Stewart Oksenhorn

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December 27, 2013
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A survival film that loses it all

J.C. Chandor set his debut film, 2011’s “Margin Call,” essentially in one setting, a Manhattan office building. That wasn’t entirely by choice but by financial necessity.

“It was my first film. The recession was raging,” Chandor said.

The economic pinch didn’t hurt the artistry. “Margin Call,” a feverish account of the players at a Wall Street firm in the initial stages of the financial crisis, was highly acclaimed and earned Chandor an Oscar nomination in the Original Screenplay category. My own lasting memory of the film was the building itself, captured from the outside at night, dark, with a faint glow inside that seemed to represent the fading, sealed-off, otherworldly nature of the work going on in those offices.

Chandor ultimately saw the benefits of his constraints.

“I knew I had to trap those characters in a space to get it done,” the 40-year-old said while driving to his home, an hour outside New York City. “As a writer, there’s something interesting in having a story exist and expand and thrive within limitations.”

Chandor’s second feature is even more dictated by the element of location. “All Is Lost,” which shows Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series, is set entirely on the open seas. Robert Redford stars as an older man on a solo voyage whose small vessel gets damaged and slowly starts to deteriorate. “All Is Lost” is vastly different in style from “Margin Call.” The earlier movie had an ensemble cast; Redford is the only person who appears in the new one. “Margin Call” featured screams and threats and bluffs; “All Is Lost” has a few lines of dialogue at the beginning before Redford’s unnamed character shuts up entirely to go about his business of staying alive. To Chandor, though, there is a fundamental similarity between the projects.

“Their environment controlled them,” he said. “All Is Lost” was written while Chandor was editing “Margin Call,” and he said the second story was probably influenced by the geographic constraints of the first one.

“In a strange way, I took that to its most extreme, where the character is trapped,” he said.

“Margin Call” had its own clear influence in Chandor’s view: “Twelve Angry Men,” the 1957 classic whose action was stripped down to a room of a dozen jurors arguing over a criminal case.

* * * *

Viewers hearing of the plot of “All Is Lost” will inevitably link it to other films where a solitary character is stranded, confronting his demise: “Cast Away,” “127 Hours,” “Life of Pi” and perhaps even an earlier Redford film, “Jeremiah Johnson,” about a mountain man seeking to live as a hermit. But Chandor said his aim was to separate “All Is Lost” from the other films in the so-called survival genre. He saw what he called a weakness in survival films — namely, the outside world inevitably intruded on the character’s isolation in some way. In “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks created a character out of a volleyball to keep him company. “127 Hours” had James Franco, playing the real-life outdoorsman Aron Ralston, reaching out to loved ones via a video camera. The film version of “The Old Man and the Sea” featured extensive voice-over taken from Hemingway’s original story. “Life of Pi” had a tiger.

“You look at those and realize it’s only a device — a video camera, flashbacks, talking to animals and inanimate objects,” Chandor said. “It’s about how with the writing, you can overcome the narrative difficulty.”

“All Is Lost” is limited for almost all its duration to its location, a boat and one actor. Redford’s sailor barely reaches out to the world, and the viewer doesn’t get much glimpse inside the character’s head.

“That he doesn’t have anyone to speak with, that he’s isolated, is kind of fascinating. I don’t talk to myself when I’m alone,” Chandor said. “You don’t even let panic in because it will take over.”

That might make for a solid philosophical concept.

“The question is: Is that still a movie?” Chandor said. “We proved that it is.”

“All Is Lost” has earned positive reviews and two Golden Globe nominations, including one for Redford’s acting.

“It’s not for everybody, but stick to that purity, just being there with him, the emotional intensity and chaos. It becomes an experiential action film. What’s the character going through?” he said.

Also worth contemplating: Why was a 70-something-year-old man sailing solo in the first place?

“As he faces the end, he has to face why he went on the adventure, what was he running from,” Chandor said.

Among the things the filmmaker was going through while conceiving “All Is Lost” was the realization that he wasn’t maximizing his potential.

“I let several years of my life slide by, not doing the things I should be doing,” he said.

Though he was in his 30s when he made the film, Chandor was having an existential moment, which he poured into Redford’s character.

“In a way, he’s gotten what he went out there to look for — to stare down that fate,” he said. “And realize we have a very limited time on this planet. You can choose to let those days slip by and not fight for them, or you can tackle every day and not give in. The title refers to the fact that you fight for that life until all is lost. Why does he want to survive so badly? It’s the one thing we all share. Hopefully you become him in a way.”

“All Is Lost” is something of a technical achievement for an indie film. (The website estimates the budget at $9 million.) Chandor said it was a very complicated shoot, with most of the filming done in five massive tanks off the shore of Mexico. The largest tank was the size of four football fields. The crew also had to scour the continent for three boats that roughly matched one another and transport them to Mexico.

Audiences, though, will likely focus more on the work of the 77-year-old Redford, who already has won best-actor honors from the New York Film Critics Circle. Chandor likens the actor to his character.

“Any guy in his 70s who tries to sail across the ocean alone is pushing things in himself,” he said. “Redford’s physical commitment to the role was fascinating — for a 75-year-old guy to, in a very beautiful way, test himself as an actor and a person.

“The other beautiful thing was his ability to communicate complex emotional thoughts and progressions and transitions nonverbally. He could deliver nonverbally in a way an actor can when delivering actual lines.”

Perhaps what Redford communicates most is a mix of calm and determination. As Chandor noted, there is no panic to “All Is Lost” but a methodical process of keeping alive from moment to moment.

While Chandor was thinking about his own life and its shortcomings while writing “All Is Lost,” he also was confronting the demise of his two grandmothers. One was in a “medical maelstrom that lasted years,” he said; the other “embraced the end of her life and got to tell the family how much she loved them and then went on to whatever came next.” Chandor believes “All Is Lost” is not only about eluding death but also about accepting it when it comes.

“It’s about coming to grips with that fate, becoming comfortable with it,” he said. “It’s a guy who realizes he loves life, wants to stay here and live longer, that life is worth fighting for.”

“It’s about coming to grips with that fate, becoming comfortable with it.”
J.C. Chandor

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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 26, 2013 03:45PM Published Dec 27, 2013 09:38AM Copyright 2013 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.