With Margin Call (11) and All Is Lost (13), writer-director J.C. Chandor established himself as a master of confined spaces and constrained budgets. A crime thriller set in 1981 in and around New York City’s shipyards, suburbs, bridges, and freeways, A Most Violent Year is his biggest and broadest effort to date, but it solidifies the director’s style of lean storytelling and slow-burn suspense. Despite the many knee-jerk comparisons to Sidney Lumet among critics, Chandor, it seems, is his own greatest influence.

Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, the immigrant owner of a Brooklyn-based oil business whose entrepreneurial drive is clear from the opening scene when he signs the deed for a plot of land to expand his enterprise. A Most Violent Year plays out like a cost-benefit analysis of capitalism and the American Dream: Abel is willing to make bold financial risks, but he also prides himself on clean business dealings with delayed rewards. His upright moral posture becomes difficult to maintain as corruption and violence eat away at the foundations of his industry, while his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), proves all too willing to do the dirty work.

Following Margin Call and staring at one B-level script after another, Chandor found himself suddenly faced with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and its aftereffects—namely, armed guards policing the entrance to his daughters’ school. Captivated by the notion of violence and the channels through which it echoes and escalates, he searched for the most violent year on record in New York—1981—and he knew he had a setting for his latest story.

Chandor’s films strive for a “man versus the world” thematic purity, but in conversation, the director carries himself with a great deal of levity and contagious enthusiasm. FILM COMMENT talked with the writer-director about his writing process, casting the film, and why he needs Elon Musk to reassure him that it’s all going to be OK.

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year

You’ve said in past interviews that the impetus behind this film was that you wanted to make a “good-old fashioned gangster movie.”

It’s certainly structured that way, but I think the film is hopefully taking that structure and doing something very different with it.

Were you trying to channel the style of any genre heroes in particular?

Most of my moviegoing was in my late teens through my twenties, and I was just trying to watch every movie in the world. For a kid from the Jersey suburbs for whom E.T. was an art film, I caught up. I lived in the East Village and was always at Kim’s Video and was scared of the guys behind the counter because they knew more than me. But then I had a kid and started getting jobs so now I’m just keeping up with what’s current. I know a lot of filmmakers would go and watch every movie in the genre they’re about to make, but all three of my movies started as writing projects—they started just as an idea. Once that idea was formed I never wanted to research other movies. I have a couple of friends I give my scripts to once they’re finished and I’m always like: “Is there anything in here that’s a total knockoff?” [Laughs]

The fact that people are even mentioning Sidney Lumet movies in the same breath as this film is an honor for me as a filmmaker, but I haven’t seen a Sidney Lumet film in probably 10 years, which is embarrassing for me as a filmmaker [laughs]. I can’t watch a lot of stuff while I’m writing, which is what I’m doing now. It’s a bummer because I haven’t gotten to see a lot of the films from this year.

Margin Call

Margin Call

With Margin Call, you managed to churn out the script in four days. Did this one come together as easily?

I’m still learning about the writing process and easy is certainly not the word I’d use. I formulate and work on the ideas for years in my head, I just don’t write anything down. This film began as a character piece, which is what it still is at its core: a husband and a wife growing a business together. I wanted to analyze something: there’s a main street in a town somewhere and there’s two bakeries on it. What makes one store stay a mom-and-pop shop that makes the best loaf for miles and the other become a supermarket chain 25 years later? What compromises do you have to make in either scenario? What is in ambition and drive and the quest for happiness—and what is our definition of happiness?  

I had been working on ideas about violence in movies ever since I had written Margin Call. I needed a job, so I’d taken one or two writing jobs and then later was getting offered directing jobs once my career took off a little bit. I’d say 90 percent of those projects were very violent and 50 percent of those were almost grotesquely violent and absurdist in their structure. At that exact time there was a horrible act of violence that took place about two towns over from where I raise my family: the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. I started to dissect this idea of escalation, which is essentially what A Most Violent Year is about. What are the people’s responses and how do those reactions change the world or a city or a family?

How was the writing process different with this film as compared to something like Margin Call, knowing you had the budget to support what you wanted to do?

It obviously opens up this whole world—with 18 million bucks, or whatever it was, you can almost do anything: visual effects, etc. It’s easy to give into a certain style and that’s a daunting thing [laughs]. In the end, of course, there have to be limitations. I want my movies to be about regular people that are caught up in extraordinary moments in their lives, usually by their own doing. It’s not like a meteor movie where something’s coming from space that the people had nothing to do with. The characters have to either go right or left—there’s no option for them to stay where they are.

In terms of production design, did you find yourself having to scale back on things like vintage cars and elaborately costumed crowd scenes to maintain the focus the story needed?

I wanted the film to feel as universal as possible and these characters live a fairly limited life—perhaps not limited, but protected. It’s a very dangerous time obviously and they’re running away from the violence. That’s the whole premise of the movie. [Laughs] But that’s a bummer from a production design standpoint: they’re hiding away in this weird castle, and driving around in their German cars, but they go right into their office. It’s only as the film progresses that the city kind of seeps into their lives—they can’t get away from it.

My production designer and I played with a color palette of the late Sixties and early Seventies, because that’s when we realized Abel and Anna would have renovated. We’d incorporate Oscar and Jessica, asking them when they thought their characters would have renovated their home and office. They’re strivers as characters so they were always trying to keep it a bit tasteful, even though they were probably a little over the top. But hey, don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have done a Studio 54 nightclub scene [laughs]. But Abel is a Catholic that’s just obsessed with work—that’s his sin, basically.

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year

Javier Bardem was originally supposed to play Abel. Can you talk about casting Isaacs and how he meshed with your conception for the lead?

Hopefully Javier and I will work together one day. What happened was I made the mistake of talking to an actor at great length while I was still writing the movie. Even though it was in my head and I knew what I was going to do when I sat down to write it, it was not a script at that point. When he actually did read the script, it was not what he’d build up in his mind. So we very quickly came to a point where we realized that the movie he wanted to make was very different from the movie I was going to make, and we moved on, which happens all the time.

This character is “American” in the truest kind of form. And as for Oscar… Jessica was attached at the time and started to talk to me about this kid that she went to school with: his mom was Guatemalan and his dad was Cuban and he grew up in Miami and got himself into Juilliard and now he’s this famous actor. He’s about as American a story as you can come up with. He’s the same age as Jessica and they had this wonderful history together. Looking back on it, I think Javier just had a very different experience. He’s an actor who grew up in the bosom of a socialist arts program that shepherds their students, his mom was an actor… so he didn’t really get a certain American-ness of this guy. The exact opposite happened when I sat down with Oscar. Even though he’s an artist and not a businessman, the ambition and compromise and all the things about the immigrant experience, Oscar knew from his parents and from elements of his own life.

Jessica Chastain’s character, Anna, is a kind of Lady Macbeth: she’s the one willing to get blood on her hands, which is the opposite of the classic gangster’s wife that’s at least feigning ignorance of her husband’s corruption. What was behind the conception for her character and the husband/wife dynamic?

By the end of the movie you realize she’s the CFO of the company and she’s probably had as much if not more to do with the success of the company than Abel does. She only comes across as kind of a Lady Macbeth because we’re seeing them at their worst moments—not that she’s not a tough damn cookie. But these are just small-business people in the end, and most of their days are mundane, like my days. You wake up, do your thing, and go back to bed. But she has these moments and you get to watch her take over and that’s exciting. My hope is that she’s not a caricature: she’s a tough woman who is taking advantage of all the opportunities that a woman in the late Seventies would have been given in that immigrant business world, trying to make her family’s life a success.

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year

All three of your films are ultimately about survival. You’ve said before that you like to work in this space in which the real world and capitalism meet—that this is where people are at their most raw.

Narratively, what I find most interesting is the way we all like to compartmentalize our lives just the way Abel does: “I am this and I’m making this choice now and I’m fine with that.” But all of our lives are much more complex than that, certainly people that are involved in huge organizations that have 200 people working under them the way these people do. A lot of the people I talked to researching for this movie, when I asked them what the most stressful thing was that happened between themselves and their employees, most would say things like: “Well, I had this one employee who was in a key position and their daughter was going through cancer, or was a drug addict, or his wife killed herself.” All these really personal things that when you’re running a small business, comprise the reality of your day: How are you a leader? How are you involved in your employees’ lives? Do you root for them? Do you just use them? There’s no black and white: the world is a complicated place. There’s very rarely pure evil—it’s often people that are being wooed into an evil act. 

In that final chase sequence in the movie, Oscar is literally being lured down into that tunnel, into the gates of hell, basically, for revenge. It’s calling to him. That whole sequence is about that struggle that I face in my life and I’m sure you do in your yours at times where you’re thinking: “Is this the right path or is it just the most expedient? Am I being unethical? Am I mistreating someone to make sure this other thing happens for me?” Those are the struggles that I think are at the core of the American experience because we like to think we’re part of this pure capitalist endeavor, but there is no pure form of capitalism. We’re just in the middle of this insane grind—two grindstones mashing up against each other and for me, that’s where you really learn who you are. Those key moments of how you respond to that grayness and when you are willing to make a stand, one way or the other: at this moment I am about me, or at this moment I am about my society, or my community, or my country or whatever it is.

Can you speak about your next project, Deepwater Horizon?

It’s a tragic poem to where we are with oil right now. I didn’t know just how hard it is to get oil out of the ground: the extent of the enterprise and all the people involved. I’ve been reading and researching for the last six months. It’s a story of how that all blows up and what happens in the day around that. In that way the film shares a structure with Margin Call, but couldn’t be more different in terms of what’s actually going on.

I’ve never had a movie like this where I know people will have the chance to see it widely, so it feels like a big responsibility. The opportunity to make a film that’s about something happening now in the world on a grand scale doesn’t happen very often. The movie doesn’t need to be political—it’s a warning sign. I need to do a comedy after this. I think I’m going to go hang out with Elon Musk, and he’s going to make me feel a whole lot better by telling me it’s all going to be OK.