Interviews · Movies

Living in The Moment with J.C. Chandor and ‘A Most Violent Year’

We sit down and discuss A Most Violent Year with director J.C. Chandor and stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.
A Most Violent Year
A24 Films
By  · Published on December 24th, 2014

At first glance, it may look like J.C. Chandor is hopping from one genre to the next, but the versatile writer/director has in fact built a rather unyielding trio of thematically cohesive stories, sharing the common denominator of characters facing extreme, in-the-moment crisis. Margin Call navigated the troubled waters of 2008’s financial collapse and coolly examined the reactions of its anti-architects over the course of an eventful night. All Is Lost dived into literally troubled waters, in telling the tale of a man lost at sea for a number of hostile days.

His latest, the deliciously slow-burning A Most Violent Year –which was recently named the Best Film of 2014 by National Board of Review- follows a hardworking immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, winner of this year’s Best Actor accolade from NBR) with a growing oil business in New York City circa 1981; statistically, when the city’s infamous crime rates were at an all-time high. Abel seeks to secure a loan, so he can buy a key lot crucial for the growth of his business, against an unforgiving 30-day clock, while his increasingly complex marriage and business partnership with Anna (Jessica Chastain, winner of Best Supporting Actress from NBR, and a Golden Globe nominee in the same category), faces the risk of collapsing on shaky grounds amid dangerous negotiations.

Chandor’s signature in-the-moment approach to storytelling, which he says he tackles and thinks about first and foremost as a writer as opposed to a director, curiously leaves out many background elements, and helps feed the peculiar undercurrent evident in his films. For instance, in All Is Lost, many of us wondered why Robert Redford’s character was out there and what kind of trouble he was running away or taking a break from. The kind of man he might be and the metaphors his survival fight represents created much of the talk around the film in 2013. Similarly in Margin Call, the backgrounds of executives –who were never overtly vilified- were curiously kept at bay while the portrayals of each were human and felt complete.

Such is the case with A Most Violent Year, which captures a rare kind of tension that commendably leaves much for off-screen imagination, safely outside of the comfort zones of a traditional story arch. Chandor’s sweltering script (once again, as in his previous movies) tells the story chronologically, from start to end without flashbacks, or fill-in-the-blanks type information that would otherwise comfortably help guide the audience through characters’ reasoning and motivations.

J.C. Chandor, proudly wearing a “Standard Oil” baseball cap (Abel and Anna’s oil company in the film), Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac talked about A Most Violent Year on a wet afternoon of early December on a high floor at the Waldorf Towers, partly focusing on how the shared off-screen histories (both in real life and fictional world) helped shaped the slow-burning anxiety beaming throughout the film.

In guiding his cast absorb the history of their respective characters, Chandor touches upon tipping Oscar Isaac off with Abel’s Columbian roots. “I always believed Oscar’s character came to the US sometime between 7 years old and 10 or 12. Young enough that you are sort of able to almost strip away your past, and young enough that you really can become just an American.” He adds that he then asked Isaac to search and see what he can find, as he had imagined the character leaving a country that is dealing with violence when he was a kid. “So he zeroed in on this period in Columbia, which was called ‘La Valencia’,” he continues. “It was a civil war, a horrible period where [violence] was being used in this very intimidating way to scare people. I thought that was a pretty cool opportunity, to tie into what he was then. He would have come here in the late ’50s, and seen this city and America climb through the ’60s. And then by the late ’60s into the ’70s, he’d have sort of watched the city of New York fall into this horrific pattern of crime and people leaving the city and the tax basis dropping and falling back into decay. As an immigrant who had come here to sort of build up this life and been so successful, to then watch the city that you love and call home fall into that…seemed like a wonderful kind of narrative flow.”

When asked about why this particular political detail about Abel Morales’ past didn’t make it into the film, he simply responds by indicating that the characters are always in the moment that they are in, which is the very reason we are able to feel with them and for them. “I’m not sure there are ways of getting that piece of information across to you as a viewer, as none of it really would be things that guy would have been talking about at that particular moment in the movie,” Chandor explains. “The way my films are able to maintain the sense of tension is –as my wife always says- [I try to] make a really interesting movie about something that’s fairly boring, which is essentially what’s happening here,” he adds. “To actually pull that off, there are tricks to keep things on point and keep things moving forward.”

Chandor reinforces his point by giving an example from Margin Call. “I like to say that hopefully by the time the film ends, you may not know where Kevin Spacey went to college, but if you asked someone the sort of core questions of what Kevin Spacey’s character’s regrets in life were, what he did not quite do, you probably could come up with almost exactly what I was thinking when I wrote it if I’ve done my job and the movie is working for you.” He continues, highlighting that we always meet his characters, including Abel and Anna Morales of A Most Violent Year, in extraordinary periods of their lives where they can’t stay put and have to move forward. “You know, one foot in front of the other,” he points. “They have put themselves in a situation where they can no longer stay. And so, in those moments I think you really learn who a person is because of the choices they make. That kind of storytelling, though, does put limitations on what you can fill in.”

That reserved, almost secretive approach to his characters’ past naturally creates a great challenge for his cast, and in A Most Violent Year’s case, his Julliard-trained actors Isaac and Chastain, who signed up for the roles on the heels of their respective successes with Inside Llewyn Davis and Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, Chastain accepted the role of Anna Morales in Cannes 2013 when Chandor was premiering All Is Lost. “We sat down for a long lunch and I said to him that for me she was Dick Cheney. She’s doing the dirty work so he can remain clean and he can believe the way he’s doing it is the easiest, the best. But she’s actually doing what they need to do to survive. A female character doesn’t get to be like that. I love that he’s created this story where it’s 1981 and it’s a man’s world and she is aligning herself with the most powerful man in the room,” Chastain says, defining her way into the character.

Oscar Isaac, whom Chastain championed and pushed strongly for the part of Abel, was also in Cannes that year for Inside Llewyn Davis. “So she [Chastain] starts talking to me about this classmate of hers from Julliard, whose mother is Guatemalan and dad is Cuban. He grew up in Miami. He got himself into Julliard. He’s now in the Coen Brothers movie which, of course, was in that same Cannes,” recalls Chandor.

Chandor refers to his casts’ methods as a combination of art and science. “The two of them come from that Julliard background, which is very much about having a binder and a script. It’s science, but it’s art obviously once you go out and perform it,” Chandor notes, letting out a few subtle smiles. “But the preparation is more of a science. So they would come into my office and drill into me about some of these different elements, which I sort of slowly fed them.”

“It was definitely challenging,” remembers Isaac. “The script itself was very mysterious because there was not a lot of description of his past or even their past, how they got to where they are. You learn by the action and by little hints that get thrown out. By the cumulative effect of the whole film, you get an idea who he [Abel] is, who they are together.” But then he adds Chandor wasn’t the most forthcoming with details even when he seemed to be giving a lot of information, which he later on found out to be purposeful. “I ran into Robert Redford right before I started shooting” and said ‘I’m about to shoot this thing with J. C. Chandor,’” recalls Isaac, with a smile on his face. “He’s like, ‘Oh, he’s great. Fantastic.’ I was like, ‘Yeah. He talks a lot, right?’ He goes, ‘Won’t shut up. But once you get on set, it’s going to be great. You’re going to love it.’” And he animatedly confirms that was exactly the case.

“He really left it free for us to explore,” adds Chastain enthusiastically. “Sometimes a writer/director wants you to do what they saw in their head when they were writing but he wants to forget about it. Sometimes we would ask questions, but he won’t even fully explain something to us because he doesn’t want to taint our natural instincts. And that’s what was exciting to me to work with him,” she concludes. When asked about working together in finding the essence of their relationship together, Chastain says their rehearsals weren’t necessarily only comprised of going over their lines, but also imagining a past between the husband and wife. “For example, the scene we had in the kitchen…it had in there that ‘she hits him.’ So he and I talked, ‘Had that ever happened before? Has she ever hit him before?’ Because if you make this decision together, and then when it does happen we can both respond to ‘This is a normal thing’,” she adds, sharing a laugh with her co-star. “And all of those choices, when you make [them] with a partner, it’s very clear that Anna and Abel are on the same team.”

The trio also makes it clear that Chastain and Isaac having known each other for years, and coming from the same schooling background at Julliard, worked in favor of building a believable, tangible tension all the more effectively. “We have the same vocabulary, we have the same theatre training, we’ve known each other forever and have been cheerleaders of each other’s work,” says Chastain, noting that these kinds of parallels mean one doesn’t have to tiptoe around another actor trying to have them join in. Oscar Isaac agrees, adding that he and Chastain got together before the meeting with J. C. to go over every scene and imagining the background of their marriage including how they might have met, and how they started their business together. “Just to create the context so that when we were doing those scenes, we had that bedrock,” says the actor. “Everybody has their own way of coming at things. But the fact that we had the same training, we went to the same school and have been friends for such a long time; we talked about everything. There was no fear that we were going to offend one another and it made it way more fun when we got on set.”

Chandor notes that his cast’s shared educational background had an almost competitive ring to it once the two were on set. “There was this wonderful sort of one-upmanship that [exists between] any two great actors, especially ones that have known each other as long as they have,” he observes. “Those first couple of days on set [had] this wonderful electricity. The two of them together…you just believed all those elements of the relationship. There was great passion there. And then that sort of competitive nature of who really is running the place and who is making the decisions… All of those things were a wonderful gift.”

Though Chastain is quick to deny the competitive nature. “That’s actually not true at all,” she rapidly gets across. “I have no competition with Oscar. In fact, if I am acting in a scene with someone who is soaring, it’s going to make me even better. I was so happy to get to be in his scene and just watch him soar in this character.”

“What he might be referring to is, we would push each other within the scene,” Isaac clarifies. “As the characters. So he becomes a viewer.”

“As the characters,” Chastain concurs with relief. “’Oh, Anna and Abel are fighting again!’”

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.