Everything Robert Redford says in the film "All Is Lost" is more or less limited to a single letter he reads that serves as a prologue for the film.
"I think you would all agree that I tried. I will miss you. I'm sorry," his voice-over narrates.
Redford's character – who is never given a name, referred to only as "Our Man" in the closing credits – actually scribes the note much later in the film, after facing a bevy of challenges when his sail boat crashes into a cargo container hundreds of miles offshore in the Indian Ocean. But according to "All Is Lost" director and writer J.C. Chandor, the letter provides crucial insight to Redford's otherwise ambiguous character.
"He was leaving some sense of community – there were roots, there was a home that he was leaving and that he was mourning in a way, not having fulfilled certain things and there were things left unsaid," he says. "That opening sort of piece, it's very nonspecific in certain ways. But about anything that's meaningful in a person's life, it's actually very specific."
The letter is also where Chandor started when he began writing the film – what he says was at first an "experiment" – while he was editing his first film, 2011's "Margin Call," about the financial crisis.
"The letter came to me, then it was how do you take a character to a place in an interesting way to write a letter like that?" he says. "It's almost a farewell note that I hope I never write with all these things left unsaid and the apologies and everything else. You would love to have nothing to apologize for when you meet the end."
After the letter, Chandor doesn't need any more words to tell his tale of a man meeting his end.
"Our Man" – an American in his twilight years (Redford is 77, but looks younger in the film) on a solo trip out at sea – wakes up to find that his boat, the Virginia Jean, is taking on water through a puncture to its side. At first, he seems a little blasé about the matter, patching up the hole and continuing on his journey. But with his electronics and radio ruined by the water damage, he slowly realizes he is in for the fight of his life. He must employ every last ounce of ingenuity to navigate his boat though calm and stormy seas to a shipping lane that he hopes will bring him rescue.
Casting Redford was crucial for the movie, as Chandor felt Redford brings his own backstory – which includes not only his iconic film career, but also the Sundance Film festival and a host of social causes – that would help audiences to connect with the character.
"My hope was that the shared history would be there for the audience in the back of their minds," Chandor says, "But by taking away his voice you're essentially allowing the audience to have a fresh take at him."
Redford thus becomes a character the audience can project their own thoughts, fears and feelings on, as they face death alongside him. The action moves quickly in "All Is Lost," leaving little time for reflection. The film asks audiences to not just observe the character's challenges, but go on the journey with him.
"I really believed from the minute I wrote it, that by leaving some of the things left unsaid, you as an audience member are allowed to come into the story and take him on as your every man," Chandor says.
Of course, "All Is Lost" was only able to pull this off on the strength of Redford's performance. Chandor called the filming process "intense," "methodical" and "grueling." But the work paid off. Critics have called "All Is Lost" a career high for Redford.
"He has this amazing, innate ability and practice – it's something he's learned after all these years – to actually communicate non-verbally complex emotional transitions: from fear to perseverance, from boredom to horror, whatever those transitions were."
Chandor's script was a tight 30 pages and reviewers rave that not a single moment is wasted. While shooting, Chandor and Redford would typically go over a scene's movements and then work out an emotional "road map" of the character's response to the sequence of events.
"He would be able to have that whole dialogue and transition and it comes across. That's the art of it. I'm not sure if he can even explain to you how he does that. But it is quite something to watch," Chandor says.
The other character is the boat – a 39 foot sailboat that continues to surprise in its many capabilities and resources. Chandor makes use of every nook and cranny on the Virginia Jean, its claustrophobic quarters serving as a foil to the expansive sea.
"[Sailboats] are essentially sort of relics of what human beings used to travel the world for thousands of years and now have been left to be these oddities, in a way," Chandor says. He sailed with his parents' often growing up, but says sailing is "not a part of my current life." For "All Is Lost," what inspired him was seeing sailboats stored up on stilts in the New England shipyards he passed taking the train to and from Providence and New York during the making of "Margin Call."
"What they symbolize is what was fascinating to me. It was an unfulfilled sense of adventure – that they will never fully reach what they thought they could have."
Many have expressed surprise that this is the same filmmaker who made "Margin Call", a chatty ensemble film about a Wall Street firm coming to terms with an oncoming financial crisis. However the narrative is quite similar. Both "All Is Lost" and "Margin Call" are films about facing down an existential crisis, with the mood shifting from comfortable, to panic, to determination, to acceptance.
"I had realized that both as a writer and as a director that I did have some sort of skill towards integrating into what could be a very staid environment a sense of tension and momentum and tone and tenor," Chandor says.
Hitflix's Kristopher Tapley suggested "All Is Lost" is an abstract metaphor for the financial crisis that was more literally dramatized in "Margin Call." Reviews by the New Yorker and New York Times also brought up the allusions "All Is Lost" makes to the changing global economy.
"[Tapley] is not wrong, but it's not what I was thinking about when I was writing it," says Chandor, adding that Redford does represent a generation that saw the rise of economic disparity,
"All the things that have happened in the last five to ten years have grown out the last 30 years," Chandor says. "There were patterns that people of that generation –I don't think that's what they were leading their country towards. In the end it is part of their legacy, for better for worse."
Chandor says the story he is trying to tell in "All Is Lost" is more universal than that, but he welcomes other interpretations.
"It is about a person coming to grips with their own mortality and their own place in the world. It is a person questioning all those things. What those things are I on purpose have left out of the film, so you can bring your own narrative to it."