As the awards season roars on and the top contenders for the main awards become more distinct, there are also disheartening snubs that don’t quite figure. In the roll call of films being singled out in the past few weeks by critics groups, acting guilds and, this morning, the Golden Globes, there was, to my mind, a very conspicuous omission. MARGIN CALL, writer/director J. C. Chandor’s white hot look at the origins of the current Great Recession, as seen from inside the vaulted highrises of Wall Street movers and shakers, has been a no show for awards consideration. This is extremely surprising, considering that it received some of the most enthusiastic reviews of the year. While Chandor was singled out by the National Board of Review as Best Debut Director and the New York Online Film Critics Circle lauded the film with a NYOFCC Debut Film Award, the film and its stellar cast of actors have not been singled out by any major awards body and the finest ensemble acting of the decade did not get the love from the Screen Actors Guild for its annual SAG Awards. Chandor may do better with the writers’ branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, who may decide to rectify the situation with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nod, and the Writers Guild Of America may also make good with a WGA Award nomination. However it does shake out, however, to this critic’s mind, MARGIN CALL is one of the top films of the year and an important social document on the destructive vagaries of greed.
Chandor knows this rarified world quite well from personal experience. He is the son of a former Merrill Lynch banker and visual art consultant, growing up in banker communities in New York and London. This intimate exposure to the personalities of the people pulling the purse string offered him unusually intimate insights into the financial world at the epicenter of the crisis. With a background in commercial and documentary filmmaking, he wanted to break through to dramatic feature making, and figured it that one’s debut film should be about something with which he was intimately aware of. He wrote the script for MARGIN CALL in 2005, inspired by his experience dabbling in New York’s red-hot real estate market. To the surprise of his friends and himself, a bank lent them $10 million, with few questions asked, to buy a building on the edge of SoHo. The plan was to renovate the property, but they quickly found themselves in over their heads. In 2006, the godfather of one of the group — a former investment banker whose unease about the market was growing — told them, forcefully, they should sell. What seemed like a defeat at the time proved to be a blessing when the market collapsed. “That was the first nugget,” Chandor said in an interview this year. “That idea of the guy who is walking around and thinks he knows what is about to happen but the rest of the world is pressing the accelerator button.”
He built the script up as a character study of different personalities in the same brokerage firm who, over the course of one very long night, must find a strategy to avert economic disaster when their capitalization becomes unnervingly unhinged. Chandor wrote the script to be confined to on location and over the course of a brief amount of time, keeping the budget low enough with the hopes that he could convince a producer to allow him to make his directorial debut with the project. After carrying around the idea for the movie in his head for more than a year, the actual writing came quickly. “I wrote the thing in four days under tremendous duress, frankly,” he says. His goal of a small movie ended up being a boon rather than a constraint for the type of story he wanted to tell. A short shooting schedule of 17 days and the complex characters in his script attracted a stellar cast, including Oscar winners (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons), seasoned pros (Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker) and next-generation standouts (Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley). Each is at the top of their game, infusing the project with subtlety and character, while giving the actors a fantastic opportunity to tell a story almost exclusively via dialogue. In many ways, MARGIN CALL reminds one of great theater or early live television drama….the confined space, the richness of the acting, the elliptical plot and the moral ending.
The film flew under the radar until it was invited to make its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The response there was positive but not rapturous. Several financial oriented films had been box office failures in the past few years, and distributors were concerned that a film that was so invested in bad news and mathematical theorems would be a turn off at the box office. Major distribution players passed on the film, until it finally ended up with the micro distributor Roadside Attractions, a lower budget indie arm of the film’s financier Lionsgate Entertainment. It next was invited to screen in the Main Competition section of the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, where it won even more fans. The film was finally released in the U.S. in October of this year, and has been steadily building.
The film, which was budged at just under $4 million, has so far made over $5 million in U.S. box office and is still in wide theatrical release. However, there is concern that since it is not being crowned in the awards winners circles, that interest may wane in the coming weeks as so many Oscar contenders vie for audience attention. If you have not yet seen this stirring and involving film, make sure to catch it on the big screen, or at least on VOD via your cable or satellite provider. The film’s intimate setting, razor sharp acting and fluid script can certainly be appreciated on the small screen. Whatever the final fate of MARGIN CALL (and it has deserved better), Chandor has emerged as a filmmaker to watch with definite promise, in short the real deal. Actor/producer Leonard DiCaprio was so impressed with MARGIN CALL that he hired the newbie screenwriter as part of a two picture deal with Warner Brothers. Their first project together is PORTOFINO, an international thriller being produced by DiCaprio’s production company Appian Way and which may become a potential vehicle for the Oscar nominated star. Trust me, you are going to hear a lot more about and from J. C. Chandor.