“Its purity is what attracted me,” he says of Chandor’s script. “It was very bold, I was attracted by that. There’s no dialogue, I was attracted by that. It was not going to have a lot of special effects. Even though we were going to be filming in tanks, it was going to be real rain and wind. It was a very pure experience that I felt had gone missing [in movies]. It was a chance for me to be a part of going back to that.”
It was also a chance for Redford finally to work with one of the hundreds of promising young filmmakers who got their start at Sundance, a roll call that includes names like Soderbergh, Linklater and Tarantino. When Chandor’s film “Margin Call” made its debut at the festival in 2011, he handed Redford the script for “All Is Lost” (which, with no dialogue, amounted to 30-some pages). “J.C. is the first and only filmmaker of all the ones I’ve supported who’s ever asked me to be in a film!” Redford says, adding that the reason for the reticence is “anybody’s guess.” (He has since agreed to star in “The Old Man and the Gun,” with Sundance alum David Lowery at the helm.)
It took the actor 10 minutes to say yes to “All Is Lost.” At that point, he says, he wanted to put himself entirely in the service of a director, with no second guessing or kibitzing. “I just want to be an actor,” he recalls telling Chandor. “I’ll put myself in your hands, and let’s go. There was not one moment where I thought about directing. I never gave him any pointers, we never discussed it, because I trusted him.”
Chandor notes that Redford had just finished post-production work on “The Company You Keep” when he showed up on the “All Is Lost” set. The minute he arrived, that last project — as well as Sundance and environmental causes and Redford’s activism in the arts — melted away. “I think he really enjoyed, after all those years of trying to wear all those different hats, just absolutely closing off and becoming a pure actor again,” Chandor says.
The word “pure” comes up a lot when discussing “All Is Lost,” and rightfully so: It is pure visual storytelling at its most compelling and an example of pure screen acting at its most physical and expressive. Redford did as many of his own stunts as possible, and when it became clear that he could handle them, Chandor began to see how far he could push his leading man, who in turn rose to nearly every challenge. Aching, wet, cold and bone-tired every night, the actor resorted to a time-honored cure: “Tequila,” he says with a laugh. “I’m proud of [the movie] because it’s a total performance. But it did take its toll.”
“All Is Lost” represents another kind of purity for Redford, one that he thought he left behind when he gave up painting for acting, one that he re-discovered when he began directing in the 1980s, but that he rarely found as an ambivalent actor-for-hire for studios that just wanted him to look good and little else. For the first time in decades, the movie star Redford was never comfortable being and the artist he thought he’d left behind have fused, in a film that works as vehicle and spectacle, but that’s also risky, rigorous and deeply meaningful.
“I don’t know how to express it, I don’t know how to describe it, but I agree with you,” he says softly. “Something seems to be coming together.”