Director JC Chandor talks about his breathtaking new film All Is Lost, a virtually wordless story of a lone sailor at sea.
Coming face to face with mortality
Last year, the writer and director J C Chandor received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Margin Call. The low-budget, multi-character film was, and arguably still remains, the best attempt to dramatise the beginning of the financial crisis that has plunged many ordinary households in the West into ruin.
While his breathtaking follow-up, All Is Lost, couldn’t be more different – it is virtually wordless, and set entirely at sea – there is, perhaps, a connection. Stripped to the bone narratively and cast-wise, the film’s story of a lone sailor (Robert Redford) struggling to survive in a stricken yacht, feels like an allegory about life post-2008.
When everything is lost and people are forced to confront themselves in extremis, the big existential questions become harder to avoid. What are the things that make life worth living and give it value? Why battle on when death is inevitable?
“The only thing that everyone on planet Earth has absolutely in common with one another is that we are all going to die,” says Chandor. “All Is Lost is about a guy coming to grips with his mortality, which is something everybody is going to go through, sooner or later.”
Chandor had a near-death experience when, at age 19, he was involved in a car crash that killed a friend. Stumbling from the wreckage, he wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive.
“It’s horrible when it happens and then it’s kind of unbelievable for the next 15 years, because you feel like you’re on borrowed time,” he says. “And since then, I have never thought about it again.”
He didn’t even allow himself to go back there in his mind while filming All Is Lost. “I am still in denial. So, for me, this is about a guy who had been living in denial that he literally was ever going to die, and you’re there for the seven stages of grief for his own life.”
It seems fitting that the nameless, emblematic protagonist with no backstory is played by the 76-year-old Redford with such physicality that the actor – let alone the character – seems to be blithely oblivious to his own mortality.
“I would say there are eight shots of a stunt person,” says Chandor, marvelling at the veteran Hollywood star’s fitness. “He’s a very good athlete and very competitive. His knees, sadly, are a little arthritic because he’s been running his whole life, but his upper body is amazing.”
To take advantage of this, they added extra handles to the inside of the yacht. “So, he’s always – kind of like a monkey in the forest – holding on to things,” Chandor observes. “As long as his upper body’s there, he wasn’t going anywhere.”
Even so, Chandor would worry, “every night and every morning”, that something might happen to Redford. If he got hurt, his age and, more likely, his “very protective” wife, would have probably prevented his return to the set and the movie would have collapsed. “So we had to keep him safe,” he says. “But he’s got an ego on him, and he loves to go for it.”
Redford’s ego wasn’t so big, though, that he tried to encroach on Chandor’s directorship, even though the younger filmmaker admits he would have appreciated the input. “A couple of times I was like: ‘Hey, man, you’ve done this like eight or nine times. How about a little something, man?’ But he never looked at a frame. Never looked at the monitors. Never went in the edit room. Never saw a frame until six months later.”
Part of the draw of All Is Lost is that it features Redford’s first performance for someone else in almost a decade. “He was tired of directing and certainly tired of directing himself,” says Chandor. When he arrived on set, he’d just wrapped editing his thriller, The Company You Keep, and was ready, he said in Cannes, “to let myself go, [and] I gave myself up completely”.
The result is a performance that is already creating an Oscar buzz, in a movie expected to feature in the Best Film category. Despite its title, All Is Lost could turn out to be a big winner.
• All Is Lost is out tomorrow in UAE cinemas