Independent Minds, Working Together
J.C. Chandor '96

J.C. Chandor '96

Writer & Director
Major at Wooster: Cultural Film Studies (self-designed)

Profile by Jeff Randall

J.C. Chandor is exactly where he wants to be: shooting his third major feature length film — “A Most Violent Year” — in and around New York City. Set in 1981, one of the most crime-ridden years in the city’s history, and starring Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), the film is an exploration of corruption, violence, restraint, and risk.

J.C. and I have known one another since we were students at The College of Wooster, and this February I had the chance to shadow him on set. Power and prestige can be intoxicating, but I found that J.C. is the same balanced guy I met at Wooster more than twenty years ago.

Making movies, so far as the actual shooting is concerned, is very much like a camping expedition, albeit one with hundreds of workers, motor homes, exquisite catering, and port-o-potties. As with a camping trip, you find people in comfortable clothes, lots of gear, waking early and worn out by the time the sun sets. Whether the elements are brutal (as they have been over this shoot) or magnificent, shoots are unforgettable due to the shared passion and intimacy all participants feel.

On set J.C. moves at a measured, quick pace, focused but never frantic. He connects with everyone, and in the process keeps long, arduous days light. Producer Neal Dodson spoke about J.C. being very deliberate during scouts of locations, teasing out all options so that by shooting time he knows what he wants, what he needs, and equally important, what is superfluous to the story.

“Hurry up and wait” is a film mantra. There is plenty of downtime as various departments build dolly tracks, set dress, or wait for a plane or a cloud to pass. Between takes J.C. helms the ship: directing, coaxing and preparing for the shoot days ahead, always with a smile and a laugh. What is euphemistically called the “common touch” is actually quite uncommon, especially on film sets, where it is not unusual for directors to become isolated and protected by their power and unique position. It is his ability to connect with anyone on set that enables J.C. to eventually connect with filmgoers via a finished project.

And connect he has, starting with his first feature length film, “Margin Call” (2011) for which he received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Set during the 2008 financial meltdown, the film follows multiple characters at a fictional Wall Street firm over the course of one 24-hour period as they come to the realization that to save themselves they must shatter others’ lives in the process. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott hailed it as “both intimately scaled and dazzling in its sweep and implications.”

No sophomore slump followed, as J.C. challenged himself with an entirely different concept: ditching a dialogue heavy, multi-character story for a 35-page script with one character and zero dialogue. “All is Lost” — with the telling tagline “Never give up”— opened in the Fall of 2013, starring Robert Redford.

“When I met J.C.,” Redford told the Boston Herald, “it was one of those rare situations where you go on instinct. You put yourself very quickly into the hands of someone else because you trust them.”

When outsiders see J.C. walking the red-carpet at awards ceremonies, or lauded in the press as one of the top young directors in America, these are the victory laps of a long uncertain process that starts with him writing alone, working with potential investors, picking crew, and long days on set molding a story.

J.C. spent years after college trying to find a way forward into the film business. Simultaneously working on TV commercials and in real estate, he invested in creative activities while developing business acumen. In 2004 he wrote, produced and directed the excellent short film “Despacito” which touched on some of the same struggles for independence and pride that have become hallmarks in his rapidly growing canon.

But success is not just getting the projects you want made; it is doing so without losing part of yourself in process. J.C. claims that had he gotten success earlier he would not have handled it, and that by having witnessed others get a piece of success and be overwhelmed by it, he stays vigilant and focused on what really matters. He is grounded by his commitment and devotion to wife Cameron, herself a painter, nine-year old daughter Frances and three-year old son Miles, as well as by many friendships in and out of Hollywood. This is, after-all, an industry built on and sustained by relationships; no matter how talented one is, no one can do it alone.

J.C. brought a passion for film with him to the College of Wooster, where he was able to design his own major in cultural film studies. His senior Independent Study (I.S.) provided the young filmmaker with the challenge of developing and producing a feature length film, “The Table”, an exploration of young people looking for direction in a post-college world. In hindsight, J.C. says, it was “a total overreach, too vast in scope and scale…but I got jobs right away after graduation based on it.”

Wooster receives plaudits for finding diamonds in the rough. By expecting young people to invest in serious work, I.S. can serve as a template for future success, as it has with J.C. While thought is appreciated, it is prompting action from the thought that is profound.

J.C. Chandor is next scheduled to start working on a project on football legend Vince Lombardi.

Jeff Randall ’94 is a psychotherapist and documentary photographer. His work is accessible on his website.

Images

Top: J.C. Chandor shooting "A Most Violent Year" on location in Brooklyn, N.Y. (photo: Jeff Randall)
Bottom: J.C. Chandor shares a laugh with director of photography Bradford Young. (photo: Jeff Randall)