In “Adrift,” young sailors in love with world travel and each other (Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin) agree to pilot a yacht across the South Pacific for $10,000. They fancy 30 days of watching sunsets. What they get is a Category 5 hurricane.
Tami Oldham Ashcraft recounted the real-life ordeal she and fiancé Richard Sharp endured in Fall 1983 in “Red Sky at Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea.” The self-published memoir was found by identical twin screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell. They abandoned plans for an original maritime tale, wanting instead to adapt Ashcraft’s text, and envisioning their friend Woodley as its indefatigable heroine.
When Woodley was 18 and filming Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” in the brothers’ native Hawaii, Jordan’s wife was the teacher hired by the studio to help the child actors with their lessons. Aaron then got to know Woodley better in Pittsburgh, where his wife completed her post-doctoral studies while the actress filmed “The Fault in Our Stars.”
A couple factors delayed the trio’s collaboration, which arrives in 3,015 theaters today courtesy of STXfilms and a reported $35 million budget. Right as the Kandells prepared to start “Adrift,” Pixar drafted them to join the creative team of “Moana.” After completing their animated film duties and this drama, Woodley took a while to find the script — it arrived in her inbox the day she was arrested for protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The USC graduates had worked on projects for studios like Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, and garnered attention for their still-unproduced screenplay, “The Golden Record” — about Carl Sagan’s NASA contributions — which won a place on the 2013 Black List. Seven writers eventually shared “story by” credits on “Moana,” while Jared Bush was the screenwriter of record.
“On ‘Moana,’ we were more deckhands on the giant canoe of 900 people that made that,” said Aaron, also a co-producer on “Adrift” with Jordan and the film’s Icelandic director, Baltasar Kormákur (“The Deep,” “Everest”). “On this one, we built the boat.” Although brothers might sound like unlikely partners to pen a love story, the script came together quickly for the duo, former poetry majors preoccupied with mythology.
“We are deeply romantic,” said Aaron. “At a very formative age, we found Pablo Neruda and his love sonnets, and movies like ‘The Fisher King,’ ‘Two for the Road,’ ‘Before Sunrise,’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso’ shaped our view of the world, and colored it in. And it made us want to be filmmakers. So we’re always attracted to stories that are about the deep primacy of human existence. There’s nothing more primal than life-and-death survival and the life-and-death feeling of falling in love for the first time.”
“Adrift” is a nonlinear narrative, jumping from battered Tami and Richard aboard their sinking ship to their dockside meeting and marketplace strolls. The two biggest touchstones for “Adrift” were the aforementioned Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney comedy “Two for the Road” (1967), which time-hops over 12 years, and Marcel Camus’ Portugese-language “Black Orpheus” (1959), which “Adrift” nods to in its soundtrack. Like “The Golden Record,” “Adrift” also landed on the Black List, in 2016, alongside future Academy Award nominees “I, Tonya” and “The Post.”
Courtesy of STXfilms
Besides a mid-film twist, the Kandells — later joined by Film Independent Spirit Award–nominated screenwriter David Brandon Smith (“Ingrid Goes West”) — took just one liberty with Ashcraft’s text: Woodley frequently dives overboard, in attempts to salvage parts of the boat and spearfish (movie magic made possible by a puppet and CGI). Actual experienced sailors know “you don’t jump in the water, in an open ocean, if you don’t have to,” said Aaron.
Shooting commenced on July 4, 2017, and lasted for 49 days. 90 percent of the footage was captured six-to-eight miles off the coast of Fiji by by a very seasick cast and crew. Along for the journey was three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (“JFK,” “The Aviator,” Hugo”) and marine coordinator Neil Andrea, a veteran of the “Kong: Skull Island” and “Dunkirk” sets.
Steve Cohn for STXfilms
For the actual storm, the filmmakers retreated to a New Zealand soundstage — “despite our director’s desire to send GoPro cameras into an actual hurricane,” said Aaron. “That was shot safely, green screened in Auckland, but by safely I mean we’ve got a Frankenstein ship on a gimbal that is rocking it like a giant electric bull, with wave machines dumping just 20,000 gallons of water onto our actors. So the waves you see in this movie are practical in-camera, enhanced by the ocean being CGIed in. With rain machines going and giant fans blowing.”
Woodley and Claflin are virtually the only characters onscreen during the two-hour film, which box-office analysts predict to earn around $13 million this weekend, enough for a third-place finish behind “Solo” and “Deadpool 2.” Although there is some nudity, the PG-13-rated feature’s sex scene wound up on the cutting-room floor. In hindsight, Jordan thinks this was for the best.
“There’s a danger in romance movies that it can become too surface-level, or too much about physical attraction, especially when you have two incredibly attractive people together for most of the movie,” he said. “We wanted this all to be more about their true, deep connection, because that is how Tami still feels about Richard, that he was a true, great love of her life that, if he was still here, she would probably still be with. And so capturing the depth of their connection was more important than the hot, sexy [stuff].”
“Adrift” is in theaters now.