Last spring, advance word came back from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival that a film starring Robert Redford alone, with almost no dialogue, from the director of the financial crisis drama Margin Call was kicking people in the soul left and right, up and down the Croisette. It sounded unexpected, certainly, but one truly great thing about global cinema is that anything is possible.
Now in the wake of successive festival appearances and a rollout across the country that just began, All Is Lost is emerging as a critical favorite as well as a film with large crossover potential for audiences looking for intelligent, elemental stories about humanity isolated in crisis — threads echoed by two other current critical and commercial hits, Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity and Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips. Redford and writer/director J.C. Chandor spoke with the Scene recently at the 2013 New York Film Festival.
This is a unique project; how did it start out? Was it a traditional script? And how did you make the pitch to Mr. Redford?
J.C. Chandor: I sent him the script about a month after, maybe two or three weeks after I completed it. It was a 31-page document in script form, and it is very much the film that you just saw. It was obviously not a lot of dialogue, but it was very descriptive — beat by beat, moment by moment. The idea had been going around in my head for probably a year and a half, growing. ... So I completed this 31-page draft and gave it to my producers, and it was obviously not traditional, somewhat out of the ordinary, but it did read like a film.
Robert Redford: These days there's so many players in the kitchen, you've got agents and publicists and advisers. ... When I met with J.C., it was just one of those rare situations where you go on vibe and instinct, and you put yourself very quickly in the hands of somebody else because you trust them. When I got the script, it had a lot of things that I was very impressed with and attracted to. It was bold, and filled with detail by someone who had a firm grip on their vision, and it was a very strong vision. So when we met, it was basically to make sure he wasn't nuts. ... For me, anyway, it was very quick.
JCC: We certainly both believed that the action-oriented elements, especially the first two acts of the film, were very, very important. It was supposed to be a bit of a swashbuckling adventure, it was supposed to be nerve-wracking and tense, so that by the time we get to the third act, emotionally the audience feels like they've been through what he has.
It's a remarkable achievement in that the film's more abstract moments have an even stronger impact than its sequences that are rooted in the physical and the concrete.
RR: It was slightly existential, so you could allow space to be interpreted by others. An audience could come in and look at it this way and that and decide how they felt.
(To Chandor) Are you still amazed at how it all came together?
JCC: There was something in the story that spoke to him. I walked into his office prepared to do a very in-depth presentation on why he should do this film. And he said, "For a guy who wrote a movie with no words in it, you sure talk a lot."
But I came into his office prepared to tell him all of this, and it was all of 10 minutes, maybe not even, and it was completely overwhelming for me, but he looked at me and said, "I just wanted to make sure you weren't a little crazy. This is an out-there idea, but you've thought this through. ... Let's do this." And from that moment forward, it was like there was this trust, and I don't quite know where that came from, but he had this confidence in the entire undertaking to just jump in. ...
Margin Call hadn't come out yet; this was about a month after Margin Call premiered at Sundance. It was well-received at Sundance, but it certainly wasn't this roaring success — we hadn't built any of that momentum, but there was something in this idea that he responded to.
What sort of preparation went into the making of this film?
JCC: We were there for five months, with experts, just building it (the sets) out; then Bob came into that and we were really ready. ... In the first week of shooting, he's very off-kilter — the boat is sinking. But it worked perfectly, because his first week of shooting, we were all off our balance. And as we got in to this long shoot, it felt like we all grew and became one in the way we were shooting the film and the way he was performing. ...
The first week, it was kind of intense. I think we both realized that that was an opportunity for us. So we wanted to isolate ourselves during the process, so he would come in once the rigamarole was done, and we did use that. The film's not a silent film, but we were able to act and direct it like it was. We could use that as an advantage to yell out a cue that he may not even have known was coming at that time. (To Redford) I don't know if that annoyed the heck out of you, but my poor editor was like, "I had to turn down the sound because your stupid voice is all over the entire movie." Did that annoy you? Me talking all over everything? While he doesn't talk a lot, there's a very specific sound design.
RR: You hope that you completely absorb your character and that the silence will allow the audience to come in with you and become part of your experience.
Is any of the film rooted in specfic sailing experiences?
JCC: I grew up sailing, not a ton, but I had a background in it. My parents sailed together when they were younger, so I had a long-standing experience with it. I had done one open-ocean sail like this (in the film), but not alone. That's a pretty significant thing to jump to that level. ... I had some experience, and it was a great fear of mine, and I wanted to push that. So I went on this trip, and then the last two days, we did get caught in something similar to this, and those fears and feelings stuck with me, and I don't think I'd realized that there was this tremendous combination of claustrophobia and total openness. The sounds were something that were written very descriptively in the script. It was just like being alone in a house — everything gets heightened.
Was there ever a backstory that the two of you came to agreement on as regards Our Man (the designation Redford's character is given in the film's end credits)?
RR: The first thing he says is, "I tried. I think you know I tried." But there's something missing. Whatever effort is made in his life, there's something missing ...
JCC: This guy's not really sailing in this movie. He's sinking.
Growing up in Southern California, did you have any sort of connection with the ocean? And if so, did that come to affect your performance in this film?
RR: I grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., and we were in a lower-working-class situation, so the nearest escape for me was the ocean, because it was nearby; surfing and swimming. But it was always by the shore, not in the deep sea. And in between going in and out of the water, I would look out and see the vast expanse of the sea, and I was hit by the size of it. ... It was endless. There was the horizon, but under you was miles and miles of deep, deep sea. You'd look up and see the vastness of space, then the horizon line, and then miles and miles of sea beneath you. And then there's just you ...