J.C. Chandor, High Priest of American Ambition

A Most Violent Year isn’t a movie about the heating oil business. It’s a movie about business and how heated it can be.

J.C. Chandor’s ambitious studies of human ambition have made him one, at 41, one of Hollywood’s most interesting directors. Chandor, who grappled with Wall Street in his 2011 directorial debut Margin Call and sent Robert Redford to survive in the open ocean in last year’s All Is Lost, writes his movies with an ear for hubris and an eye for the extreme. His frames are clean even when the stories he’s telling are about dirt and the way it piles up under the nails of American men.  

For his next trick, Chandor is investigating the American Dream through the lens of American violence. A Most Violent Year, which fittingly debuts on New Year’s Eve, takes place in New York in 1981 and stars Oscar Isaac as a Hispanic immigrant named Abel Morales, who will do whatever it takes to build his heating oil business. It may sound like low stakes, but Chandor infuses the story with an incredible amount of urgency – not to mention white-knuckle suspense. Maxim spoke with the filmmaker about why he’s so determined to understand determination and the unique breed of antihero indigenous to the New World.

When you were conceiving this film, were you ever concerned that a story about heating oil might not grab viewers, much less headlines?

No. I have a ridiculous blind confidence that it is interesting to me. As long as the storyteller, me, is zeroing in on what I find most interesting in something, than maybe there’ll be other people who agree with me. But the movie isn’t necessarily about heating oil.

I had this conversation with Oscar very early on. He would come to me and ask all these things about heating oil and, finally, I said: ‘Look, the movie’s not about heating oil. This is a means to an end. This is a capitalist story.’ With a businessman and a capitalist who has such grand ambitions, he was never in it for oil. If you have two bakeries on a street and one is in it to make the perfect loaf of bread and the other is in it to make sure there is always a loaf of bread available at an affordable price, those are two different world views. The first is more of an artist who wants to make a great loaf of bread every day. That’s all he cares about and he raises his family based on that one little bakeshop. The other guy was driven toward something totally different.

Are you wearing a Standard Heating Oil hat right now?

I am. My daughter always jokes that I made the movie so I could get myself a new hat. All the crew got these hats.

The movie is set in 1981 and the version of the American Dream on display seems specific to that time. Do you think the idea of that dream changed since then?

I don’t know. The American Dream for me is so typically American. It’s a personification in the national identity of a basic human trait, which is ambition. But that goes back thousands of years.

We, as a country of immigrants, have obviously distilled ambition down to an art form and potentially gone sociopathic with it. But our view of the future as a country has certainly not changed. The reason I chose 1981 – to some degree – is that there’s a lot of similarities to where we are today. There’s this great opportunity before us but, yet, there’s this cloud of pessimism that times are horrible. Which can be true, times can be horrible.

Photo: Richard Foreman/Lionsgate/ Everett Collection

How is that specifically reflected in the movie?

He buys a building in a city that everyone is leaving. It’s like the building is on fire and these two people are going in anyway. They’re saying, ‘No, this city will rebound. We don’t have to fall into this Wild West mentality.” Which is basically what New York at that time was struggling with.

What interested you in the character of Abel?

I don’t know the whole movie when I’m starting out. It’s just growing in my head. By the time I saw the image of him in that opening scene, so meticulous in the way that he was prepared and in the way he presented himself to the world – that self-serious element in a broken down construction trailer with the high-low of it all, that was the last straw. That’s when you start to hear the character’s voice and how they carry themselves and you understand how they present themselves to the world. Once I get that, I can start writing something. But he’s a representation of immigration. He’s Hispanic and he was in the original draft. That’s the largest wave of immigration into the United States over the last 40 years. He’s this archetypal, representative character. But in the end, he’s also just a guy with his wife trying to run a mid-sized business.

Do you have a sense of where you want to go next as a filmmaker?

These things take millions to hundreds of millions of dollars to make. They take hundreds to thousands of people. They take three years of my life on planet Earth, if not more. To steal a line from Julia Roberts in that lawyer movie, ‘It’s time away from my family.” So there better be a reason for you to go to that. It can’t just be vanity and ego and making a living. There has to be more than that.

I want to continue to follow stories that I find entertaining and interesting and also explore what makes our time here interesting. That human interaction. How we love each other. How we hate each other. Where the rubber meets the road.

Do you have the next movie in the works?

I do. I’m writing and building a set, bizarrely, for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which is that BP oil rig spill. I’m making a very expensive summer blockbuster-esque version of that. We’re going to shoot a lot of it in IMAX. It’s going to be really intense.

Well, you do have some experience with movies about the ocean.

Exactly. Luckily this movie takes place about fifty feet above the ocean for most of it, instead of in it.

Photos by Atsushi Nishijima/A24/Everett Collection