Few filmmakers surprised this year more than J.C. Chandor. An Oscar-nominee for his debut, the financial thriller “Margin Call,” Chandor did an about-face with his anticipated follow-up “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redord as a man lost at sea. The film was a question mark up until it world premiered out of competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was immediately greeted with rave reviews, with many critics citing Redford’s lead turn as one of his best.
Indiewire called up Chandor prior to the film’s limited release today to discuss the Cannes reception and comparisons of “All Is Lost” to “Gravity,” another survival tale which is popular with the critics.
A lot was made of the fact that the film screened out of competition at Cannes. Did the festival ever explain their reasoning to you?
I’m a pretty competitive guy, so I can go on record saying I wanted to be in competition. But there’s something in my films, I think it’s particular to programmers at festivals, because the same thing happened to me at Sundance. We were not in competition at Sundance, even though I was a first-time filmmaker, our budget was under $3 million. John Cooper, who I know pretty well through the Redford connection, told me, “You were too experienced to go into competition and it was too big of a film.” And I was like, “John, that was the first feature film that I made!”
So I don’t know, I think my films kind of walk this line, that I’m proud of, that they feel sort of like films of my youth that I watched, which are far more commercial. I did not grow up a cinephile, no one in my family was in the film business or even anything close to it, I grew up in New Jersey. There is certainly a part of my filmmaking that harkens back to a more simpler, commercial kind of taste, but then obviously with this there’s certainly a kind of avant-garde, abstract, existential element of it.
So the official word, whether it’s BS or not, that came back from the festival was that the film felt a little too much like a crowd pleaser, which I laughed endlessly at. I forget the exact quote, it was “too commercial” or something.
Look, if we had gone in and won the freakin’ Palme d’Or, obviously that would have been a real plus. But in the long run, realizing that when you have a film with Robert Redford in it, getting publicity is not really a problem if he’s willing to support the film, because people will show up and write articles about him.
When “Margin Call” premiered at Sundance it was met with decent, not great reviews, but the word of mouth got louder and more enthusiastic as it toured to more festivals, notably the New Directors/New Films festival. “All is Lost” was a hit with critics from the outset. How would you compare the two experiences?
It was a scary experience at Sundance, we almost didn’t sell the film. Luckily Steve Beaks at Lionsgate teamed up with the Roadside guys sort of at the last minute to kind of come up with a plan, as you know, that was supposed to be a kind of direct-to-video dump, and it was only in the end when the film started building all this momentum that they realized they could release it wider.
It’s very stressful to show the film, any film. I remember when I showed Kevin Spacey “Margin Call” I was dreadfully nervous. Robert had not seen the film before that night at Cannes, so I was having this very intimate sort of intense moment with him, where you’re kind of looking over to see if he’s liking it. And then you combine that with this sort of amazing experience of that theater, and the sound in that room is so amazing. About halfway through at one point, I reached over and tapped his knee. There was a funnel stuck or something that he wasn’t supposed to have done, and we had a little smile about that. And then we both looked around the room and back at each other, and we realized that we had something, that it was working at least in that room.
Let me put it this way, I had a miserable experience at Sundance because I had never shown a film so publicly before. But the Cannes screening was one of the more enjoyable public screenings I’ll probably ever have. And then the reaction of everyone after, that’ll be hard to beat, because I was so proud that Robert was proud. I know that sounds weird, but that really is what you want, you want your actor to be proud of the work they’ve done, because he was taking such a chance on me, especially committing before I had any momentum, so it was a very happy night.
He doesn’t have to do this, he’s seventy-five years old and he’s freakin’ Robert Redford, so this is not something he needed to put himself through or put himself out there for judgement. This film could have ended up laughable, boring and ridiculous if it hadn’t been executed correctly, and he knew that. For him to kind of take that risk on me is a lesson I’ll learn, that at seventy-five if you want to still do interesting work, you have to do scary things, you have to put yourself out there in a way that doesn’t feel very good, or does feel good. But with him, he was ready to do that, he was ready to just start fresh.
It’s quite the coincidence that “All Is Lost,” a film about a lone person struggling for survival against unbelievable odds, is opening two weeks after “Gravity” made records at the box-office. Have you been able to catch it?
I have not, but obviously I love these kinds of films, since I made one. Obviously it’s a very different scope; it’s a $120 million movie and ours was an $8 million movie, which, to me, felt like a $120 million movie.
I’m very excited to see it. But until all this madness dies down and my film’s out, I don’t know if I want to. I remember hearing rumors that that film was getting made, but even the fact that I’m even being mentioned in the same conversation as it when you’re setting out to make the little movie that we were, you wish that’s gonna be the case. If my film had done poorly at Cannes and petered away, no one would ever be drawing comparisons, so I’m unbelievably grateful that that’s even the position we’re in.
There’s something there, obviously going on in the ether that I was reacting to. It’s a coincidence, partially, but there’s a lot of reasons for why I wrote this the way I did. I do think it’s representative of people in this search for authenticity in their lives, but yet not really meaning it. They sort of want the authenticity, but they don’t wanna have to go through with what it takes to get it. And for me, this is a guy who is struggling with that. This is a challenge this guy had never taken on in his life, and it was kind of sitting there, it was the thing left undone in his life, in a way. So I thought that was an interesting character to look into.
There is also something to be said that a lot of the films this year that are working, that are going out there doing really well, both creatively and commercially, are things that were specifically created for a theater and for a theater-going experience. They’re not designed to be a long-form television show or some other medium, they’re about a moment or a particular event, which really is what film does so well. It can bring you into a circumstance that is outside of your own life. Film does that so well, like really go with it and isolate yourself in the theater and go there. I think a lot of the films this year really couldn’t be anything else, they are just a movie. And I think filmmakers are responding to that, and realizing what the strengths of the medium are.