J.C. Chandor

His first feature, Margin Call, made by top 10 list in 2012 and so I was very excited to be talking to J.C. Chandor about his new film, All Is Lost. You can download a short audio extract from the interview by clicking here.

Matt: To quickly go back, Margin Call was released in early 2012 here in Australia and it was my 3rd favourite film of the year.  It premiered back at Sundance back in January 2011 and it propelled you all the way to an Oscar nomination.  When did you realise that the film was taking off?

J.C.:  That was quite an experience.  It was my first ever feature film and it was an amazingly slow build.  We took the film to the Sundance Film Festival not knowing what it was.  We were well received there but we certainly weren’t the darlings of the Festival that year.  Over the next 12 months, the film built up momentum until the point where I got an amazing treat with an Oscar nomination for writing.  I’ve been at it a long time and it’s been 10-15 years of struggle so 2011 was a pretty special year.

Matt:  So we’ve gone from Margin Call – which has some of the best dialogue you could imagine – to All Is Lost – which has none at all.  How long has the idea for this film been with you?

J.C.:  In a weird way, some of the set pieces and the big moments in the film have been bouncing around in my head for years but there really wasn’t a movie there.  It was during the editing process of Margin Call that I was taking a train back and forth between New York City where I was working and up the coast where I was living.

During the winter months, I was looking out all these boats that get stowed away up on land and it was kind of a sad, depressing thought of a boat just sitting there on stilts.  I wrote this letter that begins the film and it was that letter that really got things going.  So I was kind of writing the film as I was editing Margin Call.  I didn’t know it at the time but this idea was growing that was very different.

Matt:  In curious to know what a script looks like on a film with no dialogue?

J.C.:  It’s a funny thing as it’s still quite detailed.  It was a 31 page document, so it’s a little shorter than your average script, but it was very, very specific.  It was written scene-by-scene and shot-by-shot so that when you were done reading it, you literally felt like you had watched the movie.  That was the only document we ever used to attract Mr Redford, to attract financing, to attract distribution and to attract a crew that would go out and make it. 

Matt:  What sort of reactions did you get when showing it to studios and trying to get some interest in financing the film?

J.C.:  They were not as shocked as you might think.  I know that sounds weird to say but when you finish reading the document, it really did explain how he was going to speak, what was going to be happening, what the emotional arcs were going to be, what each scene was about, what the end goal was.

We attached Mr Redford first and that certainly helped frame it.  We ended up putting the financing together in a very conservative way.  Universal Pictures and Lionsgate, who financed the movie, are conservative groups and so I think they liked the budget range we were trying to do it on and they also liked the idea. 

Matt:  Robert Redford is a much loved actor but we’ve seen him in so few movies of late.  How did you go about approaching him for the film?

J.C.:  It goes back to that first trip to Sundance.  I had a completed version of the script and I knew I always wanted the role to be for an older actor.  I thought there was something fascinating about the character having lived a pretty full and successful life but still having a drive to survive.

Mr Redford gives this welcoming talk at the Festival each year and there’s a breakfast that he invites people to on the first morning where we welcomes the filmmakers.  I was sitting in the back of the room and I didn’t realise it at the time but the speaker over my head had been unplugged so I couldn’t hear Robert Redford who was standing at the front of the room.  Someone then plugged the speaker in and suddenly I heard a voice that we all know so well.

It was at that time that I started to think of him for the movie – taking his voice away and seeing what you’re left with and what kind of performance that would be.  A month later I sent him the script and a week after that I was sitting in a room with Robert Redford and he said “yes” probably 5 minutes into our meeting.  He never lost faith in the project from that point forward despite the fact it took a year to get the financing together and work how we were going to shoot it.  This was also before Margin Call had come out so there was something in this project that he really loved

Matt:  He’s a fit guy but Robert Redford is still 77 years of age and this is a very physical role.  We see him on the ship making repairs and treading through water.  How easy was it for him?

J.C:  It was a long, gruelling undertaking.  Shooting on the water is a very slow and methodical and infuriating enterprise.  Everything on film takes 3 times as long as it should and then when you add water into the mix, it can be quite maddening.

We used that to our strength as we shot the film in order and it really is about this character who was going through this insane endurance over 8 days.  The shoot was over 2 and a half months and the total preparation time was 6 months so it was a really long project. 

Matt:  And how do you shoot a film like this where you’re either in the tiny confines of the boat or looking out into the ocean?  Is this done in a studio?  In a dock?  On the open water?

J.C.:  A combination of all three.  A lot of the large storm sequences, where we’re flipping the boat upside down and putting it through its paces, we did in a more controlled environment in a huge tank that was built right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Mexico where they shot Life Of Pi and Titanic. 

We also shot in the Pacific off both Mexico and Los Angeles and then also in the Caribbean and the Bahamas which are in the Atlantic.  It all came together like a jigsaw puzzle and hopefully when you’re watching the film, it all feels like one thing. 

Matt:  I couldn’t help but notice in the credits that there’s a director of photography and an underwater director of photography.  Is there a speciality that’s important when shooting under water?

J.C.:  Yeah, it’s a very complicated endeavour.  You’re using a large motion picture camera with all the different focal lengths and lighting conditions.  When you see the film, there are very intense and very extreme underwater sequences and so he was a key component in shooting the film.

Matt:  It’s a technique that’s often used in films where we begin with part of the ending.  We hear Robert Redford talking about the desperate situation that he’s in and the length of time he’s been out there.  What’s behind that?  Giving the audience a glimpse of what’s ahead?

J.C.:  It’s a letter that he’s reading and often with any survival film there’s a moment of “reckoning” that is done through a letter.  You hear this letter but yet the character seems to have some communication issues.  It’s not as specific as one might be in a letter like that.  In a way, that letter is what started the project for me and it always felt right to start the film with it.  Then you get to learn how this guy ended up in that predicament.

Matt:  Like what you did with Margin Call, this film has been doing the film festival circuit before getting a wider release.  It premiered at Cannes before moving onto a bunch of other festivals.  It screened here in Brisbane at the Brisbane International Film Festival.  How would you describe the value that comes from film festival screenings?

J.C.:  It’s very simple.  These films don’t have the marketing and distribution budgets that a huge blockbuster film would and so what you’re trying to do is build some momentum and some critical acclaim.  You can then use that to help get the word out.  Of course on the flip side, it doesn’t work if the film is not well received and it can backfire very quickly.

Matt:  You’re two for two in my book with Margin Call and now All Is Lost.  Can you share what you’ll be working on next?

J.C.:  We’re shooting a film in February/March which is a film that I wrote called A Most Violent Year.  It’s set in New York City in 1981.  It’s a different film but it’s something that I’m very excited about.