Sidney Lumet echoes in Margin Call director J. C. Chandor's films
The late film critic Roger Ebert once described Sidney Lumet as "one of the finest craftsmen and warmest humanitarians among all film directors". Over his half-century career, Lumet, who died in 2011 at the age of 86, directed such classics as 1957's 12 Angry Men, 1975's Dog Day Afternoon, 1976's Network and 1982's The Verdict.
More recently, Lumet's influence fuelled the films of writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose A Most Violent Year won the National Board of Review's 2014 best film, actor (for Oscar Isaac) and supporting actress (for Jessica Chastain) awards in December.
Set in 1981 - a turbulent time in New York - the thriller revolves around an ambitious immigrant (Isaac) who tries not to get his hands dirty as he attempts to expand his heating oil company - and finds the task more difficult and dangerous than he expected. Adding to his woes are the actions of his strong-willed wife (Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn mobster from whom he bought the company.
The gregarious Chandor, 41, says he's flattered his film is being talked about in the same breath as Lumet's work. But he doesn't think that after just three films - Margin Call in 2011, All is Lost in 2013, and A Most Violent Year - he's quite on Lumet's level. "He's rolling over in his grave probably," Chandor says, laughing.
At the same time, the filmmaker does not deny Lumet's influence on his work. "When we were trying to raise money for Margin Call, I remember people saying, 'Isn't this more of a stage play?' I kept saying, 'Are you a fan of 12 Angry Men?' In that film you are seeing the truth or the perceived truth come across people's faces. You have these realisations that people are turning in front of you. In Margin Call, there's certainly a [David] Mamet element in the writing, but it was more like 12 Angry Men," he says.
And it's hard not to watch A Most Violent Year without recalling Prince of the City, Lumet's gritty, acclaimed 1981 crime drama about a New York narcotics detective (Treat Williams) who reluctantly cooperates with a police corruption investigation, only to discover he can't trust anyone. The protagonists of both films start off believing they are in control of the situation, but as events unfold, they lose control and realise nothing is what it seems.
"There was a mainstream element to what he was doing," Chandor says of Lumet. "The industry at the time supported a broad audience for films about real people dealing with real struggles. Everything is heightened a lot of the time, which is something I put my characters through, visiting them at this moment of heightened stress."
But there's also wonderful clarity, "so they can see their whole life in front of them in a way. I think he is sort of the godfather of films about this sort of real people going through actual challenges we all face."
Chandor first fell in love with movies which watching them on HBO at his home in New Jersey. "I am a suburban middle-class kid," he says. "My mum's a visual artist, and my dad was a mid-level investment banker. I started acting and getting into the arts and doing photography in high school."
Then in his next-to-last year of secondary school, he discovered Stanley Kubrick. "I realised what an auteur was," Chandor says of the visionary filmmaker of cinematic classics such as Spartacus (1960) and Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). "It was very good that my first Kubrick film was 2001: A Space Odyssey", the pioneering sci-fi epic.
Chandor says he saw a lot of Lumet films when they first came out. He got his first opportunity to see the director's earlier work when he moved to New York to attend film courses at New York University. "There was a place called Kim's Video, which was a famous video store. I would pick a director and start at the beginning of their career and work my way through."
The Lumet connection has come full circle. A New York screening of A Most Violent Year was hosted by screenwriter Jenny Lumet ( Rachel Getting Married), Sidney's daughter.
"What's exciting for me is that I'm even getting to make these types of films in this day and age," says Chandor.
Los Angeles Times
A Most Violent Year opens on Thursday