Filmmaker J.C. Chandor on His 15-Year Journey to Make Margin Call


When you have a cast like this on your first feature, how much of your job becomes just giving them the script and getting out of the way? How hands-on are you with guys like Kevin Spacey or Jeremy Irons?

The interesting thing is that I had a tremendous leg-up in the command of the material. Some of them needed to be brought up to speed. So when you think of a lot of the ego battles that often happen in an actor-director relationship, I sort of had a bit of a leg-up immediately because I wrote it. That's a major element. As a writer-director, the actors do give you a level of respect right off the bat knowing that this is my film, essentially. It's not like I'm bringing it from some other source.

But you'd have to be an idiot, in my position, to not watch them do three or four takes and see what happens. Obviously, you see what Kevin Spacey's going to do for you! [Laughs] I guess the juicy part of the answer to the question is that at times it wasn't going where I [wanted]. I knew the movie I wanted to make; we weren't experimenting or anything. It's a procedural film. One thing is absolutely required to build one thing on another. The film kind of runs like that. There were really intense times. It's a life's worth of work. You have to go up to Jeremy Irons and be like, "Totally off the mark here, dude. This is not where we needed you to be." It was an amazing experience in my life. Once you kind of go there with them, and you know what you're talking about, they are professionals, and they respect that, and it began these relationships that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

And of course Irons's role as the CEO is the only unambiguously bad guy in the movie. The tone is supposed to be pitched, right?

What we always wanted to relate is that this is what he's hired to do. The interesting thing in that board-room scene with him and Spacey -- well, all of the scenes, really -- Spacey is wrong, and Irons is right. That doesn't mean he was right two and a half years ago, when he was saying, "Let's step on the gas! Keep going!" He was obviously wrong. But at this particular moment, Kevin Spacey's character is totally off the mark. Don't tell poor Kevin that, because we wanted him to believe his character is right. But in the end, if they had kept these on their books, it would have put the company out of business. And these aren't grandmothers in Wichita they're selling this stuff to. It's other educated buyers. These are institutions trading with each other -- which I did on purpose.

Certainly there were other cases where things are more questionable morally. But this is on that borderline, where what you're doing is putting other businesses out of business. Not to say that's any better. But Irons's character, by the rules of capitalism, is entirely within the right. He has a piece of information before anybody else does that could threaten his company, and he chooses to take action on it. On paper he's the most evil guy there. But he's making the decision that you, as a shareholder, have hired him to make. That's why he's there.

Yet you could still tell how much he relished nailing that guy to the wall.

Right. And I also came into it with this insane confidence that I'd been waiting 15 years for this opportunity. This is making a little bit light of the situation, but essentially, I walked on to that set saying, "Who gives a crap if this is Kevin Spacey? He is an amazing lump of clay who is probably going to give me a greater performance than anyone else I could have cast in that role, but I'm here to make the movie I know I want to make." Probably, had I gotten this opportunity 10 years earlier, I wouldn't have been able to do that. I was a pretty immature guy at 26. But I knew the movie I wanted to make, and I was given the gift of these actors, and they were all there for the right reason. They weren't making a ton of money. It was a movie they wanted to make.

I don't think I'll ever have an experience like that again, obviously. Some of those board-room scenes, where you have all of those people in one room... It was more when I'd walk out, back to the video village, and I'd be like, "Did I just walk out of that board room with all of those actors that are saying my words?" [Laughs] After all the time I'd been waiting, it was a pretty intense dream come true.

So what is the next experience you're hoping to have? What's in development for you?

I don't know. [Shouting across room] Neal, has the money come in yet?

Margin Call co-producer Neal Dodson: We're working on it!

Chandor: I wrote something, and it is cast, and we are hopefully going into production in the next month or two here.

But there are no details?

[Dodson shakes his head.]

Chandor: Not yet. We need the money to hit a bank account.

Dodson: But feel free to say, "Someone should write these guys a blank check!"

Chandor: [Laughs] It's a very challenging, very different, crazy, not topical, very little dialogue, fun piece. It's very different from a directing standpoint. But I had this amazing opportunity; I've been waiting all this time, and this film's been very well received. We made our investors' money back, plus a hefty return. So all joking aside about not having the money, there are people now interested in us -- coming to us -- to make a movie, potentially. We're trying to find the right fit. It's a very challenging process to finance, but could be really fun to make.

Margin Call opens Friday in limited release. Read Stephanie Zacharek's review from the 2011 Berlin Film Festival here.

[Top photo: Getty Images]

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  • I've reviewed Margin Call in a post modern reading through Jean Baudrillard. The film is a perfect reading of Baudrillardian thought on consumerism and floating signifiers. C handor is great and it's another win for Roadside

  • Josh Keller says:

    when I saw the film 2 weeks ago on an air canada flight, there was a different ending than seen in the theatres. The earlier viewing had a better ending with info on what happened to some of the key players. Why was this removed from the theatrical release?

  • acey says:

    There is an entirely separate censoring process that films undergo to create the airline broadcast version. Apparently there is something in the end of the film that was considered objectionable by the airlines for some reason. Without being able to compare the two endings, I can't guess what that might be, but sometimes it's really weird the things they cut.

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  • I went looking to download "All Is Lost," and found the making-of-the-film, So after I watched the clip, I just had to look up the link of where you were from! There were so many similarities in the lingo mentioned in the production-clip, along with the detailed description of the water-catchment device in that film; It just reminded me so much of teambuilding activities we did at CLI Teen Leadership Training with the Diocese of Erie & Pittsburgh! LOL! I thought for moment that you were a fellow CLI Alumni! NJ? Oh well, I guess it was just the "Up-With-People" era of the Hug-it-Out 1980's that we all grew up in! Anyway; Thanks for sharing this interview! I loved "Margin Call" and recommended it to my Option Trading Classmates at Better Trades as a great final quiz of trader knowledge and emotional strength! LOL! Yes, I believe I posted to the page that I was studying trading on a break from my MBA, only to watch the few dollars I had saved up and used to open my first options account be swept away in the crash and trading-floor freeze of 2008... and saw a real Margin Call drawn on my account even when I had no trades open at the time.... Well; golly-be! They erased the fee in 2012! Although I have never traded since, I am thankful for the prayers from all who read that post and experienced something similar! I guess time does heal old wounds, however slowly. LOL! I have yet to see "All is Lost," but I am so glad that ZQ posted the screen-play of it to his page. (Old dogs... my New Year's resolution is to learn how to download a full-length film!) I follow very few actors, but I was told, (and have a suspicion that it is true;) that Z was a former Older-Camper-Scamper of mine from PA,... so I keep tabs on his work, (though I likely sound like a nut by trying to post comments but not share too many granny-like detail of our typical 1980's childhoods, while pouring out my emotional commentary on both of your work! LOL! I love how your films have tied right in to my course projects in Business, and now in Tacit-Knowledge & Hybrid-pedagogy studies for my Instructional Design Degree...(You realize that both the teens and the young teachers today don't realize where the Cup-Game actually came from! LOL... Silly hipsters.... 😉 Yes kids, Perfect Pitch invented that - Not!) As a fan of inter-generational education & therapeutic-recreation; I appreciate your work with Hollywood & Broadway's elders. Your respect for them has, and will continue, to take you quite far! I surely hope that, like "Margin Call," that "All is Lost" can be used as a Docu-Drama/Cinema-Therapy/Teachable-MOment-Film too! I remember watching "The Power of One" at age 15, and following that up with a debriefing-chat at CLI Teen Leadership Retreat one night, only to watch that chat shape the course of 50 young lives toward empathy, volunteerism, and local and world service missions. (According to the peace & Justice Director at College, our college graduating years had the highest percentage levels of volunteerism on record, and no one could trace back to the origins of why that was so... ) So; If you ever have the opportunity to create a charitable foundation with ZQ: Please consider offering your intelligent movies as free downloads to middle-school and high school history and electives teachers / coaches / youth-group leaders / scout troupe leaders, etc., along with instructional talking-points, so that they can make an exponential impact far beyond being just great films. (No self-serving request here, I run a 501c3 now since I left the teaching career...) As an MBA, IDT, and soon to be PhD student studying Non-profit Management; I can tell you that there is so much repetition out there... and aside from George Lucas, so few foundations Honor the wisdom of teachers and mentors... so few honor media-literacy as a solution to world challenges... and so very few provide multi-media resources as instructional tools for elder children, teens, and young adults. Your work is powerful, intellectual, and quite sensory. You two can do more than make great movies... your movies can make a difference if only we can re-teach the young teachers how to use them as tools the way they did "way back when" in the 80's. 😉 In Joy, Eileen Callejas, MBA, MA, AC (Pending MS & PhD!) - / Happy Holidays!

  • Michael Anthony Pope says:

    Not to mince words JC Chandor is a "Wanker" he took my account of an encounter with Typhoone Axel in 1992 on board my 38 ft "Summer Vatican" screwed it up and made it a lot less dramatic and included many impossible scenarios and got an award for the most original Screenplay. He obviously has never sailed offshore or attempted even the easiest of the displayed tricks "All is Lost" is a poetic title but abreviated should read All is lost for Chandler back to the unemployment line.