Robert Redford and the Making of 'All Is Lost'
Director J.C. Chandor traveled an unusual route with his new movie, a $9 million gamble for his legendary star, working alone and without dialogue.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It all started on a train in fall 2010. Writer-director J.C. Chandor found himself regularly commuting between Manhattan, where he was editing his first film, Margin Call, and Providence, R.I., where he lives with his wife and two young children. The tracks run along the coast of Connecticut, where he would see hundreds of boats -- not yachts, but more middle-class sailing vessels -- piled up on land for the winter. "There's sort of an absurdity of a boat on land," he remembers thinking.
At the same time, Chandor also found his thoughts revolving around questions of death -- and life. When he was 19, he survived a car accident that claimed the life of a friend. And during his early 30s -- when, he felt, he was letting his professional life slip by as he worked on music videos and commercials -- he witnessed the death of both his grandmothers. Suddenly, he says, "I had this tremendous energy about seizing the day, that every day has to be treated as a gift." So to pass the time on the commute, he began writing a letter, a sort of last testament. "I think you would all agree that I tried. I will miss you. I'm sorry," it read. He didn't yet know what the story behind those words might be.
Just three years later, though, those provocative words are part of the brief voice-over that begins All Is Lost, Chandor's rigorously bracing film about a lone sailor, played near wordlessly but with eloquent stoicism by Robert Redford, a man struggling to survive after his boat is struck by a floating cargo container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Working from a screenplay that runs only 31 pages, it was produced against all odds on a budget of $9 million, shooting largely at the Baja Studios in Mexico, where Titanic originally set sail. At its May premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it received a nine-minute standing ovation. Now, Redford, at 77, is being hailed as a potential best actor nominee, and the 39-year-old Chandor -- whose financial thriller Margin Call was as heavy on dialogue by an ensemble of actors as All Is Lost is spare -- has demonstrated an undeniable versatility.
"He's taken away the filters and barriers of dialogue, voice-over, special effects, what have you. It's a pure cinematic experience," says Redford of the daring movie. "And that was very appealing to me at this point in my life -- to be able to go back to my roots as an actor, to be interesting enough to have the audience ride along with you and almost be a part of what you are feeling and thinking."
A week before Chandor and Redford first met at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where Margin Call debuted, Chandor, while on a skiing vacation with his family in Colorado, snuck off to a library and began jotting down the ideas he'd been collecting in his head during the previous months. With 20 pages completed, he mentioned it to Redford when they were introduced at a filmmakers brunch. "Right away, I was taken by the fact that there was no dialogue," the actor says. By April, Chandor had expanded the script to 31 pages -- it never got any longer -- and again met with Redford, who committed.
Margin Call wasn't one of the buzzier movies coming out of that year's Sundance -- it did not begin to gather momentum until it played the New Directors/New Films festival in New York that March -- but it earned Chandor an Oscar screenwriting nomination. By then, producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb were booking passage on All Is Lost. At the 2012 European Film Market, Chandor, Dodson and Zachary Quinto, Dodson's partner in Before the Door Pictures, sat down with FilmNation's Glen Basner to gauge potential interest among foreign buyers. "J.C. basically pitched the movie, drawing boats and shipping containers on napkins, diagramming it all," says Dodson. Basner told them, "If you can make the movie for under $10 million, we're in business. Let's do it." Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, which had distributed Margin Call, quickly picked up domestic rights.
But making a movie, particularly one shot on water -- an unpredictable environment that can send budgets soaring out of control -- would be a challenge. The producers began assembling an experienced team and scouting the world, checking out tanks from Malta to Taiwan, where Life of Pi was filmed. At one point, Chandor cold-called Baja Studios, saying he was planning to shoot an indie film but wasn't sure he could afford the location, home to four tanks, near Rosarita in Baja, Mexico.