In space or on the ocean, no one can hear you scream. Comparisons abound between solo adventures “Gravity” and “All Is Lost,” but unlike space, the ocean is far from silent. So although J.C. Chandor’s remarkable open-water survival thriller (starring a 77-year-old Robert Redford boldly stepping out of his comfort zone) is virtually dialogue-free, the director was totally on board with making the sound design a driving narrative force.
That was up to supervising sound editors Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of Skywalker Sound. “Selfishly, I thought this was a great opportunity for sound to play an important role without having to convince the director,” admits Boeddeker (“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Seven”), who also served as the film’s sound designer/re-recording mixer. “J.C. said he wanted very little dialogue and almost no music. He wanted to use them as punctuation marks so that the story was told with acting, sound, and sound effects. And the emotions were cued by the dread he’s feeling and the music takes it to the next level when he gets introspective.”
The film was all shot on Redford’s eye line and we only hear what he hears. But it’s also filtered through his perceptions; as the journey goes from bad to worse with the storm, so do the sounds of the crashing waves or the thrashing of the sailboat. As a result, the best logistical and emotional approach was to treat the boat as a primary character in this existential adventure.
“I kept thinking of the story as a western,” Boeddeker suggests. “Instead of a cowboy, we have a sailor; instead of a horse, we have a boat as a sidekick; and instead of the desert, we have the Indian Ocean. That metaphor helped us figure out how to do it. Brandon Proctor focused on Redford and I handled the boat. Richard as a supervisor and lifelong sailor, organized the logistics and arranged for recording trips on sailboats to get authentic sounds. And also for me was a safety net. I could experiment with sounds to convey the emotion and Richard kept it technically authentic.”
Since there was no usable audio for the boat while they were shooting in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, production recordists had to create a library of sounds. It was Boeddeker’s intention to take the sound to extremes and Chandor was fine with that.
“He wanted it to be the biggest storm ever because in Redford’s mind, this might be it,” Boeddeker recalls. The storm was shot in one of the world’s largest tanks at Baja Studios in Rosarito Beach, where “Titanic” was filmed. In some cases, they shook up the surface of the water with jet skis.
The interior was a cut open boat. “You could hear J.C. giving instructions where to spray the hose,” Boeddeker continues. “We recorded a lot and I played around with different sounds for the boat creaking. The key was recording the bow wash of a ferry in the San Francisco Bay. It was a mix of white wash, white noise, and low end. I took the sound and panned it around the room, up and down with the movement of the boat, added some sub woofer when it needed a big hit.
“I was concerned up front about too much white noise, so I took the interior scenes as an opportunity for relief — powerful but not painful. For the front, I took a stereo recording of sloshing and put it in a reverb that was swarming around you. For the back, I took the sound of a small car to make it claustrophobic.”
This was buried in the reality of recordings by Hymns, a sound vet of nearly 50 years, who’s won three Oscars (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”).”Visually the storm doesn’t come across as J.C. wanted, so it had to be exaggerated enormously,” Hymns explains.
“I organized a recording trip with a friend in a sailboat on a small craft warning day. I used a quad mic down below and recorded the inside sounds. Steve made recordings on the hull with contact mics. It was good size storm material with layers and layers and appropriate intensity coming and going.”
One of Redford’s concerns, though, was his breathing. He didn’t want it to be a distraction, so they re-recorded it. His breathing has a crucial energy as part of this unique pantomime, but it doesn’t overtake the soundtrack.
“As a sailor and with no dialogue, this project was a miracle. You had to take the lead with sound. And it’s not depressing to me. Life is full of rising to challenges and you don’t give up. That was Redford.”