Catching Up with J.C. Chandor on All is Lost

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In All is Lost, a man runs into trouble a little trouble when his ship sinks and he ends up stranded in the middle of the ocean. It’s kind of like Gravity, but instead of space, it’s a bunch of water, and instead of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney it’s Robert Redford all by himself. The man behind the director and the screenwriter for the movie is J.C. Chandor. He received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay he penned for the financial crisis drama Margin Call. And his second feature film explores a different kind of crisis. A kind of crisis that is isolating, life-threatening, and probably a situation no one ever wants to be in. We had a chance to talk to the director/screenwriter about working in the “survival” genre, writing minimal dialogue, and working with a Hollywood legend.

Paste Magazine: Where did you get an idea for this movie?
J. C. Chandor: I had these ideas bouncing around — little visual moments. The catalyst was the letter, which is very apropos because it’s what ends up leading the film. I wrote that letter that opens the film in just kind of in a burst, and then it was fun. The next couple of months were sort of building a story that ended with that letter, and this sort of survival genre has certain weaknesses that are baked into it as the sort of trope and as a narrative.

Paste: Are those weaknesses a bad thing?
Chandor: You have to kind of rely on narrative techniques and crutches usually to pull off a survival film. But in this case I ended up kind of embracing those weaknesses, and realizing that if you stripped away words and stripped away some of the kind of tropes of the genre, you could potentially be left with something that might actually rise above it. Or potentially heighten your experience, which is zeroing on just the survival at that moment, Maybe you learn through him and through his actions more than you would if you filled it out in a traditional way.That happened over five or six months but the letter is what sort of started it all.

_Paste:_He’s out at sea. He’s stranded. There’s very minimal dialog in the movie because he obviously has no one to talk to in the middle of the sea. How much actual dialog was in it?
Chandor: My original draft is almost identical to what’s in the movie. It was only thirty-one pages long. It was very short, but that 31-page document cast the film. So that’s all [Robert Redford] got when he signed up. That’s all the financier got when they bid on the movie. That’s all the entire crew got when they signed on.

Paste: Did you film the movie in one place?
Chandor: It was filmed all over the place. It was filmed in the Pacific Ocean down in the Caribbean and off of Ensenada in Mexico. All of the challenging storm scenes were movie magic. We filmed those in Rosarito, where Titanic was filmed.

Paste: Technically speaking, how complex was it filming this movie? Was it a pain?
Chandor: Yes. It was a jigsaw puzzle. In any one 40 or 50-second sequence, there might be six, seven, or eight different locations and setups all cut back together. It’s all an illusion.

Paste: Well, it looks seamless.
Chandor: That’s exactly what we hoped. That makes his acting that much more impressive. We shot in order from beginning to end, but within the day we were moving all over the place and out of order, so he was able to keep this kind of emotionally honesty and relevance as to what he was dealing with at any particular moment.

Paste: Did you always have Robert Redford in mind when you were doing this?
Chandor: Yes, pretty quickly, probably halfway through the writing phase he started creeping in. I didn’t meet him, but I’d heard him speak when I brought my first film to Sundance, so it was a couple of months later that I offered it. He had been bouncing around for sure.

Paste: Do you like to isolate yourself when you’re working on a project?
Chandor: I go into a real bubble when I’m writing or making a film. Some people don’t, they’re able to watch lots of different things. I shut everything else out so it just becomes lonely, but I’ll only watch absurdist comedies when I’m making a movie because I don’t even want anything that’s in the realm of what I am working on. Some people are able to kind of glean from films. I was talking to Steven Soderbergh once and he’ll watch a one movie 20 times while he’s making a different movie, and he’s just using that as kind of a riff.

Paste: Well, being an isolationist kind of fits with this movie.
Chandor: Yes, it’s always been the case. I just feel I’m making this movie. I’m not making any other film.

Paste: How do you know when to stop editing yourself? Are you a perfectionist?
Chandor: That’s a good question. No, I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t sit down to write until I have 80 or 90 percent of the raw material in my head for what the story’s going to be, who it is, who are the main characters. For me the actual sitting down and physically writing is in bursts. It happens in a two week period or something.

Paste: Did you have a different approach with All is Lost?
Chandor: I just sat down and did it. There were no revisions. Structuring is something that takes time but when it’s dialogue or the spirit of something, like this film, once it’s there I tend to walk away from it. In a way it is what it is, which is very unusual. Some people will tinker for years. I do that before the writing, but the writing is a sacred little time where I just feel like I have gotten myself in a position to be ready to do something and whatever was put down at that moment was sort of there for a reason.