Setting a nameless old man adrift at sea

All is not lost: Robert Redford is the old man lost at sea.

IT is a perennial screenwriting problem in thrillers, comedies and action films. How do you clue in the audience about who the character is and where he or she came from, without distracting from the main action?

A character's backstory - details that flesh out a person and make him or her more likeable - is usually inserted through various devices.

In movies about people lost in the wilderness, these devices are usually flashbacks, conversations with other characters or photographs pulled from wallets and looked at wistfully.

For 40-year-old writer-director J.C. Chandor, maker of survival-at-sea story All Is Lost, these oft-used Hollywood methods are unnecessary.

"I basically embraced the weaknesses in the survival genre. In this case, having the story of one person alone on a boat, instead of bringing in some contrivance like a backstory or narrative, I'd rather embrace the weak points of the project," he tells Life! from New York, where he is making his next film, crime drama A Most Violent Year.

And embrace the weakness he did: The audience knows little about the increasingly desperate solo sailor, played by the 77-year-old Robert Redford, who is nameless in the film.

Except for a goodbye message to loved ones that the sailor voices as he writes, there is almost no dialogue.

But there are clues to the sailor's geographical and socio-economic background placed all over the film, says Chandor.

"All the information is there. You can see he is from a city on the West Coast of the United States. And technologically speaking, the time period the film is set in is now. And it's a guy at the end of his life."

Chandor says there comes a point when you can have too much backstory.

"He's a man of means, he's not super wealthy, he's not on a yacht, it's a mid-sized sailboat. So you know socio-economically where he is.

He's an upper-middle class American, and that's all you need to know. You don't need to know where he works or exactly how many children he has. But you certainly know he has a family and he is rooted in a community that he is leaving in the opening letter.

"But the hope is that by the end of the film, you know who the main character is and you know what is important to him. And that is that he wants to live, he is a fighter, and he is stubborn and he wants to love and he has regrets," he says.

All Is Lost was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor for Redford, while winning one for Best Original Score. It has done less well on the Oscar front, gaining only one nomination, for Sound Editing.

Redford, in other reports, has blamed Oscar politics for the film's lack of traction with the Academy, saying that the film's distributors put little or no resources into an Oscar campaign.

In other interviews, Chandor says that Redford was the actor he most wanted for the part because he wanted someone who "was nearing the end of his life and be someone who could captivate the audience with the look of his eye and not much else".

Redford himself has called the film a "a pure cinematic experience" that attracted him as an actor because of what it did not have, a list that includes dialogue, special effects, rapid cuts, loud music and explosions.

Chandor says he learnt how to turn weaknesses into strengths while working on his first feature, the financial crisis thriller Margin Call (2011), for which he received a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards. The critically acclaimed indie production, made for a tiny US$3.5 million, attracted an ensemble of marquee names, including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and Zachary Quinto.

In the case of All Is Lost, it was not just the technical challenge of stretching the budget to make the lifestyles of ultra-wealthy traders look real on screen, or to make a struggle at sea come to life.

"It was a narrative challenge. I love these types of films, going back to Spencer Tracy in The Old Man And The Sea (1958), and any one of a long, long list of survival films. I find them fascinating and wanted to come up with a pure way of telling the story of what it is like to be alone in this situation," he says.

He grew up in a sailing family, but it is not an activity that he "actively embraces" at this point in his life.

"I have a broad understanding of sailing, enough to understand what might happen in predicaments. I've done one open ocean or 'blue water' sail, which is what they call it - seven days from the lower Caribbean to Bermuda. We hit a storm in the middle of that, from which I certainly drew inspiration," he says.

Redford, the man who embodied rugged, outdoorsy American virility in films such as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969), Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Out Of Africa (1985), on the other hand, has almost no sailing experience, says Chandor.

"We started from scratch with him," he says.

After some difficulties in the first couple of weeks, Redford got the hang of it.

"He's a very strong athlete. He picked it up very quickly."

johnlui@sph.com.sg


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All Is Lost is currently airing.

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