There is a scene of immense dread late into Triple Frontier’s running time. The new thriller from director J.C. Chandor features an all-star cast of testosterone, including Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, and Charlie Hunnam, that’s seen their badass “men on a mission” status degraded to quasi-well-intentioned bandits rushing $200 million up the side of the Andes mountains. Once proud special forces soldiers who sneered at the private sector, when the opportunity arose to steal more than a quarter-billion dollars from a drug dealer, they took it. And with the most straight-laced, family man in their midst, Tom Redfly Davis (Affleck), being the one urging them to steal evermore bags of cash.
Now those bags weigh down their mules, and they’re being edged closer to a precipitous fall while having the gnawing sensation that someone’s watching. For any fan of classic cinema, like the Oscar nominated Chandor (he wrote and directed Margin Call), the sequence holds an eerie resemblance to Humphrey Bogart’s crescendoing greed on a lonely mountain in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. When we first sit down with Chandor, he even cites it as a point of inspiration for both himself and Tom Hanks when he first boarded the project (it was originally conceived as a Kathryn Bigelow-directed follow-up to The Hurt Locker and intended to star Hanks and Johnny Depp).
Now the film is a reality and Chandor was able to complete it in no small part thanks to Netflix, which backed distributing an adult-skewing action film about good intentions being slowly corrupted. Soon enough Affleck and Chandor were on an actual Colombian mountain with mules staring into the abyss. It’s also chilling since Chandor was able to make an R-rated action movie starring Affleck, a former Batman, in the role of the square-jawed hero who sees a bag of money he can’t resist.
We discuss that very intentional casting, as well as how Triple Frontier subverts genre expectations so thoroughly that it wound up being most at home on a streaming service.
The sequence with the mules on the ledge had my audience on the edge of their seats, and it made me think: when I see men with money on mules, how much of an inspiration was The Treasure of Sierra Madre?
J.C. Chandor: You know this project, it’s had this long and insane journey, so Tom Hanks and his agent were the first people [to reach out]. I guess I had fallen off of the oil rig movie, Deep Water, and they knew that I wanted to do something that I hadn’t originated the writing on, which is why I wanted to try something as a director that I hadn’t done the original writing on, whether it was a book or something. So they knew that that was the case and, I guess, Kathryn at that point had left, so I got an email from Tom Hanks, which is really cool, and in my first response to him, we both basically cross-referenced the movie before each of us had seen the other person’s email. He mentioned it was one of his favorite movies. I had mentioned that that was what I was loosely using as an inspiration. The best version of this would have been that, so it was pretty neat.
So yes, that movie is certainly a touchstone for me. The performances, the sort of structure, really the onion kind of just, the piece, the layers of the onion falling off until you’re left with this sad tattered core. And so, I didn’t go back and watch it again on purpose. It’s a touchstone film for me so I’ve probably seen it 10 times in my youth, but I didn’t go back and watch it again, because I’m very nervous about re-watching stuff before I’m going to shoot something, but it’s definitely a hallmark for the film.
I am curious though when you came on, you did include the mules?
Yes. [Laughs] There were always some mules in the movie, but that sequence was… I came up with the cock-a-mamey idea of throwing 60 million dollars over a cliff.
What do you think the appeal is for men on a mission in cinema?
It’s fun. I think the movie was always intended to be sort of operating on two levels. You have this very muscular, testosterone driven, classic action heist movie, and then in another level, I was hoping to bring in this little bit more metaphoric character element. So I think the visceral guns—and I did a whole movie, A Most Violent Year, which was about not engaging with weapons, but they are just cinematic in their structure. They are usually offensive, they are engaging, you know it creates [tension] for dialogue and for action; it’s a natural; it’s one person; there’s usually someone else that’s being shot at. So if you literally break it down to how you shoot something, going back to the earliest days of cinema, it’s just such a basic sort of cinematic element. But I think, tragically, men, of the people shooting each other in the world today, 98, 99 percent of them are probably men.
It’s something in our testosterone and in our ego, and in our build-up, in our makeup, for the most part, it’s men around the world shooting each other and there’s a lot of people shooting each other. So I think to take the entertainment, fun, structural elements of the action movie, and then kind of have these guys, good guys, for the most part, getting roped into doing a naughty thing is an interesting thing. It was tempting for me.
And still not wanting to shoot.
No, it’s true, but also in a weird way, part of Affleck’s Refly, for me at least as I don’t know exactly how he was playing it, but for me that character, that turn, while it is all about money that’s there, the money is sort of a stand-in for all of us in what’s missing, right? Like I’ve been very poor at times in my life and I’ve had some money in my pocket at others, and as long as you’re not starving to death—then money matters to survive—but besides that, it’s like money is ego, right? Money is standing in for wanting to feel like you have accomplished something and that there’s worth to what you’ve done.
So I think Affleck in that moment, for me, is more excited that he’s alive again, right? Like the idea that they could wipe out these drug dealers—“You know these guys are the scum of the earth, right? So I know we didn’t want to kill them but now that we’re here, who the fuck gives a fuck, right?” And that whole slippery slope was, obviously, it starts with those drug dealers but ends with villagers.
And just with casting Ben, audiences have a natural affinity for him and now, yes, he has been a superhero so how much of that casting is intentional?
Very much. I’ve always, I think, ever since [Kevin] Spacey—guy’s going through a readjustment in his life right now—but all the way back to casting Spacey and then certainly with [Robert] Redford. Realizing that Spacey had played so many bad guys at that point when we brought him into Margin Call and he was the most empathetic character in that movie, and Redford was, you know, Robert Redford, while he didn’t speak in [All Is Lost], and I think we did strip away some of that Robert Redford-ness by the end of the movie, the audiences’ connection to him, right, was—
He’s still the Sundance Kid.
Right! It was part of what made that feel like a fun journey. So I think what’s challenging for these actors when they get the level of success that Ben’s had is how do you strip away the fact that everyone knows who the guy is but how do you also use it a strength, right, that he’s had struggles in his life, that he’s had great successes but also had moments of struggle. So when Ben had some health issues that summer when we were going to do it, which I guess was two summers ago, and I had a chance to go do it with someone else, in the end I was like, you know, he is in the right moment to play this character. There’s so many—not to ever connect the movie business with what these characters do, because obviously they’re very different. One has life or death consequences and the other is sort of fantasy but he was ready to play that character, I think.
I know you’ve heard about Spielberg going to the Academy’s Board of Governors. What are your thoughts on that argument about Netflix shouldn’t be able to compete for Oscars?
Yeah, I think it’s tough. I respect him so much, and he’s probably the most influential, if I really looked at it as a suburban kid from New Jersey, he’s probably my most influential filmmaker. Certainly of the movies that I actually see in my life, so I think he’s in a position to have that, his career is different than most of us, and so he can sort of draw that line in the sand.
I’m just trying to tell original stories. I’m not drawn, just naturally—while I love to go and see them, but to spend three years of my life on a superhero movie is just not where my strengths lie as a storyteller. So my strengths lie in trying to tell original stories that, for the most part, speak to what we’re going through in the world and try to entertain people while doing that, and over the last 10 years, or really since my career has started, the industry has just sort of gone to under $12 million movies and above $175 million movies, and kind of everything in between has sort of [vanished].
So have all these wonderful, intimate, tiny, small films getting made, which of course when you look at like the Oscars, it’s beautiful. So I certainly respect both of those things but I also miss what’s in the middle, right? Because those are the movies that I used to love.
Triple Frontier is a sweeping action movie, and it’s original and for adults.
Yeah. As it relates to the Academy, I want to stay away. I sort of chased Academy stuff with my first couple of films, and I look back on it a little bit like we put too much stock into that. So I’m a member of the Academy and it’s fun and everything else. So how that all works itself out, who knows? But as a storyteller, what I’m interested in is the two-hour movie time period. Not a 10-hour television show; the two hour movies, give or take 30 minutes, will that medium survive as a storytelling technique? How my children actually see is, in this day and age, we all know there’s millions of opportunities. I just hope we don’t sort of stick our head in the sand for so long with this windowing issue so that we help kill the theaters. Because if there isn’t some compromise to the fact that people have movie screens in their living rooms, which is basically what they have now with these huge TVs, there’s going to have to be a realignment here, and I’m not smart enough to know how that’s all going to work out. [Laughs]
But I think these guys [Netflix] are supporting original storytelling, and that’s what I’m interested in.
Triple Frontier is in limited release now and premieres on Netflix on March 13.