In 2005, J.C. Chandor was about to start shooting his first feature film. He had spent nine years writing and directing music videos, documentaries, commercials, and fashion videos, but always with this goal in mind. And then, six days before shooting was to begin, the deal fell apart.
Chandor and his wife, who had just had their first child, decided it was time to walk away from the film industry. For the next three years, he wrote nothing. With several partners, he renovated an old commercial building in New York City, converting it into apartments. Unlike the stereotypical New York real estate deal, however, when they sold out a year later – at the insistence of the godfather of one of the partners, a former investment banker – they made back their original investment, but little more.
“It felt like a defeat at the time,” Chandor says, “but a year later, as the wheels started to come off [the real estate market], it felt like a real gift. And I began to think, what was he seeing that caused him to intervene so strongly in his godson’s life? And what is it like to walk around with that knowledge?”
As the financial crisis seemed to be mushrooming out of control in the fall of 2008, Chandor, whose father had worked at Merrill Lynch for more than 30 years, kept coming back to those two questions. So he sat down at his computer and, in a week, wrote the first draft of a script that follows a group of traders and executives at a Wall Street investment bank through 36 hours as they struggle to come to grips with a crisis that threatens to sweep them, their clients, and the entire firm away.
Chandor reached out to old contacts in the business and pitched the script to actor Zachary Quinto and his producing partners. “We hit it right off and they signed on that night, based on that original 80-page script full of spelling errors,” Chandor says.
By last summer, all the pieces were in place — including a stellar cast that included Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci, in addition to Quinto —and two weeks after his wife gave birth to their second child, Chandor at last began shooting his first feature film: Margin Call.
It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Variety called it “a methodical, coolly absorbing boardroom thriller.” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott hailed it as “both intimately scaled and dazzling in its sweep and implication…[W]hat makes it such a gripping and convincing rendition of events familiar from countless books and articles is the subtlety of Mr. Chandor’s writing, his understated, meticulous mapping of the intersections between banal workplace politics and the movements of international capital.”
Chandor himself says, “At its core, if the film is anything, it’s a tragedy. It’s structured as a thriller — a ticking time bomb movie — but an hour into the film you know the bomb can’t be defused and the crux of the story becomes who are they going to drop it on?”
Roadside Attractions/Lionsgate are releasing Margin Call in the U.S. this fall, and have secured distribution in dozens of countries all over the world for later this year.
It has been quite a journey for Chandor, who calls himself “a classic Wooster case.”
“I had decent but not great grades in high school, because I was highly motivated in some subjects, like the arts, drama, English, and history, but in math and science I was a screw up. Wooster saw something in me and I really flourished there. I got into theatre, took photography and painting classes.”
He also found supportive advisers in Professors Dick Figge and Susan Hansen, who helped him craft a self-designed major in cultural film studies. For his senior I.S., Chandor wrote, shot, and edited a film that he now cheerfully admits was “a total overreach, too vast in scope and scale…but I got jobs right away after graduation based on it.”
Since completing work on Margin Call, Chandor has signed a two-picture writing deal with Warner Brothers, begun developing projects with other studios, and is casting his second feature, which he hopes to begin shooting in the next year.
“It’s been an amazing few months,” he says. “I’m buying a house and supporting my family [by writing] and getting some real security for the first time. It’s just a dream come true.”
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