Moviefone Canada conducted an exclusive interview with Chandor; loquacious and energetically effusive about the project, it's clear that the film was a strong passion for the man who previously directed the well-received "Margin Call." We spoke of the logistics of filming, the ambivalence of the ending, as well as working with one of the most renowned actors in film history.
*** WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD ***
You spent weeks drowning one Mr. Redford in the same tank where James Cameron shot "Titanic." How did you approach him to be dunked in the service of your film?
It started at Sundance in 2011. Like every other filmmaker before me, going to Sundance starts at a welcome brunch, and there's 250 people in the room and I came in a little late. He gives this great rousing welcome, and I was sitting in the back corner of the room and the speaker there was essentially not working, and as a result I couldn't hear him.
And then some kid came up behind me and plugged in the speaker, and then suddenly his voice is there, that voice that you know so well. That got me started thinking what would it be like if you took this guy's voice away, and I was about halfway through writing the script and was definitely heading in the direction of this very quiet film.
A month later I still couldn't get him out of my head and we offered it to him. We sent him this 31-page script and a week later, I was sitting in an office across from Robert Redford and no more than 10 minutes into the meeting, he looked at me and he said, "Let's do this thing."
While you were finishing the script, was he the one you had in mind? Does the script actually say anything as overt as describing the character as "a Robert Redford type"?
By the time you're 15 to 20 pages in to any script, at least the way I write scripts, you know the whole movie. I don't make them up as I go along, it's usually a matter at that point of tone, tenor, texture that you're flagging in, but the general sense of where things are going, you've got that all mapped out.
It was more when I saw him I realized I could go with [him in the lead]. The way we structured the film, that's the afterburst, so in a way by offering it to [Redford], you're certainly acknowledging [his shaping of the role at the script stage] to a certain extent.
The script is a mere 31 pages long. What was the process of screenwriting like? How many different directions did you go in?
The first thing I wrote down was the [reading of the] letter that begins the film. The whole thing revolves around who this person is, so by the time I sit down to write, I usually have the thing pretty blocked out.
I'm not a huge revision guy. I like my writing to live in that moment. It's usually an idea that's been bouncing around for many years so by the time I'm sitting down, it really is this extraction. This was very detailed in the way that it plotted exactly what you see on screen. "Over a black screen, a large grinding noise is heard" -- it's literally written exactly like that for the entire film.
So when you wrote the original letter, you knew it was the letter written by a man who thought he was going to die, but you yourself knew whether he was going to live or not?
The live or die thing was never important to me. I know that sounds weird, but what happens in the letter is a person is realizing mistakes that they've made that they probably had not realized up to that point. We always believed he was coming from somewhere, he had not been sailing around the world for 20 years continuously. This was an adventure to prove something, and he was leaving something in a way, [his] roots being uprooted. The letter has all of that in it.
The climax of the film is coming to grips with your position in the world, and realizing that you're going to leave here at some point. That's why you live and fight and keep going, because it is a gift and it's fleeting. The simple answer is I knew that that was a letter of a guy who thought he could be meeting his death.
Were there particular works that you drew from or works that you were trying to avoid?
If you go back to the original "Old Man and the Sea," the Spencer Tracy version, that was way too reliant on voiceover for my style of filmmaking. I was absolutely trying to tell the story without having to rely on him communicating with an object. To me, a survival story has, by its very nature, the need to come up with some sort of a crutch or alternative narrative technique to pass on basic information. What I thought was fascinating and potentially more effective was to embrace the inherent weaknesses in the genre, and then what can you do to make that story significant because of it. What I'm aware of in a crisis situation is that I'm just trying to get out of that crisis situation and trying to keep myself from losing my s--t completely.
The biggest special effect was, of course, Robert Redford.
Working with him was an amazing opportunity to carry out. You needed a lot of the things that he's able to do better than almost anyone. He's able to communicate complex emotional transitions and really come out the other end, where you understand how he gets someplace. He can go from fear to perseverance and you almost feel like non-verbally he's taking you on a journey of how he's getting himself from one emotion to another.
If this had been Jack Nicholson or something, you would have written it a little differently so that the person was jabbering to themselves the whole time. Redford, for all of his 50 years of work, somehow was holding back in a way from the audience to maintain this level of mystery. And in the third act of this film, he realized as we were shooting it that he and I needed to get him to emotionally lay bare and really let you know exactly what he's thinking in a vague emotional sense. Not what he was thinking about, but emotionally, you are there with him.
"All Is Lost" opens in theatres on October 25.