The Harrowing Question of All Is Lost: How Do You Mourn Your Own Death?

Director J.C. Chandor talks about his influential near-death experience, the financial side of filmmaking, and "embracing the weakness" of movie scripts.
Director J.C. Chandor, left, and actor Robert Redford pose during a photocall for the film "All is Lost" at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. (Reuters / Jean-Paul Pelissier)

When filmmaker J.C. Chandor was 19, he almost died. "I was in a horrible, horrible car crash," he told me in an interview last week. ”You know, pulling myself out of the wreckage of a car, pulling myself onto the grass on the median of a highway. It was very, very intense." The near-death experience stuck with Chandor, forcing him to confront his own mortality in a hard, terrible way.

Twenty years later, Chandor's new feature film, All Is Lost, presents a determined parable about that same struggle against one’s own vulnerability. Notable for both its ambition and its restraint, the film opens with a man stranded on the open seas off the Sumatra Straits, thousands of miles from Indonesia. (That man, played by Robert Redford, is given no name. He is "Our Man," according to the end credits.) He writes a letter, rolls it inside a bottle, and drops it into the ocean: "I think you would all agree that I tried. I will miss you. I'm sorry." He hardly says another word—and that's the immediately remarkable detail of All Is Lost. It's an almost silent film starring one of the most recognizable actors in the world.

Not that Chandor isn't notable in his own right. Dubbed a "rising young filmmaker" last month by New York Times critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, the 39-year-old director spent a decade and a half making commercials before making 2009's Margin Call, a philosopher's thriller about a Wall Street firm racing to unload mortgage-backed securities in the early days of the financial crisis. It was a film about the moral implications of survival—just an incorporated sort, rather than the physical kind Chandor explores in All Is Lost.

I spoke with Chandor over the phone about the financial difficulties of filmmaking, his creative process, the questions about death he grappled with while making All Is Lost, and the open-ended nature of interpreting allegories.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

I don't think a lot of people expect to see this kind of movie made in 2013. How did you manage to make All Is Lost in an industry where it seems difficult to develop any ambitious project that doesn't cost tens of millions?

I think it's a very interesting time. There's this perception, which is not false, that there was a bubble created by DVDs. In the last six or seven years, that bubble has imploded because of technological advancements and the financial torrents of the world. It was a perfect storm that created very conservative thinking.

But, because of technology, we're in a time with the widest range of ability to tell stories that we've ever had in filmmaking. From a budgetary standpoint, you can literally create a feature-film with a phone. We'll soon probably be able to edit one on a phone. So, I tend to think there are amazing opportunities.

This film, in a way, is a low-budget film—but it's a weird low-budget film. It's $10 million. It's in the sort of old marketplace, not really a budget you ever really ever see films get made in anymore. You're either making a film below $6 million or above $15 million. In a weird way, I priced this film correctly. I know it sounds crazy to say, but I'm the poster child of the exact opposite of what everyone feels is going on. Lionsgate and Universal Films bought in all on a 31-page treatment, Redford, and my involvement. That was it. We don't even have an equity investor in this film. We actually were able to bank finance. It's the most conservative financing model out there—it's how you'd finance, like, a Jason Statham film. You actually know you're in profit before you ever start, essentially. We weren't quite in profit, but we knew we had the money to make this version of the film. It was unbelievable!

By structuring the film that way, we were able to go and make the absolute pure version of this movie. This is what that 31-page document said. Word by word, phrase by phrase, action by action. What was on those pages is what we managed to go shoot. I don't know why, but people took a chance—and not only that, but they supported the chance and they didn't panic at the last minute and force some other version of the movie. It was amazing.

It's remarkable that there aren't more movies made like that.

Oh, yeah.

One of the things that struck me about Margin Call is that it's a very theatrical movie. I can almost imagine it on stage. All Is Lost is about as far from that style as you can get. Why did you decide to make such a drastically different movie? Why did you go in such a different direction?

Thematically, I felt like there were enough similarities that I could take things I was exploring in Margin Call and try pushing them to their most extremes. The simple answer to your question, though, is that the nice thing about writing is that it's free. It's just your own time and your own energy and your own emotional wherewithal that you're expending.

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Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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