Meeting up after a triumphant opening-night premiere of "A Most Violent Year" at Los Angeles' recent AFI Fest, actor Oscar Isaac and director J.C. Chandor didn't look like the creative team behind one of the most complex, rewarding American films of the year. Rumpled, smiling and blinking in the light of the morning, they looked like two friends who'd gotten away with something. Isaac ("Inside Llewyn Davis") was unshaven with a mustache for his upcoming part in "Show Me a Hero," David Simon's HBO project about Yonkers, N.Y. Chandor ("Margin Call," "All Is Lost") was wearing a green baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the Standard heating-oil company that Isaac's character, Abel Morales, runs with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), resulting in a struggle that plays out against the chilly background of 1981 New York.
Your first film, "Margin Call," was set almost entirely in an office building; "All Is Lost" took place on a boat. Was "A Most Violent Year" a deliberate attempt to work with a larger canvas?
Chandor: Kind of, yeah. In this day and age, filmmakers in my position, you don't get to paint a big canvas like this, a period film. We had 75, 80 locations, something like that, in the movie. I had $18 million to make this movie, which is a lot of money for me. I think about the films I'm making in that way too. What is this? What are we making here? And how does that fit into what's going to be able to be made?
For me, at least, the movie was always about a transition in America. You look back at the recent history of New York City, '81 is the low point, and the city has been on this climb, which now one might say has been too successful. It's a little Disney-fied. But it was pretty bad in '81
Everyone compares the film to works by Sidney Lumet ("Prince of the City," "Q & A"). Is that just because he made these urban, adult films?
Chandor: I'm sure Sidney's in his grave smiling at us. Come on. I'm honored that it's even being discussed in that light. What I'm trying to do is raise the common guy, who is doing extraordinary things in the most extraordinary time of this couple's life, right? These 30 days [in which they have to raise money to expand], it's a pretty fascinating story. I think you kind of make yourself in those normal moments, and also, these high-pressure moments. I hope we're walking the line and reminding people that there can be real entertainment and experience there.
Your scenes with Jessica Chastain have this real Macbeth and Lady Macbeth feel. You want to succeed, but she knows what that'll actually take.
Isaac: Yeah, it's probably the best experience I've had working with somebody. We've known each other for a long time. We actually went to Juilliard together; we've been friends for that long. There is that element — this is a guy who had a reputation for doing things the right way, for being good, but he's got that ambition and turns a blind eye to certain things. So, those scenes, there was such an immediate intimacy.
Chandor: The competition was amazing. You get two actors, right? They're competitive people and they would go at it, the same way this couple would.
Issac: It was so, so gratifying.
The irony is that the L.A.-set "Inherent Vice" premiered at the New York Film Festival, and your New York-set film opened up L.A.'s AFI. Was it scheduling that kept you from NYFF?
Chandor: No. The movie was not done. I wish it was some Machiavellian scheme of our brilliant distributors [A24 Films], but we just shot this movie this winter, this past winter. We finished up in about March, and then we actually did a day of additional photography even a little later into the spring. In this day and age, these other films, everyone is lining this stuff up in June for those fall festivals. My movies, they need a little time to have all the pieces fit in right. From an editorial standpoint, it wasn't ready.
Is it great to do films when you can have New York as a supporting character?
Isaac: Yeah, because I live there. It's fantastic. I love it. I've been there for 13 years now, and it feels very much like it's a part of who I am. It's a new story about New York, and it's an incredible place. It's wild, small. I feel New York is very much like that. It's a great backdrop for the drama.
Do either of you find yourselves thinking about what's next for Abel and Anna?
Chandor: I was the egomaniac. [Laughs.] I already have the whole trilogy in my head, whether the movie is successful enough to make that trilogy remains to be seen. ... I think these characters, Abel and Anna ... they're these two people I'm proud of. I think they're interesting people.