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If any movie suggests both the pleasure and torture of solitude, it’s J.C. Chandor’s NYFF main slate entry, All Is Lost. Only such a seasoned actor as the 77 year old Robert Redford could propel such a simple narrative — of what happens when marooned at sea in a boat that may never reach land — and offer insight into this character’s trauma with a nary a word of dialogue or other- character exchanges.
But the dynamic actor/producer/director is the ideal person to handle such challenges. He’s won Oscars, launched the bedrock film festival Sundance, fought for noble progressive causes and been a longtime sex symbol as well. For all those accolades, nothing really prepared the physically fit elder statesman for this unique role.
In addition to being the only one actor in the film, Redford has no dialogue, and only a few spoken lines. Because of this, the shooting script was only 31 pages. Being shot within the confines of a sailboat and liferaft, the film was technically difficult so, if for nothing else, it joined the ranks of other water-drenched films such as Jaws.
Ironically, though the movie offered few words it provoked lots of questions and conversation — enough so that Redford made an appearance at a press conference before its premiere at The Film Society’s Walter Reade Theater.Q: Did you ever think, “I’m going to be totally alone on the screen for an hour and a half, just as the guy is alone in the boat.” Was that scary or not?
RR: No. For me, it was very quick. I didn’t know J.C. I only knew him from a film that I saw at Sundance called Margin Call, which I liked.
When I got the script from J.C., it had a lot of things that I was very impressed with. There was no dialogue. It was bold.
I’m attracted to that -- being alone, having no filter of dialogue. As an actor, you can be completely absorbed in your character. The silence would allow the audience to come in with you and be part of your experience.
It was also detailed in a way that I felt this person really knew what [he was] doing. It was, “Okay. As long as the 31 pages are very well defined, that’s great, suggesting that you have a very strong vision.”
What is interesting for me, on a personal level, is you’re in one of those rare situations where you go on drive and instinct and put yourself very quickly in the hands of someone else because you trust them.
These days, there are so many players in the kitchen. You have agents, publicists, trainers, all these characters who can sometimes get in the way of the direct relationship between you and the artist you are going to be working with.
So when we met, I was already inclined, I just needed to know he wasn’t nuts.
This all happened really quickly, and we didn’t have a lot to say to each other because I was inclined to go with it and trust him. I’m glad I did. Q: Did you discuss the details of your character's backstory with director JC Chandor? RR: I went through the normal motions that an actor would with a director about what’s on [his] mind or anything you want to talk about with the story.
He was pretty evasive. He told me not to worry about fundamental questions, which I wasn’t happy to ask anyway. I just thought that I had to.
There was a reason why -- it was because what he had on the page is all he wanted. Once I hooked into that, I liked it a lot. Getting that freedom was really great.
Another thing that was attractive was that the plot was existential, which meant that you could allow space for it to be interpreted by others. An audience can come in and decide which way they felt.
They all know something but there is something missing. Whatever effort he’s made in his life, there is something missing. Maybe this journey has something to do with him trying to figure that out or accomplish something that fulfills a need that wasn’t satisfied. I like that.
The final thing that I like is that he was not a super human. He was not a super hero. He was not a super sailor. He was a good sailor, but not one of Mary Ellison’s crew members. A good sailor but not a perfect sailor.
I had space to work with and did some improvisation, because once things got really bad, then there were things he didn’t know to do. He had to go on instinct. He had to learn on the job, so to speak. I found all of that very interesting.
Q: Can you talk about the research you did for the role, in any nautical sense? Have you ever had to put your own survival skills to the test? RR: I did some research, but a lot of it wasn’t really necessary because it was so detailed and filled out by the writer.
I’ve had to apply survival skills a few times in my life, On film, the closest is a movie that I made a long time ago, Jeremiah Johnson, which was a character in the wilderness who ran into similar situations [such] as this. And he had to learn.
That’s probably the only research [I’ve done]. I was guided by the detailed writing of J.C. as the sailor. Q: You grew up in southern California so did you deal with the water? RR: I grew up in Santa Monica, California, in a lower working-class situation. For me, the nearest thing to recreation was the ocean because it was nearby. I spent a lot of time in the water and surfing. The time I spent in the water was near the shore, not in the deep sea.
As a little kid, I remember going in and out of the water, I would look out and saw the vast expanse of the sea. I was hit by how vast it was and what’s out there. That’s a lot of water to be messing around with.
Then while we were working, that vast expanse of ocean was as far as you can see. It was endless. The horizon ended, but what was underneath you was this vast depth of miles and miles of deep sea. And you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just you.
I asked J.C., “So much of this is going to be grappling with the physical part of the storm. Can he at least have some moments to think? Just a respite, or a moment for the character to just be.” Q: J.C. said the crew worked for three months getting this thing ready. How did you physically prepare for this — was there anything that you yourself did? RR: No, there was no research. There wasn’t a lot of time to prepare. J.C. and the crew had been there and done such a fine job prepping. It is an independent film -- very low budget, which means very little time.
All I had to do, which was actually helpful, was just to be there and go with what came.
I trusted myself in the water, but I didn’t know what was going to happen in the water. To fall overboard and be twisted and turned and so forth, I wasn’t afraid of that. The same thing that attracted me to play this character with no dialogue, is that [I] just had to be with [myself] as that character, dealing with the things that come moment to moment and be as honest as [I] can about it. Q: Right before the storm arrives, our man decides to shave, which is a wonderfully endearing moment. What did you think of that when you first read the screenplay? RR: I had mixed feelings about it. I like the eccentricity of it but I wanted to understand it. When I got to understand it, I really liked it a lot.
That scene is bizarre and I’m sure a lot of people will find it weird and off-putting. What I like about it was that the character is confronted over and over again with the choice of either panicking or dealing.
Sometimes, to avoid that, you try to reduce yourself to as much normalcy as possible, even if it seems weird or "off". Shaving in that crisis moment was a chance for our character to re-align himself and to keep things as normal as possible. I like that.
I think what this film satisfied for me was the larger philosophical question. At a certain point where things seem impossible, where all is lost and there is no chance to survive, when all the odds are against you, when you look forward and see things are impossible, [some people] give up. For whatever reason, others just keep going. There is no other reason than that. They just continue because that’s all there is to do.
Q: at the very beginning, the boat is destroyed by garbage floating in the ocean. You do a lot of work for the environment. Is there any hope? RR: This question seems to be moving in the direction of environmental considerations. I did not think about that. When it was happening, I thought, “Oh, that’s what’s on these carriers.”
But I was too busy trying to survive. I was too busy dealing with the fact that water was rushing in.
That’s what I really like about what J.C. has constructed here. He works in films how I like to work in films. Whatever it is for you, he’s completely okay with. I like that a lot.
With films that have been in my control, I always like the idea of ending with a question mark. I like the idea of the audience having to come up with [answers] on their own, without having everything spelled out and put into their face. That brings the audience in.
When it's all said and done, I think this film belongs solidly to J.C. It’s his vision. His attention to detail I thought was really great, because there was so much detail, so specific that it stood on its own. I was there to fill that out.
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