Director J.C. Chandor found the idea for “All is Lost,” his remarkable, nearly dialogue-free one-man film starring Robert Redford, during the final editing of his first film, “Margin Call.” He imagined a letter written by an unnamed man trying to settle his affairs as he is overwhelmed by a situation beyond his control.
“That sort of came to me,” Chandor said in a recent phone interview. “And I hadn’t really found how that character got there to write that letter or what that letter was really about yet.”
With the exception of one profane word and a distress call placed by “our man,” the nameless character played by Redford, that letter Chandor wrote contains the bulk of the language in “All is Lost.” The story is simple: “our man” is undertaking a solo circumnavigation of the globe on a sailboat. One morning, he wakes up to find that a lost shipping container has cracked the side of his boat. Water pours into the vessel, and he must stay alive by any means necessary as his ship falters and the storms of the Indian Ocean batter the compromised ship.
“All is Lost” represented a major shift from the large cast and intense dialogue of “Margin Call,” but it was that film’s debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 that ultimately led Chandor to think of 77-year-old Redford, the festival’s founder, for the lead role in “Lost.”
“Redford introduces all the directors at the festival, he brings you out to this brunch — I think he’s done it every year of the festival,” he said. “So I was just in this room with 250 other filmmakers and … he started to creep into my head. Frankly, I never thought of having anyone else in the role.”
And during Redford’s talk with the filmmakers, the loudspeakers in the room began to cut in and out. The sudden disappearance of Redford’s confident, earthy voice made Chandor think about what could be done if his main character simply did not speak through most of the film.
“You realized that if you sort of took that tool away from him, it might strangely allow the audience to see him in a different light, to say nothing of the fact that, as a performance, it was going to put tremendous stress on him, on his other gifts, which are plenty,” Chandor said.
Despite those imposed acting limitations and the physical expectations put on Redford, who spent many days soaked to the bone in giant water tanks during filming, Chandor said it took about four minutes for the actor to agree.
“There was something about the project that drew him into it, quickly and strongly,” he said.
– George Lang