March 14, 2019
J.C. Chandor on Refuting the Auteur Theory, the Scope of ‘Triple Frontier,’ and Oscar Isaac as Donald Rumsfeld
J.C. Chandor has the same energy as the squad on screen in Triple Frontier. You can read his thoughts giddily bouncing around his head before they can spill out. It doesn’t matter if you ask him about stunt helicopter crashes or character psychology, he taps into wells of energy when talking about his cinematic work. This story by Mark Boal and executive produced by Kathryn Bigelow covers familiar territory within the masculine heist film but is visually distinct, courtesy of cinematography by Roman Vasyanov.
Although the movie is attributed to Chandor, it’s clear from our discussion that Triple Frontier belongs to the non-auteur tradition in Hollywood, but it also doesn’t come across as generated by Netflix’s algorithm. We discussed his writer, cast, and cinematographer’s contributions on the biggest project he’s helmed to date. Chandor talks about creating a nearly CGI-free, stunt helicopter crash that kicks off the movie’s spectacular second half. And he discusses Oscar Isaac’s character as a Donald Rumsfeld-type whose get rich quick plan is thwarted by human frailties from the madness of war.
Is this the first time you didn’t direct a story of your own?
J.C. Chandor: I have a career as a writer so I’ve definitely worked on collaborative stories. I worked on the Deepwater Horizon movie for years as a writer, and was gonna direct that, so as a writer I had picked up things, but as a director, yes, it was the first time. That was on purpose. I had done the exact same process three times in a row and I was very humbled to be able to do that, but I did feel it sort of atrophying some of my directing, because when you write something from scratch, it’s cemented in your head from the minute you think up the idea, and you’re not able late in the process as a director to sort of throw out your emotional attachment. It can kind of atrophy you as a storyteller. You also just don’t tell as a wide a scope of stories because the human brain can only have certain strengths as a writer. So I think it was fun to take on a story I would have never thought up. Mark Boal’s take on the story is one of the things that drew me to it when I first read it. It’s not to say that I won’t go back and do the other thing because if I get the chance I certainly will, but it was definitely an on purpose decision to try and free myself up as a director a little bit.
That’s interesting because there’s such an emphasis on the writer-director auteur. It’s cool to hear you say that directing someone else’s story actually frees you up as a director.
Some of the auteur writer-directors I based my career on, who are my heroes—7, 8, 9 movies in—there starts to be limitations. If you compare it to what David Fincher does, which is not really what I’m aiming for either because he doesn’t really write anything, but the freedom he feels to just throw things out and rewrite the whole thing and put the beginning of the movie at the end, he has sort of a willingness to try different stuff. He’s been kind of a mentor to me. When you are so in your own head it can be limiting. Trust me, from an ego standpoint I’m like, “I’m the writer/director guy!” and that’s my whole schtick, but I realized especially on A Most Violent Year, there were certain orthodoxies, certain rules I was afraid to mess up with my own writing and when I analyzed it, it was because I was so personally invested in every little cranny. I wanted to make sure I stretched myself earlier on.
Roman Vasyanov’s visuals of the jungle are spectacular. Especially the scene that transitions from Garrett to the top of the jungle.
Roman is so awesome. He’s stuck with this movie. He signed on and then the movie got moved and he stayed with me. I love him dearly as a person, but he’s also one of those brains that’s like a genius. He’s literally a visual genius, and so he’s the exact kind of person I love hiring cause they make you look good! And he’s so engaging in storytelling. It was a great combination because I had never done this level of action, and to have him there with his amazing experience, and he’s though so young and kind of fell into all that action. He’s a quite sophisticated guy from Russia. He grew up in that Soviet artistic system where he’s so well educated. He has the smartest film knowledge of any person I’ve ever worked with. So having someone who’s capable of going to battle and walking up mountains and put the camera in crazy places and know how to blow things up, but also be interested in creating a character study and having the visuals tell that story, it was a pretty cool combination. He kind of protected my weak side and he was trying to learn more and more about storytelling for me. It was a pretty dreamy collaboration.
How much of the helicopter crash in the movie was a real stunt?
[Laughs.] A lot of it. We had the most amazing stunt and air stunt, the aerial guy is this Frenchman whose one of the most famous stunt pilots in the world. That real helicopter, which we fought for, it would have been a lot cheaper to use a different helicopter but those crazy Russian MI8’s… I think the first time I saw one of them was in one of the Rambo movies, so it’s actually one of the most common helicopters in the world. But because of the Cold War, they don’t allow them in the U.S. really, so we had a really tough time getting it. I visualized when I read that sequence, I wanted it to be this sort of this hulking thing that shouldn’t be flying. Once we actually found one and got it in the country, we were able to buy a second one which was the dummy you see at the end that’s all mangled. So between the real crashed helicopter and the one that flies, 80-85% of those shots are this stunt guy just doing crazy stuff. Luckily, I was not in the airplane for most of it, and then the flying stuff with the actors inside were certainly done with trickery and stagework, but the actual crashing sequence where they come down the mountain and circle the howl valley, that’s actually the Jurassic Park valley in Hawaii that we digitally changed the mountain range, but the actual village and the plane flying over it and Garrett Hedlund’s character hanging out–it wasn’t always Garrett hanging out, it was a stunt man, but it was all real, and obviously I’ve never had the resources before in my career to really play with that, but when I read the sequence I wanted it to.
A lesson I learned on All is Lost is, I think what’s so neat about where computer-generated imagery is right now, is that audiences are so used to seeing it taken into sort of the fantasy realm, superheroes and things that don’t exist on Earth, that when you use the CGI on things that do exist but we’ve never been able to show from different visual perspectives. Redford’s point of view in All is Lost is an old man in a boat. In the old days, no one’s gonna spend $100 million dollars. It had to be The Perfect Storm to represent that storm, but the storm technology has become so more affordable that for a $10 million dollar art film, we were able to use it, and what was cool is that most people have never felt what it was like to be in the middle of a storm like that. So the hope with the helicopter crash was to do the same thing, to show the story element in real practical terms of what it feels like to be in a helicopter crash.
Will you talk about the madness that takes over Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck) character?
Yeah, it’s intense. The film kind of operates on two levels. One level, we have this classic, testosterone-driven action film. I wanted to make sure I serviced that because that’s the foundational element of the story, that it’s a good old-fashioned heist picture. But what’s great about Mark’s original story–and I helped over the years to flesh it out once the actors got involved–was to bring this sort of subtextual element, which was that these characters had been fighting a war for like twenty years. America’s has been fighting this war for twenty years and there has been this whole group of people that had to fight that war for us. Frankly, and not to bring it into the current political climate, but certainly one of the reasons we have the political situation we do is that so many of those Republican voters felt misled by getting involved in these wars that essentially never ended. That was not the original intent. The original intent was shock and awe: we were gonna kill the bad guys, set up some oil companies, get rich while we’re doing it and wave some American flags and send us home.
In a fun way, Oscar Isaac’s character is the Donald Rumsfeld here, he’s got the plan that’s too good to be true: we’re going to get revenge and kill this bad guy and make the country a better place and we’re going to get rich. That’s not the way the world works, as we’ve learned, and the film kind of mirrors that without ever having to speak to it. It’s sort of who the characters are. Ben’s character who is the oldest and is the leader—and this is all backstory and I’m sure he played it in his own way—but for me as the storyteller, I felt that he towards the end of his career had probably been driven a little bit mad by the assignment. “Go into this country, act like a policeman, kill the bad guy” and six months later the “bad guy is the good guy and he’s on your side and now go and kill these other people.” If you look at what a 45-year-old professional, 20-year soldier has been through, it’s pretty maddening when you talk to the guys who have done this work on our behalf. They’ve been asked to do a lot of things and none of it has amounted to too much, and I think it’s very maddening for them.
While the film was always intended to be like a parable and certainly we weren’t saying there’s tons of veterans out here doing this, the film was always meant to operate in this fun, metaphoric place, but as it relates to his personal character, I think he lost his breaks. It is about money for me, but in a weird way so much, and I think this is true for money for all of us… I’ve been pretty damn broke in my life and I’ve had times when I felt I had money in my pocket, but once you’re past a certain level of comfort it’s not so much about the money, it’s about the ego and the feedback that your worth something and that society judges you by it. So in a cool way, what I like to play with the Redfly character, while the greed of money is there, it’s the feeling of being alive again. In that moment what you’re talking about where he kind of turns, it’s almost as if he doesn’t want it to be over. If they run into the forest and go home, the saga is over and he’s back in his old life by Tuesday morning. I thought that moment was about a person feeling more alive than they had in four or five years. I mean there’s no way you can draw a comparison between the life and death shit these guys go through and making a movie, but the thrill you get from making a movie and going to back to your old life. it can be a difficult transition. I think on a much, much more serious level that’s what these guys deal with. It’s a sort of like a retired professional athlete and after three or four years they ask the guy to be a wide receiver in the Super Bowl. It’s a tall order, so I think he just started making mistakes.
Psychologically, I felt such a resonance between this movie and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. It’s basically guys in a jungle doing a really tough mission for some money. I was wondering if that movie or any other movie served as inspiration?
I appreciate the reference because a couple of really smart film people, smarter than me, have drawn that comparison. And I used to watch a ton of movies. While writing or directing I have a really hard time… a lot of directors I really respect, if they were gonna make All is Lost they would watch the ten best survival movies before they go into it and realize what they wanna do and wanna change, but I’m sort of the opposite. I never watch anything remotely similar while writing or directing. [Laughs.] I don’t know what it’s from, it’s just a fear of feeling insecure that you’re ripping something off. I think I saw Sorcerer probably 15 or 20 years ago, I’m embarrassed to say. The answer is sort of no. [Laughs.] I wish I was enough of a cinephile to have great references. I think the reference you’re picking up on, which is exciting for me, is that there aren’t a lot of these movies that are trying to be two things. It feels like in the last 10 years the marketplace has moved to $200 million dollar pure fantasy or it’s moved to under $15 million dollar hyperreality, and there’s sort of very few film getting made in the in between. And those are the movies I love as a viewer. Sadly, I think right now those movies in the middle are very few and far between. When you take a classic period like the 70s when that movie was made, that’s what the entire industry was built around.
Triple Frontier is now on Netflix.