Anyone who’s seen last year’s Oscar-winning Life of Pi, might feel that they’ve done someone trying to survive against the odds on a life raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But setting a ship-wreck against the background of moving a zoo pushes some of the drama into the realms of fantasy, especially where an entourage of animals is thrown into the mix. But an elderly man, alone in his holed yacht, feels all too real in All is Lost, which screened out of competition as part of the official selection at Cannes.
Having just finished directing and starring in the 70s throwback conspiracy thriller The Company You Keep, Robert Redford wanted to return to the experience of giving himself over completely to a director – and the director he chose was Margin Call’s JC Chandor. Emboldened by the success of his debut film about the financial crash, Chandor has produced a film that will be as frightening for claustrophobics as agoraphobics, as Redford’s sailor is trapped in a sinking boat, thousands of miles from anywhere.
“I liked the challenge of being alone, without the crutch of words” Redford explains. Many actors pick up a screenplay and count the number of lines they’ll get to deliver, but apart from a couple of cries for help into a radio, and a handful of exasperated expletives, no words pass Redford’s lips during his character’s survival ordeal. “I believe in the value of silence. When you take it into a dramatic form, it brings an intensity. You have to completely go into your character and trust the director. As more is taken away, you have less to depend on, as his world is shrinking.”
Most films are shot from a completed screenplay in the region of a hundred pages, but All is Lost went into production with only a thirty page piece of prose. This left Redford and director Chandor the flexibility to let each scene breathe, and from the pitching of Redford’s solitary performance to Chandor’s camera-angles and editing, everything about the timing feels admirably on the button.
Without the crutch of dialogue, the pair fill the screen-time with a succession of nail-biting action sequences, with increasing levels of desperation from Redford’s elderly sailor, as he refuses to give up, despite everything nature and fate throw at him. It would be a tremendously physically draining performance for an actor in his twenties, so when you consider that Redford is in his late seventies, it’s remarkable, all the more so given that he did almost everything himself. “JC was relentless, but respectful as a director. I realised that if I could do the action myself, it would be better for him,” Redford paused for effect before continuing. “And good for my ego.” At one point during the press conference, he strained to hear a question, highlighting the extent of his physical endeavour. “I had an ear damaged making this film.”
That the film was so convincing was all the more impressive because everything he was asked to do was so unfamiliar to him. “I like boats, I like swimming and I like surfing,” the star explained. “But I’ve never been sailing before, so I had to depend on JC’s expertise.” Chandor says the experiences were as new to Redford as they were to his character, which added to the authenticity of the performance.
A film that pits man against nature – just a man and a boat against the elements – gave Redford a chance to sit back and think about man’s relationship with nature. “It was a contrast with all the noise in society that confuses people,” he muses. “Nature has been so damaged, there’s not a lot left. I don’t know how you can fight it, as you’re fighting big corporations, but you can use film.”
The power of cinema is something particularly personal to Redford, who founded both the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute to support young film-makers; Chandor himself launched Margin Call at Sundance in 2011. “When you make a film that’s personal – the story, characters and emotion – it can be tiny, but it will reach people because of its humanity,” Redford beams, passionately.
One of the best received films in Cannes, All is Lost was a gripping tour de force from one of the most accomplished performers in the business. Had the film been playing in competition, Redford would have given fellow 76 year old Bruce Dern a run for his money in the race for the festival’s Best Actor competition.