Production Designer John Goldsmith: “Isolation is one of the larger ideas in the story — there's a kind of loneliness in the way that Abel and Anna are fighting on their own, and the snow greatly enhanced this.”
Abel [Oscar Isaac] and his attorney Andrew Walsh [Albert Brooks] discuss the safety of his drivers, as the trucks continue to be hijacked. There were several garage bays, a locker room, sales training room and funky offices to fully dress…
"The greatest aesthetic challenge was not getting mired in cliché period trappings of the 1980s. I didn't want the movie to be some kind of camp walk through the hits of the era..." Director J.C. Chandor
The searing crime drama A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the gripping story plays out in and around the five boroughs, within a maze of rampant political and industry corruption plaguing the streets of a city in decay.
The film examines an outsider’s determined climb up a morally crooked ladder, where simmering rivalries and unprovoked attacks threaten his business, his family and his unwavering belief in the ‘rightness’ of his path. Abel Morales [Oscar Isaac], a Latin American immigrant, and his Brooklyn-bred wife Anna [Jessica Chastain] are building and expanding a small heating-oil enterprise purchased from Anna's gangster father. Vowing to run the business legitimately, Morales tries to adhere to his own moral compass amid widespread corruption and violence.
Equal parts an intimate examination of an ambitious immigrant transforming himself into an American business magnate, and an epic glimpse at a familiar metropolis enduring transitional change during a dangerous period, the film analyzes the cost of doing business in America, and the lengths some will go to achieve success on their own resolute terms. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR journeys in a bold new direction, toward the place where best intentions yield to raw instinct, and where we are most vulnerable to compromise what we know to be right. -Participant Media
To make that journey, Chandor relied on Director of Photography Bradford Young, Production Designer John P. Goldsmith, Set Decorator Melanie Baker SDSA, Costume Designer Kassia Walicka-Maimone and a small team of other dedicated professionals.
“One of the things J.C. noted early on, was this notion of duality in the way Abel presented himself to the world, and what was behind that façade," says Goldsmith. "I started thinking about the spirit of those times and how it could be evoked through our settings. There was a great deal of decay in New York City in 1981. A lot of people were leaving the city. But there was also a kind of excess... We wanted to explore the tension between luxury and decay and bring that out in our design."
Young adds, "I wanted to frame in a sharp and precise way the sort of elegance and refined quality of decay that the city was experiencing during that time." He and Chandor wanted a wide, expansive feel, so much of the film is shot in widescreen. "The movie has a very disciplined, restrained feel to it,” Young describes. “We tried to be mindful of architecture, structure and lines in addition to the symmetry of bodies against landscape."
Morales new house…
With that perspective, Baker relates, “John had a very specific look in mind. We based our selections on the idea that the Morales-es were aspirational people who had the money to hire a professional decorator to make their home look the way they assumed they were ‘supposed to,’ but that the striving…like the clothes being just a bit too heavy, or Anna’s nails a bit too long…was strident, there was something just ‘off’ about it all.”
"We were dealing with this couple who have great ambitions and who want to present themselves to the world as having arrived. This shows through most of all in their sleek architect-designed modernist Westchester home,” Goldsmith points out. “At the same time, their level of sophistication falls short of what you might find in the pages of Architectural Digest.”
“We needed something more grounded than the museum-quality, high-end, iconic pieces from the period,” adds Baker. “Something more in keeping with the idea, ‘You can take the girl out of Queens, but you can't take the Queens out of the girl.’ We also didn't want anything to feel as if it had been curated in 1981…it all needed to feel accumulated over time, particularly the workplace, which was not at all a showplace.”
For reference, they used magazines of the period and the ubiquitous Sears catalogue, as well as Baker’s personal set of 18 volumes of Good Decorating & House Improvement from the late 1970's and Better Homes and Gardens decorating and hardware books of the time. Architectural firm Gwathmey Siegel’s work served as inspiration for the house; key for the overall look of the film were vintage photographs by Carl Burton and by Dinanda H. Nooney.
For the new Morales home, Baker reveals, “We worked with mostly creamy pastel colors…we were stylistically aligning with the costumes Anna and Abel were in… neutral grays, beiges, creams and interesting textures, with brass and chrome accents.”
“We wanted it to feel as if they had moved a small collection of furnishings from a cramped home into an expansive space that now felt under-dressed,” she explains. “For instance, the bedroom had Bertoia wire chairs and a dated bedroom set [John Koch Antiques] which we assumed came from their old house, purchased early in their marriage. In the living room were flokati rugs [Carpet Time], a pair of Harvey Prober chairs, a leather table and a period couch, which we found in a thrift store. I placed a Saarinen table with blonde Breuer chairs in the kitchen, and John designed an oversized white laminate table for the dining room, which I paired with black Breuer chairs and hanging globe lights [City Knickerbocker]. Lauren Poster did the large paintings in the living room, dining room, and bedroom. Her father…our graphic designer Ariel Poster’s grandfather…was the painter Jules Olitzki.”
Standard Heating Oil…
The small offices of their Standard Heating Oil business were the opposite. "Almost relics at the time, they were probably original to the building and had only been updated with a piece or two when Abel purchased the business from his father-in-law twelve years before our story sets,” Baker says. “The main furniture in their shared office was dressing that would have been in Anna's father's office for a long time, although the chairs facing Abel's desk are a little newer, with a velvet much more plush than what the father would have had. But those chairs force you to sit straight up, almost at attention, in front of Abel. Next to Anna's desk were Saarinen chairs for Knoll, which were very new for that time frame. The varied lamps were, again, from Anna's dad's time, and the vintage phones were brought in by Propmaster Vinny Mazzarella.”
“The maps were key pieces for the storyline. One was a NYC street map of the time, which had the oil tanks pinpointed and pins for all the accounts in neighborhoods that 'belonged' to his competitors.” Abel's strategy to expand his business involved poaching customers, “but in a nice way, by being the best,” was his refrain. “There is also a map from 1904 of NYC and the Hudson River, an important, but subtle, plot point,” says Baker. “I found 3 adding machines in a vintage shop that I thought were great for background and was really pleased that one was then used for Anna…it’s kind of larger than life, like she is.”
“For the dressing for the garages in the office complex, we used lots of mechanic’s tools, oil drums and parts from oil trucks. Finding the oil furnaces for the sales training area was difficult. Props bought one and set dec got a couple. Together, with all the extra pieces and hardware, we were able to get the right look. I discovered some old maintenance catalogs that helped a lot for the look and showed the correct way to clean the furnace.”
For the exteriors, Baker says, “We installed the fencing that separated Abel's property from the one he was trying to buy and an operable chain-link gate that gave a ‘locked-down protected/separated-from-the-city’ feel. Our art department made false front panels for the tanks for the end scene…and they did a huge mural on top of the building promoting Standard Heating Oil, which is still there!” She relates, “After awhile, we became aware of all the oil trucks moving through the city, usually unnoticed. It’s such an important part of our lives, yet you never realize its presence around you.”
Other key sets…
Baker gives thumbnails about some of the other key sets:
“I wish we had seen onscreen more of what we dressed in for this set. Peter Forente was the one who had had money for a long time, coming from a Mafioso family. In his fortress-like house, besides the brass-studded leather wing chairs and winged settees, and the butler’s coffee table that we saw, there was a beautiful over-sized desk on the other side of the room, a gaming table, the cigar smoking chairs and a huge rug that filled the room…the rich man's cave.”
Julian’s crumbling outer-borough tenement apartment, the interior is not the usual depiction of tenement living:
“Julian is hoping to be the next Abel. He and his wife Luisa are aspiring to look upscale with little money. JC wanted them to be, ‘down, but not out.’ Their world was to be clean and well organized, with a more colorful palette. The drapes were the key element here.”
House of Josef, the Hasidic owner of the property Abel is trying to buy:
“As John says ‘Josef is careful with all of his investments’…and when you want furniture to last, wrap it in plastic! My favorite…the little accent pillows that were wrapped in their own plastic covers. The crew really liked that as well! The bookshelves were filled with a large number of family pictures and artifacts important in the Hasidic culture.”
“The best part of this funky set is where Abel is sitting, perched uncomfortably, on the multicolored gang seat against the wood-paneled wall. His classic camel-hair coat and silk-wool suit juxtaposed with the plastic-vinyl seating.”
The Assistant District Attorney’s office plus the lobby, passageway and courtroom: Crammed, overcrowded office, over-worked public servants…Overwhelmed with cases, the government is in disarray. The city is breaking down, literally buried in paperwork.”
When asked if there were any surprises, other than weather, Baker replies, “The fact that, with no money, we were able to get so many great locations! And that we were able to get great pieces of furniture that fit the period through reproductions and prop houses like Eclectic Encore, Bridge Props, Arenson and PropNspoon.”
…and then there was snow…
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR filmed over 40 days in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, Long Island and Westchester, during one of the harshest winters in New York City's history, with temperatures dipping below freezing levels for much of the shoot and regular storms dumping drifts of snow on meticulously conceived outdoor sets. “In fact, one of our exterior locations in Long Island was actually used as the dumping ground for all of the snow on the LIE [Long Island Expressway]!” Baker relates. “That created mounds of snow on the set 10 to 15 feet high.”
“Traveling to the sets was very time consuming and sometimes dangerous, as in 7½ hours to go 30 miles,” she continues. “We had so many things that were lost in transit, damaged, or late that it became a running joke. I spent many a night at the Fed Ex depot searching with the employees, looking for my blinds, hardware, books etc. They would just roll their eyes when I walked in. To overcome these things John and I always talked about having a Plan B…and maybe a Plan C!”