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.
By design, Chandor decided that the audience should learn very little about the backstory of Redford's character. He is identified in the movie's credits only as Our Man, and the film offers no explanation about why he is sailing alone in the Indian Ocean. Chandor says he didn't even discuss the character's origins with Redford, though the actor at first found that approach disarming. "I kind of doubled down on that. The character of the man you never question. You know who the guy is in the meaningful sense," says Chandor. "But how many children he has, is he divorced? Is he married? Those things I kept vague. The key piece of information that Mr. Redford did have is that he does have a family. He's not a homeless wanderer who's been sailing the world for 20 years."
But when it came to the 39-foot boat he sails -- the Virginia Jean -- production designer John Goldsmith created a bit more of a history. Three boats actually were used. And Chandor suggested to Goldsmith that Redford's character bought the boat when he was 51, six years after it was built, and some years later, after its upkeep had slipped, invested $20,000 re-outfitting it. "The boat had to have an openness to interpretation," says Goldsmith. "The boat is almost an abstract idea -- a womb or a cocoon, a place of safety and security while the world rages outside." It does contain some clues, though -- Our Man is adept at knot-tying, so there is a display of knots on the back wall of the boat's interior, which is stocked with exotic canned foods collected from ports-of-call around the world.
Instead of working from the bare-bones script, Chandor broke the film down into 500 storyboard images that were pushpinned on the wall in the conference room that James Cameron once used when he was filming Titanic. The goal was to bring the viewer as close to what Redford's character is experiencing as possible. Says cinematographer Frank DeMarco, who shot with an Alexa camera: "J.C. really wanted to be in the moment. One of the main rules for the film is that we should be very close to Bob's character, like a first mate. I used a 32mm lens, so I could be right there within an arm's reach of Bob, in his breath and in his sweat." Editor Pete Beaudreau took inspiration from the films of the Dardenne brothers. "It's all very naturalistic," he says. "The camera is often behind the actor's head. And that gives you a real sense of being in the person's shoes. The rhythm of the editing really came out of the shooting style. The very immediate hand-held feeling lent itself nicely to getting some jump cuts going where you can really modulate the pace."
In effect, the film was shot as if it were a silent movie -- with Chandor giving Redford directions aloud as they moved through each shot. "Very little sound was recorded while they were actually shooting," says Steve Boeddeker, the production's supervising sound editor, sound designer and rerecording mixer. Instead, at the end of each day's shoot, local sounds -- the water and wind -- were recorded for reference. And the sound team later captured more by going out into the San Francisco Bay during the middle of a storm.
When it came time to lay in a score, composer Alex Ebert decided that "silence actually needs to play a gigantic part in the movie." For one passage, he wrote a piece that had the ¾ time signature of a waltz, but watching the film, he decided to slow it down so that "it's very haunting and timeless. You almost can't detect the melody there unless you really sit with it. It became very organic."
Redford, who never looked at the monitor during filming, remembers the shoot as "so intense and exhausting, there was very little time to talk. People were so tired at night; the evenings were about just having a few shots of tequila before you headed to bed." And so Chandor approached the movie's debut at Cannes with some anxiety. It would be the first time Redford would see the completed film. The two were seated side by side at the Palais. About halfway through the film, reacting to a particularly vivid moment they had shared on set, Chandor spontaneously squeezed Redford's knee. "He looked at me and smiled a little bit, and I could see he was proud," he says. "We looked around, and we could see people leaning forward in their seats. At the moment, I knew, whether the movie goes on to success or not, people were getting what we were trying to do."