In space or on the ocean, no one can hear you scream. Comparisons abound between solo adventures "Gravity" and "All Is Lost," but unlike space, the ocean is far from silent. So although J.C. Chandor's remarkable open-water survival thriller (starring a 77-year-old Robert Redford boldly stepping out of his comfort zone) is virtually dialogue-free, the director was totally on board with making the sound design a driving narrative force.
That was up to supervising sound editors Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of Skywalker Sound. "Selfishly, I thought this was a great opportunity for sound to play an important role without having to convince the director," admits Boeddeker ("Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Seven"), who also served as the film's sound designer/re-recording mixer. "J.C. said he wanted very little dialogue and almost no music. He wanted to use them as punctuation marks so that the story was told with acting, sound, and sound effects. And the emotions were cued by the dread he's feeling and the music takes it to the next level when he gets introspective."
The film was all shot on Redford's eye line and we only hear what he hears. But it's also filtered through his perceptions; as the journey goes from bad to worse with the storm, so do the sounds of the crashing waves or the thrashing of the sailboat. As a result, the best logistical and emotional approach was to treat the boat as a primary character in this existential adventure.
"I kept thinking of the story as a western," Boeddeker suggests. "Instead of a cowboy, we have a sailor; instead of a horse, we have a boat as a sidekick; and instead of the desert, we have the Indian Ocean. That metaphor helped us figure out how to do it. Brandon Proctor focused on Redford and I handled the boat. Richard as a supervisor and lifelong sailor, organized the logistics and arranged for recording trips on sailboats to get authentic sounds. And also for me was a safety net. I could experiment with sounds to convey the emotion and Richard kept it technically authentic."
Since there was no usable audio for the boat while they were shooting in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, production recordists had to create a library of sounds. It was Boeddeker's intention to take the sound to extremes and Chandor was fine with that.
"He wanted it to be the biggest storm ever because in Redford's mind, this might be it," Boeddeker recalls. The storm was shot in one of the world's largest tanks at Baja Studios in Rosarito Beach, where "Titanic" was filmed. In some cases, they shook up the surface of the water with jet skis.