‘I am making A Most Violent Year in response to violence in films’

Oscars be damned: JC Chandor has taken a minor business transaction and turned it into one of the first great films of 2015. And the director has plenty more he wants to talk about

Tara Brady reviews 'A Most Violent Year', a thriller about home-heating oil skullduggery. Donald Clarke has little time for Mark Wahlberg's latest offering, 'The Gambler'. Plus Domhnall Gleeson keeping schtum about 'Star Wars'. Video: Niamh Guckian

 

You’ve seen All Is Lost. Right? That’s the film featuring Robert Redford as a yachtsman who gets cast adrift in a lonely ocean. There is barely a line of dialogue in the piece. What sort of chap would direct such a film? A silent fellow who measures every word, I’m betting.

“My name is actually Jeffrey,” JC Chandor tells me. “But everyone has always called me JC. I have the same name as my father, though he has a different middle name. There was a teacher in school who refused to call me JC. I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realised he was a devout Christian and he . . . ”

Oh, because it can suggest “Jesus Christ”?

“Yes, that’s right. Chandor is a Hungarian name. I descend from the bastard son of a Hungarian prince who . . . ”

It takes about five minutes to wrest the conversation back to the subject of Chandor’s excellent new film, A Most Violent Year. Chandor is, it seems, the anti- Bennett Miller. Whereas the director of Foxcatcher rations clauses meanly, Chandor flings out words with unstoppable abandon. It’s a wonder he has managed to get three films made in the last four years. (Before All Is Lost, he directed the financial services drama Margin Call.) You suspect hours must be eaten up waiting for the conversation to wind down.

“When I am alone I don’t outwardly talk to myself,” he volunteers when we get round to All Is Lost. “So I don’t believe that Robert Redford’s character would have walked around talking to himself. ‘You’ve got to work this out.’ Some would, but not this guy. This guy has some communication issues . . . ”

“Was there pressure from producers to have him speak?” I manage to interject by talking over him in a way your mother wouldn’t approve of.

“Oh yes. They wanted him to say: ‘Oh Maria. My poor wife.’ All that. So it was a fight but . . . ”

In the end they gave in? Can’t say I blame them.

 

A lovely fellow

Anyway, JC Chandor is a lovely fellow and it is, thus, a joy to report that (despite receiving not a single Oscar nomination last week) A Most Violent Year is one of the first great films of 2015. The poster and the title suggest a conversation between Martin Scorsese’s early films and William Friedkin and The French Connection. There is a little of that. But the picture turns out to be an impressively sober, peculiarly focused piece of work. It stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as a couple adrift in debt and worry, and it must be the most fascinating film ever made about the heating-oil supply business during Reagan’s first administration.

“Ha ha. Yes this is a film about a business transaction,” he says. “And it’s not a particularly major transaction. That business was perfect for an immigrant wanting to set up a microbusiness. You needed one truck and one neighbourhood. A Polish guy could, say, serve a Polish neighbourhood. It became this cannibalised way of entering a business.”

 

Deliberately misleading

If the film is to be credited, it was, in 1981, hard to stay honest in New York. Isaac’s character wrestles with a desire to play by the rules. You don’t need to have read Faust to suspect that he will eventually find himself making moral and legal compromises. Yet, although there are hoodlums about the place, A Most Violent Year is not really a thriller. Those gestures to Scorsese and Friedkin are deliberately misleading. The threat of violence is everywhere, but few guns are fired and few fists are raised.

“To an extent I am making a film in response to violence in films,” he says. “After Margin Call came out, I was offered all these directing gigs. Let’s say there were 100 of them. About 90 per cent involved gratuitous, almost grotesque violence. I don’t mean imaginative stuff like Quentin Tarantino’s work. I wondered how can you use all these resources to give you that thrill ride, but still investigate what’s behind it. The bloodlust in the title has caused some audiences to be ticked off. They came in sharing that bloodlust.”

Indeed, A Most Violent Year is fascinating for what it refuses to be. It seems 1981 was quite literally the most violent in New York’s history. The city had just survived bankruptcy. Heroin was rife and crack was about to arrive. The cosy faux-bohemia that greets tourists in present day Manhattan and Brooklyn was some way off.

“It’s now one of the safest large cities in the world,” says Chandor, who grew up in New Jersey. “The city faced up to a decision: are we going to become the Wild West? They said no.”

The urge to fetishise that period has become a disease in modern cinema. Far, far too many films set in the 1970s and the early 1980s – we’re talking about you, American Hustle – seem drunk on the clothes, hairstyles and music. A Most Violent Year is not such a beast. There is no embryonic hip-hop on the soundtrack. Staying largely in suburban Westchester and industrial Brooklyn, the picture relaxes into its period rather than grabbing it by the lapels.

“Yes. I like to be honest,” he says. “The movies that do that take you out of the story. Look, it was literally the invention of rap music and that was all happening a mile from where he’s standing. But he didn’t know that. He’s a conservative Catholic family man who only cares about business and, maybe, his family. He wouldn’t have heard that. I am a slave to what the character would do.”

 

Advertising and beyond

Chandor, now 41, has taken an indirect route to his current renown. He was raised in middle-class New Jersey and spent some time in the world of advertising – “I didn’t make good commercials, though; my heart wasn’t in it” – before gambling everything on a career in feature films. When his young daughter was 1½, he was ready to shoot his first picture, only to see the financing vanish at the last minute.

But you need only spend a minute in Chandor’s company to deduce that he is not short of energy. In 2011, Margin Call, a tale of investment banking during the 2008 crash, received rave reviews and secured Chandor an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Oliver Stone famously cast Hal Holbrook – the one honest moneychanger – as a version of his dad in Wall Street. Given that Chandor’s father was an investment banker, it is surely fair to assume that there is some family business going on here as well.

“Yes, the Kevin Spacey character is sort of my dad,” he says. “He was an honest guy, but he became very disillusioned later. They were responsible guys. Later on, it got to the stage where these guys believed only in numbers.”

How the heck did he manage to get that cast together? Margin Call featured Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore. “I got them in one at a time. One at a time,” he bellows. “Zachary and his producing partner signed on and then . . . ”

And he’s off. You couldn’t say no to him. He’s so nice. He’s so enthusiastic. And he says so damn much.

 

A Most Violent Year is on general release on January 23rd and is reviewed in The Ticket on that day

 

 

OSCAR SEASON: CHANDOR’S VERDICT

We speak a month before the Oscar nominations are announced. The Soho Hotel is crammed with junkets for films pressing their attentions on voters. This end-of-year logjam must drive film-makers crazy. “Look, my career is what it is because of it,” says Chandor. “So I’m certainly not going to kick a gift horse in the mouth. I was able to make All Is Lost because I was nominated for an Academy Award the week before the Berlin Film Market. We went to sell that movie just as we were nominated. But the unfortunate thing is that these movies are all crammed in these few months and that’s because there’s a group of bloggers who make a living handicapping the awards.” Disgracefully, A Most Violent Year ended up with nothing. What’s the point?

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