"I'm sorry." Those are among the first and very few words uttered by legendary actor Robert Redford in "All is Lost," the second feature film written and directed by J.C. Chandor. What is he sorry for? We don't know. Redford's character doesn't even have a name; he's listed in the credits as "Our Man." But we spend the entire film with him, alone and nearly wordless, as he struggles to stay alive after a freak accident punches a hole in his boat, destroys his navigational gear, and leaves him at the mercy of a vast, storm-tossed, and empty Indian Ocean.
For Chandor, the difference between his two films is as extreme as it gets. 2011's "Margin Call" was filled with characters crowded into offices and talking incessantly at each other as the economy collapsed around them. "All Is Lost" features just one man against the awesome power of nature.
Redford remains mesmerizing to watch onscreen and, at the age of 77, fully embraces the grueling physical nature of the role, even as his emotional journey plays out entirely on his weathered features. We met with him and Chandor at a hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about their unique, gripping, and ultimately existential drama.
Moviefone: For the both of you, what was your comfort level on the water and with boats before doing this?
J.C. Chandor: I'm not the world's greatest open ocean sailor by any stretch of the imagination, but I certainly had a core history and a basic understanding that everything that we were trying to do was possible, and in a horrible sense, in all of these worst case scenarios. From an engineering perspective, everything that we did to that poor boat is what happens in these horrible situations.
Robert Redford: I grew up in Los Angeles and I knew my way around water. I had surfed and swam and I was a boat guy, in terms of waterskiing or rafting rivers, but not sailing. I don't know why, considering I came from a place where sailing was extreme. But, I did not know what [Chandor] knew. He was the expert and I had to put myself in his hands, which I was happy to do. But it was putting yourself in the hands of somebody who knows what they're talking about. You certainly don't know what they know.
How did you then prepare for the role, especially once you got an idea physically how it would be?
Redford: Physically there wasn't a lot to do except show up. It was also because one of the things I said that I liked about it was that J.C. said [the character] is not an expert sailor. He's not the top end. He's not Larry Ellison's crewmember. He's a guy that's a good sailor who finds himself in a situation somewhat beyond his knowledge and he has to improvise. That zone I really liked as an actor because you had to figure things out on your own. You had to improvise, and some things went okay but others didn't. But you could also mix that with what he knew to do. He knew he had to go to get this to do that, but suddenly something would occur after the fact that he forgot...but then does he have time to get back to his boat? I love that. I just thought that was great.
J.C. had his own back story for "Our Man," but did you, as an actor, feel you had to flesh out your own back story for this guy or was his character all just in the moment for you?
Redford: Well, this was mostly in the moment, but you had to have a little backstory. I just needed enough information so that my backstory wouldn't totally conflict with whatever his was -- because he wouldn't tell me what it was.
Chandor: We had a little give and take for our first couple of weeks.
Redford: Then I realized he's not going to talk about it and that's part of the deal. So all I had to go on is he had a family, he was sorry, he tried, and he knows that they know he tried. That's it. And that was enough where I could sort of fill in the rest for myself on a personal level, which I wouldn't have to tell anybody as long as it didn't conflict with what needed to be happen.
Chandor: Someone teased me the other day, they said there's a lot more back story on this boat then there is on the actual actor. But in a way that was kind of the point because the boat was all you sort of needed in a way. The boat kind of financially put him in a certain strata, which is obviously prosperous but is not a yacht or something. It's a very middle-class affordable boat, which we selected, but yet capable to go into the middle of the ocean without it being like a suicide mission or something. It was a strong enough boat just to kind of do what he's trying to do with it. But it was like that little world was what the audience was going to have to use to be able to decide who he was, so that was sort of what I was giving him as an actor.
So were your interpretations of the story different from each other's?
Chandor: My version of the movie and his did not conflict, but they probably were not the same -- just like I hope your version isn't. He's supposed to become your vessel through which people, by that third act, are hopefully experiencing it with him in one way or another. I felt like the best way to do that was to keep that just in the experience. When you're in a situation of disaster you're not sitting there talking about your backstory. You're just doing what you're doing to try to stay alive. And my hope was, through seeing all those actions after an hour and a half or whatever it is, you do know him. The clues are there but it's sort of your movie at that point. And [Redford] was a strong enough, confident enough actor to go on that trip with me, which most wouldn't have been.
Redford: I'd like to talk about the boat for a second, because this is something that evolved for me as the movie went on...What happened was as the movie went on, because we were in the boat every minute, the boat became a character. More than a character in the movie, it became a character in the crew. You're not aware of it but the boat is becoming a real part of your life. Then we came to that moment in the film where the boat sinks. He detaches himself from the boat finally and he's on the raft and he's had to transfer his allegiance from one thing to the next. In the film, that transference is hard for him and you have to show that -- just the feeling of "There goes something that was part of me." But what was interesting was when we filmed the scene and the boat actually sank -- it was a very quiet when that boat sank. As it really started to happen it got very quiet. And you could almost feel, well, there goes part of who we've been.
There seems to be something in the air about man being humbled in the face of nature, whether it's extreme weather in real life, or being lost at sea in your film.
Redford: I did it once years ago with "Jeremiah Johnson." It had the same idea about what makes some person continue against the odds. It's about man and nature, and this is about man and nature... I think my interest is in where we are and what we stand on and what we swim in. "Jeremiah Johnson" was about a man in the wilderness. This is the wilderness of the water in a way. The Indian Ocean is about as big as it comes, and the fact is the ocean is the most unexplored part of our planet. So imagine being out there. I had to think about this when we were filming it. I had to think about what it feels like to be in a rather smallish boat in the middle of this vast ocean, which can get really tricky. You're totally at the mercy of whatever goes. How could you not think about how deep what's below you is? There are some shots where he looks around and all you're seeing is this vast space underneath you. What does that do to your psyche?
"All is Lost" opens in limited release in the U.S. on October 18.