“A Most Violent Year” has been the buzz of Awards Season.
The film is a thriller set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history, and is centered on the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.
Writer/Director J.C. Chandor shared the inspiration for his new film and discussed working with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.
It must have been cold when you were shooting.
It was! We shot all last winter, so it was that crazy, crazy cold. But it was great. We had a huge snow on our first day of shooting and we were sort of freaking out, because normally, you don’t wanna lock in snow visually because especially in New York, it’s gonna melt, but we looked at the weather, I remember this was probably in late January and it was five weeks of temperature where we were like “It looks like the weather is never gonna get above freezing or anything close,” so should we just lock this in and go with this snow look? And we looked back, saw that 1981 was a very cold winter with a lot of snow fall and we were like “that could be really neat,” so we took a chance and just started shooting it into the film and got a second big snow about halfway through the shoot and I think there’s only two scenes in the entire movie where we had to sort of fake it a little bit towards the end, but besides that it was this magical blanket. I think in a weird way it changes the city’s look, because you’re not used to seeing it. In New York, there’ll be a shot of snow, but it’s not something that’s ever really baked into a full movie, because it’s just so hard to guarantee, but we tried to use a negative, which was we were all gonna freeze our butts off as some kind of a positive.
Can you speak a little bit about casting? Jessica and Oscar are amazing. What was it like collaborating with them?
I had finished the first pass of this script around the time of Cannes when I was there with “All is Lost,” which would have been 2013. And so it had been an idea that I have been working on for many, many years, the relationship side of a husband and wife trying to run a business together and that struggle of ambition and what is happiness and what is success gonna mean? I was playing with that for many, many years, a family-run business and why two bakeries are on the same street and one stays a great little family run bakery and the other becomes a supermarket chain twenty five years later. What is the difference in the ambition of those two things? And then I played with bunch of other things. So the story was really pretty well formed.
When did you first meet Jessica?
I had met Jessica once before at the New York Film Critics Circle, so I had won the best new filmmaker guy and she was having that amazing year with all those films she was doing, so we met each other and fast forward two years later and I looked in front of me at the Cannes premiere and Jessica was sitting there and she loves to go to festivals sometimes even when she doesn’t have a film and just watch films and so she had come to my film and it was this magical night where the film was very well received and at that point we didn’t really know that about that movie, it was very stressful edit, and Mr. Redford is sitting next to me and my wife was there, his wife, we had the entire filmmaking team and there was this wonderful reaction, so it was a great night and probably two nights later we got stuck randomly together.
I don’t know if anyone remembers or was there, but that year there was these horrible winds, these really severe winds that were shutting down all these events and we had been invited to go to some event. Everyone got kicked off the balcony, which was for two thousand people into a space for five hundred people, so it was this hilarious scenario. “Is Leonardo DiCaprio being jammed up against Paris Hilton in the corner?” And Jessica and I literally found ourselves standing next to each other and she was like “What are you doing next?” and I told her and she was saying how much she’d loved the movie and … we were sort of in this conversation and I basically offered her the part, it all clicked … in the way she had asked me about it and so I offered it to her and was like “You should read this” and she almost sort of said “Yes,” even having not having read the thing and so she read it like a day later and that was this wonderful process.
Originally you had a different actor in mind for Abel?
Before I had actually written the script … I had been talking to Javier Bardem about that part sort of off and on, but it was a mistake, frankly. I didn’t have the script and I realized what I was talking to him about was in his mind [different]. He had created his own movie because there was not a script there and so when I actually gave him the script, it took us about a month to figure it out, but it wasn’t meant to be and we both knew that and could tell that that was happening and so we very amicably went our separate ways on that, but Jessica was attached to play the wife role and really had become kind of obsessed with that role. So she started talking to me about this classmate of hers from Juilliard who’s mother is Guatemalan, his dad was Cuban, he grew up in Miami, he got himself into Juilliard, he’s now in the Coen Brothers movie which of course was in that same Cannes, so we were all converging later that summer, so I met Oscar a couple times … the Coen Brothers movie hadn’t come out yet or anything, so it was still quite challenging – even though this is a low-budget film, it’s a big production and a big period piece.
For me it was quite expensive, it was almost twenty million dollars, so we thought it was going to have to be more than that in the beginning and we really were having trouble figuring out how we could do that with Oscar in that lead because there were some other bigger named people, older guys that had since heard about this script, but I started meeting with Oscar, and he lives in Williamsburg now, which is of course thirty years later where this whole movie takes place is in that Greenpoint, Long Island City, Williamsburg border there. So I would just walk around the neighborhood and show him. I love commercial real estate, industrial real estate in the way things were reused and obviously Williamsburg’s a prime example of that, so we would just go on these walks. It was really lovely that summer. And come that fall we found Participant who financed this movie … we’d found the right budget number and so later that fall we sealed the deal to finance the movie with those two guys and I’m not sure I knew it at the time, but looking back on it now, it’s just amazing because there’s this shared history.
The fact that they had known each other for almost as long as the characters had … when these two in the movie would have met. They both had that Juilliard education and foundation and way that they worked. And then there’s a wonderful almost like a competition. Acting school is a very competitive thing and so there was this wonderful sort of one-upmanship that any two great actors – especially the ones that have known each other as long as they have, but they had never gotten to perform together … I think she’s two years ahead of him because he had taken a year off I think. And at Juilliard, it’s very class by class, so they had never actually performed together in a movie or on a stage or anything, but yet had this wonderful shared history, so there was kind of a nervous energy about it, too … So those first couple of days on set it was this wonderful electricity where things sometimes are meant to be, especially with casting, it sort of happens that way.
We’d originally offered Kevin Spacey in my first film Jeremy Irons’ role of the bad guy CEO, which at the time when we did that five years ago, Kevin was perfect, right? It was just what you thought when you thought of him and he actually was like “What about this? This is something right now. I feel like I get it,” which is that far more empathetic kind of thing that Kevin did in that movie, so I think just sometimes the right things fall into place, thank goodness, and the two of them together you just believe all those elements of the relationship – that there was great passion there and still is and then that competitive nature of who’s really running the place and who’s making the decisions – all of those things were a wonderful gift from the two of them.
How did you work with them to approach their characters?
Yeah! I don’t really do the film things because I start all of these movies as a writer and so some of the great directors who I admire greatly before they’re gonna go shoot a movie, they’ll watch every great survival movie and a bunch of bad survival movies that have been made before you go shoot “All Is Lost” or something. But it’s never really been part of my process. My twenties, I pretty much tried to watch every movie on planet Earth ever made. I’d start with the first film in that director’s work and I’d just take a couple of days and literally watch every movie they did and that was when I really watched a lot of movies, but at thirty I had my first child and then thirty five started working endlessly here, so I don’t watch a lot of movies anymore and I think for my process right now that works really well.
So as a director, it’s not bad to be watching movies, but as a writer I don’t think that’s a very good idea to go back and look at stuff, so I don’t do that at all and then that has always just bled into not ever doing it throughout the whole process, but a lot of the visual inspirations that I showed to them were street photography at that time was basically almost being invented and there were a bunch of journalists coming back – war photographers from Vietnam in the mid-seventies that had been through this far more visceral war photography then there had been up until that point, a much more personal perspective, and they came back to the US and then merged with this art movement at that time and there was this explosion and then, of course, there was this horrible decay and turmoil in the cities around the country and so that attitude of war photography mixed with this art component was unleashed on the United States and so there’s a wonderful history around that time of urban street photography.
So my scripts are a little vague on backstory, shall we say? So what you see on the screen is pretty much what the actors get … so there’s not a lot there about the specific details that they used to build the character, but once they get into it and start asking questions, they usually find out exactly what I was intending, but I want them to get there on their own. I had learned from my first two films that that was a successful way for me to work with actors and my writing – [to] let them struggle, which can be very frustrating for them at first and then slowly, you feed it in when they’re almost desperate for some piece of information, you give them that, so the two of them who come from that Juilliard background, which is very much about having a binder with the script and you have the tags. It’s a science. It’s an art obviously once you go out and perform it, but the preparation is more of a science, so they would come into my office and try and drill into me about some of these different elements, which I slowly, slowly fed them, but then once they started to get a grip on who the person is themselves, I’d fill them in on exactly what I had in mind.
Tell us the backstory for Abel.
Oscar’s character, I always believed came to the US sometime between seven years old and ten or twelve – in that window. Young enough that you are able to strip away your past, and young enough that you really can become an American, your adult life … so I started to give him details … Obviously his name was always a Hispanic character and so I said “Please, search and see if you can find what I want … him to have been leaving a country that is dealing with violence when he was a kid, as if his parents might have sent him to go live with an aunt or an uncle in the US and so he zeroed in on this period in Colombia, which was actually called “La Valencia,” that was a civil war that was going on that literally had this name called “La Valencia” because it was this horrible period where violence was being used not so much as an offensive in a large scale, but it was being used in this very intimidating horrible, horrible sort of stunts of violence, almost just to scare people.
And I thought that was a pretty cool opportunity, obviously, to tie in what he was then … The character was going to be facing the equivalent. He would have come here in the late fifties probably and seen this city and America just climb, climb, climb through the sixties and then by the late sixties into the seventies, he’d watch the city of New York fall into this horrific pattern of crime and people leaving the city and the tax bases dropping and falling back into decay, which as an immigrant who would come here to build up his life and being so successful to then watch the city that you love and call home fall into that, seemed like a wonderful narrative flow. So, his accent when he does speak Spanish with Catalina is based on Colombia … but their accents apparently regionally within Colombia are very different and so Oscar had this very specific thing. My movies are about experiencing these people at that one moment in their lives and you’re learning from them at that moment, so it’s always an interesting process to work through.
How come you left out that Colombia political element from the film? It’s very interesting.
To put that in the movie, he doesn’t think about that. That’s subconscious for him. He’s left that behind again, because he came here so young … The characters are always in the moment that they are in at that moment, which is why you feel with them and so I’m sure there are ways of getting that piece of information across to you as a viewer, but none of them are very elegant and none of them really would be anything that that guy would have been talking about at those particular moments in the movie.
When I die and whenever that is, there will be five or six things that I hope my children and people can say about me when they’re talking about me which is: How did I treat my loved ones and people around me? How did I treat myself? How did I treat my country and my town and my city? Was I a decent member of society? Was I mean? … These things are very base, but really do you need to know anything more to know about me than that to really know the life I lived and who I was? Not really. So I like to say that hopefully by the time my films end … you may not know where Kevin Spacey went to college in “Margin Call” … but if you asked an audience member the core question of what were Kevin Spacey’s character’s regrets in life … that you probably could come up with almost exactly what I was thinking when I wrote it if I’ve done my job and if the movie is working for you in that you’re seeing these characters in these moments … they are ordinary people, they walk around on planet Earth the same way we do, one foot in front of the other, but you’re seeing them in these extraordinary periods of their life where they can’t stay where they are, they have to move … there’s a piano literally dropping and usually they had something to do with putting themselves in that position, it’s not just like a meteor was coming from outer space, they have put themselves in a situation where they can no longer stay there, and so in those moments … I think you really learn who a person is, because of the choices they are making under those environments and so that kind of story telling does put limitations on what you can fill in.
I’ve had more conversations about Spacey’s relationship with his son in “Margin Call,” which is only referenced in the entire movie I think one-and-a-half times. It was one real reference and then it sort of comes up in a conversation later with his ex-wife there at the end of the movie, but audiences will come up to me and they don’t even remember of course because they’ve seen the movie a long time ago and then they meet me and they’re like “Oh my gosh,” so that’s pretty cool, because if I told him exactly what his relationship with his son had been, you’re done with it at that point and you as an audience member are like “Oh, okay, he did that and that and then whatever.” … I think someday I will have a fully, fully fleshed out entire thing, that will be up on screen, but for here right now, I’m making these movies that are really about these people in that moment.
The film hits theaters on Dec. 31.