All is Lost, In Hollywood
All is Lost, In Hollywood
The production notes from the soon-to-released film starring Robert Redford offer some fascinating insight into how Hollywood brings one man's harrowing mid-ocean sinking to the big screen. This one will help the chandleries sell a few more liferafts.
“We slammed a boat into the side of a shipping container with him on it—that’s in the movie,” Dodson says. “There’s this huge jolt, and that’s Bob actually hitting the side of a boat and being okay with it. We put him in a life raft and flipped him upside down and inside out, and he was game.”
“Whenever he did his own stunts, it was both inspiring and exciting, and it also put a little fear in us,” Gerb adds. “But he is in great physical shape. He loves the water and he loves to swim. There are a lot of physical challenges in making this film. Even just being wet all day is exhausting and physically draining on any actor. But his spirit and his understanding of the vision for this film just took over. He came to the set every day and absolutely gave himself over to the process of making this film.”
For his part, Redford says he greatly enjoyed working with the director, whom he credits with getting the best out of him as an actor.
“I'm doing this because of J.C.,” Redford says. “I like him. He has a joyous spirit and a wonderful disposition. But the thing that’s incredible is how busy his mind is. It’s a quicksilver mind, and I find it really fascinating. I think he will do very well, because he knows what he wants and he knows how he wants to get it, but he stays loose through the process, which I think is wonderful. He’s very intuitive, he has a vision, and I trust him and his ability to deliver that vision.”
Chandor’s use of digital effects was largely restricted to enhancing backgrounds and skies, as well as
enhancing the waves that surrounded the boat and hammered Redford’s character. All visual effects work was handled by a team at Toronto-based SPIN VFX, overseen by Chandor and longtime VFX supervisor Robert Munroe (X-Men).
Filming in water is notoriously challenging, and that was certainly the case with All Is Lost , which does not feature a single shot set on dry land. Camera crews filmed in various parts of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean, including off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, about 80 miles south of San Diego. At one point, Redford sailed the Virginia Jean into port there, complete with a patched-up hole in the side of the boat.
“It was amazing to see the reactions of real sailors in the marina,” says Gerb. “They were looking at our boat, which had clearly been through an incredible battle. It had a film crew hanging off of it and Robert Redford at the helm.”
The shots of sea life—including shoals of small fish, yellowtail, barracuda and the beautiful if terrifying shots of dozens of swirling sharks—in the Bahamas, off the coast of Nassau and Lyford Cay, where an entire camera crew dove down more than 60 feet to capture the footage of the fish.
For the sequences involving the massive shipping vessels, the crew filmed in the ocean around Los Angeles—out of the port of Long Beach to the south, and further north near Catalina Island. But the open ocean is no place to safely sink a yacht. For those scenes and a number of others, including the opening collision with the shipping container, the filmmakers turned to the world’s largest filming tanks. Baja Studios, located in Rosarito Beach on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, the facility was effectively built from the ground up by James Cameron, who required a customized water environment to shoot the spectacular nautical effects for Titanic. In fact, some of the crew on Al l I s Lo st had also worked on Titanic, including line producer Luisa Gomez da Silva, who works full time at the facility and counts herself part of “the Titanic generation.”
The filmmakers used three giant water tanks for different aspects of the shoot, including the world’s largest exterior tank, which sits right on the ocean and has an infinity-edge horizon line.
“It’s the size of three football fields and it creates a very real ocean look,” Gerb says. “These tanks mimic being out at sea, but in a controlled environment where we could safely pull off a lot of our stunts and special effects. It was really the only place in the world we could have made this film.”
Initially, Chandor and Goldsmith believed they would have all they needed with the three boats, but
one particularly dramatic sequence, in which the storm-tossed Virginia Jean repeatedly capsizes and rights itself, called for extraordinary creativity. Although the filmmakers had thought they could use the special-effects boat for this underwater rolling stunt, after further exploration they realized they needed to better protect Redford. As a result, multiple departments pulled together to build a special rig for the purpose.
Similarly, special effects supervisor Brendon O’Dell (Training Day) had to come up with creative solutions to simulate the violent movement of the boat in the storm. “Typically, on a big-budget movie, you’d build a really elaborate gimbal that could move the boat in any direction,” he says. “But that would have been very expensive and time consuming, so we had to rethink our approach.”
Instead, O’Dell’s team used simple rigging and hydraulic cylinders, together with the natural buoyancy of the boat working against the water. “We would just suck the front of the boat down with a cylinder and let the back up, and vice-versa,” he says. “It also worked side to side. It looked really good.”
The complex shoot required seven weeks of meticulous preparation—unusual for a small, independent film. “We needed to create a schedule that tracked wet scenes, dry scenes, storm scenes, with three boats, three tanks and an additional sound stage, night and day, stunts, VFX shots and non-VFX shots,” Dodson says. “It was a lot more complicated than anything I’ve ever worked on before, and enormously complex for a 30-day shoot on our budget.”
The producer says the crew worked less from the script than from a big map in their main conference room on which the entire movie was storyboarded.
“We didn’t really even have sides,” he says, referring to the daily printouts actors usually use. “We used a printout of that day’s storyboards—we’d just go through them and shoot them.”
To capture Al l is Los t Chandor turned to not one, but two directors of photography—Frank G. DeMarco and underwater cinematographer Peter Zuccarini. For DeMarco, the challenge of shooting a movie without dialogue was not without silver linings.
“One interesting thing is that you can do far more takes on a movie with less dialogue,” says DeMarco, who also worked with the director on Margin Call. “The other interesting thing is that, like in a silent movie, the director can sometimes direct the actor during the take. J.C. could actually say, ‘Bob, now remember this, and then do that, and pick up that, and look up there,’ while the camera was rolling.”
DeMarco says shooting interior shots in the tight space of a yacht’s cabin was also tricky—for example, when Redford had to squeeze past the camera on DeMarco’s shoulder or during very close shots.
“We shot with wide lenses, which helped a lot,” DeMarco recalls. “We used a lot of natural light. Ultimately, we just made it work.”
If some crewmembers found themselves having to contend with water, others thrived in it—and none more than Zuccarini, whose credits range from low-budget surfing documentaries to the seafaring blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
“He and his team know how to get in their wetsuits, seal up the cameras, balance their weight and their breathing, and swim in and under the water, shooting footage that you can’t believe,” Dodson says.
With its smorgasbord of water-related challenges, Al l I s Los t was an irresistible project, says Zuccarini. “I specialize in putting cameras in places that are very wet. So when I saw from the very first moment of the script that there’s water flowing into the boat, he’s immersed in water, water is going to spray on his face, waves are dumping on him—I admit, I was pretty excited.”
Adding to the production challenges, editor Pete Beaudreau (Margin Call) did the first pass of editing on location to ensure that the production got what it needed. After a rough start, he says he got used to the approach.
“Because I was able to get the material so quickly, I could show J.C. at the end of the day whatever he had shot that morning, all put together,” Beaudreau says. “And if he felt like he was missing something, we could go in the next morning and grab it.”
In a film so devoid of dialogue, the musical score assumed special importance. Chandor turned to acclaimed singer-songwriter Alex Ebert, leader of the band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, to compose the film’s score—his first such project.
“It was sort of a shocker in some ways,” says Ebert. “It’s amazing that J.C. would have that kind of faith in someone who hadn’t scored a film.”
Ebert says Chandor initially asked him to deliver very subdued materials, drones and low notes that sustained over scenes. He also specifically requested that the instrumentation avoid piano. That was challenging for the composer, who had already written some pieces on piano, but he understood Chandor’s reasoning.
“The piano has this inherent emotion to it,” he says. “We didn’t want anything that was ‘emotion in a can’ or ‘tension in a can.’ But eventually I started taking more chances, and after some back and forth with J.C., we landed in this middle spot that I think was perfect.”
Ebert says he played various instruments, including synthesizer, crystal bowls and Tibetan bowls. He also played orchestral samples, most of which were later replaced by musicians using real instruments. Other times he came up with themes on the piano, then mocked them up with sampled flutes or other sampled instruments, before bringing in great musicians to play them. Seth Ford-Young, the bass player from the Magnetic Zeros also provided a number of sounds that evoked the calls of whales and other sea mammals.
“The biggest challenge was walking that fine line between truth and melodrama,” Ebert says. “You don’t want to undershoot it and you don’t want to overshoot it. You want to nail the emotion precisely. Anything else is not doing it justice.”
For Ebert, Al l I s Los t is an inherently emotional film with massive stakes, and he felt he needed to express that in the music.
“It’s about beauty,” he says. “It’s emotional and everything that comes along with life and death, and nothing less. I think that’s the primary subject of humanity—and it’s something that you might want to stay away from because it would be overdramatic. But this dude’s in the middle of the ocean on a raft. Let the music be emotional because it is emotional. We followed the movie’s lead.”
The task of building a robust soundscape for an almost dialogue-less film on the sea fell to the Oscar- winning sound team behind such hits as Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park, Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom, along with their colleagues Steve Boeddeker and Brandon Proctor, from Marin County’s famous SkyWalker Sound. They had already worked on several films with Redford in the director’s chair and welcomed the chance to work with him again.
In some ways, All is Lost is a tribute to man’s seemingly limitless ingenuity and resilience, with Redford’s character simply refusing to quit.
“This character keeps going to a point when some people would give up and say, ‘It’s too much,’” Redford says. “‘I’m out in the middle of nowhere. No one is here to help me and it seems like I’ve done everything I possibly can. Why not give up?’”
To answer that question, Redford references an earlier film whose sparseness and primal simplicity have something in common with Al l I s Los t and in which the actor plays another lone man battling nature and self.
“I thought about Jeremiah Johnson, about that film and that character, especially since I had developed that project myself,” says Redford of the 1972 film. “He had a choice to give up or continue but he continues, because that’s all there is. And this film, I think, suggests the same thing. He just goes on because that’s all he can do. Some people wouldn’t, but he does.”
It’s in those moments of maximum anguish that Our Man actually breaks his pervasive silence and utters a word or two—to great effect.
“There’s a scene where we finally hear the iconic Robert Redford voice,” says Gerb. “There is no real dialogue to speak of in the film, but in this one moment, for a very brief second, he says something. And to hear his voice, and how it comes out, is so powerful, because we all know that voice. And then it comes, and it’s this tiny beat, but it’s a very moving moment for me.”
For Dodson, it is precisely the drive to survive—even when all is apparently lost—that gets to the heart of the film’s meaning.
“It's a movie about why we keep fighting,” Dodson says. “It’s a movie about why we try to live—about why we would fight against death when it seems so obvious that it’s our time to go. Answering that question about human beings is something philosophers, religion and great thinkers have been trying to do as long as humans have been on earth. I think this movie tries to ask that timeless question in a new way. And for my own part, I’m far more interested in going to see movies and making movies that ask questions than in movies that propose to answer them.”
It’s also part of what makes the film unlike any other, the producer says.
“I don’t think you’ve ever seen a movie like this before,” Dodson says. “It’s a truly singular vision. It’s watching one guy—a master of his craft—work through a character in 90 minutes. And it’s an adventure. But the existential questions in it, I think, will resonate for people even more powerfully.”
As for Chandor, he says he hopes audiences will see themselves reflected in Redford’s valiantly struggling survivor.
“What I’m hoping,” Chandor muses, “is that this character becomes a vessel where audience members are able to see themselves, or parts of themselves. That he becomes the embodiment of some of their hopes, concerns, dreams, worries, fears—all those primal human characteristics. It’s not something that I want to lay out too explicitly, but to a certain extent, I hope that he can become a kind of mirror. And if I did my job well, the film, like Our Man’s journey, is going to be exhilarating and terrifying, and, I hope, emotional and haunting.”
Lionsgate & Roadside Attractions, Black Bear Pictures and Treehouse Pictures present a Before The Door/Washington Square Films Production. Robert Redford in All is Lost. The director of photography is Frank G. DeMarco and the underwater director of photography is Peter Zuccarini. Production designer is John P. Goldsmith. Editor is Pete Beaudreau. The music is composed by Alex Ebert. Visual effects supervisor is Robert Munroe. Executive producers are Cassian Elwes, Laura Rister, Glen Basner, Joshua Blum, Howard Cohen, Eric D’Arbeloff, Rob Barnum, Kevin Turen, Corey Moosa and Zachary Quinto. The producers are Justin Nappi and Teddy Schwarzman. Produced by Neal Dodson p.g.a. and Anna Gerb p.g.a. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor.