If any of the wind gusts that factor so prominently in the sailing drama "All Is Lost" came along when writer-director J.C. Chandor was flipping through the film's screenplay, it's likely his slender manuscript would have been scattered like leaves in a hurricane.
Totaling just 31 pages — most feature-length scripts run four times that long — Chandor's screenplay is succinct largely because there's virtually no dialogue. The film's sole character, played by Robert Redford, is sailing across the Indian Ocean when his boat's hull is pierced by a displaced cargo container, the ensuing flood of seawater disabling all electronics. With no radio or companion, Our Man (as Redford's character is called) has no cause to speak: his actions are his text.
Chandor from the outset decided to circumvent the chestnuts of the castaway genre, which typically rely on voiceover, flashbacks and concocted conversations — perhaps with a volleyball named Wilson — to plug the unavoidable expositional holes. "I didn't know if there was a way to make a movie without any of that," Chandor says. "But I wanted to try."
Despite its brevity, Chandor's script is remarkably precise, and his document — Chandor uses that word in conversation more than "screenplay" — reflects years of careful reflection on how best to tell the tale that's not just about a maritime accident but also about an older man confronting mortality.
A skilled sailor, Chandor laced his drama with specific details about seamanship, and as Redford's character prepares for the film's first storm about a third of the way into his ordeal, people with any experience at sea will recognize that he's in over his head.
Lacking a radio and radar, Our Man doesn't know early enough that a huge weather system is bearing down on him and thus hasn't been able to steer away from danger. He doesn't have the right sails up, and he has no clue about his position.
"It's really a sequence about a guy catching up," says Chandor, whose debut feature, "Margin Call," brought him an original screenplay Oscar nomination. "He's not in control. The fact that he has dirty dishes in his sink — those can be catastrophic if they start flying around in a storm. You would have started preparing two days in advance if you knew a storm like this was coming. He's way behind the eight ball."
And yet, in a moment that has been endlessly debated and discussed, Our Man takes time out to shave (originally, there were two such sequences). Given that the seas are boiling, it seems an odd priority, but Chandor says it's about climbing into the ring, a lesson imparted on the filmmaker from his Army-trained father.
"When you're heading into battle, you want to be as prepared as possible," Chandor says. "It's an extension of the uniform, in a way, and he is trying to maintain some sense of normalcy: This is probably his last chance to have a nice, quiet moment. For me, it's a big character point — that at that instant, he would take a little time for himself."
It's a fitting scene, because "All Is Lost" is ultimately a tale about trying to stop the sand from passing through the hourglass.
"The entire movie is about a guy realizing that the more trouble he gets into and the later you are in life, the quicker things come at you," Chandor says. "The overarching idea is that this is a guy who, as he goes on, even with less and less, he is fighting harder and harder for more time on the planet."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times