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Margin Call - JC Chandor interview (exclusive)

Margin Call

Interview by Rob Carnevale

WRITER-director JC Chandor talks exclusively to IndieLondon about some of the experiences of making his Oscar-nominated debut Margin Call, set on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, and how the response surpassed his expectations.

He also talks about his career since then, including making his second film with Robert Redford and why it could be seen as a risky enterprise. Margin Call is available to buy now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Q. I gather the origins of Margin Call stemmed from some of your own experience in the housing market and financial world?
JC Chandor: We did alright. We got out alive [laughs]. But I think we certainly could have been classified as amateur, speculative investors, so we did get wrapped up in it similar to how many people did at the time. But it was not something where we were putting anyone else but ourselves at risk, except maybe the bank involved – but that was more their fault that ours. They were interested in making the loan. But I’d done some investing myself, I love real estate and historic buildings, so had bought a historic building in lower Manhattan [to renovate]. But as a young commercial director and a young architect, which my partner was at the time, we never would have been given that kind of a loan in any other market except for one running a little amok! It’s only now looking back that you see that, but it was a very, very lenient lending guideline. That said, we repaid the loan and everything turned out fine, so I guess it turned out to be a decent investment [by the bank] but it was a very big loan for a couple of beginners.

Also, my father had worked in that world and I had grown up in towns with people that had worked in it, and then I moved to New York right after college where, obviously, many of my friends from all different walks of life were drawn into that world by the pay cheques on offer and the growth within the financial services business at that time. So, it [the screenplay] really was something that combined a lot of elements of my life. I had never written anything this topical but I felt like I could bring a fresh perspective to it… well, not necessarily a fresh perspective. But I had a certain knowledge and combination of knowledge bases that afforded me a lot of insight. And not having worked in that world then allows you to have a more clear view of it as an observer from the outside. So, it was kind of a perfect storm… I had an insiders’ view without ever having personally put myself through that wringer.

Q. Do you think that’s what appealed to people like Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci when they read the script?
JC Chandor: I think it helped. Look, the way it normally works for an actor when working with a first-time director is they usually want to meet you. So, first they’ll read the script, then judge whether it’s worthwhile and then they’ll try speaking to you on the phone or meeting you in person. And that process definitely allowed them to understand that I did have this personal deep understanding [of that world] and really was quite passionate about the subject. I felt this was a point of view that needed to be put out in the world. So, yeah, I like to think that those meetings were a piece of that puzzle. They all agreed to do it after meeting me. Well, except for one guy who came back with a scheduling conflict! But that’s what they always say[laughs].

Q. Did you ever get star-struck when directing such a starry cast?
JC Chandor: Well, I’d waited for such a long time for this opportunity. I had been at it for a while, struggling, so in a weird way I never got star struck at all while working. There might have been some fun times… it was almost like once we were done it all sort of dawned on me that I was meeting Kevin Spacey for a drink and then showing him the movie. So, then you have those pinch yourself moments. But when we were shooting, and while we were in preparation and leading up to the shoot, I was under very extreme personal pressure. My wife was having our second child and I was still having those dreams of independent filmmaking. I had had a movie about four years earlier fall apart right before we started shooting.

So, very sadly, I was aware that it could blow up just days before you start. I think my general anxiety about gong and making my first film over-rode any concerns about becoming star-struck. It was almost like the making of the film was something I felt secure about. I believed we had a great script, I was reassured that all these great actors had come along and said ‘yes’, so my belief was to get that script on film with these actors and everything would be alight.

Q. How gratifying was the Oscar nomination for best original screenplay?
JC Chandor: Well, that’s really where luck does come into things. I had seen a lot of my friends and other filmmakers who had gone through the same process without the same success. And by that I mean the cycle of going to Sundance and hoping someone will buy the film, which is hurdle No.1, and then respects it enough to release it correctly, hurdle No. 2, and so on. At least, that was our path. So, the time it went from Sundance to getting the Oscar nomination was exactly a year, and from January to January my entire life changed and the opportunities I was being given changed. It was an amazingly fortunate thing that the film came out when it did, when the country and the world in general was ready to discuss this topic and engage in it. So, I feel tremendously lucky.

The whole pomp and circumstance of the Oscars is one thing but how it is voted on is another because it’s really other members within the writer’s branch voting for you and when you go down that list of who they are it’s pretty darn exciting to think that people you have admired for so long not only saw your film but voted for it. It was, literally, a dream come true and opportunities did come from that.

Q. Did it make it easier to get your next film, All Is Lost, made?
JC Chandor: It certainly helped finance it. We shot that film this summer and we were able to finance it in a way that was very advantageous to the filmmakers creatively and business-wise. It does change things [for you] in the film business to have a nomination like that. And the nomination actually came out as we were going to market with this film. But I don’t think it really affects anything now, when you come back out into the marketplace, except that maybe it’ll be a line someone writes in a review [‘from the Oscar-nominated writer-director of Margin Call’]. I think for the most part, the only thing audience members really care about is waiting to see if the [new] film is any good.

JC Chandor

Q. How was working with Robert Redford on All Is Lost? You met him at Sundance, didn’t you?
JC Chandor: He was amazing. We briefly met at Sundance and then I sent him the script and we met a couple of days of him reading it. But working with him was a very fascinating, challenging, exciting enterprise. It’s a very different, almost experimental film. It has almost no dialogue and no other actors in the movie, so it’s very different from what you’d normally expect. Interestingly, our working environment and our working relationship was also very different as a director and actor. There was no one else to talk to from an acting standpoint [for Robert], so it very much felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity for both of us. Looking back on it, the labour pains are starting to disappear into the rear view mirror. All we have left is the performance and the film and now that’s pretty nice. He hasn’t seen it yet but I hope he’ll be very pleased when he does. I think he will be. It was a pretty extraordinary working situation.

Q. What inspired it?
JC Chandor: I don’t know. It was a challenge that had been bouncing around in my head – can you narratively engage an audience with this limited input? We kind of ran towards that challenge instead of trying to come up with tricks to get around it. It’s yet to be seen how it will play with audiences. But it was a very interesting, fun enterprise.

Q. Is that the type of movie you’re interested in making as you go forward, rather than a big blockbuster? Or is that something that also tickles your fancy somewhere down the line?
JC Chandor: Interestingly, I think having $200 million or $400 million to spend is a tremendous challenge… to come up with something that’s both benign enough not to alienate one sector of the audience but interesting and engaging enough in terms of character and plotline – I think that’s an amazing challenge. So, if the right opportunity came along I wouldn’t alienate myself from that process. But right now, in my career, I’m still learning. This is my second film and we didn’t spend $200 million or $400 million on either my first or this one [laughs]. So, my feeling is that if a film makes sense from a business perspective I take that responsibility quite seriously.

One of the most important things you do when taking on a film is trying to make everyone their money back. I’m not a painter. That’s one person… they can be alone in a field, for instance, and can take a lot of chances… they’re not going to ruin anyone’s career or hurt anyone financially. But when you spend $20 million on a film, it’s people’s careers and livelihoods that are on the line, so that’s a significant responsibility to take on and one that I take very seriously. Also, for the filmmakers behind me… because every time a film loses money, it makes it harder for everyone else. That being said, if you structure a film correctly, no one person has taken all the risk and no one feels – at least in this case – as though their career is at risk, except maybe mine, which is as it should be!

But the way we structured All Is Lost allowed us as filmmakers to take a chance creatively and learn new things. I certainly don’t want to make every film about one guy alone in a boat! And I’ve certainly had more opportunities to do more run of the mill things. But in a weird way, it felt less risky to do something more creatively risky than to repeat myself. As for the future, we’ll see. I’ve got a couple of things that I’m working on in development. So, I feel very fortunate that at this point in my career, where I stand today is in a pretty neat place. I am still learning and attempting to climb the ladder and it’s pretty fun.

Margin Call

Q. Finally, what’s the best response you’ve had to Margin Call?
JC Chandor: I think the simple answer is that it was lucky that the film came along when it did and, certainly in the US, that it came along in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Although it did scare some people away because they weren’t sure what to expect, to be a part of a dialogue socially is more than you can ask for as a filmmaker. Film is not like journalism where you can follow things minute my minute. In a best case scenario, and that’s the very best case, it can take two years from having the ideas to the audience seeing them. But I felt pretty strongly that the reverberations from the crash would be measured in years and not months, which in the beginning everyone was hoping we’d bounce back straight away…. but four to five years later we can still feel the massive ramifications of what happened. So, to come along with a film at that moment that speaks to that… it’ll probably never happen to me again.

Another shock to me was that internationally the film was close to making 20 million from its theatrical release. For a $2.5 million movie, that’s not how you start off thinking where it’s going to end up [laughs]! Here in the US, the film had a weird distribution pattern which saw it being released on DVD and on-demand at around about the same time, so four times as many people saw it via those mediums as they did in theatres. So a lot of people, when you go back and look, have seen your little film. This wasn’t a film that came out with big splash and then dwindled, it started with a ripple and grew and grew and grew as people suggested it to their friends and that’s all you can ever hope for as a filmmaker – that people will continue to talk about a film years after it was put into the world. That’s amazing. And then the critical reaction… two of the publications I most respect, the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine… when I received the reviews from them, it was another dream come true.

Read our review of Margin Call

Read our interview with Susan Blackwell