When you ask J.C. Chandor about the origins of his new film, A Most Violent Year, which stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as a criminal power couple in early 1980s New York City, he doesn’t mince words.
“I needed a job,” he says bluntly. The writer-director was in the middle of editing his 2013 film All is Lost–which stars Robert Redford as a man marooned at sea–when he found himself relating a little too well to his protagonist.
“It was a very difficult edit,” says Chandor, who won critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for his debut feature, Margin Call, a character drama that takes place in the early days of the financial crisis. “It was a long, lonely journey, where we didn’t even know if we’d made a movie. It was such a weird kind of film”–there is only one character in All is Lost and barely any dialogue–“so as you’re editing, you’re like, What have I done to my career? I’ve waited all this time to have this opportunity and here I am trying to make a movie about one guy alone on a sailboat. How did this happen?”
As Chandor was struggling through his edit, he was startled by real life events: the Sandy Hook school shooting took place 15 minutes from his Connecticut home. “I had a first-grader at the time and so it was very intense,” he says. “I pulled into my daughter’s school and there was an armed guard standing at the front of her school.
“When something like that happens, you somehow feel like you should do something. Of course, we should be thinking that all the time, but we don’t. It’s human nature. So the next thing I knew I found myself Googling crime statistics in New York City. I just had this idea–when was the most violent year in New York City history? I wondered, per capita, when there were the most murders?”
This question, coupled with a desire to move on from All is Lost and embark on a new project, led Chandor to start putting together the pieces of A Most Violent Year, a moody period piece in which Isaac plays Abel Morales, a self-made immigrant who marries into a heating-oil empire that is under attack from rivals. The film’s drama rests on Morales’ moral conflict–whether to behave like the gangster he, in theory, is, or to rise above it at the risk of endangering his family. The film takes place in 1981, which was the answer to Chandor’s question about when violence in New York City was at its height. After poring over research and statistics, he came to the conclusion that that was a “watershed” year for the city, which “was either going to become the kind of wild, wild west of Bernie Goetz, which happened a few years after, or it was going down a very different path in its relationship with violence.”
He went on to speak with Co.Create about his “tumbleweed” writing process, how street photography of the 1970s influenced the gritty look and feel of A Most Violent Year, and how Chastain shopped for her wardrobe at the Armani archive in Milan.
Chandor doesn’t bang out scripts over the course of several days or weeks. He says they come together in his head first in the form of disparate ideas and scenes that he eventually strings together in a narrative.
“My writing process is sort of like, there’ll be like four kind of tumbleweeds rolling around in my head at one time. There could be five or three or two. Sometimes they merge, sometimes they split, but they’re just kind of ideas that are collecting little moments, where you’ll be like, Oh! That’s something! Then there’s kind of like a bench of things that you don’t know where they belong, and maybe someday they’ll find a home.
“So I had been working for years on a story, I’d been collecting ideas, about a husband and wife who ran a business. It was kind of an immigrant story, but I didn’t quite know what it was and where it was and what it belonged to. But I was really intrigued by that ambition and the question of what makes one bakery at one end of the street remain a little family bakery, and they live happily ever after and they send their kids to Ivy League schools, but their passion is making the best French bread loaf ever to be made, or whatever it is.
“And then the bakery at the other end of the street becomes Shop Rite. This huge chain. So what is it about happiness and ambition and what we want and how we execute that? I’d been collecting tidbits about that for years.”
To research the period and get the right look and feel of a city at the height of urban decay and rampant crime, Chandor turned to the street photography that was flourishing at the time.
“I talked to a lot of people whose parents ran businesses at that time. I zeroed in on the actual business that we were dealing with, and then read a lot. But my main inspiration, visually and everything else, really came from the amazing tradition of street photography that was exploding around this time in New York and other cities.
“There’s this wonderful tradition of late ’70s through the ’80s street photography in all urban areas, where photographers really catalogued the decay in the inner cities. And so I created probably a hundred-page book, a look book, of different images that I culled from probably 1,000 pictures. Then I would bring that to show actors, or bring that to show my DP. Then, amazingly, my DP (Bradford Young) had created one of his own, so we kind of cross-referenced each other. It was awesome. There were probably 30 of the images that were almost identical.
“There’s one in particular of two kids standing in front of this rubble field. At that time the city could not even afford to cart the rubble away, but they couldn’t have these hulking structures because they would fall on people; it was a risk. So they’d pull these buildings down and then there’d just be these mounds of rubble in these neighborhoods. So in this photo, there are these two kids standing in front of one of these rubble fields, in these classic ’70s outfits. But one of them is holding a tennis racket. And it was the most sort of disparate thing where there was this wonderful kind of optimism to it, right? He was rummaging through this rubble field and he found a perfectly good tennis racket. It’s in one of those old ’80s brackets, you know, wooden brackets, to keep it straight, keep it from going all twisty because it was made of wood. So it was like, wow a perfectly good tennis racket! I’m gonna keep this because someday I might be a kid who wants to play tennis. But he is standing in front of this decay that you can’t even fathom. So there’s this wonderful kind of optimism, yet it’s kind of like the darkest day. So there’s 50 of those images like that that stuck with me.”
The film is also notable for its era-defining fashion: power suits, shoulder pads, and snug Izod tennis shorts. Chandor says he achieved this by studying magazines and high-end fashion books from the period, and from access to the Armani archive in Milan.
“One of my approaches was: What were the men’s and women’s magazines of that time, what did they actually look like? It’s a wonderful way to find out, in the year or two before, to actually find that sort of heightened edge of what’s to come, which these two people certainly would have been interested in. But it also keeps it really grounded in the reality of what real people were buying.
“For Oscar, it was definitely GQ fashion, especially suits. I knew Oscar’s character was going to be very formal, he wore those suits almost like armor. They’re not so much a fashion thing as they are about presenting a certain message out to the world. Then with Jessica we really zeroed in on–Armani was like ‘the’ guy at the time. He was this young, exploding designer. His clothes had that mix of power and femininity. So we ended up being so lucky because Jessica actually knew one of his nieces, I think, who works at the company. So they allowed my costume designer and Jessica into their archive in Milan. They got to fly to Milan, which was super fun for them, and basically just walk around in 1978.
“For more casual wear we had items re-created or we shopped online. We wanted that period detail to be in their lives, but we wanted the film to feel somewhat timeless as well. So that fashion wasn’t imprinting itself on the audience, trying to impose itself. It was just there. It was the reality of these people’s lives.”