All Is Lost in fragments

FILM, In Cinemas
img_allislostJ.C. Chandor and Robert Redford’s bold new collaboration; plus, thoughts on this year’s Oscar race.

With the terrific Margin Call and now All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor is exciting. He made the New York Times list of the 20 best directors under 40 working today. I’d rate him higher. Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call’s rat-a-tat-tat is a minimalist, almost wordless film.

Robert Redford plays Our Man, alone way out in the vast blue India Ocean when a stray Chinese container puts a nasty gash in his yacht. The iconic 77-year-old actor has impressed in many films, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to The Company You Keep via All the President’s Men. But, as they say, you’ve never seen him like this.

The brilliantly inventive, immersive sound design—Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns should be the Oscar winners, but Glenn Freemantle’s work on the overrated Gravity will snare that—is another reason to see the film. All Is Lost is beautiful filmed and edited, further involving: its mood primal, its style elliptical, its meaning encouraging audience reflection. Like Margin Call, there’s an empathetic critique of consumer capitalism run amok, and contemporary’s society’s lack of empathy. It’s a refreshing contrast to the stylistically OCD, intellectually/emotionally featherweight marzipan gutsache known as Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.

Redford’s achievements include his Sundance Institute/Film Festival. Not to mention being a champion of Taika Waititi, and The Strength of Water.

He impressed the critics at the New York Film Festival 2013, and went on to win 2013’s best actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle. He was also nominated for the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, the Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards. But he is MIA for Monday’s Oscars.  That could be explained by a great year for actors. He’s up against (my rough order of preference): Matthew McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christian Bale. Double-winner Tom Hanks also missed out, and he delivers possibly his career best performance in Captain Phillips.

At the Sundance Film Festival 2014 opening press conference, Redford had another theory. “Hollywood is what it is, it’s a business, and so when these films go to be voted on, usually they’re heavily dependent on campaigns,” The Hollywood Reporter reported. “In our case, I think we suffered from little to no distribution. And so as a result, our distributors—I don’t know why—they didn’t want to spend the money, they were afraid, they were just incapable, I don’t know.”

For Chandor’s part, he scored a Best Original Script nomination. The award will hopefully go to Spike Jonze for Her. (American Hustle is patchy and overrated; and doesn’t it draw heavily on R.W. Greene’s book The Sting Man?). Following All Is Lost’s New York Film Festival media pre-premiere in October, Chandor and Redford, both in fine fettle, spoke to a group of press, including me.

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“He always teases me: ‘for a guy who wrote a movie with no words in it you sure talk a lot’.”—J.C. Chandor

“The film was supposed to be a bit of a swash-buckling adventure, it’s supposed to be nerve racking and tense, so that by the time you get to the third act, emotionally you’re in a place where you feel—as an audience—that you’ve been through what he has.”—J.C. Chandor

“There was another thing that attracted me, was that it was slightly existential, which meant that you could allow for space to be interpreted by others. An audience could come in and decide which way—this way or that way—they felt. Leaving that freedom open I thought was really great.”—Robert Redford

“Yes there have been survival skills I’ve applied a few times in my life. Had to, under tricky situations. But the one closest to a film I made a very long time ago—Jeremiah Johnson—which was a character in the wilderness who ran into similar situations as this that he had to deal with, and he had to learn. And so I think that that’s probably the only research. How do you operate? I was guided by the detailed writing of JC as a sailor.”—Robert Redford

“These days there are so many players in the kitchen, so many characters. You have agents, publicists, trainers, all these characters, advisors, that sometimes get in the way of a direct relationship with the artist you’re going to be working with. When I met with J.C., what I thought—what I think is interesting at least for me, on a personal level—is that it was just one of those rare situations where you go on vibe and instinct, and you put yourself very quickly in the hands of somebody else because you trust them. And I think the word is trust, and when I got the script from J.C. it had a lot of things that I was very impressed with and attracted to. With no dialogue, it was bold. But also it was detailed in a way that I thought this person really knew what they were doing and they had a very firm grip on their vision, and there was a very strong vision. So when we met I was already inclined, I just needed to know he wasn’t nuts.”—Robert Redford

“There is a good percentage of the audience that probably, from our experience so far, believes he didn’t survive. My intention of the film by the third act was if we had done our job and most importantly at that point if he’s done his job—that he had almost become a conduit or a vessel for you as an audience member.”—J.C. Chandor

“My intention was that the film was yours at that point, as an audience member, and the experience almost becomes yours… We’ve now shown the film a couple of times and it’s fun—you can stand outside in the lobby and a couple friends will come out and one of them will say something like ‘thank god he made it’ and the other one kind of looks over and says ‘what the heck are you talking about?’ There are 21 frames of light right at the last moment which I put in there—which is a little unusual because it actually lights up the theatre in a weird way when you have white frame—and in my mind that was a way of cementing the end of the film, kind of locking it in your mind so at that moment when you see that moment, you know it’s your film, I sort of am handing it over. It’s a reflection on the end of our lives you know, and I think in a weird way—hopefully you’re learning something about yourself and your own view about the end of your life, and starting to think about that.”—J.C. Chandor

“I really like what J.C. has constructed here in terms of—whatever it is for you, just be completely okay with it, be sure. I like that a lot of that ties on a personal level I think how he works in films, how I like to work in films, how you do like to draw your own picture of your own work… I always liked the idea of ending with a question, that you would come to the end and literally the piece would move to a close where you throw a question back to the audience. I like the idea of the audience having interpretation ability—being able to come in and interpret on their own, rather than having everything spelled out for them, put in their face, relentless imaging that deprives them of time to actually get in and think about what’s going on… The same thing that’s attracted me to play this character with no dialogue is that you just had to be with yourself as that character, dealing with things that come moment to moment and be as honest as you can about it. That allows the audience to come in; there’s no filter of dialogue telling you how to think this way or that way.”—Robert Redford

“Shaving, in that crisis moment, was the attempt of the character to realign himself and treat things as normal as possible. And I like that… Overall thematically for me this film satisfied a larger philosophical question. At a certain point when things seem impossible, that all is lost, there’s no chance to survive, that all the odds are against, as you look forward you see nothing forward possible so you give up. And others for whatever reason just keep going. And there’s no other reason than that, just to continue. Because that’s all there is to do, that’s all you know to do, you don’t know to do anything else except just keep going, even though the odds are against. I felt this film had that and the character had to deal with it and that was very appealing to me.”—Robert Redford

‘All Is Lost’ is in New Zealand cinemas now. For further Oscar discussion, listen to Alexander Bisley’s thoughts on ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, ‘12 Years a Slave’, and ‘Nebraska’.
Filed under: FILM, In Cinemas

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Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.