Of all the survival narratives this fall, and there are many, director J.C. Chandor‘s “All Is Lost” is perhaps the most beautifully counterintuitive. If “Gravity” is the maximalist thrill ride in space, then “All Is Lost,” is its opposite, a minimalist, moody, near wordless meditation of a man (Robert Redford) lost at sea. It’s one man in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a schooner that’s slowly sinking thanks to man made debris.
An existential examination of ourselves, fate, and how we chose to face death among many other things, Redford’s lead, unnamed character barely speaks a word in the movie. Instead, most of the “talking” is done through his silent inner dialogue and perhaps most importantly, communicated through the music. Composed by Alexander Ebert, formerly of electro-rock outfit Ima Robot, and now best known as Edward Sharpe of Edward Sharpe of the Magnetic Zeros, his somber, funereal score does much of the movie’s emotional heavy lifting, acting as a introspective and melancholy dirge for what may be the the soundtrack to meeting your maker. We recently published our Best 15 Scores of 2013 and after much debate, Ebert’s haunting score topped out our list at number one. We recently spoke to the composer—who was nominated for a Golden Globe today—about how he got involved with the film, meeting Robert Redford and having the idea of making a musical with Heath Ledger that never came to pass.
How did you become part of this project?
A call out of the blue, it seemed. It was a dream scenario, really, and as I respond to your question it’s hard to believe my answer. I met J.C. and we talked for about an hour and that was pretty much that. Thankfully J.C. is gutsy and went for it.
What kind of thematic direction were you given before you started writing the music?
Musically. none that I remember. We got into the music conversations after I began to send things over…
How did the process work, did you watch the movie and then write the score? Write to the movie?
Both—in one instance I recorded without picture and it stuck, worked beautifully—that is the theme that now accompanies the ending. In all other instances anything melodic was recorded to picture. I would write beforehand often, but the piece could change dramatically when playing to picture. For instance, the main theme, “Excelsior,” was originally in ¾ time at about five times the pace, a perky waltz that suddenly turned into a very different, brooding piece when playing it to the movie.
When did you settle on the kind of minimalist, dirgey, droney kind of feel on the score?
The main theme, “Excelsior,” was the first thing I wrote for the movie, as I recall. The first scene I scored to was the ending, and that sort of set the tone for me. It was and is so very beautiful, the death of it so overwhelmingly liberating, that nothing short of something that felt sacred would do. This applied as well to the drones, which were largely Tibetan bowls and giant crystal bowls, which give the most sonorous hum.
The music conveys so much of the character’s emotional state. Was it difficult to carry that burden?
It was not difficult but it was a pressure I felt very steadily.
The movie hints at backstory, did the J.C. Chandor tell you any of that?
Not regarding Redford’s character, but J.C. and I had a number of conversations digging into the meaning and philosophy behind the story.
What was the most difficult challenge?
Probably just that feeling of sculpting with a feather, which became more and more delicate towards the end. Our music editor Suzana Peric was a giant help.
What was the aim in creating the film’s main theme?
I wanted to create the fourth wall, so to speak—the chorus calling Redford to surrender. To me that alto flute is the truth—of the wild, solipsistic union with the elements and of the strange and cold beauty of surrender. At first it is imperceptible as the wind and he pays no heed, or perhaps is even challenged onwards by it. Finally though, in my favorite moment of the story, Redford has had enough, and the flute comes in once again to accompany him while he writes his last letter—and we never hear the theme again. He has surrendered.
You enrolled in film classes, made short films and wrote screenplays. Do you have aspirations to be a filmmaker at all? Did these past endeavors better shape your understanding of score music before you started doing it?
Yes. I’ve written a number of screenplays, most of which I have kept to myself. Heath Ledger and I were going to do a musical together with him to direct and we had a good chunk of the story scrawled out… One of these days I’ll finish the script. I still think movies have the greatest degree of potential energy of any of the recorded arts. Live arts, such as live shows, plays, etc., may have greater potential energy (by way of being in-person) but for similar reasons—the art and the audience together in a space for about two hours of direct art-to-person. When an artist shares work, usually they desire a full commitment of attention so that subtleties and poetry can be transmitted. Movies are sort of the perfect recorded format in that way, though as people watch movies more on their iPads in broad daylight, I think the potency of the movie format diminishes.
Did you get to work with Robert Redford at all?
I just had a fun run-in with him in Mexico during the shooting of the movie. He was on a break and surrounded by folks and I was going to find a restroom when I heard “Mr. Ebert,” I turned and it was Redford, smiling and walking towards me. We had a good chat—we were both raised in the Valley and both went to school in Van Nuys, which he somehow already knew. We had some friends in common who had done a documentary on Tim DeChristopher, a man who was imprisoned for stopping the government illegally giving away BLM land for fracking purposes, and both Redford and I supported Tim’s actions. It was a good, brief talk before he went away to relax and prepare for the next harrowing scene.
The closing credits song “Amen” has more words in it then the entire movie. What inspired that song and was it tricky to do the reverse of what you’d been doing all along—articulating things lyrically instead of just musically and emotionally?
Yes. In fact, it was so psychologically tricky that I basically planned on not writing a song for the movie at all, as I knew that forcing something would be a disaster. But then, one day, something came, and I felt it had the potential to speak to this story. The refrain that kept coming was “Amen.” The character’s name in the script is “Our Man,” which is phonetically very close to “Amen.” As for the rest of the lyrics, I decided to write them precisely about the dying of the wildly inspired generation of which Redford is an archetype. I used some direct references to Redford himself, but on the whole the song is a conversation between the woeful young, who do not want to be reminded of death, and the defiant old, who now face it head-on.
“All Is Lost” is in theaters now. You can stream the entire score below.