violent film. There’s an element of menace. When I was watching it, I walked away thinking more about the idea of honor, and how Abel has this rigid idea about doing things the right way. Is it fair to say that that’s the dramatic premise of the story?

J.C. Chandor: With the movie, the intent was always to use the structure of a classic gangster film, going back to the 30s, basically. And to use a lot of the hallmarks of what is, essentially, the foundation of any violent thriller, which is that gangster film, action film structure. It was to use those storytelling techniques, but what you’re actually doing is putting real people battling through more mundane problems, which is trying to grow a family business.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You do own your own business.

J.C. Chandor: My whole business, but in the most violent year, or one of the most violent years, in the city’s history.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But, why did you choose Abel, who’s an immigrant, right? Who is a striver who starts as a driver at this heating oil company. Why choose him? It’s different than the subjects you’ve chosen in your other films. It’s certainly different than your background.

J.C. Chandor: Yeah. I wanted to tell an immigrant tale, but not in any macro-sense. Obviously, Hispanic immigration, Hispanic-Americans coming into this country, are the largest immigrant group in the last 30, 40 years. It also, moving perfectly concurrent with that, Hispanic men are represented in American films, especially this types of films that I’m structuring this on, traditionally, as Oscar said last night, I can’t quote him directly…

Brendan Francis Newnam: Oscar Isaac, the actor.

J.C. Chandor: He was, as a Hispanic male, there is not great representation in U.S. films. You’re either this saint, working in the proverbial fields, or you’re this ultimate sinner, a la “Scarface”, or something. So, there’s not much really in between, for what is essentially a huge immigrant group, who has come into the country and made such a change for the better.

Brendan Francis Newnam: I want to get back to the idea of honor. Was his allegiance to doing “the right thing” genuinely an impulse to do the right thing, or was it just a business tactic, because it was what separated him from the rivals, who were gangsters and taking advantage of their clients?

J.C. Chandor: I think, hopefully, just like a lot of the decisions that I try and make in my life, you try to line those two things up. Obviously, doing well and helping your business. Let me put it a different way: If he was answering that question, that person would tell you they would never think of it as two separate things. If you actually look at what he does, in the movie, and what they do in the movie, they’re nothing close to gangsters. They are actually just small businesspeople, wanting to be medium businesspeople.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. We have two standard questions we ask each of our guests, and the first question is, what question are you tired of being asked in interviews?

J.C. Chandor: I’ll answer that a little differently. He’s no longer here, but if he was, he would have been tired of people asking me the question, which is, “Is this sort of a retread of a Sidney Lumet film?” Which I take as the highest, highest compliment.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Sidney Lumet, who is known for his New York films “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” and others.

J.C. Chandor: I think this ethical and moral quandary of his characters is certainly something I admire as a filmmaker, but I think if Sidney were still here today, he’d say “Back down, this kid’s made three movies. Let’s slow down before we even bring my name up in a sentence with him.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, our final question is, tell us something we don’t know. This can be something personal you haven’t shared in interviews before, or it can just be an interesting fact.

J.C. Chandor: It’s not a super-deep, under-the-table, but it’s really neat. A kind of tribute to that, which is the opening shots of this film, at that toll booth, where this first act of violence happens in the movie, is the tollbooth from the famous “Godfather” scene, where the shootout happens.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is that intentional?

J.C. Chandor: No. It’s, like many things in the film business, it is pragmatic. The same reasons they used it are the same reasons we used it, which is, it’s an old, abandoned toll booth that only gets used a couple of months in the summer. It’s going to Jones Beach, so it’s just these old, classic toll booths that sit out there, and you can use them, because no one’s there. I think that toll booth has literally been used in 26 movies or something.