Telluride: J.C. Chandor on the multiple metaphors of ‘All is Lost’

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Like any artist, J.C. Chandor isn’t interested in tying his work down with one thematic takeaway. Indeed, his latest film, “All is Lost,” lives in the abstract and can service any number of perspectives on it. But for a guy who launched his career with the financial crisis indie “Margin Call,” one can’t help but wonder if this film, about a man stranded at sea as things go from bad to worse, isn’t in some way a metaphor for market collapse and financial ruin as seen over the last five years.

Put the question to him and he’ll side-step it a bit, but he will admit that he had the baby boomer generation in mind when conceiving the story. That’s what led him to cast Robert Redford in the lead — well, only — role.

“It’s about this guy coming to grips with the end of his life,” he says back stage at the Palm theater here after introducing the film to another festival audience. “And there’s this bubble that is, when all is said and done, probably going to be a 10 to 12 years to get out of this whole mess. We’re still flailing around a little bit in it, and certainly in other parts of the world terribly so. So, when you take a guy of Redford’s generation, this is the time in their lives for reflection.”

“Margin Call,” he says, was largely about misused potential. Chandor graduated school and spent 10 years kind of “flopping around,” he says. Many people of his generation experienced a lengthy climb of “bubble-making,” be it financially, in real estate, etc., and witnessing the responsibilities of the older generation falter in that regard sparked his chamber-piece debut.

“All is Lost” is another sort of chamber piece, but Chandor isn’t so cagey as to not admit there are plenty of lines to be drawn. After all, this is a film in which a man stranded at sea desperately tries to flag a massive ship full of commercial shipping containers as it passes him by, unaware, like the vast enterprise of a nation passing the little guy by as economic disparity continues to widen the gap between the haves and have nots. The man fishes for food, reeling in a catch as suddenly a shark gobbles the spoils, recalling notions of the privileged benefitting from the accomplishments of the working class.

It’s even right there in the film’s first moment when a similar container tears a gash in the side of the man’s modest sailing vessel, lighting the fuse for the rest of the film’s narrative. “Is it a huge Chinese shipping crate that does him in when he’s sort of sleeping because he’s not paying attention,” Chandor asks rhetorically. “Yeah…there are certainly things in the movie that represent elements of that. And that was the fun thing for me, was to sort of be able to play with that. Because my first film was so sort of on the nose of everything, or very specific in what it was trying to accomplish and who it was representing. If we were having a beer, I might not tape it, but I’d get into it further. The nice thing for me is I love that it can be different things for different people.”

So he’d like to keep the Rorschach open to interpretation. And indeed, point taken. Like “Gravity,” another film playing the Telluride Film Festival this year, “All is Lost” can also be perceived as a story of rebirth. Its final moment could be read at face value or as spiritual release. It’s all those things and more.

Another thing Chandor is hoping audiences will get out of the film is bringing their own history with Redford to the table. In the 77-year-old actor, the director was looking for someone at once iconic and everyman.

“Everyone has such a history with the guy that it’s really hard to get a role where he can kind of play a blank slate,” he says. “Once you get to a point of iconic status, it’s hard to break through as a pure character actor. So in this film, what I was hoping would work is that hopefully you forget that it’s Robert Redford on the surface because the situation is so dire and outside of the norm. But subconsciously you bring your sort of history with this person and your own experience with him.”

Chandor had been writing the film with Redford in mind even before his first film was accepted at Sundance in 2011. He recalled being at a big filmmakers gathering at the festival that year and almost drumming up the courage to present the project to Redford, but he quickly balked at his own audacity. “I had this very self-destructive moment where I was like, ‘I’m not going to wait in line to meet him. He’s never going to say yes!'”

A few weeks later Chandor called Redford’s agent and went through the usual channels. The next thing he knew he was in LA meeting the actor for the first time, and of all the filmmakers Sundance has accepted over the years, Redford says Chandor is the first to have approached him with a project. They met for a while and finally the actor said to Chandor, “I wanted to make sure you weren’t crazy. Let’s go do this.” And they were off to Rosarito, Mexico to start production shortly after.

Chandor actually looked back at the action movies of the 80s in structuring some of the meticulously plotted circumstances of the film. Movies like “Die Hard,” he says, have mini-structures within for sequences, a few minutes of seeing the problem coming, a few minutes of being in the middle of that problem and then a few moments of getting over it. And each trial and tribulation Redford’s character faces in the film follows that sort of flow.

The first 12 minutes of the film set the scene for that structure and Chandor says he felt strongly about keeping it as drawn out as it is, even though there were conversations with his financing and distribution partners about how the scene unfolds. In a nutshell, Redford’s character wakes up to see water flooding his tiny boat. He finally pushes free of the floating shipping container that did the boat in by tying it down with an anchor, then circles back around to retrieve the anchor. The whole scene is very much indicative of the behavioral minutiae that permeates the film.

“My theory, which I believe very strongly and fought for, was that this is a very different movie,” he says. “It structures as a narrative very differently. So I had to teach you right up front, right off the bat, that if the first 12 minutes work for you, then the movie’s probably gonna work for you. It sets the tone and it also sets the way the narrative is going to be structured. You’re not always going to know what’s happening right away because not everyone knows all the nautical and technical stuff, but if you stick with me for like four minutes, I’m not gonna make you wait an hour to tell you the answer to each of these little questions.”

Chandor also shot the film quite specifically to make the viewer feel as if he or she were in the middle of this dilemma with Redford. The camera is almost always eye-level with the actor and never really pulls back to a position of observation. When you’re on a boat, that’s your world, Chandor says, even though the instinct with filmmaking equipment like technocranes and the like is to shoot things in a grander, more omniscient way. The world of the ship becomes a microcosm. “It’s what people do,” he says. “Our world becomes very small and it’s what really is just around us.”

The Telluride experience has been very different for Chandor than the world premiere Cannes experience, which the director says was an “emotional disaster.” He was living in total denial about the film, which was so off the beaten track creatively, and at around $10 million — a modest budget by some measure but hardly shoe string — there was risk involved for various investors. Not only that, but there was a hyper-personal element: he was sitting next to Redford at the first big public screening and the actor had not yet seen the film. Once that was all over, it was like a giant weight had been lifted.

So here in Telluride, the pressure is mostly off. “Whether people love the movie or not, they are really responding to it,” he says. “And the festival kind of seems like it’s about film lovers. They’re just coming to see movies.”

In the end, even with the chasing of thematic threads and attempting to nail it down to this or that, Chandor wants it to be viewed in a personal way by audiences, just as he had his personal take on making it. “Redford, I hope, is representing us all,” he says. “But certainly somewhere in my mind was Robert Redford representing people from a generation that had all this promise and all this prosperity and what came from it. Great things did, but at the end of your life you always question, I would think. I mean, that’s my guess.”

“All is Lost” arrives in theaters on Oct. 18.