There's only one actor, he spends the entire movie in a boat and he doesn't say anything — what could possibly go wrong?
Is J.C. Chandor nuts?
The writer-director, who was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for his first movie, “Margin Call,” opted to make a second film from a script that was only 31 pages long (strike one), was set entirely in a boat (strike two) and featured a single actor (strike three) who doesn’t say a word for about 99-and-a-half minutes out of the movie’s 100-minute running time (strikes four, five, six and then some).
It seems to be a recipe for commercial disaster, not to mention a recipe for getting financiers and distributors to throw up their hands and say “no thanks.”
But “All Is Lost” turned out to be something completely different – a tense, gripping one-man show that gives Robert Redford almost no dialogue but still provides him with his meatiest role in decades as a lone sailor trying to survive after a stray cargo crate punches a hole in his sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
The movie made debut at Cannes and picked up raves there and in Telluride, proving that Chandor wasn’t nuts to think he could pull it off. Here, from TheWrap’s conversation with Chandor this week, is how he did it.
“Robert Redford, to his credit, attached himself to this back in March of 2011,” Chandor said. “It was before ‘Margin Call’ had even been released. We had gone to Sundance with ‘Margin Call’ and had a good run, but we were not the darling of that festival in any way. He’d probably seen 1,000 filmmakers come through with a similar level of success, but I sent him the script and there was something in the idea that drew him in at that very early point.”
If your script is only been 31 pages long, cram a lot into those pages.
“This script is one draft, pretty much,” Chandor said. “When I get an idea, I visualize a good portion of the film long before I actually sit down to write. And in this particular instance, the first draft was what you got.
“It’s a very procedural film – it’s constantly manipulating your emotions. That doesn’t sound good, but technically, I had to be very specific as to how I could make a movie with one character. To pull that off, I felt that there had to be very precise manipulation, scene by scene, moment by moment, or it wouldn't work. So I put that all in the first draft.
“When you read the script, it feels like a movie. You can see the movie, and understand what we were trying to do.”
Make it cheap.
“I pitched it to Lionsgate, which did ‘Margin Call’ [with Roadside Attractions], and they were interested. And then … Universal, a big huge conglomerate, [came in too],” the director said. “And as long as we priced it correctly, they were willing to take the risk. [Note: Lionsgate and Roadside together pre-bought U.S. rights, and Universal came in for a multi-territory deal on international.]
“We spent just under $9 million, which to me felt like $100 million after ‘Margin Call.’ Every page that’s in my script, we shot. I never really felt like I was wanting for much, except for a huge salary.”
Don’t mess with the blueprint.
“We had done so much preparation and we didn't have unlimited time, so in a way it really was about executing the idea. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. ‘The man takes a knife and seems to have an idea he reaches for a plastic container.’ Action slug by action slug, the film follows the original idea very closely,” he said.
“The only thing that was a total invention on the set was this idea of him climbing up the mast of the ship. I’d had that idea right from the beginning, but because of my bond company and insurance company I didn’t put it in the script, because I never thought we’d be able to pull it off. But once we got into production and got an effects coordinator and a stunt guy who could help do that safely, it became a bonus. And once we talked a certain someone into going up there… [laughs]
“That’s his best acting in the movie, to not act scared out of his wits up there. We had him rigged 10 ways to Tuesday to be safe, but he’s scared of heights. I don’t know if he’ll admit it, but I will.”
Find a bond company that trusts you.
“Insuring the whole endeavor was a problem,” Chandor admitted. “It’s a one-person movie, and a water movie. So if something happens and he can’t work, that’s it. But we prepped the movie for almost a year, and I have to say our bond company believed that we could do it.
“We hit our days and came in on time, and they were unbelievably generous. I’m not sure the bond rep ever even visited our set – and if he did, it was only once. For a water movie, that's amazing.”
No matter how nuts it seems, don’t second-guess yourself.
“A lot of it was just down to the two of us [Chandor and Redford]. By a week in, I’m sure the guy was probably sick and tired of hearing my take. And this sounds sacrilegious, but by the second or third week the whole charm of Robert Redford kind of wears off, and he’s just a guy,” he said.
“It was the grueling process of not second-guessing ourselves. And he helped me do that. He’s not into second-guessing. He’s just, ‘Let’s do it. The worst thing that happens is we make a bad movie.’ He never actually said that, but we felt it.
“He’s a person who has been doing this his entire adult life, and he’s not precious about it.”