The mind of JC Chandor is in two places. Physically, the American director is in London, but at least some of his thoughts are in New Orleans. There, a battalion of welders are building a replica of Deepwater Horizon, the vast BP oil rig whose 2010 explosion in the Gulf of Mexico caused the worst marine oil spill in history. Chandor is about to shoot a film based on the disaster that will be, by some distance, the biggest budget movie he has made.
“Right now, in my stomach,” he says, “I feel a little agita.”
At 41, Chandor is tall and robustly built but cuts a faintly boyish figure. He wears a rumpled shirt and jeans, his shoulder-length hair tucked into a baseball cap. In animated moments, phrases like “What the heck” and “Oh my gosh” feature in answers that arrive as long, eager rambles.
His films, however, are clipped, crisp, and addictively intelligent, their stories unfolding as a series of nuts to be cracked by their protagonists. Problem-solving is a theme. So is capitalism.
Chandor’s debut, Margin Call (2011), took place in a Wall Street investment bank in the first hours of the 2008 crash. Widely acclaimed, its tang of authenticity was drawn from its director’s own history — his father held senior roles at Merrill Lynch during 40 years with the firm — and expressed in the caustic dialogue that won his script an Oscar nomination.
His next film, All Is Lost (2013), played out in near-silence, following a lone sailor (Robert Redford) whose yacht is gored on the Indian Ocean by a shipping container full of training shoes. Before returning to the sea with Deepwater Horizon, Chandor will release his third film, a poised drama made last year called A Most Violent Year.
The film is set in the creaking New York of 1981, its title taken from the record-breaking tally of murders and robberies in the city that year. The story belongs to Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), owner of an upstart heating oil company vying for supremacy in the wintry five boroughs. The ghosts of old gangster movies hover; the Reaganite future beckons. Chandor, he says, is interested in “that grey area between capitalism, regulation, and what makes us tick as people”. He takes no issue with the idea of himself as a chronicler of business.
“Absolutely! Business shapes our lives. I remember making Margin Call and someone saying, ‘Do we really need another movie about the stock market?’ I thought, ‘Do you know how many cop movies get made every year?’ ”
New York is important to Chandor. Having grown up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, he studied film at New York University and settled in the East Village. Priced out when he started a family, he now enjoys a “brutal” commute from Westchester to his office in the city. Its current economic exclusivity is, he says, a shame for the young.
Another personal connection grew out of the loss of the film’s male lead. For months, Abel was to be played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. When the script was finally ready, he quit. Chandor describes the exit as amicable; despite quotes linking the parting to Bardem’s “socialism”, he now says: “It wasn’t political as such. But he would have been under tremendous pressure in Spain to make the story more black-and-white about capitalism.” In his place came Isaac, the up-and-comer best known for the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Suddenly Chandor not only had a star; with Abel now a younger character, he stumbled on an alter-ego.
“I realised, ‘Oh my gosh, yes. Here’s this younger guy who is somewhat established, and things are going pretty well for him but he chooses to continue taking risks. There is a likeness.’”
Chandor calls his childhood in suburban New Jersey “middle class”. As a boy, he would visit his father at work and tour the Merrill Lynch trading floor. For a chunk of his teens, the family moved to London (he attended the American School in St John’s Wood). Returning home, he saw himself “not as an outsider, because I am, as you can tell, pretty sociable — but I was an observer.” While his family, the families of his friends, and increasingly his friends themselves all worked on Wall Street, he discovered Stanley Kubrick and set out to become a director.
At 19, Chandor was among the passengers in a car crash. The driver, a friend, was killed. Afterwards, he found himself filled with energy. “When you’re young and someone so beautiful and promising dies, you almost find yourself living for two.” Yet as the years passed, his focus wavered. Drifting into his thirties, he was still only an occasional director of commercials. He put in the hours, he says, but on a deeper level “I just wasn’t trying hard enough. Eventually, I was left looking at other means of supporting myself.”
His dream would be saved by the financial crisis. Aside from film, his other passion was real estate. In the early 2000s, “some crazy bank” loaned Chandor and a group of friends $8.7m to purchase an industrial building in Tribeca. Its renovation was almost complete when, in summer 2007, one of their godfathers phoned unexpectedly. “A prominent real estate investor with a long history at Goldman Sachs,” his message was simple: take the first offer they could get for their building and sell.
Reluctantly agreeing, Chandor and his friends each lost $7,000. A fortnight later, two Bear Stearns hedge funds collapsed. The crisis had arrived. Now, as per tradition, came opportunity. Knowing the market well enough to sense the scale of the storm, he spent an intense four days producing the script for Margin Call. The writing was exquisite enough to attract a cast led by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, the $3m budget sufficiently low for investors to let Chandor himself direct.
Its success — critically lauded, commercially lucrative — was what Chandor calls “storybook”. In the wake of his Oscar nomination, there were inevitable offers to make “Margin Call, but with assassins.” Instead, he made All Is Lost. The film was released with a marketing strategy designed to ensure Oscar recognition; the campaign barely began before it was sunk by the jagged relationship between Hollywood and the man Chandor calls Mr Redford.
“Mr Redford — and this was entirely his prerogative — decided he wanted nothing to do with it.” Favourably reviewed, the film won a single nomination for best sound editing, and none of the box office accelerant of a golden statue. “Seeing things unfold,” Chandor says, “was a little disheartening.”
A Most Violent Year, too, is being released in the thick of awards season, when the year’s most prestigious films form a bottleneck at cinemas. The choice was his, he says, but he sighs when discussing directors “picking each other off” in search of prizes.
After such a long false start to his own career, his resolve to keep it alive now is dogged. “The hope is that if I just keep making movies that are somewhere between, you know, great and passable, and I make them on time and under budget, then I can keep making them.”
He grins, then looks outside. It’s tempting to think that, beyond the London skyline, he spies his half-built Deepwater Horizon.
“My wife is a painter, so her creativity is expressed with a hundred dollars worth of paint. Once you’re on a film set spending tens of millions, well . . . if you’re going to ask people to take that risk, you at least need to try to get them their money back.”
Photographs: Atsushi Nishij