Ken Harrison 7:48 a.m., Dec. 7
Interview: Margin Call Writer/Director, J.C. Chandor
J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, a "fresh as today's headlines" thriller that takes place inside the volatile word of investment banking on the eve of corporate meltdown, takes it lead from R.K.O.'s series of classic Val Lewton horror films. The offending corporation has a name (NBS), and while the threat is clearly real, we are never shown the monster.
Not that we need concrete evidence -- a Goldman or Lehman by any other name -- but it's still a mighty impressive feat to conceal a corporation's identity and ultimate cause, and still make the finished product lucid, and dramatically sound enough to hold an audience's attention for two hours. It's like watching a whodunit without benefit of the big reveal, yet it remains a remarkably compelling and thought-provoking piece of entertainment.
It's his debut feature, but Chandor's no stranger to the medium. For 15 years, he broke his bones directing commercials and documentaries. His demo reel must have been mighty damn impressive to assemble a cast of this magnitude, particularly for a first-timer.
This one was a quick turnover. I saw the film late last week and was quite taken by Chandor's work. With no interview opportunities made readily available by the studio, I thought I'd try my luck by putting in a request and sure enough, I just hung up the phone after well exceeding my prescribed 15-minute time limit with the filmmaker. Thanks to Allied's Laura Koring for making it possible!
J.C. Chandor (right) directs Zachary Quinto in a scene from Margin Call.
Scott Marks: You have Demi and Ashton making headlines, Zachary Quinto coming out of the closet, and Occupy Wall Street all timed with the release of your movie. Who in hell is doing PR for you?
J.C. Chandor (Laughing): I know. If Harvey Weinstein had been releasing this film I think people would believe he put everybody up to the whole thing. I sat down and wrote the screenplay three years ago and the film is still current, and it actually feels like there's a sort of energy going on as we speak. People are finally bubbling to the surface wanting to get to the bottom of this. It's a sad thing that we're still battling with it, but as a filmmaker, it's wonderful to put something into the world that may hopefully entertain and help with an understanding of the conversation.
When the screening was over a few critics gathered in the lobby for a post-show wrap-up. I asked one of my colleagues what company the film was based on. Shearson Lehman and Goldman Sachs both came up instantly, but according to your script, it's the non-existent, but real-sounding NBS. You purposely don't identify the company, what exactly it is selling, nor do you identify the potential harm that will eventually destroy civilization as we know it. You literally present the nameless, faceless enemy we've been hearing so much about.
There is no time or date-stamping. You know what time of day it is, but there is never any news coverage that comes on. In a weird way, I knew that there would be considerable fatigue about all the "pre-packaged" news stories that brought this into our daily lives. There is obviously a different version of this film that is driven by newscasters that tell you what's going on, and it all becomes this race against time. What I tried to do was absolutely isolate the viewer with this very limited group of people on a night where they have to stay amongst themselves. There is this obvious sense of paranoia over the story getting out, that this piece of information will be released. This decision has to be made by the next day -- which is obviously a bit of an artificial conceit -- and I had to take these characters and limit the viewer to only worry about what they worry about in their world. This is not only the problem of people working in investment banks, but to a certain extent, it’s all our problem. When times get tough, we tend to look inward and limit our scope instead of stepping back. What's going on right now is sort of resorting to name calling what with the protesters vs. the bankers and each side screaming. This was created by humans and the only way we're going to get out of it is by treating it as a mature complex problem. (Laughing.) That was a long answer to a short question.
I was hanging on every word.
You lock 'em in a room like 12 Angry Men. Sidney Lumet is a favorite director of mine and there is something great about limiting the audience's perspective on a problem.
The fact that 80% of the film plays out under the cover of darkness helped to further paint these characters as blood-sucking vampires. I was also reminded of Night of the Living Dead while watching the employees in the background, with white file boxes in hand, slowly filing out of the workplace . It's like a reverse telling of The Company Men; instead of following those fired, we stay inside the boardroom and focus on the ones left in charge. And not unlike 12 Angry Men, this could have easily been adapted from a stage play. but you make it highly compelling to watch.
The fun thing performance-wise is the intimacy film offers you. You get far closer to characters; you can see their lips quiver and, with actors of this caliber, their minds working through their face, eyes, and hands. I tried to use what film gives you, but frankly I wrote this knowing that it was going to be shot on a very tight budget. As a result I tried to limit the scale to what I was going to put these characters through. The minute we left the building, and the core idea of the film, the script went off the rail. It was like you had let air out of a balloon. What I tried to do was create this almost false sense of tension by using a lot of different structures like the traditional "ticking time bomb" or (laughing) zombie film. You make the audience experience what it's like to be in those characters’ seats. Hopefully, you realize they're not the evil "monsters" we lay them out to be. They are very well-paid soldiers caught within this system that exists because we all allow it to be there. The banking system was originally designed to serve us. One of the most exciting things about what's going on right now is people are finally starting to realize they actually can have some control over this.
Clockwise: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Penn Badgley, J.C. Chandor, and Simon Baker.
This is your first feature film and right out of the gate you're assigned a heavyweight cast. Actors like Kevin Spacey, who almost never appears in films anymore, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci...how did you manage this feat?
It's certainly my first feature film, but it's not my first time at the rodeo. I come out of the commercial and documentary world, and have been directing for going on 15 years. Once presented with the project, the cast was able to see other work that I did to assure them I knew my way around a set, and that I had been working at this for awhile. The way through the gate is the script. Zachary Quinto's production company signed on and he was able to use his momentum, and passion, and, frankly intelligence, to get great actors to read the script. We did shoot the film quickly, which meant that we weren't asking the actors to give up huge amounts of time. (We weren't paying them very much.) At the end of the day, people reacted to the material. It was a great challenge. It took a year to pull the cast together.
The Spacey character seems more concerned with the death of his dog than he does the employees he's showing the door. Don't you run the risk of dog lovers finding the character more sympathetic?
(Laughing.) That plot point was supposed to be a signifier of the absurdity of the human mind. We obviously have this ability to live in denial. Not that he isn't upset about his dog, but it certainly appears that he is projecting the concern that he is feeling deep down onto something else. Any time I make a choice based solely on money, which in my business I've had to do, I always find different ways to justify it within myself. It took on a little more meaning than it was supposed to in the film, but frankly it works on several levels. This is a guy who is really not in touch with the emotions of his job in the way that he should be.
You have a terrific ear for dialog, and when you get into your groove, there are moments where everyone starts talking in corporate double-speak. "Spilt milk under the bridge." They've used the cliches so many times they're not even certain what they are anymore. And it's great when the higher-ups all request to be addressed in “plain English.”
I had a little bit of a leg up. A lot of my friend have worked in this world at one point in their lives. My father worked, not as a trader, but for an investment bank for many years. My dialog is one of my strengths. I did have a core understanding of what people in that world talk about openly, and then what they don't. During bad times, people tend to not want to take ownership of any problem. As a result, they don't want what the problem coming out of their mouth. If there is bad news to be delivered, very rarely do you want to be the person delivering it, even if you had nothing to do with it. People are now remembering that you were the person bring bad news to the room. As a plot point, it allowed up to not lose the majority of our audience that isn’t from that world. And hopefully, the people within that world will understand what each of the characters is talking about on a deeper level. We're not glossing over people who aren't able to understand it. Obviously it's a movie, and you have to make certain decisions to rectify that. but for the most part it was something that I enjoyed writing tremendously. And hearing these actors speak your words makes you seem that much of a better writer.
Demi Moore and Simon Baker.
I saved my one complaint for the very end.
It's minor, don't worry. I've seen over 250 films this year, and I'll have to consult my list, but I can't think of too many whose script impressed me as much as yours. What you accomplish, that so many try to pull off but fail, is that you tell me everything while telling me nothing.
When I set out on a story, that's my favorite type of writing as well. Alright, give me the complaint already!
(Laughing.) You're movie stinks and you're ugly, too! It's not that bad. Stanley Tucci is the first to be let go. He's been assigned an escort to lead him from the building, yet in front of the security guard he passes a thumb drive to the kid and tells him to "be careful." Given what we soon learn about the contents of the thumb drive, do you think the Tucci character would have been this cavalier?
You're not the first one who has mentioned this. I actually went back to the person I originally spoke to who was on the floor while these firings were going on. First, Tucci is a pretty high-ranking executive. This is a private security guard, not a cop. He's there to make sure Tucci leaves the building without breaking anything. He is never going to have the guts to turn him in. From a business point-of-view, handing a piece of information to another employee is perfectly within one’s rights. If Tucci had gone out on the street and handed that thumb drive to a reporter, there would have been a problem. He handed it to his direct underling who he had been working with for many years. Presumably, he is just trying to make sure the work gets done. The other, more cynical answer to that problem was that it's totally within the norm when someone has devoted a chunk of their life to an assignment because they feel that it's important, and it needs to be carried on. The other, even more cynical element is that Tucci has a big severance package coming to him and he's yet to receive a check. These companies to a certain extent trust that their employees aren't going to do anything totally self-destructive that will hurt the company. Essentially, his severance package was at risk. We made it a little more visually dramatic, but giving up some work to an underling who it taking over your position is within the norm. It does all seem a little dramatic with the guard standing there and Tucci saying, "Be careful!" Unless Tucci was going to pick up a garbage can and start hurling it through a window, no security guard would have the guts to ask for a piece of information back.
I anticipated you saying that about the security guard and here is my take: he’s an hourly wage slave who sees the company he works for going down. He wants to do whatever it takes to keep working, so the guy would use the information to suck up to the bosses in hopes of retaining his job.
What I did was make it seem like a secret hand-off at the time while there never was any secret involved. It was something Tucci wanted Quinto to continue working on. I probably overplayed the thriller element.
In the long run, it hardly matters. This is a timely, intelligently scripted thriller, and one I had a terrific time watching. I look forward to speaking with you on your follow up feature.
Thanks! I'll put your name on the "nice guy" list.
"Margin Call opens Friday at a theatre near you!
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