Set in the high-stakes world of the financial industry, Margin Call is an entangling thriller involving the key players at an investment firm during the first 24-hours of the 2008 financial crisis. Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s enthralling first feature is a stark portrayal of the financial industry and its denizens as they confront the decisions that shape our global future.
“As the writer/director it starts from a personal place, so I wrote it to shoot it myself,” explained Chandor. “A lot of what turned out to be the strengths of the script came from production limitations that I placed on myself.”
Chandor explained that he designed the script to turn his weaknesses, (which were mainly budgetary) into strengths. “I knew it was going to be an actor-driven piece that was going to live or die by those performances and I wanted the production to support that. This led to the concept of making a ‘submarine movie’ where you basically trap all of your characters in one place. It came out of the fact that I knew shooting in the summer in New York City, asking a crew at a low-budget level to be moving around every day was a recipe for disaster. Once I contained myself and built a fence around myself, interestingly, the story flourished within that space and I wrote it very quickly. It exploded out of me.”
For Chandor, who has 15 years of experience shooting commercials, documentaries and industrial videos, “It felt like I should write based on what I had available to me as a producer. I had an understanding of many different aspects of production and shooting in New York City. Also this was a story I was interested in. My father had worked in this investment banking world – not like any of the characters in the story – but I’ve lived in communities with bankers all of my life, so I knew who these characters were, and I knew their voices on a fundamental level.”
Chandor explained that the $3.4-million production was shot under an incredibly tight 17-day shooting schedule using Red cameras. And while the film had been in “soft” preproduction for over a year, he had only three weeks of “hard” preproduction after the financing came through. To make it even more challenging, his wife gave birth to his second child in the middle of that short timeframe.
Chandor credits a top-notch New York-based crew, as well as a stellar ensemble cast that recently earned the film the Robert Altman Award, which will be presented to Chandor and casting directors Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey at the Independent Spirit Awards, Feb. 25. The cast included Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci.
But for Chandor, the first main hire was cinematographer Frank DeMarco. “I met with him and we really hit it off. He really saw an opportunity to visually support the story,” said Chandor. “He is a wonderful DP and he really excelled in exactly this kind of piece. He had just come off working on John Cameron Mitchell’s film Rabbit Hole, which was also an actor-driven piece, and they had also shot with the Red camera.”
“There was a great little community that we tapped into in New York,” said Chandor. “Our A.D. Scott Lazar runs a neat little troop of people who go from film to film together. Shooting a film in 17 days was a real challenge, but he came up with a master plan for how we were going to tackle this. The schedule was ridiculous because we basically had eight very busy actors that all had to be scheduled, but he did a masterful job and we managed to figure out a way to pull it off.”
According to Chandor, a big part of that success was the location they managed to find, which enabled the shoot to progress efficiently. “The set was a gift from the movie gods,” he said. “We were about to sign a contract on a different location and we got a phone call from a real-estate investor who had originally been considering investing in the film. He called me up because I had asked him, ‘if you come across anything location-wise, let me know.’”
The caller told him about a building he owned, where a hedge fund had recently vacated the entire 42nd floor. “I got off the elevator on that 42nd floor and for a low-budget film that didn’t have the time or the money to rebuild a space, it was perfect. We turned the corner and there was a full trading floor. It had no computers, but it had all of the desks, cubicles and corner offices.”
“We shot 85 percent of the film in that building. Our dressing rooms, our camera department, grip department and art department, all had offices and storage on this one floor. So we were incredibly efficient in the way we were shooting, because we were able to be pre-lighting one scene down the hall while we were shooting another.”
He explained that the art department had a monumental task because the floor was far bigger than what they had budgeted for. “Bloomberg Trading Terminals came in and gave us about 400 computer-trading terminals. Our art department, along with the Bloomberg installers, set up the whole trading floor. Our production designer John Paino did a beautiful job under adverse conditions, with only three weeks to prep. But he managed to pull it off.”
He also credits the film’s gaffer Radium Cheung and key grip Caswell Cooke with working long hours to make the film possible in that timeframe. “We were shooting sometimes 13-14 hours a day. To end up with a crew like that, who were there to support me and help get my idea up there on the screen, was absolutely wonderful – more than I could have asked for.”
Chandor explained that the post process was far less hectic, with a little over five months to finish the film. During that time he worked closely with editor Pete Beaudreau.
“I oversaw the entire film and Pete was amazing,” said Chandor. “He and I are working together again on my next film. He’s a really skilled guy. He is great at getting what I’m going for, which was very concise, not overdrawn or overdone, but still maintaining an intensity throughout the entire film. He’s very skilled at maintaining the scope of the performances.”
In terms of sound, Chandor explained that he wanted to combine tragic dramatic elements with something that felt more like a thriller. “My supervising sound editor, Damian Volpe and sound re-recording mixer Roberto Fernandez of Sound One in New York, did a masterful job,” said Chandor. “We used a lot of ambient noises from contemporary office environments trying to create sort of ‘instruments’ and music out of those. So there’s often an undercurrent of air conditioners, and moaning and groaning of things in the building. We really wanted the space to feel like it was closing in on the characters.”
“I think this project has been very lucky,” he concluded. “In this case the wind was really at our backs.”