Interview: Margin Call Director J.C. Chandor

On working with Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Zachary Quinto for his low-budget debut.

After premiering to great acclaim during 2011’s Sundance Film Festival, superb financial drama Margin Call hits UK cinemas on 13th January.

J.C. Chandor’s directorial debut is astonishing for several reasons. Firstly, it makes a wordy piece about investment banking more gripping and compelling than most thrillers, and secondly, the US writer and director assembled one of the greatest ensemble casts of the year on a $3 million budget.

Zachary Quinto, also making his producing debut, stars alongside Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley and Stanley Tucci. The latter is a risk manager, who upon his sudden redundancy, gives Quinto’s junior risk analyst a USB drive with a crucial revelation. Grounded in realism, Chandor’s script is a relatable look at a complicated situation (trading will soon exceed the historical volatility levels used by the firm to calculate risk).

We caught up with former commercials director Chandor in London for a chat about his debut, which had been a long time coming. After revealing he spent his teens in Hampstead as his father was actually in finance, Chandor spoke about crafting his wordy thriller, and his exciting new project All is Lost - set to star Robert Redford.

I would just like to admit I saw Margin Call with the worst hangover known to mankind, thinking I wasn’t going to be able to handle it - it enthralled me from start to finish.
[Laughs] One of the greatest things about this film, is that it’s always been totally underestimated. Because people are like, do we really want to go and see a film about a banker, it’s going to be boring, depressing, or whatever. But it’s been a wonderful. It’s been a year since we premiered the film at Sundance. It’s been an amazing year. I kept telling investors, it’s a tragedy, but it’s a thriller - people are going to be on the edge of their seats. Somehow we managed to pull it off, that it feels tense.

It feels like a thriller, but you avoid so many dramatic clich├ęs - was that your intention?
Yeah, and, interestingly, by constantly doing that, you take pressure off yourself as a filmmaker. Viewers are so accomplished, and experienced at this point, you know? We’re getting pretty far along in the arch of being able to understand what a filmmaker is trying to do to you. A lot of the things in very base dramatic structure are like Rules 101 of what you never do. I felt like the topic by its very nature… there were all these weaknesses inherent in the project. For example, I didn’t have very much money, so I knew it was going to be a very low budget film. I knew that banking by its very nature is not the most compelling cinematic topic. All these things, I felt like if I tried to wedge that, like a square peg in a round hole, you won’t buy it. I let the story, when I was writing it, do what felt true to that world. And bizarrely out of that came this very tense thing. It’s a ticking timebomb movie, but an hour into the movie, you know the bomb can’t be diffused. That breaks every rule every written! Instead of letting all the air out of the movie, what then happens - which is for me, the far more interesting question - now we know the bomb’s going to blow up, who are they going to drop the bomb on? Which is a very gutwrenching character-driven interesting thing. Most rules would say we need to know only in the last few minutes.

We kept our budget at $3 million for a reason - we never wanted to give in to those pressures. Another pressure we were constantly being asked by investors was to create a more traditional hero - that Zachary’s character Peter would’ve turned Spacey and Irons in for some wrongdoing. It didn’t feel true, or right. No he wouldn’t have. Here’s a guy, 25 years old - he isn’t Mother Teresa. He decided to come into this business in the first place. There’s no crime being committed anyway. It’s not a documentary at all - no one would be allowed in that room - but I tried to say what I felt to be true to these characters. Out of that came this compelling thing.

You don’t have traditional baddies as such.
I’m still getting in trouble in the US from some of the left-leaning critics - that it’s not critical enough of these people. Some people actually write a sentence in some of their things: ‘Chandor actually goes out and humanises the characters’. Well, what does that even mean? These are humans! It’s one thing to say I’m unfairly defending them - which I don’t think I am - but to actually say I’m humanising them… well, what other kind of movie is there? It’s a drama, not a comic book movie! I felt, when I was writing this, the situation was being so over-simplified. The reason these people in this world make the decisions they do on a day-to-day level is not always purely based on wanting more money. In a weird way it’s about trying to defend the money they already have, and the life they already have. Which is what we all do. I make decisions in my life I’m not always super proud of - I go out and rewrite some script that I probably would not do, but I have children to put through college! These people are more selfish than most, or they wouldn’t have ended up in the business in the first place, but they’re not Dr Evil. Demi Moore’s character makes a lot of her decisions because her entire personal identity is wrapped up in her job. She has devoted her entire life to it. It’s not about pure greed - it’s not that simple. She wants power, in a really exciting place where she feels like she has an effect in the world.

How do you get a cast like that on a budget?
You pray! I’m not an entirely religious man, but…

It’s reassuring that stars are still lured purely by good scripts.
Absolutely. I think the one thing people don’t fully understand is that actors love to act. You guys are film-based - a lot of the people I’ve been talking to are financial-based, so they don’t care about the film side of it. For young filmmakers… I tried to put together independent films for 15 years, since I was 20 years old. I learnt a lot of lessons from the failure of that. You gotta be realistic about what you’re asking of these people. We shot this film very, very quickly - 17 days. Kevin Spacey, a main character in the movie, shot for 12 days, over two weeks. We shot six-day weeks. I wasn’t asking Kevin Spacey to give up four months of his life for no money. Demi Moore came for four days. The material though, did always draw people towards it. We had Ben Kingsley attached, Tim Robbins, all people through the sadness of scheduling ended up not being able to do the movie. The short answer is: Zachary Quinto’s production company - which he had just started - didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t want to give up control of the property by optioning it, so I teamed up with Zachary and we used every resource that we had.

Was he quite a hands-on producer?
He wasn’t a big star at the time - Star Trek hadn’t even come out yet. If you meet Zachary, he’s an intense guy, very intelligent, very driven. Most successful actors are very intense smart people, and they got there for a reason. We pounded the pavement, and within CAA [Creative Artists Agency], which reps a lot of artists, we got momentum. People started saying yes, but that wasn’t the hard part - getting them all to show up at the same time turned out to be a jigsaw puzzle I will never put myself through again! We didn’t have the money to lock their dates, because their agents didn’t want to block off a period of time in case a big-paying job came in. We didn’t have anyone contractually-bound. My next film is a one-man film, hopefully with Robert Redford.

I was just about to ask about All is Lost. What’s the status of it?
We’re trying to get him [Redford] locked down. You guys picked up on it - Robert’s people released that news. I had been trying to keep it very secret, but it came from CAA. The reporter had figured out a lot of details, and my agent kept denying it. Finally, CAA confirmed, when we were in the pay cheque part of the negotiation! They know that now his name is out there it’s harder for me to go and find somebody else! There’s no dialogue. A lot of my experience was as a commercial director - I never achieved much success in that field - and I was doing a lot of action sports stuff. Camera work wise, what I did on Margin Call was so different to anything I’d done before, as it was so dialogue driven. This is totally the other extreme. He’s alone, it takes place on the water. But it’s an action film too - in a similar way people thought Margin Call wasn’t going to be thrilling because it’s a bunch of people talking in a room, this will hopefully be thrilling from a pure action standpoint. I’m counting on either Redford or whoever else may be playing it… it’s a wonderful opportunity for an actor because they have to communicate a lot of different things that are going on. It’s a real life or death struggle, but there’s no one to talk to. And it’s not like I’m doing a volleyball Wilson from Castaway thing, and he doesn’t go crazy, because he keeps himself fed. So it’ll be a challenge, but if we pull it off it’ll be fun. It’s not based on anything. The closest thing is The Old Man and the Sea. It’s not about a fisherman, but it’s an older guy at the end of his life coming to grips with his own mortality. That’s the core of the movie - I wrote it for an older guy.

Filmbeat also caught up with Chandor and his star Paul Bettany this week - watch their interview below.

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