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10/25/2013 02:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Interview: Writer-Director J.C. Chandor on the Brilliant All Is Lost

When J.C. Chandor was looking for a project to follow up his acclaimed 2011 film Margin Call, a true-life chronicle of 36 hours on Wall Street, he went in completely the opposite direction, finding his muse in All Is Lost, a gripping tale that relies on silence and introspection in much the same way Margin Call relied on its lightning fast dialogue to build drama. The film stars Robert Redford as a lone seafarer (who we only ever know as "Our Man") in a damaged boat, struggling to stay alive against a seemingly ceaseless elemental onslaught.

At its core, this is a tale of what it takes to survive, and while there are certainly thematic ties to Cast Away or Life of Pi, this is very much its own thing. Thanks to Chandor's masterful construction of the story, All Is Lost is equal parts gripping, tragic, and hopeful. The fragility and quiet strength that Redford, still matinee idol handsome even into his late seventies, manages to embody through an almost entirely silent performance is absolutely revelatory.

Without a doubt, this is one of the best movies I've seen all year, something I've been declaring loudly to anyone who'll listen (as you well know if you've got the last month's worth of MovieFilm Podcast shows), and something I declared once again to Chandor when I had a chance to discuss the film with him. What follows is the transcript of that chat, as he takes me from the film's conception to completion, including how he approached his star, and what it was like directing the Sundance Kid himself.

I just want to say first of all, and this is not just flattery, I was blown away by the movie. I saw it just a few weeks ago and it's been in my consciousness. I've been telling random people on the street go see it...

(laughs) It's designed to be a time release capsule. For the people that it seems to be working for it does sort of bounce around for a while, which is what we all hoped. When you begin something like this, you can only hope that'll be the case. There's something kind of universal about this weird kind of guy on a sailboat, which is not the most universal kind of situation, but I think because it's so, sort of, abstract it allows people to come in. Thanks for saying that. We all took a little bit of a risk to go do this - Mr. Redford more so than anybody else - and we're all pretty proud that we managed to pull something off. That at least a pretty good percentage of audiences are really able to go on this ride that we created.

What led you to this film being the follow up to Margin Call, because obviously they are very different in terms of tone and whatnot. And also what led you to Robert Redford being Our Man? 

I think it's an interesting thing, because the neat thing about writing and directing is [that] directing is so absurd in the amount of people that you need, and resources, to actually kind of execute your idea. It's sort of laughable - when the credits go by I'm always amazed that everybody showed up. But as a writer, when you're starting you don't have to think about all that. It's kind of this lonely period and it isn't costing anything. It's just costing your time and energy.

And so this idea started as one of many and kind of bounced around, and I think certainly somewhere deep down I thought, "Well, that's a movie you're going to go make," but you don't know that at the time. It was just this kernel that wouldn't go away and I stowed visual ideas for it away over a long period of time, but then the breakthrough was during the editing of Margin Call. I was riding the train a lot up and down the East Coast of the United States. I was living up in Providence. We had gotten priced out of New York City, so my wife and kids and I moved up to Providence.

And I was editing Margin Call, though, in New York. It was a very stressful time, I didn't know whether I was going to be able to feed my family and do this as a living, and these boats all up and down the Eastern Seaboard were left by the train tracks on boatyards up and down the Seaboard  all winter. And there's something so sad about a boat kind of, it just seemed so absurd and wasteful.  It has no purpose. You realize the absurdity of the endeavor when you see one of these things.

Humankind used these things for most of our exploration up until a couple hundred years ago as our main tool and now they're kind of left as this relic, and there was something that fascinated about that and the next thing I knew I'd written the letter that opens the film, and once I wrote that letter sitting on the train the next couple of months really started to be very specifically about finding a movie where someone would end up writing that letter. So that's when the film became very specific for me.

Redford, I was sort of halfway through writing the script, I was taking my first film to Sundance and he gives a big welcoming talk like every other filmmaker who's ever gone to Sundance. He gives a big brunch where he takes the filmmakers outside of Park City up into the mountains where the labs are run and he comes in and gives a talk, and I was in the back of the room and the speaker on my side of the room was having technical trouble and his voice was kind of coming in and out as the speaker was becoming unconnected and then finally someone came and fixed it.

And he ended up telling a story about Jeremiah Johnson, and the struggle he'd had to make that film, and it was sort of like the proverbial light bulb went off in my head, which is you take this iconic actor whose voice is one of his key tools, and if you took that tool away from him what would it force him to do and what could he bring. And then of course he's telling the story about that film, Jeremiah Johnson, which is sort of a cousin of this film and so I realize this was kind of an adventurous guy and that maybe I should take the flyer and just ask him, and so I did.

Not at that event, I wimped out. A couple weeks later I finished the script and I sent it to him and it was that simple, and amazingly he said yes.

What do you think drew him to the material?

The amazing thing for me is that it was really only a month or two after Margin Call, my first film, had premiered at Sundance. My film hadn't even come out in the marketplace, hadn't been reviewed by a broad stroke of reviewers. Our film at Sundance was well reviewed, but it wasn't the glowing hit of the festival. It was later in the year that it kind of built this momentum. So I give him credit for just kind of believing purely in the idea. It wasn't like I was some hot up-and-coming guy at that point at all.

He really, this was very early in the process where he took this chance on me. But I walked in the room, and I would say it was no more than ten minutes in that he kind of looked at me, and he's like, "Look, I just wanted to make sure that you thought this through, and that you weren't crazy, 'cause it's a pretty outlandish idea, but it seems like you have a plan." I remember he looked at me, and he basically just said, "Let's go do this." That quickly.

There was something about the idea that just clicked with him, and I think he's one of those people, it's probably a key to his success, that he realizes once he sees an opportunity and feels like he can bring something to it, he never doubted it from that day forward. It was just, "Let's go do this." Most importantly, amazingly, he never doubted me. It was like this bizarre subconscious trust that he had that I knew what I was doing when that might have not been his best instinct, but it worked out alright somehow.

To that point, when you watch the film what really struck me is that in narrative terms it's so stripped down. This is survival on its most basic terms. The fact that we know nothing about his character...he could be a murderer, we don't know.

(laughs) Right, whether he's running away. Redford and I did have certain signposts that we had presented for ourselves about the character. We wanted him to be not a person who had just been doing this for twenty years in sort of an aimless, ridiculous loop, that he was leaving something, that there was a community and most likely a family that he was leaving. So we had certain things that we both felt pretty strongly about, but then the film does take the weakness of the survival genre which is having the sort of paste-on band-aid or crutch, so to speak, narratively speaking, to communicate that backstory.

And in a weird way in this case by embracing the inherent weakness in the genre, you are allowing potentially something greater to happen which is that you start literally inhabiting the character in a weird way, take the common everyman theory to it's furthest point, which by the third act potentially if I've done my job well, you are almost becoming, he is living out some weird thing in you. If we've pulled that off, it's a pretty neat trick.

A comment I made and, this isn't to denigrate that film, but he doesn't have a volleyball to talk to.

Yeah, and by not giving myself that crutch, I think in a weird way you have a more emotional experience than you might otherwise. Only with one tool that I had which is Redford has this innate ability to communicate complex emotional transitions. Most people can communicate fear non-verbally, most great actors. But the ability to communicate fear with a contemplation of fear and then a transition to perseverance all on someone's face where i's readable like a line of dialogue would be if not more so is an innate art that he is that is bizzare and to see him do it when we were editing the film, you know, take by take he can actually alter it. It was like picking lines of dialogue on the takes. It was fascinating. I never knew I quite would have that tool when I started, but it was pretty amazing when I realized what I had.

What was your state of mind as you are directing one of the greatest actors of all time but also one of the greatest directors through an essentially wordless performance? 

He, amazingly was, from our first meeting, could not have been more generous and trustworthy toward me. He realized this was, by his own admission, a movie that he would not really want to have directed. It was acting in this movie that was interesting to him, and so it's technically not something he'd ever been interested for. This film is like a puzzle, the way all the pieces have to be put together technically speaking, so it was kind of amazing when he  showed up he had also luckily just finished directing himself for the first time in a long time in a movie called The Company You Keep.

He had just finished color correcting that, when you see your own face over and over again at the end of a shoot, and he was ready to totally hand himself over to a new experience where he never asked a question about the technical - he just isolated himself as an actor in the bubble environments that we were creating. He said a couple of times that it brought him back to his roots.

His life had gotten so complicated supporting all the endeavors he takes on that he turned off his cell phone, his personal secretary is the only person who knew where he was practically, and he came for two and a half months down to Mexico and just kind of allowed himself to go on this journey, which I think it shows that he is doing work and exposing himself in ways that he hadn't in a long time because a lot of those other requirements are taken out.

It was bizarre in that we almost, we'd be like we'd love to hear his advice on something, but he just turned all of that over to us and became this very fragile actor, which was an amazing experience.

I just want to say this film is an achievement. In all sincerity it's one of my favorites of the year, so I'm really hoping people discover it, because I think it's a fantastic experience. 

It's definitely meant to be seen in a movie theater. It's one of those films that needs that larger than life experience, so I hope people go see it. It'll be fun to see.

******

Many thanks to J.C. Chandor for his time. All Is Lost is now playing at a theater near you, and as the writer-director says above, it really does deserve to be experienced on the big screen. To hear the audio from this interview, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via the embed below: