Telluride: J.C. Chandor on the multiple metaphors of 'All is Lost'
TELLURIDE, Colo. - Like any artist, J.C. Chandor isn't interested in tying his work down with one thematic takeaway. Indeed, his latest film, "All is Lost," lives in the abstract and can service any number of perspectives on it. But for a guy who launched his career with the financial crisis indie "Margin Call," one can't help but wonder if this film, about a man stranded at sea as things go from bad to worse, isn't in some way a metaphor for market collapse and financial ruin as seen over the last five years.
Put the question to him and he'll side-step it a bit, but he will admit that he had the baby boomer generation in mind when conceiving the story. That's what led him to cast Robert Redford in the lead -- well, only -- role.
"It's about this guy coming to grips with the end of his life," he says back stage at the Palm theater here after introducing the film to another festival audience. "And there's this bubble that is, when all is said and done, probably going to be a 10 to 12 years to get out of this whole mess. We're still flailing around a little bit in it, and certainly in other parts of the world terribly so. So, when you take a guy of Redford's generation, this is the time in their lives for reflection."
"Margin Call," he says, was largely about misused potential. Chandor graduated school and spent 10 years kind of "flopping around," he says. Many people of his generation experienced a lengthy climb of "bubble-making," be it financially, in real estate, etc., and witnessing the responsibilities of the older generation falter in that regard sparked his chamber-piece debut.
"All is Lost" is another sort of chamber piece, but Chandor isn't so cagey as to not admit there are plenty of lines to be drawn. After all, this is a film in which a man stranded at sea desperately tries to flag a massive ship full of commercial shipping containers as it passes him by, unaware, like the vast enterprise of a nation passing the little guy by as economic disparity continues to widen the gap between the haves and have nots. The man fishes for food, reeling in a catch as suddenly a shark gobbles the spoils, recalling notions of the privileged benefitting from the accomplishments of the working class.
It's even right there in the film's first moment when a similar container tears a gash in the side of the man's modest sailing vessel, lighting the fuse for the rest of the film's narrative. "Is it a huge Chinese shipping crate that does him in when he's sort of sleeping because he's not paying attention," Chandor asks rhetorically. "Yeah…there are certainly things in the movie that represent elements of that. And that was the fun thing for me, was to sort of be able to play with that. Because my first film was so sort of on the nose of everything, or very specific in what it was trying to accomplish and who it was representing. If we were having a beer, I might not tape it, but I'd get into it further. The nice thing for me is I love that it can be different things for different people."
So he'd like to keep the Rorschach open to interpretation. And indeed, point taken. Like "Gravity," another film playing the Telluride Film Festival this year, "All is Lost" can also be perceived as a story of rebirth. Its final moment could be read at face value or as spiritual release. It's all those things and more.
Another thing Chandor is hoping audiences will get out of the film is bringing their own history with Redford to the table. In the 77-year-old actor, the director was looking for someone at once iconic and everyman.
"Everyone has such a history with the guy that it's really hard to get a role where he can kind of play a blank slate," he says. "Once you get to a point of iconic status, it's hard to break through as a pure character actor. So in this film, what I was hoping would work is that hopefully you forget that it's Robert Redford on the surface because the situation is so dire and outside of the norm. But subconsciously you bring your sort of history with this person and your own experience with him."