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Making Oscar Waves: Robert Redford On Being Set Adrift for ‘All Is Lost’

October 18, 2013

To say that Robert Redford gives the performance of a lifetime in "All Is Lost" wouldn't be to overstate, as that's exactly what writer/director J.C. Chandor had in mind when he cast the part of Our Man.

Chandor, who is somehow the first Sundance director ever to give the festival founder a job, hoped that Redford's storied movie history would allow Our Man to connect with the audience without the burden of dialogue or backstory.

Our Man is the bearer of plenty of other burdens, though, as one might expect from a guy left adrift in the ocean after his modest 39' sailboat gets taken out by a stray shipping crate.

Survival's the name of the game, and Redford goes about his business with a calculated resolve. But even if Our resourceful and resolute Man is constantly devising a plan, mother nature has an entirely different agenda. Assuredly, many of us would give up far sooner, but that is only part of the lesson.

Survival tales are apparently the thing this Oscar season, as "Captain Phillips" and "Gravity" are already safely in the mix. Now it's Robert Redford's turn to make waves this weekend, as "All Is Lost" opens in limited release.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Redford and Chandor at the L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. Unlike Our Man, the two had plenty to talk about.

[Related: Robert Redford Has Only Himself in 'All is Lost' Trailer]

Gentlemen, why would anybody want to go sailing alone on the ocean?

J.C. Chandor: I don’t know. It’s interesting, right?

Robert Redford: I think a lot of people could answer it. It’s a very interesting question. You can probably look at this film and there would be big bunch of the audience that would say, “I would never do that, why would anyone do that?” And other people that would completely understand.

JC: It’s anyone who climbs a mountain. It’s a sign of a culture that obviously is fully fed in the grandest scheme of the word. All these boats, these don’t serve any delivery function of goods or anything else, it’s literally designed as sort of a middle class and upper middle class way of challenging yourself. It’s interesting, you know, it’s what drew me to it. I did it once. I'm dreadfully scared of it. Not alone, but I sailed with four people for about seven days to Bermuda from way down in Central America.

RR: Did you get into the triangle?

JC: We were in the triangle, I didn’t even know it until we’re in the middle of it. I go, “Oh, are we going to be in the Bermuda Triangle on this thing?” And basically the whole trip was in the Bermuda Triangle! And I would never do it again because it’s so claustrophobic and scary and sort of alone but open. So that was the fascination. But [Redford's] got a far more adventure spirit. I'm a bit of a wimp, but he saw that sort of challenge side of it. I think for my viewpoint of writing it, there is a little bit of, it’s not like absurd because that’s not right, but it’s almost this abstract why you would challenge yourself when you don’t have to. But [Redford] got immediately. I mean the minute he read, it he reacted to it.

RR: It’s interesting to hear him talk about that, I wouldn’t have imagined that. I mean because the script and the way he handled directing it, was full of a kind of an almost obsessive confidence. It could only come from having done it. And of course, that was one of things I could trust. This guy has been there and done that.

JC: But I was scared out of my wits like a little baby.

RR: And when he told me later that he was frightened, it hit me: it didn’t add up. I guess it does when you start to think about it.

JC: That’s why we made a movie about it. So it’s there in me, obviously somewhere; but it is a fear. But some of these people, they become addicted to it, they don’t want to come back. I never wanted his character to go that far, to have been doing it sort of on an endless loop for 10 years or something. In my back story for this guy was, it was a challenge he had sort of always wanted to do his whole life and sort of had never quite mustered up, and then did.

So if you a backstory for "Our Man," but the audience doesn’t get that backstory, why is it important for you to have it?

JC: My goal for the movie, as with anything that’s a little bit more poetry than it is a novel, which this is, that’s why [Redford] was such an amazing actor to play the role, there is a history with an audience’s relationship to him. And that can be almost a weakness at some point in your career where he can't totally disappear because people have such a relationship with him.

And I felt the movie, by kind of taking away his literal voice and peeling all of that away, it would allow the audience to kind of still have that shared history kind of in the back of your head over an experience with him.

RR: I’ll tell you how it happened from my end, and I guess what this leads to is the word “Trust.” I’m telling you, that’s really important; who do you trust these days? There’s so much betrayal that goes on and all that s***. But who you trust becomes a bigger deal for me as I’ve gotten older.

So when we first came together, there was a lot of just purely intuitive and instinctive stuff going on and I said, “I don’t know why, I just like this guy. I think he’s got a hold of something that I can give myself to.” The attractive part for me individually was that I could be an actor, the way I started, but I could also bring to it all the years of having acted and done other things, I could bring the wisdom that comes from that into this; whereas when I first started as an actor, I didn’t have that.

JC: You would’ve been freaking out in the beginning that I wasn’t telling you any of that stuff.

RR: Yeah, but we did start to go through the rudimentary things and I said, "Ok," because there was so little there. I said, “Well, he’s got something. Clearly, this is intentional; he didn’t forget to fill it in. The first thing I’d better find out is did he forget to fill it in?”

JC: You’re like, “Are you really lazy?”

RR: I was just going through the rudimentary stuff saying, “Well, is there anything you want to tell me?” Because there was so much not done or said. After a while, he was so deft at evading answering me, that I realized, “Oh I get it, so that’s it, we don’t talk about this anymore, we just go with it." I felt, “Is there something he needs to tell me and has forgotten or not?” And then when I realized, “No, this is exactly the way he wants it.” Then you realize it, “Okay, I'm going with it.” So we got rid of that.

So what’s your story?

I'm from Colorado.

RR: You are? What part?

I grew up in Aurora.

RR: I went to school in Boulder for about 30 minutes.

Yeah, and then what happened?

RR: I got kicked out.

For what?

RR: For not being interested in what I was supposed to interested in. I wanted to climb. I wanted to be in the mountains. I just wanted to be in an atmosphere that was not Los Angeles and I love the mountains, so I just wanted to be part of that. I was interested in geomorphology, I was interested in anthropology, and art, so that wasn’t going to add up to anything. And the rest of the time I was drinking and having a high old time.

Let me ask you one more question before I get kicked out of here.

RR: Wait a minute! Can I take it back? I don’t want to talk about me, but one thing I’d like to tie into what JC is saying: it has come to me a lot, “Why are you doing this?” He knows why. And I think what’s not said in the movie, it doesn’t matter, it’s okay. Because what is said, if you just hear the words “I tried, I think you know I tried,” the fact is "I think you know I tried," it makes all the difference in the world. Finally, as we screwed around with this thing, I came to think that was just great. I was really happy with that. And then somehow, I got totally comfortable with who this guy was.

But when you come to the end, it’s pretty clear, when you miss a carrier, when you miss a container ship, and you're at your last, it’s pretty clear that all is lost. And at what point – Because this has always really interesting to me – at what point when everything is impossible, when all is closed down in terms of your chances to succeed or to continue living, or whatever, and the odds are so against you that it’s like “I’ll just wrap it up, quit.” And some people do.

And others just keep going and they don’t know why, they just continue because that’s all there is to do. In other words, you just keep doing what you can do as long as you can do what you can do, but you don’t know at a certain point why you’re doing it, you just continue because that’s what’s left to do. And others say, “Why? This is ridiculous. It’s going to be further torture, further agony, I'm self-lacerating myself.”

So is that why you did the movie?

RR: Well, not in the beginning. In the end, when you look back and everything, something came up to me – and it just happened when JC and I were at a festival – it just hit me, because it also shares something with a film I did many years ago: Jeremiah Johnson. It's the same thing. Everything is against him, just everything. He’s lost everything, and he just keeps going, because that’s all that he knows to do, just to continue. And I felt that this character, at a certain point, he just keeps giving whatever he’s got left and there is always a little bit more, and just when he thinks it’s over, something else comes. I just found that really interesting.

Art is life, life is art. Thank you guys very much for sitting down with us, I really appreciate it.

RR: Aurora, huh?

I know. And I had to grow up knowing that my mother loved you more than my father.

RR: Say hi to your dad for me.

[Related: Grumpy Old Men Robert Redford and Bruce Dern Crash the Oscar Party at NYFF]

See Robert Redford in the theatrical trailer for "All Is Lost":