Former elite soldiers go on an Expendables-like heist in J.C. Chandor’s (“All Is Lost,” “A Most Violent Year”) indelibly exciting and pulse-pounding “Triple Frontier.”
The film, written by Chandor and journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal of “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” fame, begins rather familiarly as Oscar Isaac’s Santiago reconnects with his former Special Ops buddies hoping they will join him on a high-paying, very illegal legal heist in South America, it eventually turns into a cautionary tale about greed, very much akin to past classics “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Wages of Fear”
Ben Affleck’s Tom is a former op, divorced dad, struggling with his real-estate job who decides to join Santiago’s mission. Ditto Pedro Pascal’s Francisco, and Charlie Hunnam’s William who manages his brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund), a journeyman MMA fighter who is as lost in life as anybody else is on this special ops team. They’re all unheralded and heroic patriots. “You’ve been shot five times for your country and you can’t afford a new truck,” Santiago tells Tom. They all need cash. They all feel lost and insignificant.
Playing exclusively on Netflix today, “Triple Frontier” has Chandor continuing to show his talents for expertly choreographed, hold-your-breath action sequences, just as he did in his last two movies. His camera, aided by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“End of Watch” “Fury”) shows the chops of a confident maestro, a filmmaker who is in total control of his mise-en-scene. It's an epic and visceral adventure that’s the kind of action movie that feels like it is part of a bygone Hollywood era, one in which smartly-delivered action spectacles used to be the norm.
We spoke to Chandor about "Triple Frontier," its thematic similarities to his other movies and, of course, working with Netflix.
This project has had such a long insane journey, how exactly did you get on board here?
It's really crazy because once we started shooting this movie it all came together [laughs] I wanted to do something as a director in which I hadn't originally conceived the idea. Whether it was a book or an article or something. And so, I worked on "Deepwater Horizon" for almost a year and then when that kind of blew up, so to speak, I realized that I enjoyed the idea and the freedom, as a director, of having had the film not created from my own idea -- 'Deepwater' was based on this fantastic New York Times writeup. In my first three movies, I had an idea and it stayed locked in my brain and whatever was splattered on the screen was what was in my head at the very beginning of the creative process, and I love that, but I did want to free myself up as a director so that I don't feel trapped within my own imagination, you know, and go into somebody else's world, something I wouldn't have thought up. And so, when I left the 'Deepwater' project, I started looking for books and then Tom Hanks, of all people, called. He was attached to 'Triple Frontier' but he thought he was too old for the part, but that's what kickstarted my journey with this movie, an email from Tom Hanks [laughs] which said "I love your work and would you take a look at this project I'm involved in," which was so cool.
And then you read this insane true story that is a no-brainer for a screen adaptation.
And then I read it. I come from a family with a bunch of militaries, my grandfather and my dad were in combat, my dad, in fact, had a very intense experience in Vietnam, so I would have never written this because of my dad's connections with the military and I don't think I would have ever been able to combine a heist movie with any special forces vets, it just wouldn't have been something that would have come to me or felt right, but when I read it I realized it was kind of an amazing way to have this big, fun and muscular adventure film but to also look at the post-war experience of veterans. Our country has been at war now for almost 20 years, and there's a whole generation of people my age that has fought these battles for us while we just go on with our daily lives and it seemed like a really fascinating way of combining these two very disparate elements that, frankly, I wouldn't have come up with. It felt like a movie that as a director I would have loved to make but that as a writer I wouldn't have been able to write. I jumped on board, didn't think it would come together as quick as it did, but these things have a life of their own and, after a year or two, we finally got this thing off the ground.
It's been five years since "A Most Violent Year" so it must be good to get this one off your chest and hopefully kickstart a whole new phase of creativity again.
Some of that was needed time off. I had made three movies in four years and I also had kids growing up. It was going to be four movies in five years if I had done "Deepwater," so it was too much, I was burnt out, I just went out and did a bunch of writing and now I'm ready to make those movies ready for the road. I did what I had to do, be at home, be with my family, recharge, do some writing. A big adventure movie like this one takes months and months to shoot, it was a long process but one that I'm super proud of.
How was the writing process different with this film as compared to something like "Margin Call," knowing that you had the budget to support what you wanted to do? I know you mentioned that you didn't do as much writing with "Triple Frontier," but you are credited alongside original writer Mark Boal as having written the screenplay.
This was totally different. I had called Mark up, he told me he was working on another project and Kathryn Bigelow was off doing a whole other thing. I told him I was interested in shooting his script, would it be ok if I took the story, I had no idea I would get credited, but I ended up doing 42 drafts of the screenplay, which is insane [laughs] it ended up being a longer process than I thought. It was also originally with Paramount and then they got rid of it during the same time they got rid of "Vice" and "The Irishman," and about five, six others, it ended up becoming this very lengthy process. It was fun though, because I was just screenwriting, trying to improve the story, build up the characters etc. but that original story was Mark's and I admired it, I didn't end up materially shifting it completely, it was more technical and character writing that I changed which is why I got that credit. For me, this was always supposed to be a storytelling exercise, a directing exercise, and it really did stretch my directing muscles and I learned so so much from it.
I noticed that all four of your films are ultimately about survival.
I love those kinds of films because they are the kind of films I like to watch. But, yeah, I'm fascinated by what survival means. What kind of decisions we have to make as human beings when faced with life and death situations and the unpredictable behavior that we might have when faced with a limited amount of choices. There are those moments where we become different people by the actions that we act on and there are moments where the crucible is crashing down on you and you must stand up and make that decision as to what your values are. In my movies those decisions are not always black and white, there is that grey area and often it is a very stark outcome no matter the decision. While this movie is literal and metaphorical, it is also a stand-in for what is missing from these guys lives, wanting to feel that sense of importance and that sense that what you do has meaning and weight to it. In a fun way, this movie was not just about the money and the greed, but it's more the greed of your ego and wanting to feel alive again and engaged, and the money, in a weird way, in this movie, loses its value as the adventure goes along. At the end of the day money doesn't change anything unless you're starving to death or have no home or shelter for your family, but beyond that, it's about ego and comfort, it's not a survival thing. In "Triple Frontier" I sort of play on those things
How was it working with Netflix on a movie? Did they give you the creative freedom needed?
It was amazing. The type of stories I like to tell, original storytelling, I love a good adventure movie, dramas, adult-driven stuff and sadly the theatrical film business, the two-hour movie, has materially changed in the last 5-10 years and they have turned into these massive $200M retreads or very very small, really original low-budget stuff, but everything in between has been abandoned for the most part unless it fits into a popular genre, but other than those, the two-hour drama has completely disappeared, and so, I think Netflix realized that, very wisely, not everyone has enough time to divulge into 12 hours of television and that there will always be audiences that want a smartly made two-hour drama, filled with epic storytelling. I think, over the next two years as Amazon, Netflix and Apple start to build this model out, that mid-budget two-hour films have a large audience. I'm incredibly grateful they are supporting this kind of storytelling. I do hope that with this whole controversy of the "theatrical window" happening around Netflix that there is some kind of compromise that happens, that will help to allow these type of movies to come back to the theaters again.
Yeah, there does seem to be a major emphasis on the part of Hollywood to exclusively just make superhero movies, sequels, reboots etc. and that's why we're seeing elite filmmakers such as Coen, Cuaron, Scorsese, Soderbergh, Fincher, del Toro going to Netflix.
If I'm in those guys' position am I going to go out and make the 19th Marvel movie? Probably not. I don't think the Coen brothers want to make those movies. When a technological shift comes to a market place, very rarely is the answer behind you [laughs] It's normally something new, so hopefully the people that know business side better than I do can look for compromises and bring vibrant and original storytelling back to theaters and try to come up with windowing for theatrical releases. They should learn the lesson that the music business had themselves and just try to learn to adapt to technological change and we've had a far bigger change in our business than they have. I mean, the television screen has turned into a movie screen in your living room and sound will be next, there will much simpler sound systems coming down the road so it will only get better/worse. And the ability to deliver any movie ever made into your own device, those are ground-shifting events and Netflix needs to be active in that part of the community.
Then there's the Oscar situation.
The Oscars are interesting. How that plays itself out will be interesting. The Oscars are the side conversation. The real situation is movie theaters. How do we keep that alive?