Making a movie with one -- and only one -- actor is a tremendous risk.
And when it's Robert Redford, whose character clambers up a 65-foot mast, is tossed around a sailboat or flipped upside down and inside out of a life raft, the danger multiplies.
After all, no director wants to be known as the one who hurt the Oscar winner, founder of the Sundance Institute, noted environmentalist and matinee idol. "All Is Lost" writer-director J.C. Chandor worried about that every day. Every. Day.
"You also have a movie that is essentially a loss at that point, a total loss because it's a one-person movie. There are no cover sets, there's no one else to shoot," he said during a recent phone call from Philadelphia.
"It was always there. The nice thing, creatively, is it's always there for the character in the movie. If he breaks his leg, it's like a bird in the wild; you break your wing and it's over. And in a way, he knew that about himself as an actor, and the character certainly knows that."
In "All Is Lost," opening today, Mr. Redford battles for survival against the elements after his sailboat is badly damaged and then destroyed at sea.
Mr. Chandor, an Academy Award nominee for his original screenplay "Margin Call," didn't start the project with Mr. Redford, now 77, in mind but came to see him as the ideal candidate.
"About halfway through actually physically writing it, I had an interaction with Robert Redford. He comes and welcomes all the Sundance filmmakers every year, so I was probably 15 pages into writing it, but had certainly formulated the entire movie at that point.
"I knew I wanted it to be an older actor, but I hadn't specifically isolated who it was," he said, but so much about Mr. Redford seemed right. It was as if chips were stacking up on the veteran's side of the table, "and once you pulled back for a second, you realized that's the guy to offer it to."
Mr. Chandor knows there are many reasons people say no or yes to a project, so he wasn't nervous or about to take the answer personally when pitching "Our Man" (the character's given name is not revealed) to the star of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Sting" and "All the President's Men."
"In this case, in a weird sense, I had some confidence. I thought it was worth the shot, for sure."
Crews filmed on location in the Bahamas, off the coast of Los Angeles, at Baja Studios in Mexico where "Titanic" shot, and off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico.
Given the demands on the actor and the crew, "All Is Lost" worked five-day weeks. "You needed the weekend to rebuild the sets and get everything ready for the week ahead but also just to give everyone a break from the grind and the monotony of the whole thing.
"On the really high-end action days, his time of actual working was very intense but fairly controlled. We were very smart about it, we didn't overdo anything, but the crews, we were there for 12 hours a day, every day. It was a very complicated jigsaw puzzle we were putting together."
The project has a Pittsburgh connection in some key behind-the-scenes players: producer Neal Dodson and his fellow Carnegie Mellon University grads and Before the Door Pictures partners Zachary Quinto and Corey Moosa.
They collaborated with Mr. Chandor on "Margin Call," which won the 2012 Independent Spirit Award for best first feature.
"All Is Lost" had its world premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in May, and that is also where its leading man initially saw it. Reviewers were rapturous about Mr. Redford, calling him superb and dusting off the phrase "tour de force."
"That's one of the most stressful things you ever do as a director is actually show your actors the film. In a way, it's the day after years of you judging their performance and asking for things from them, that they get to come back and see what you've done with their work."
Director and actor turned to each other, looked around the theater, and "we both realized that when you got 2,500 people leaning forward in their seats, that's a pretty good sign.
"Not that we were making the greatest movie in the world or anything but that, at least, what we had intended seemed to be working with bringing this audience in, and then we received an amazing reception at the end of that screening in Cannes with wonderful applause and a standing ovation. It was really kind of overwhelming at that point."
Oscar pundits expect Mr. Redford to be nominated for best actor for "All Is Lost." Although he won for directing "Ordinary People" and received an honorary Oscar in March 2002, Mr. Redford has only been nominated in the acting category once, for "The Sting," and the gold went to Jack Lemmon for "Save the Tiger."
The director is thrilled by that possibility for the man he describes as really nice, pretty quiet, humble and shy.
"I've been through that whole enterprise once before with 'Margin Call,' and with that movie, it was a wonderful tool to raise the visibility of the film and it was a wonderful marketing tool," he said. Beyond that, it also paved the way for him to become a member of the Writers Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Talking Oscar, he said, "I obviously would love to give him that honor and to have helped been a part of that."
During the 20-minute phone conversation, he respectfully referred to the actor as Mr. Redford. One on one, he calls him Bob ("that's what he prefers") but explains, "I go by the Derek Jeter school of thought. Till the day Joe Torre retired, he always called him Mr. Torre. It never feels right to refer to him as Bob unless he's there looking at you."
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