Young filmmaker snags the big fish

J.C. Chandor on the set of "All is Lost."
J.C. Chandor on the set of "All is Lost." (RICHARD FOREMAN)
Posted: October 18, 2013

J.C. Chandor has only two films under his belt, but already the North Jersey-born writer/director, 39, has staked out his territory. He makes involving, experiential movies about imperiled men who rise to action when the bottom falls out.

His rookie effort, Margin Call (2011), focused on Wall Street risk managers who learn that the mortgage-backed securities they sell are toxic and will bring down their firm within the next trading cycle. In his sophomore film, All Is Lost, a pleasure sailor (Robert Redford) first fights a leaking hull, then the elements, and, finally, for his life after his craft hits a stray shipping container in the Indian Ocean. On Thursday night, Chandor's elemental, existential action movie, anchored by Redford's tour-de-force solo performance, opens the 22nd Philadelphia Film Festival.

From his production office in Manhattan's NoLita neighborhood, Chandor, a rangy six-footer raised in Basking Ridge, N.J., talks about the experiences that led him to write the film and spurred him to cast Redford, 77, in the physically and emotionally challenging role as the sailor who takes on Murphy's Law.

"It always feels as though when things go against you, they pile up," Chandor says with the grin of experience. He refers to the time in 2006 when Every Fifth House, a screenplay he'd written and nursed for six years finally got financing and was about to begin production.

Five days before principal photography began, his backers took a powder. He had a wife and an infant daughter to support and no Plan B. He struggled to rebound, producing commercial work for Subaru and for an acai drink called Sambazon. Between those gigs he researched and wrote the script for Margin Call, which earned him an Oscar nomination for original screenplay. (Woody Allen won for Midnight in Paris.)

"I was at the Sundance Film Festival with Margin Call," he remembers. The half-written script for All Is Lost was on his computer. "Redford does a welcoming brunch there for filmmakers. He was addressing us and the speaker on my side of the room wasn't working so well." Redford's voice, that Western, resolute voice, went in and out of audibility.

It may have inspired the scene in All Is Lost in which the character radios for help and the transmission fails. And it surely inspired Chandor to write the rest of the script with the actor and Sundance founder in mind.

Listening to Redford on that malfunctioning speaker made Chandor think the unthinkable: What if the actor couldn't use his voice and had to act with the pain and anguish etched on his face and coiled in his body? During the film his character is buffeted by water, wind, and fire, greeting each mounting calamity with bottomless ingenuity and angst. His character (called Our Man in the credits) ever defaults to Plan B. When his navigation equipment is damaged by water, he finds a sextant and maps, guiding the boat by celestial navigation. As the joke goes: If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

The screenplay, only 31 pages of it, is nonstop action and few words punctuated by extreme weather and circling sharks. It was ideal for a taciturn actor like Redford, who was intrigued by the script. Thus Chandor became the first director shown at Sundance to offer its founder a movie role.

Was it a challenge to direct an actor who is a resourceful director as well? "He turned himself over to me as an actor," Chandor says. "He never ever ever ever talked about it as a director."

"I directed him like an actor in a silent movie," says the filmmaker, full of admiration for Redford's performance and commitment. "I can't pretend I know how he does it," reflects Chandor. "The miracle of what a screen actor can do is communicate emotion in the purest, simplest way. It's more art than science. But he could go from tasting fear to showing it."

Because Redford doesn't work in the same expressionistic mode as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, he tends to be underrated as an actor. He's not the type, Chandor says, "to chew the paint off the walls, to show a lot being done. He's a Rohrschach, and there's a magnetism to that kind of performance."

It is a good bet that in a competitive Oscar best-actor race Redford will be among the nominees, along with Forest Whitaker for The Butler and Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave (also showing at the festival). Should he make that list, it will be only the second time for the Oscar-winning director ( Ordinary People) whose sole acting nomination - for The Sting - was, incredibly, 40 years ago.

All Is Lost, like the recent films 127 Hours, Life of Pi, and Gravity, pits a solitary figure against his or her imminent death. Coincidence? "Certainly, there's something in the air," he reflects. "When I was writing I thought of it as about someone coming to grips with his possible mortality." But he's gratified that viewers have different interpretations, some viewing it as an allegory of an isolated figure struggling to make connection. "It's a Rohrschach," Chandor says. "Like Bob's performance." Read her at

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