Yesterday at the New York Film Festival, director J.C. Chandor revealed one of the best pictures of the fest: “All Is Lost.” A masterful and tense drama that immediately elevates the “Margin Call” filmmaker from a promising indie director to a promising new auteur watch from now on. “All Is Lost” is not only soulful and moving, it’s an incredible achievement. Boldly austere and silent, the drama chronicles a resourceful sailor, who after a collision with a shipping container in the Indian ocean, finds himself staring his mortality in the face despite all his best efforts.
His struggle is performed and executed with brave minimalism. Robert Redford is the lead, the only character on screen and he barely utters a word throughout the entire picture and yet thanks to a small teaser line at the beginning and the actor’s face and expression, we still understand much of who he is as a man and both his strengths and failings as a person. A survival narrative not unlike say, “Gravity,” the movie’s spareness is almost the polar opposite of Alfonso Cuaron‘s IMAX, 3D maximalism (but in this writer’s mind it’s the far superior film). Redford pulls off an amazing performance as the silent man resiliently trying to battle the elements and endure while Chandor’s filmmaking, use of editing, sound and music is first-rate all around. Chandor and Redford met press at the New York Film Festival yesterday to discuss this mournful, existential examination of mortality, the human spirit and despair (here’s our review from Cannes). Here are the many highlights.
The script was only 31 pages long.
Chandor describes his minimalist screenplay. “I sent [Redford] the script about 2 or 3 weeks after I completed it. It was a 31 page document in script form. It is very much the film [that is up on screen],” he explained. “It was obviously not a lot of dialogue but it was very descriptive, beat by beat, scene by scene, moment by moment. The idea had gone in my head for about a year, growing….the nice thing about the document, after you got over the fact that it was so short, is that you got an idea about what the film was.”
Robert Redford agreed to take on the project so quickly it surprised director JC Chandor.
When first pitching the movie to Redford, Chandor said he prepared to make a very in-depth presentation. “For a guy who wrote a movie with no dialogue you sure talk a lot,” Chandor laughed, recalling one of Redford’s first comments. Redford liked the screenplay so much, he didn’t really need a lot of convincing.
“It was probably ten minutes into this meeting and he just looked at me and said, ‘I just wanted to make sure you weren’t crazy but you seem to have thought this through,” Chandor said, remembering his disbelief of Redford wanting to be onboard almost immediately. “He patted his knees and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ I was sitting in Robert Redford’s office going ‘Uhhhh,’ and from that moment forward there was this trust. I don’t know where that trust came from but it was an unbelievable process.”
Redford had never met Chandor before and “Margin Call” had just premiered at Sundance, months before its release and ensuing critical acclaim. “My film was well received but it wasn’t a roaring success. There was just something in this idea that he was drawn to,” Chandor said of the perfect storm of his idea and Redford’s interest.
Redford said he was simply sold on the material and that his intuition after meeting Chandor that he was the real deal.
“It was just one of those rare situations where you go on vibe and instinct and you put yourself in the hands of someone else because you trust them,” Redford said upon meeting the young filmmaker. “When I got the script from J.C. there was a lot of stuff I was impressed with and attracted to – no dialogue, bold – but it was detailed in a way that I knew that this person knew what they were doing and had a strong vision. So when we met I was already inclined I just needed to know he wasn’t nuts.”
Redford said the rest came rather quickly and he was intrigued by the film’s challenges. “What attracted me to that was that you can be completely absorbed in your character and audience would be able to go along with you. I was inclined to go along and trust him and I’m glad I did.”
Chandor’s own experience at sea in a storm was part of the inspiration.
The filmmaker said he had sailed casually growing up with his family, but was no means an expert. He did one open-ocean sail with an expert, they got into a storm and the experience never left him.
“It was a great fear of mine,” Chandor admitted. “I was probably in my early 20s. And those feelings stuck with me. There’s a tremendous combination of claustrophobia and openness. Everything is kind of heightened. It’s like an empty house. The boat almost acts as a drum. I remember trying to sleep in one of these environments and it was like sleeping inside of a drum. The sound design… The movie almost doesn’t exist without it.”
Does the character survive in the end? Spoilers ahead.
Chandor’s thoughts on how to read the ending of the film are sublime and shows a filmmaker who understands the art of cinema. Chandor said a good percentage of the audience at each screening believes the character dies and some believe he survives.
Chandor said it was less about being ambiguous and more in the design of the movie — giving it over to the audience and letting them decide “By the third act, if we have done our job [Redford’s character] has become a conduit or a vessel for you as an audience member and my intention was yours at that point. So the experience becomes yours.”
So Chandor said he loves that audience members have strong opinions on the ending one way or another. “We didn’t know if this was going to work. The confidence [in most people’s responses to whether he lives or dies] makes me happy. I didn’t want the end to be ambiguous for you as a single audience member,” Chandor stressed. “I’m handing it over. It’s a reflection on the end of our lives. In a weird way, I hope you’re learning about yourself and your view on the end of your life. That’s where I was coming from.” *end spoiler*
One scene has a grand irony that made the whole crew laugh.
There’s a scene in the film where Redford’s character, close to his wit’s end, throws a piece of plastic into the sea. “Here’s this wonderful environmentalist, and he cuts the piece of plastic and he throws it over head and it comes back over his shoulder and there were 10 people [on the crew] and we all giggled because we got Robert Redford to throw a piece of plastic into the ocean,” Chandor laughed.
Some of the movie’s tone changed on set.
Chandor said the film was “supposed to be a bit of a swashbuckling adventure. It’s supposed to be nerve racking and intense. So by the time you get to that third act, you feel, as an audience, what he has been through.” While that’s true. It’s hardly an action-adventure movie and instead features deep moments of existentialism.
Redford may have had something to do with this shift. “I said to J.C., ‘So much of it is the storm – can we at least have some moments to think? Where there’s a moment or impasse to look out and think and be?’ ” Redford recalled asking. “In my head, you were turning to that vast expanse of ocean and it was endless but what was underneath you was a vast depth of miles and miles of deep sea. What it must feel like to see the vastness of space on the horizon line and miles of water underneath you and just you. That got me – the size of the ocean in my head.”
J. C. Chandor refused to talk to Redford about character’s backstory on purpose.
“He tried!” Chandor said. Redford soon realized there was a method to this madness.
“I went through the normal motions – ‘What’s on your mind?’ ‘Do you have anything you want to talk about with this story?’ – and [Chandor] was pretty evasive,” the actor said. “And I thought, ‘Huh.’ He wasn’t answering fundamental questions. But what came out of it was that there was a reason – what he had on the page was all he wanted. Once I hooked into that, I liked it a lot. My character says [at the beginning in his only form of dialogue which is a note], ‘I tried, you know I tried,’ but there’s something missing. And maybe this journey has to do with him trying to figure that out.”
“What attracted me – it was slightly existential, you had space that could allow that to be interpreted by others,” Redford continued.. “Leaving that space was really great. The final thing I liked was that he was not a superhuman. He wasn’t a superhero or super sailor. He wasn’t on Larry Ellison‘s crew. And that left room for improvisation. Because when things got bad he had to learn on the job. I found that very interesting.”
One of the film’s most striking sequences is also a bit odd.
In the movie [very minor spoiler, if you can call it that], the character prepares for a storm and as he battens down the hatches and prepares for what is surely his doom, he begins to give himself a quick shave before going back outside to battle the elements.
Redford said he had mixed feelings about the scene when he first read it in the script, liking the eccentricities of it, but wanted to understand it first. Once Chandor explained him the intentions of the scene, he loved it.
“It seems bizarre and people might find it off putting,” Redford admitted, “But what I liked about it is that the character is always confronted with either panicking or handling [the situation]. So sometimes you try to reduce it to an element of normalcy. The character was trying to realign himself and treat things as normal as possible.”
It also provoked larger thematic ideas for the actor. “The larger philosophical question – when things seem impossible, all is lost, all the odds are against, nothing is possible – so you give up or others keep going. And this character wants to continue. Because that’s all he knows how to do. I felt that film had that and the character had to deal with it. That was appealing.”
“All Is Lost” hits theaters on October 18th. — Reporting by Drew Taylor