Interview: J.C. Chandor on Robert Redford and All Is Lost

The writer-director discusses working with the Hollywood iconic in this week's gripping man-at-sea adventure.

by | October 18, 2013 | Comments

A yacht adrift. A solitary man. There aren’t too many actors capable of holding the screen for 100 minutes with such a spare scenario, but Robert Redford is one of them. In this week’s All Is Lost, the screen icon plays an unnamed sailor forced into a battle for survival after his boat is irreparably damaged and plunged into fearsome weather. Writer-director J.C. Chandor — who was Oscar-nominated for his debut, Margin Call — offers up a classic adventure tale with minimum chatter (Redford has all of two speaking lines) and maximum tension, while his leading man brings the weight of a lifetime’s movie stardom to the role. We spoke to Chandor recently about the film.

I didn’t know what to expect with this film, but I quite enjoyed it. I knew it was Robert Redford and, well, no one else.

J.C. Chandor: That’s what it is. It’s as-billed. I think people don’t really know what to expect, which is one thing that I think it has going for it. Hopefully you do come into it blank, in a way — well, not blank, you know, just ready to see what we did.

You’d been wanting to make this film before Margin Call. Was Redford’s involvement the catalyst for getting it made?

Yeah, that story has been a little bit misreported. I can’t say that the actual movie, like this particular movie, was something that there’d been a script around; that’s not the case. But I wanted to do something in this kind of genre. I love these types of movies, but I’d always been looking, as a writer, for a way to kind of get into it. So the idea had been building, I should say. To speak in studio parlance, a lot of the big set pieces had been things that I’d been thinking about. In my early commercial directing and industrial directing I got on a weird little bent for a couple of years where I spent a lot of time doing weird, extreme sport commercials, for power drinks and all these weird things, so I had always thought that there were fun set pieces to actually do in this world. But the narrative itself came about when I was writing during editing on Margin Call. I came up with that letter [from Redford’s character to an unknown recipient, which opens the film], and that letter was really the catalyst, and from that point forward the rest of the story as to how this guy got into this position, kind of came about from that letter.

Given the sparse dialogue, to put it mildly, how long was the script for this — two pages?

[Laughs] No, it was 31 pages long. It’s very specific. It’s a treatment length but it’s unlike a treatment in that it’s pretty darn specific: beat by beat by beat. The movie is fleshed out in a very detailed way, which is, I think, how we were able to get Redford, to get financiers, to get producers, you know. The phrase I use is that it “felt like a movie.” Very conservative people in the finance community signed off on this based on that treatment. Until we were actually ready to shoot and I had storyboarded the entire thing — that was a year-and-a-half later — but it was really that document that financed the entire film.

What was it that appealed to Redford about the premise? I know Jeremiah Johnson is one of his favorites, so I’m guessing there was that.

Yeah. I think it’s a lot of things. I think he was ready. We came to him at the right time and he was ready to act in the film — and not direct, and not worry about all the other things in his life. He really was ready to turn himself over. But there was also something else going on. He said “yes” in like March or April of 2011, so Margin Call had not come out. It had not even gotten any of its second wave of press — it was strictly a film that had been well-received out of Sundance, but not even rapturously received. There were five or six other films that were far more celebrated coming out of that year’s Sundance, so of all the thousands of filmmakers that have come through there, it wasn’t like I was some hungry, returning hero or something. He chose it solely based on — I mean, he says he had seen Margin Call, you know, but I’m not even sure he’d seen it at the time. [Laughs]. But there was clearly something, when he read the document, that he felt this would push him to do something interesting and different, and it would sort of be something. Because, you know — and I’ve shared this detail before, but it bears repeating — it was only 10 minutes in to our first meeting in person that he said “yes.” He was literally ready to do it then. I think he’s a person who has faith in his own judgement; it’s served him well over the years. But in this case, he didn’t know me as a filmmaker, he didn’t know me as a person, but there was something when we met that we definitely saw eye to eye on this project.

Chandor (right) and Redford on location for All Is Lost.

He’s really great in this. I don’t want to read too much into it, but watching it, you know — he really is one of the last of the movie stars, at least of a certain generation, and I felt like I was seeing the last man standing in a world that’s changing around him. Even his predicament is brought about, absurdly, by corporate negligence in the form of the stray shipping container. Were these kinds of ideas on your mind in making the film?

They were, they certainly were. To say that they weren’t I think I’d be fibbing, but you never know if that’s all gonna work, and frankly, when I was writing it, I never knew that it was gonna be a movie. I wrote it in a very specific way, but you know, writing is free; making a movie ain’t. You need 300 people and time and all these people to come together. But when you’re sitting there alone, just tapping away, all of that was in there, very specifically, so I’m not gonna sit here and say that happened by coincidence. There are thousands of shipping containers floating around. Most of them sink to the bottom of the ocean, but a lot don’t. We learned in the process of making the film that the top five or six rows on these ships aren’t even strapped down — it’s cheaper, ’cause it takes so much time to actually secure them. Because the top rows aren’t secured, you pay less — so it’s the cheapest sh-t that’s on the top, and that’s the stuff that falls overboard. So there are lots of those things in there. But in the end it’s also just a straight-up adventure survival film, so I didn’t want to feel like it was bogging it down or making any kind of
statement — it just is. It’s like, there’s something sort of poetic, for me, about having this guy who’s trying to get away from all of this, presumably, and then having something as sort of benign as children’s sneakers do him in.

Were there difficulties in shooting so much on water? Tom Hanks was talking recently about how the seasick crew had thrown up all over him on Captain Phillips at one point.

Yeah, I mean we were doing these crazy things and putting [the crew] through all these paces, so in a way there were a lot of moments — I mean, there were a lot of seasick people. Luckily Redford didn’t suffer seasickness. But you know, there were definitely some pretty exciting days on the set where we were doing all this crazy stuff, and he’s doing almost all of the stunts himself. So I was feeling almost guilty, and so worried, but then I realized he’s been doing this his whole career. This is what he loves, you know. This is his job. It’s not just Robert Redford the icon, it’s a guy, an actor, who loves to do this kind of stuff. I had to talk myself down from being almost overly worried about him, because if he felt comfortable putting himself in that position… well, there were a couple of times I had to pull back. But the real kind of emotionally difficult things that we went through were similar to what the character’s going through — which is this slow grind, you know; that over this long haul you just had to keep faith. We had to believe that there was a movie here, even when, day by day, you’re just seeing the same actor, and he’s seeing the same freakin’ director, with no other actors to talk to.

So you were totally sick of each other, then.

[Laughs] Oh god, man. The charms of Robert Redford. The rest of my crew would be going out drinking with him at night, and I was like, “If I have to look at that guy one more time… ” I’m teasing, of course, but you know, it was an experience that I will never forget. It was so fascinating, but such a brutal experience — of staring down that same person every day, and having to have faith that there actually was a movie in it that was gonna work. I don’t know how much he struggled with that, but by the time we got into our sixth and seventh week of filming, it really did start to feel like a pretty abstract experience.

Well, you’re lucky you had a face that is so compelling to look at for 90 minutes.

[Laughs] Right! Luckily I knew that going in.

It’s not a bad face.

It’s definitely a very good crutch to have that face. [Laughs] And his ability to communicate complex transitions. Most actors can give you a thought, but in this film he’s actually giving you transitions.

Which has gotta be harder than the actual physical stuff.

Oh, it’s unbelievable. I mean, he’s moving from fear to perseverance, from boredom to horrifying fear, you know, and he’s actually taking you on that journey. His ability to communicate non-verbally, I knew going into this, but I had no idea the control that he has over it.

He didn’t even have a CGI tiger to act against.

Exactly. [Laughs] Alright man, I gotta run.

All Is Lost is in theaters this weekend.

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