The director J.C. Chandor took a rare pause from speaking as he recalled a time, before his recent burst of filmmaking, when his life was beset by uncertainty. Chandor was in his 30s, had no career to speak of and a baby on the way.
"I kind of stared it down. My wife was pregnant, and my dad was like, 'You better get to work, or you're going to be poor,'" he said.
On Wednesday, Chandor's new film, "A Most Violent Year," opens in theaters. It is a story about a man who, as he seeks to build an empire in the arcane world of heating oil, undertakes a number of risks, even while a vise tightens around him. Though taking place in different circumstances, the concerns of both the fictional character and its creator — of family, of livelihood, of legacy — share a number of parallels.
Chandor can seem like something of an overnight sensation. In just four years, the director has made the financial drama "Margin Call," a Sundance smash that went on to earn the first-time filmmaker an Oscar screenwriting nomination; the nautical survival tale "All Is Lost," a bold formal experiment starring Robert Redford that became a critical darling; and now "Violent Year," a story of crime and machismo that has echoes of both David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" and the films of Sidney Lumet, but with Chandor's signature slow-burn style.
Starring Oscar Isaac, the film tells a culturally specific tale of Abel, a man-of-few-words Latino immigrant and would-be magnate in a dangerous New York circa 1981. But "Violent Year" is also slyly autobiographical, offering a glimpse into a self-assured man who for years was nonetheless highly uncertain about his own path.
The back story of Chandor, 41, suggests a very different model for filmmaking success — not the archetypal director who cuts his teeth on shorts or film school in his 20s before graduating to features, but a man born into privilege who went through years of professional wandering before emerging, improbably, as one of the country's foremost cinematic interrogators of money and power.
"It wasn't that long ago when J.C. had a lot riding on his film career," said actor Zachary Quinto, who produced and starred in "Margin Call" and remains close with Chandor. "He didn't know if he could provide for his family and didn't know where his life would go. I don't think it's an accident that the Abel character is confronting those same issues."
On a cold day recently, Chandor stood on the rooftop deck of a hotel in Williamsburg not far from his production office. The filmmaker lived nearby for years in those uncertain phases, when he says he was unsure of his calling and was, despite his wealthy parents, even unclear on whether he'd have any financial stability. (He now lives with wife Cameron Goodyear, an artist, and their two children in upscale Westchester County.)
"Violent Year" concerns a man who works these streets with a similar sense of urgency, playing inside — barely — the legal rules. To the chagrin of his tough-as-razors wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose mobbed-up father helped Abel enter the business, Abel maintains a no-guns policy even as his drivers are under physical assault from competitors. Abel is also trying to evade an aggressive prosecutor (David Oyelowo) who seeks to bring up the young entrepreneur on white-collar charges.
Money and the means by which one acquires it come up often in conversations with Chandor, who had an upper-middle-class upbringing in suburban New Jersey. His father was a longtime trader at Merrill Lynch, and his parents endowed things like a local pool in their leafy town about 40 miles west of Manhattan. He met Goodyear, while still a child, at the golf club near the beachside Rhode Island community where both families had second homes.
The pursuit of capital is also a leitmotif in Chandor's other films — in "Margin Call," which offered a more human look at the bankers facing the financial crisis, and in "All Is Lost," about a wealthy sailor confronted with existential issues. Chandor's next movie is about the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and its intersection of dollars and various corporate interests.
"It's not that money is the root of all evil — it's that it's the root of everything," he said. "I don't know why, but I guess I do find it fascinating. The film business is an interesting place to start. It's 'how do you make a living and support a family while still telling stories you get to control?'"
Said Isaac, "I think J.C.'s films are all interested in money and what it means and what a gray place it can be for people's ethics. I think he's interested in it because of where he comes from, but he doesn't take it for granted."
As he stood on the hotel rooftop, Chandor surveyed the area beneath him — renovated brownstones and newly built lofts jostling with the area's vestiges of an industrial past — and ticked off spots where he made his new movie. The film was shot in 75 locations in a little more than a month, crisscrossing industrial sections of New York's rapidly gentrifying outer boroughs in search of a kind of throwback authenticity.
For one scene, Chandor needed a subway car covered in graffiti. But the exterior of all modern subway cars in the now safer and wealthier city are too clean, and the MTA, New York's public-transit agency, didn't want to let the production dirty one up. Chandor used an unmarked set of subway cars during shooting and then, with the help of visual-effects in postproduction, added graffiti and tags from that era.
In conversation, Chandor has a way of taking the road more elaborate. Asked about his inspiration for the film, he offered several detailed and unrelated explanations. There was a long-held idea he had about two competing small-town bakeries, one that seeks to take over the world and one that simply wants to serve the community, a notion that was reflected in the film via competing views of how to run a heating-oil business.
He was similarly moved, he said, by the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings two years ago — which occurred near where his then-7-year-old daughter went to school — and the fear he felt when an armed guard was posted outside the building after the attack. That point became the violence-themed backbone of the movie, particularly Abel's decision not to arm his drivers.
To craft Abel's familial situation, he even drew from far-flung experiences, such as, well, "There's this friend of mine whose grandfather owned a Pontiac dealership in Texarkana, Texas. And my friend's dad, when he's young, goes down there to work for his father-in-law," Chandor said. "He ends up buying out his father-in-law and soon owns 10 or 20 dealerships. He was just this born salesman who needed that one opportunity to become super-successful."
Chandor is a very gregarious sort (something of an irony given his tendency to create terse characters like Abel and Redford's silent sailor) a kind of probing type who takes roundabout routes to answer questions, even if they're questions he posed himself.
"J.C. is a talker," Oyelowo laughed. "You can be in a one-way conversation with him but be fully entertained and engrossed and feel like you've had a two-way conversation."
The director also has a certain swagger, a kind of confidence that comes in handy for the highly controlled, personally driven independent films he makes. Even at his lowest point, Chandor said with a self-aware laugh, he "never lost confidence, I was always overconfident."
But the director says that at times the wandering in early adulthood was an eye-opener. For much of his 20s he dabbled in odd jobs, including real estate and the very occasional gig directing a commercial. He was also humbled by a car accident in college in which his vertebrae were crushed and his friend, the driver, was killed.
But it took the financial crisis in 2008, when he was 35, to spark him to write the screenplay that would change everything. "Margin Call" came from someone who understood bankers and wanted to convey their feelings, a story that proposed — problematically, to some viewers — that many of those deemed complicit in the crash were actually victims themselves.
"There's a hypocrisy that was going on, a kind of black and white snap judgment made about the entire banking sector, including people who had no right to make those judgments because they enjoyed some of the benefits [of that sector]," Chandor said of his reasons for making the movie.
The discussion around economic disparities in the U.S., he believes, has been similarly distorted, which is why he has sought to clarify it with his films about the ways we acquire or lose wealth.
"If you're a garbageman in Wichita, Kansas, making $32,000 a year or you're in securities making $30 million a year and live in Greenwich, as long as you have full-time employment and live above the poverty line, you have it better than 60% of the people on planet Earth."
He continued, "If you make $70,000 a year, your life is different from someone who makes $700,000. But it's not as different as someone who makes $600 somewhere else in the world so we can have cheap clothes."