Yesterday at the New York Film Festival, director J.C. Chandor revealed one of the best pictures of the fest: "All Is Lost." A masterful and tense drama that immediately elevates the "Margin Call" filmmaker from a promising indie director to a promising new auteur watch from now on. "All Is Lost" is not only soulful and moving, it's an incredible achievement. Boldly austere and silent, the drama chronicles a resourceful sailor, who after a collision with a shipping container in the Indian ocean, finds himself staring his mortality in the face despite all his best efforts.
His struggle is performed and executed with brave minimalism. Robert Redford is the lead, the only character on screen and he barely utters a word throughout the entire picture and yet thanks to a small teaser line at the beginning and the actor’s face and expression, we still understand much of who he is as a man and both his strengths and failings as a person. A survival narrative not unlike say, "Gravity," the movie's spareness is almost the polar opposite of Alfonso Cuaron's IMAX, 3D maximalism (but in this writer's mind it's the far superior film). Redford pulls off an amazing performance as the silent man resiliently trying to battle the elements and endure while Chandor's filmmaking, use of editing, sound and music is first-rate all around. Chandor and Redford met press at the New York Film Festival yesterday to discuss this mournful, existential examination of mortality, the human spirit and despair (here's our review from Cannes). Here are the many highlights.
The script was only 31 pages long.
Chandor describes his minimalist screenplay. “I sent [Redford] the script about 2 or 3 weeks after I completed it. It was a 31 page document in script form. It is very much the film [that is up on screen]," he explained. "It was obviously not a lot of dialogue but it was very descriptive, beat by beat, scene by scene, moment by moment. The idea had gone in my head for about a year, growing….the nice thing about the document, after you got over the fact that it was so short, is that you got an idea about what the film was.”
Robert Redford agreed to take on the project so quickly it surprised director JC Chandor.
When first pitching the movie to Redford, Chandor said he prepared to make a very in-depth presentation. "For a guy who wrote a movie with no dialogue you sure talk a lot," Chandor laughed, recalling one of Redford’s first comments. Redford liked the screenplay so much, he didn’t really need a lot of convincing.
“It was probably ten minutes into this meeting and he just looked at me and said, ‘I just wanted to make sure you weren't crazy but you seem to have thought this through," Chandor said, remembering his disbelief of Redford wanting to be onboard almost immediately. “He patted his knees and said, ‘Let's do this.’ I was sitting in Robert Redford's office going ‘Uhhhh,’ and from that moment forward there was this trust. I don't know where that trust came from but it was an unbelievable process.”
Redford had never met Chandor before and “Margin Call” had just premiered at Sundance, months before its release and ensuing critical acclaim. “My film was well received but it wasn't a roaring success. There was just something in this idea that he was drawn to,” Chandor said of the perfect storm of his idea and Redford’s interest.
Redford said he was simply sold on the material and that his intuition after meeting Chandor that he was the real deal.
“It was just one of those rare situations where you go on vibe and instinct and you put yourself in the hands of someone else because you trust them,” Redford said upon meeting the young filmmaker. “When I got the script from J.C. there was a lot of stuff I was impressed with and attracted to – no dialogue, bold – but it was detailed in a way that I knew that this person knew what they were doing and had a strong vision. So when we met I was already inclined I just needed to know he wasn't nuts.”
Redford said the rest came rather quickly and he was intrigued by the film’s challenges. “What attracted me to that was that you can be completely absorbed in your character and audience would be able to go along with you. I was inclined to go along and trust him and I'm glad I did.”
Chandor’s own experience at sea in a storm was part of the inspiration.
The filmmaker said he had sailed casually growing up with his family, but was no means an expert. He did one open-ocean sail with an expert, they got into a storm and the experience never left him.
“It was a great fear of mine,” Chandor admitted. “I was probably in my early 20s. And those feelings stuck with me. There's a tremendous combination of claustrophobia and openness. Everything is kind of heightened. It's like an empty house. The boat almost acts as a drum. I remember trying to sleep in one of these environments and it was like sleeping inside of a drum. The sound design… The movie almost doesn't exist without it.”
Does the character survive in the end? Spoilers ahead.
Chandor's thoughts on how to read the ending of the film are sublime and shows a filmmaker who understands the art of cinema. Chandor said a good percentage of the audience at each screening believes the character dies and some believe he survives.
Chandor said it was less about being ambiguous and more in the design of the movie -- giving it over to the audience and letting them decide “By the third act, if we have done our job [Redford’s character] has become a conduit or a vessel for you as an audience member and my intention was yours at that point. So the experience becomes yours.”
So Chandor said he loves that audience members have strong opinions on the ending one way or another. “We didn't know if this was going to work. The confidence [in most people’s responses to whether he lives or dies] makes me happy. I didn't want the end to be ambiguous for you as a single audience member,” Chandor stressed. “I'm handing it over. It's a reflection on the end of our lives. In a weird way, I hope you're learning about yourself and your view on the end of your life. That's where I was coming from.” *end spoiler*