After fifteen years of directing commericals, J.C. Chandor broke through with the polished Wall Street indie Margin Call. His follow-up, All is Lost, takes to the high seas with Robert Redford as the film's sole star. We spoke about the film at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, in an interview to be broadcast on the radio show Celluloid Dreams (90.5 FM in San Jose, CA, and online at http://celluloiddreams.net) on October 21, 2013. Chandor is keen, above all, that film fans make it out to the theater instead of sitting in front of a device.
J.C. Chandor: So did you get a chance to see the film here in the screenings?
Groucho: I did.
J.C. Chandor: Cool.
Groucho: Was the idea for All Is Lost effectively your first screenplay idea, or no?
J.C. Chandor: What do you mean? The first sort of concept for it or—
Groucho: Yeah. The idea predates Margin Call, right?
J.C. Chandor: Sort of, but not in the way—actually I forget who—I said that to someone in a way, and it’s one of those things if you say something early on in this process, it starts to get repeated in a way that becomes fact. So I had certainly been—the way my brain works when I’m writing is I kind of collect moments, and then you have no idea what that is or where it will ever be used—you know, if that makes sense? So I’d certainly been like stowing things in a bin for this idea. But it was not until I was editing Margin Call and I was taking the train back and forth from Providence, Rhode Island to New York. My family—we had moved to Providence. We couldn’t afford to live in New York anymore. And I had a newborn. It was very stressful. You didn’t know whether Margin Call was gonna work or anything else. And on the train, I wrote this letter one night, which was kind of a death letter, basically, and I didn’t know how that person had kind of got there exactly, but I knew that that was the beginning of the film. And that the film was going to be to try to figure out how this person had kind of ended up there. So, in a way, that letter then kind of had a lot of these action moments get planted on top of it. Then over the next five or six months, it slowly started to form into some kind of a narrative. And then it wasn’t until right before I went to Sundance with Margin Call where I was motivated to actually have something down on paper before going into that festival—which is almost like superstitious. "You’ll be able to make another movie if you write something down before you go." So I wrote probably half of this script, and then I went there and had kind of a chance encounter with Redford—I mean I didn’t actually meet him, but he came and spoke to all the filmmakers, and then he started to kind of—in my mind—attach himself to the film. So it was a month later I finished the script and then mailed it to him. We offered it to his agent. And it wasn’t more than a week later that I was sitting in a room meeting him. I mean it was something that, once it started to happen, it happened very quickly.
G: You also sort of grafted on to this idea a hairy experience you had had in sailing—is that right?
JCC: Mm-hm. I mean certainly nothing like this guy. He’s out there alone and everything else. But I, in my twenties, had definitely had sort of a morbid curiosity if I could kind of handle this. I just—it was one of those things where I almost wanted to experience it a little bit to understand why people would go do it. So I joined this boat that was going from way in the southern Caribbean up to Bermuda, which is like seven days; it’s sort of pretty far out in the middle of the ocean. And we did hit a storm towards the end that was a little bit beyond the capabilities of the boat and probably the crew as well—where there were a couple hours where it was really intense. More than that being any kind of deep thing in life or anything, it was more just an experience. But in a bizarre way, kind of visually and audibly—like, the noise I remembered. So there were these details that sort of shocked me, you know, about the peculiarities of being in such a foreign environment to a human; being washed around in the middle of the storm like that is not what we are designed to—and yet, for all of humanity, boats and sailing around the world—there are so many people up until this time that to sort of explore: that’s what we did as humans. And now, essentially now a sailboat is a total artifice and an artifact. It is not a tool that we really need anymore. It’s sort of this great cast-off.
G: And did you decide—were you able to answer the question that you set out with, of why people go out and do that?
JCC: Um, yeah. I mean the cool thing about writing it for me—it just became why they do this particular thing almost doesn’t matter to me, in a weird way. But why you would do something that was even in this kind of general concept—when you don’t have to—obviously—is fascinating. I thought the character is definitely—you know, he’s not a person who’s been doing this for twenty years kind of on a loop or something. He is a person who is leaving a community—a sense of family. He is sort of looking for this adventure, essentially, and kind of authenticity that feels forced, but he’s still in search for it. I think all of us in our life—in a weird way, he’s a real stand-in for me. And hopefully, in a way, he becomes an Everyman for a lot of people in that there are sort of metaphorical elements that are very broad, obviously.
G: Yeah. I want talk about that. On one level, the film is about survivalism in a literal sense. You can take it just as a "man versus wild" adventure.
G: And it would be satisfying on that level. But it’s also about survivalism in an existential sense—
G: And this raging against the dying of the light. Can you talk about poetically laying out both of those ideas?
JCC: Yeah. It’s kind of cool—they made me re-read the original thirty-one page document that I used to sell the film to Redford, to sell the film to financiers and, most importantly, to convince really accomplished crew members to actually like come and make the film with me. So this document I re-read the other day and it’s very—it’s way more specific than I had remembered it being. You know, it is the movie that I ended up getting. And I think that that’s, for better or worse, a pattern in my writing where I’m really just trying to capture things that I had written on film in a very, almost literal sense. So all of that’s in the film. It’s this very high low. I wanted the film on its very base level to be like a swashbuckling adventure horror movie thriller kind of thing that—just, the first two acts, you really just kind of get put through the grinder. And there is something kind of fun—I would say "fun," and my wife looks at me askew: it’s not exactly fun. But it is an adventure.
G: Yeah. Jack London style.
JCC: Exactly. It’s very Jack London. The third act is where the film, obviously if it’s working for you, crosses over into something very, very kind of intense. And I think the first two acts almost soften you up emotionally, so that if it’s working for you, you’re ready to go there with him—which is really this very elaborate, fairly specific kind of intense kind of squaring off with your own mortality and what that means and what you want from that experience, and when you think about that, what does it do with the days that you have left on the planet, you know? And when do you let go and how long do you fight and why? So there’s a lot of ways of looking at the film and a lot of that’s layered in there. The opening action in the film: when his sort of over-reliance on technology, which is essentially why he felt comfortable, a lot of people in this generation—a new generation of people have felt comfortable sailing away from shore because of the ability to get weather updates. Satellite phones: there’s this kind of security blanket in that. And when that is torn away in the opening action of the film, it brings him back to this level of elemental survival, which is sort of what he was going out there for in the first place—
JCC: But it’s a little bit "be careful what you wish for."
G: Right. The narrative is very contained—it takes place over eight days, and the storytelling is very spare. Even more than a silent film—there’s less dialogue than you would have in the typical silent film I think.
JCC: When taken to title cards, that’s true.
G: Right. And the character’s identified in your orginal script as "our man." Can you talk about what you and Redford agreed to about the character or what you didn’t want to set in stone.
JCC: Absolutely. It was very specific, and I think it sort of frustrated him because he didn’t quite understand what I was going at for the first week or two. But by the third week, we sort of became totally simpatico. So there are a couple pieces of information we are hopefully very clear with—which is, again, that this is not just a suicide mission. It’s not some guy who is sort of wasting away twenty years of his life circling and circling. He is a person who has left the community. He has left a family of some sort. There’s very specifically a person searching for some new experience. And so we wanted to make sure you knew that he was not kind of out there alone. He was out there alone because he was leaving people in a way. So we had—there was also—I know it sounds strange, but there were very specific kind of financial elements—where this isn’t some huge glamorous motor yacht or huge sailing yacht. It’s a fairly affordable boat he’s on. We purchased three of them for the film to shoot it. But it’s a 1979 mass-produced boat on the west coast of the United States called a CAL 39, and they cost between thirty and fifty thousand dollars, so an upper-middle-class or middle-class kind of guy, if they chose to, kind of choose their time into this world, it’s very accessible for an average American to actually afford a boat; at least this prior generation could have afforded a boat like that. So he’s not supposed to be some super-rich dude, but he’s certainly representative of a generation of Americans who had a very good swing at the bat. And as that generation comes to a close, I was writing a film about their reflection.
G: Certainly this had a be a very intense director-actor relationship.
JCC: Yes. That’s putting it mildly.
G: So is there a moment during the production or even before or after that, to you, is emblematic of what he’s like as an artist or as a man?
JCC: Yeah. I mean—it sounds—the relationship between the two of us was very intense. I think we both have emotionally very similar ways of dealing with the world, which is obviously what he picked up on in my writing because I was almost writing for myself in a way. So he and I certainly share a certain kind of view, for better or worse; frankly, it’s some of our weaker moments probably. But emotionally we understood what we were trying to get across and what this guy was kind of struggling with. I think that as an actor and as a person, the sort of ability to put total and complete trust in a bunch of young yahoos for a guy who’s accomplished as much as he has was kind of shocking—that he makes decisions to kind of expose himself. I think what was so amazing is that you learn that that’s how he’s accomplished the things he has in his life when he makes up his mind to kind of do them. He never undermines himself—he just goes and does them as a person. There was a day he came in wearing—it was very early on, and it’s always a very kind of emotionally fragile time in any film production. It’s about ten days or two weeks before, and you’re doing final costume fittings. And you’re getting ready and everyone’s starting to get a little nervous. And he walked into the room, and we had made a mistake. And the orange slicker that he’s wearing in the film is this very kind of iconic bright orange. It was going to be a real key to shooting the film because it kept your eyes always on him. Frankly, it would also allow us to hide padding and kind of keep him dry, frankly, or somewhat dry. And we heard him coming down the hall from where he had put it on, and he was sort of laughing to himself. And then he came around the corner, and you realized that it was about two sizes too large. So it was ridiculous. And this is his major piece of costuming for the next five weeks of work. He wears that same piece for a really big portion of the film. And some actors who are less sort of sure of why they’re doing something and what they’re going to do, that would have been—I know it sounds kind of silly—that can be a very kind of emotionally difficult thing to get over because you literally look ridiculous, like "this is the character I’m about to play." But he came around the corner and I remember he just said, you know, “What is that? Are we making a comedy here?” You know, because he looked literally like a clown in this thing. And the fact that he had been through this so many times before and he knows, look, we’re either going to get a smaller version of this that works perfectly, or we’ll find something else. But there is sort of this confidence in purpose to what he kind of brings that is, I think, a secret to his success—or one of them.
G: Mm-hm. And he did all but one stunt, is that right?
JCC: Yeah. There’s probably two or three moments where there’s a moment—I would say it’s no more than a minute of footage in the entire movie that’s not him. It’s very, very—there are certain things that we did not want to do with CGI or anything, so they’re just crazy dangerous even for the stunt person to have been doing them where the boat is flipping and turning—some of those very dramatic things. But everything else—any time the character is wet, swimming, climbing, jumping, you know, it is 98% him. So he has been doing—that’s another thing he’s been doing his entire career. I think he sort of trusts the process. He trains. He sort of follows. The stunt supervisor was also the stunt man, so we would both sit—he and I would watch the stunt guy kind of go through each movement two or three times together. And we’d be filming it so everyone would be sort of practicing. And then Redford and I would sort of sit there, and we’d say, "we’re going to tackle this in sections and then, if this last part is too much—if we kind of think it is, then I’m not even going to film that"—because Redford’s got, by his own admission, a little bit of an ego on him. And he would kind of test himself, so some of the ones that aren’t in the film that are replaced with a stunt guy, you know, I would just say, "You know, I’m not even filming that! So if you do it, I’m not putting it in. It would be for your own—"—cause if he was injured, the film was sort of lost, basically. So it’s pretty amazing that he was kind of able and excited to tackle that side of it and it allows the film to feel far more authentic because from an editing standpoint, you don’t have to go to very common sort of tricks. It allows us to kind of hide that.
G: Now why is the boat named the Virginia Jean? Is that something in your life?
JCC: It’s sort of—there’s a fun filmmaker reason, which is not anything that is much importance to the audience; it’s the character’s. But I as a writer named it that because those are my two grandmothers’ names who had passed away a couple years before writing this. So it’s a tribute to them, but that’s the fun things you get to do when you’re making a movie. That certainly hasn’t anything to do with this particular character. It is someone or some people in his life that are significant. Again, and the boat’s not called Lonesome Traveler. It’s called the Virginia Jean. We really wanted to ground him in people. He’s a loner, but he’s not a person who has allowed that part of his personality to dominate his entire life.
G: Okay, I have to wrap it up, but just a quick last question. What can you say about A Most Violent Year at this point?
JCC: A Most Violent Year is a script that’s done and is ready to be filmed and is very exciting for me, and I’m excited to do it, and it’s in the middle of the casting process. I’ve been working with a couple different actors for months on trying to build story, and I think we feel like we’re in a pretty good place with it. We’re ready. We have it financed, which is amazing. So for the first time in my life, I’m kind of getting to choose, you know, when personally we want to go do that and with who. Some of our actors—some people have questions about certain elements, so we’re still in the middle of kind of an intense creative process on it, but it’s kind of cool. For the first time in my career, it’s literally a project that’s kind of sitting on the runway waiting to take off. We’ll probably do it this spring. Or really, end of the winter. It’s in New York. I want it to be no leaves on the trees. And so it will most likely be kind of late winter.
G: All right. Well it’s been great talking to you. Best of luck with the film.
JCC: Thank you so much for having me, and go see this one in a movie theater. That’s one thing. All Is Lost is designed to be seen in that kind of larger-than-life communal experience, so please put down your phones, get out there and go see a movie.