The director talks to Jeremy Kay about why he knew Robert Redford was right for the challenging lead role in All Is Lost.

When Robert Redford made his welcome speech at the annual Sundance directors’ brunch in 2011, it was a lightbulb moment for an unknown first-time director craning his neck at the back of the room.

“When I went to Sundance with Margin Call,” says writer-director JC Chandor, “I already had 20 pages of the 31 pages [the full length of the All Is Lost screenplay] written down.

“It was always an older guy [required to play the lead in All Is Lost] and it wasn’t until I was in that room at that brunch that he dawned on me. It always had to be someone older.”

In the 10 days that followed, Chandor’s first film would establish the East Coast film-maker as a thrilling new talent, later earning honours such as best first film from the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC) and an original screenplay Oscar nomination.

Fast forward three years and the once unknown film-maker has given Redford the role of a lifetime, turning the spotlight on the independent film demigod for his near-wordless solo performance in All Is Lost.

Redford’s role as a mysterious, skilled sailor in peril on the sea has made a splash with critics and voters, even if US box office has been muted. The NYFCC awarded Redford their best actor prize and he is in the running for the Golden Globe.

All eyes, of course, are on the big one. Redford won the directing Oscar for Ordinary People in 1981 but has never laid his hands on the best actor statuette. There will not be many more chances like this.

By a twist of fate, the Oscar nominations will be announced on opening day of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, teeing up what could become the most boisterous brunch in the West.

“We’re all hopeful for Mr Redford,” says Chandor. “It’s a really brave, creatively intense thing for a 75-year-old guy who has accomplished as much as he has to have taken on.”

Coming to grips with mortality

The idea for All Is Lost came in late 2010. “I was editing Margin Call. The letter [that Redford’s unnamed character reads in voice over at the start of the film] was the first thing that started this process for me.

“One thing led to the next and one-and-a-half years later I was shooting a movie with Robert Redford. When I wrote it, I didn’t even know how Margin Call was [going to turn out] and I didn’t know if I would ever work again.”

Jump ahead several months to January 2011 and there was Chandor, perched amid fajitas and film-makers in a hall in Park City, Utah.

“Redford’s in the middle of talking about the distribution challenges on Jeremiah Johnson [Sydney Pollack’s 1972 Western] and suddenly I started thinking about him in this role. When the talk ended about 250 people swarmed up to him so I thought I should just worry about Margin Call first.

“A month later I had finished the script and I couldn’t get him out of my mind. We just sent it to him – the worst thing that could happen was somebody would say no.

“Five or six days go by and I get a call saying Robert Redford wants to meet me. I flew across the country and prepared this whole pitch and five minutes into our meeting he held up his hand and said he was in.

“The script is very, very dense, so you feel like you’ve seen the movie once you’ve read it, but the lack of dialogue… there’s no question Redford has always chosen the path less travelled and I think he admired it.”

“It’s very, very clearly a survival movie,” adds Chandor. “The film is about a person coming to grips with their own mortality in front of your eyes.

“The bet I took was if you kept the audience engaged and a little bit scared and took them on an emotional rollercoaster for the first two acts you might be ready by the third act to go on a fairly intense emotional journey with him.

On the night of the US premiere of Margin Call in October 2011, Chandor and his representatives secured a US rights deal for All Is Lost with Roadside Attractions, which was releasing Margin Call.

The film-maker remembers the pitch to Steve Beeks of Lionsgate, which owns a 43% stake in Roadside. “I said, ‘It’s Redford in a boat struggling to survive.’”

With his Margin Call producers from Before The Door Pictures and Washington Square Films back on board, they got a bank loan to finance the entire film and found gap funding. International sales agent FilmNation reportedly sold out the project in two days at Berlin 2012.

By that point Chandor was an Oscar nominee for Margin Call. “It was that great time when you’ve just been nominated for an Academy Award but the ceremony hasn’t happened so you haven’t lost yet,” he says.

Going to sea

Production took place in summer 2012 in a variety of locales. They shot in Fox Studios Baja in Mexico, as well as the Port Of Los Angeles and the Bahamas. The film premiered in Cannes in May 2013.

“Hopefully it feels like one poor little soul bouncing around in boat, but it was anything but. It’s a total jigsaw puzzle.

“The majority of it was shot in a tank where they shot Titanic [Fox Studios Baja]. We shot a bunch of stuff by Ensenada. The shipping sequences were a month later five miles off the shore from the Port of Los Angeles.

“That tank in Mexico is actually five tanks,” says Chandor. “We had three boats we moved around and there’s a huge tank the size of four or five football pitches perched on the Pacific Ocean. There was an indoor tank for the storm sequences and a clarity tank for underwater stuff.

“I hope when people are done watching this they know the character of this individual. You know who this guy is essentially but you don’t know what he is. The risk we took is he starts to become you and Redford in the previous parts of his career was never a perfect everyman because he always felt a little above us all and that mystery and aloofness is what made him great.

“There’s certainly a mystery about all this but if the film is working for you, I don’t think there’s any question this is an actor who has exposed himself in front of you in a very pure and intense way.”

Shooting with Redford, Chandor says, was something else. “He was at a very interesting time in his career and his life and he was really ready to entirely hand himself over as an actor, which I was grateful for.

“It was an intense experience: very long an emotionally trying for both of us because you are just staring at the same person all day. He is a wonderful guy, a perfectly nice gent. We all ate at the restaurant and drove together and hung out but while shooting he was only interested in what the character had to go through and didn’t really worry about much else.

“He trusted us almost to the point where it was a little scary and we were afraid we might not be able to do what he was expecting of us. It was probably a directing experience the likes of which I will never have again.”