Vulture is speaking to the screenwriters behind 2014's most acclaimed movies about the scenes they found most difficult to crack. Which pivotal sequences underwent the biggest transformations on their way from script to screen? Today, we spoke to writer-director J.C. Chandor about the sequence in A Most Violent Year in which oil distributor Abel (Oscar Isaac) finally decides to go after the mysterious men who've been hijacking his oil trucks for months. The scene is then excerpted below.
What I wanted to do was have that big final chase sequence be visceral and exciting, all the things that are why I love action movies. I wanted to give you those same thrills, but have it be representative of what the movie is about, which is realistic and human-scaled. It's an emotional chase sequence, basically. There's an ethical decision at play.
As a writer-director, my scripts are normally very locked by the time I'm shooting the movie, but I'm then able to be very comfortable on set and try things because I know the movie I want to make. That whole chase sequence was something where I knew what I wanted and I knew what I had written, and I realized I could continue to have it grow as we shot it. The real change for the entire sequence was the shoes. Oscar came out for one of the early shooting days, and the stunt person was asking me to put him in black sneakers that looked like his dress shoes. Oscar's a pretty good athlete, and I realized that if we put him in sneakers running around, it wouldn't look like this guy being lured into revenge — he'd be flying through it, looking like Tom Cruise. Throughout the film, he's wearing these leather-bottom loafers, and the fact that he's running around corners and hobbling over rocks like a real person in his dress shoes … that's when it all clicked for me, that's when I understood what I wanted that scene to be about. Sadly, it led to Oscar falling on his ass. Which is in the film!
The other big change was finding the tunnel we shot in. We were on a scout in a rough part of New York City, and drove over this overpass with an amazing train trellis, where there were these four tunnels and only one of them was operational. I literally turned around and said, "What is that?" It was the old Atlantic Yards terminal, and I asked, "Would they ever let us drive through there?" And with his typically adventurous location scout mentality, my young location scout was like, "Well, let me find out!" And the next day, we were back at that same place. A member of the railroad group was driving in front of us in an SUV, and he didn't tell us what he was going to do. We're following him in the scout van, we cross the tracks, and then he freakin' drives into the tunnel — just like Abel! All of us in the scout van are kind of laughing that we're about to follow him into this thing, and then we do, and we just go silent. We're all filmmakers and we knew we were in a perfectly controlled environment … but we were scared. It was a very weird feeling driving into total darkness like that — it's literally like you're being drawn into hell. Sometimes, filmmaking days are miserable and they don't end up anything like you wanted them to. Others don't end up anything like you planned, and they're the greatest days you can imagine — and that scout day was one of them. That day in the tunnel became the foundation of our entire sequence.
In gangster movies, since the '30s, there are usually these two big set pieces, but how do you incorporate a big set piece into a movie that's essentially a character study? For some people whom the movie's not working for, they feel like this chase scenes comes out of nowhere, but the way I tried to make the movie is that all the violence in the movie is ingrained in these characters' lives, and supposed to be human-scaled and not movie-scaled. There are all these people who've been saying, "It's called A Most Violent Year and it's not even violent," but I would ask a real person living on planet Earth, "If they went through the things that happen to these two characters in the movie, wouldn't that be the most violent year of their life?" Unless you're a freaking sociopath, the answer is probably yes! Your trucks are stolen, and sometimes the drivers are beaten brutally. Some horrible guy leave a gun that your daughter finds. Your wife has gone out and gotten a gun because she's so desperate, and used it in front of you — and then there's a whole lot that happens near the end that I won't spoil. That's a pretty bad year!