With the release of ‘Captain Phillips’ dominating the headlines last week, this week we see the release yet another, much quieter critically acclaimed maritime flick, sans Boston accent.
Actually, in ‘All is Lost‘ starring Robert Redford, Redford plays a nameless character that barely says anything at all, but looks as intense if not more than any Somali pirate shoot-em-up.
Deep into a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean, an unnamed man, played by Redford, wakes to find his 39-foot yacht taking on water after a collision with a shipping container. Radio dies. Apparently no EPIRB (tisk tisk). Then a storm rolls in forcing the man to abandon his sailboat in a liferaft. But that’s just on the surface.
Below the surface, writer and director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) creates a story said to echo Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and as producer Neal Dodson, also of Margin Call, describes it: “it’s an existential action movie about one man lost at sea, fighting against the elements and himself.”
“It’s a very simple story about a guy late in his life who goes out for a four- or five-month sail,” Chandor says. “Fate intervenes, the boat has an accident, and essentially we go on an eight-day journey with him as he fights to survive.”
At just 30 pages long, Chandor’s screenplay bore little resemblance of a typical script, consisting entirely of prose description with almost no dialogue at all.
“When J.C. said that it was the whole script, I was both terrified and excited,” Dodson recalls. “The first film we did together was all about dialogue, and this was very obviously not about dialogue. I admit that my first thought was, ‘I don’t know how the hell we’re going to get this thing financed’—because it’s pretty audacious and pretty brave.”
For his part, Redford was drawn to the originality of the project, which he describes as a story about a man who takes “one heck of a journey and one heck of a beating.”
“I really liked the script because it was different,” Redford says. “It was bold. It was eccentric, and there was no dialogue. I felt that J.C. was going to go through with that vision, even though it was not all explained. But I trusted that he knew what he was doing, that he had it in his head. I knew I would be supporting that vision even while not knowing everything, and that was interesting and good for me.”
Shooting the Film
With their one-man cast in place, producers now had to find a handful of sailboats, and a place to sink them. As it turned out, shooting the story actually required three 39-foot Cal yachts. Each one was used for a separate purpose: one was for open sea sailing and exterior scenes, another was for the tight interior shots, and the third was for special effects.
“We did pretty much everything that you can do to a boat on film,” Chandor says. “We sunk it, brought it back to life, sailed it, then put it through a massive storm, flipped it over, and sunk it again. I think it’s paramount to have a pretty deep understanding of the way these boats work, the way they sail and sink, as well as all of the different kinds of sailing elements we use to help move the story along.”
Chandor and production designer John Goldsmith, whose previous credits include No Country for Old Men and The Last Samurai, collaborated closely in crafting a kind of back story for the boat itself, which in turn helped build the story of Redford’s character.
Goldsmith says Chandor gave him detailed notes to guide the production design. For example, Chandor told him he envisioned Redford’s character bought the boat -named Virginia Jean- at age 51, six years after it was built. Ten years later, the boat’s upkeep may have slipped a little due to the economic slump in the 1990s, according to the production notes. Chandor the envisioned that Redford’s character retired seven years after that, then invested about $20,000 in updating the boat.
“So maybe he selected certain things like the cushions, which were tired, and reupholstered those,” Goldsmith explains. “Maybe he upgraded the window treatments, maybe a few pieces of electronics. So there’s this idea of layering of time and history in this boat. But it’s not an overhaul. It’s not a renovation. In that way, the design had to be really careful about not coming too far forward, but being sort of quiet.”
Open Water Filming
Filming in open water proved challenging for the All Is Lost crew, which does not feature a single shot set on dry land. Camera crews filmed in various parts of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, including off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, about 80 miles south of San Diego.
The shots of sea life, including shoals of small fish, yellowtail, barracuda and dozens of swirling sharks, were shot off the coast of Nassau and Lyford Cay, where an entire camera crew dove down more than 60 feet to capture the footage of the fish.
For the sequences involving commercial ships, the crew filmed in the ocean around Los Angeles—out of the port of Long Beach to the south, and further north near Catalina Island.
All is Lost opens select cities October 18, 2013, nationwide October 25, 2013.