When director J.C. Chandor premiered his new movie “All Is Lost” at the Cannes Film Festival, he had no idea how people would react to it.
The minimalist drama stars the legendary Robert Redford as a nameless man stranded on the ocean after his yacht is crippled by an abandoned shipping container. At age 77, Redford is the film’s only actor and, aside from an opening monologue, a few cries for help and a ferocious F-bomb, there is nearly no dialogue.
“We had no idea how it was gonna be received,” Chandor told me at the 22nd Philadelphia Film Festival. “I think we knew we had covered the worst case scenario, a bad version [of the film]. But the kind of middling version, where people were sort of like, ‘Ehhh’ – we were dreadfully nervous of that.”
As it turned out, the critical reception for “All Is Lost” was overwhelmingly positive with many writers casting early predictions of Redford’s first acting Oscar. It’s an impressive achievement for Chandor, considering the high seas epic is only his second film, but exceeding expectations is something the filmmaker’s made a habit of.
In 2011, Chandor’s debut feature film “Margin Call” stunned crowds at the Sundance Film Festival, where it not only earned a distribution deal, but helped facilitate the first meeting between the director and the festival’s founder, Mr. Redford. The Wall Street drama’s success gave Chandor the credibility to pitch “All Is Lost” to potential investors, but it was the unexpected Oscar nomination for his “Margin Call” screenplay that ultimately set the filmmaker’s sophomore project in motion.
However, there was still one piece of the puzzle missing – a star.
“We offered it to Redford,” Chandor said. “I finished the project and literally went and offered it to him and he said, ‘Yes.’ Amazingly.”
The prospect of directing Robert Redford, who won an Academy Award for directing “Ordinary People,” would be an intimidating task for even the most experienced filmmaker, and Chandor was not without concerns.
“People had warned us, ‘He can be really difficult. He and Sydney Pollack were best friends, but they still fought like cats and dogs. You better get ready!’” he explained. “But we actually ran into the total opposite situation. He had just directed himself in ‘The Company You Keep.’ I think he found that a sort of visually exhausting enterprise, to have to sort of stare at his own face, especially towards the end of post-production on a film.”
He continued: “So we got a guy who was ready to do nothing but act. He was shutting himself off. He, by his own admission, never would have wanted to actually direct a movie like this.”
Ironically, starring in “All Is Lost” was no walk in the park either. Redford spent two months battling the artificial elements in massive New Mexico water tank, which was originally built to film “Titanic.” And according to Chandor, the “weight” of being wet (or half wet) for days on end took its toll on the cast and crew, and began to strain his relationship with Redford.
“We very quickly, personally, started to get sick of each other, because it’s just one actor,” he told me. “So, it was this intense kind of marathon. We’re wonderful friends now. I consider him a dear friend in a weird way. I know that sounds bizarre, but it’s mainly because of what we had all gone through together.”
Redford’s performance is nothing short of spectacular. For an hour and 45 minutes, the elder statesman of Hollywood expertly walks a line between strength and fragility – both physically and emotionally – as his character faces innumerable challenges, projecting triumph, satisfaction, sorrow or defeat without a single word.
“Some of the things he does as an actor are just amazing,” Chandor said. “Most actors, good actors, can give you fear, perseverance, or whatever the emotion is – but this guy can give you fear with about four seconds of deep contemplation and then, as it transitions, to perseverance. And it’s as if he’s talking to you about it.”
Chandor also lends a skillful hand to the tone and pacing of the film, which clocked in at an exhaustive four hours before he hauled it to the editing room. And with thoughtful editing, J.C. carefully balances the terrible things that happen to “Our Man,” as the credits refer to Redford’s character, with moments that allow an audience to catch its breath.
“You don’t want the thing to feel like you’re make a torture piece, or something,” the director quips. “You had to feel the boredom and the monotony and the terror of those prolonged silences, but you also needed the swashbuckling challenges where new challenges were coming.”
Having now cleared the hurdles and challenges of bringing his second film to the big screen, Chandor can sit back and enjoy the praise (and potential shower of awards) for a film that has proven to be anything but a “middling” production.
“It seems to be working for people,” he says modestly. “Which we’re very excited about.”
“All Is Lost” is now playing in select theaters. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.