All Is Not Lost
Hollywood discovers small boats and big adventures, sort of.
By Marlin Bree
Off the coast of Sumatra, well away from the shipping lanes and deep into a solo voyage on the Indian Ocean, a small sloop under full sail wends its way southward. Onboard, a solo sailor suddenly awakens as green seawater gushes up from the teak cabin sole.
It’s the boater’s ultimate horror: His boat has been holed and is sinking.
Thus begins one of the most gripping, significant and original motion pictures of recent years, “All Is Lost,” starring Robert Redford, looking rugged but wearing every inch of his 77 years. The sole actor, Redford, as “Our Man,” emits almost no dialogue. Everything else—the shock and horror of discovering his predicament, his unsuccessful fight to repair his boat and the film’s final moments—he portrays with his face and body. Mostly silent, except for the sounds of the sailboat and ocean, the movie is gloriously filmed onboard a boat in the open water.
Even as desperate crises loom, Redford plays a rugged Hemmingway-type guy, always under control, sometimes even defiant of the odds against him. Indifferent to pain and suffering, the single-handed sailor always works on behalf of his boat and almost never loses his temper.
Our Man is a wealthy American, successful enough to afford a fairly decent cruising sloop of a certain age and equip it fairly well if not completely. He also has the gumption to sail it solo around the world for his own purposes. We don’t know what they are, but we do know that others have embarked on solo voyages with much less boat under them. Patient and implacable, he’s a good skipper, even without a crew.
In 107 minutes, the story arcs from the character discovering his ship’s holing to his surviving a storm at sea and boarding an inflatable life raft circled by sharks. If you have ventured beyond easy reach of shore, this film will grab your gut and provoke an occasional burst of dry sweats. Although not easy to watch, the grim story is always fascinating. Played out with minimal sound effects, the story jumps off the screen and into a sailor’s adrenalin-charged brain.
Showing Hollywood’s increasing interest in boats and sailing, the film was made with a major motion picture star and shot for under $10 million, peanuts compared to today’s $100 million-and-then-some picture budgets.
Redford carries the film with his worn visage, battered good looks and cowboy-calm determination. As a major storm descends, Our Man decides to shave. It’s not what many solo sailors would do, but it works in the movie.
The entire film was shot in the water. This amazing accomplishment may trigger more productions as Hollywood learns more about realistically filming movies on the water, which has been regarded as extremely difficult and expensive. Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” went wildly over budget and became a much-publicized case for never, ever filming boats on the water.
“All is Lost” got the OK off a 20-page outline written by director J.C. Chandor, whose parents were boaters. Redford liked the outline, which Chandor expanded to a 30-page script. A full-length motion picture script usually runs from 90 to 120 pages. The resulting film provides an unusual but outstanding fictional portrayal of a lone man facing survival at sea.
Though Redford seems to be on one sloop, the producers used three boats, all 39-foot Cals, to portray the Virginia Jean. First launched in the late 1970s, the original Cal 39 was considered to be a real ocean greyhound with a turn of speed and good handling on all points of sail.
One of the original all-glass sailboats, it’s sought after both as a capable cruiser and an affordable boat. With a 17,000-pound displacement and a displacement-to-length ratio of 257, it’s just in the medium displacement category. It’s no ultra-lightweight flyer, but that weight in a cruising boat hull means that it can carry stores for a long-distance cruise. With its aft-placed spade rudder, the Cal 39 has good handling even when plowing downwind in heavy seas.
Cal 39s are considered good designs to retrofit for offshore passage making, so choosing a Cal 39 as the cruising boat, Virginia Jean, has the satisfying feel of research. It’s also a gorgeous boat.
One of the Cal 39s purchased for use in the movie listed for $65,000 and probably sold for a little less. Over the years, about 150 Cal 39s were built.
Filming took place in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico, south of San Diego. One of the three Cal 39s was used for open-sea sailing and exterior scenes off the Ensenada coast. Another was set up for interior shots, including the flooding scenes. The third was used for special effects.
Sailors in Ensenada were surprised to see a beat-up Cal 39 with a huge patch on its starboard side sailing with Redford at the helm and a camera crew perched on the other side.
“It was amazing to see the reactions of real sailors as Redford sailed the boat,” one producer said.
Missing in the final cut, the film’s original opening scene showed the Cal 39 slamming into the side of a partially submerged shipping container and getting holed just below its starboard rail. During filming, the huge jolt tossed Redford into the side of the boat. He was later quoted as saying he was surprised at how much noise the collision made.
Much of the film’s impressive sound effects were recorded in San Francisco Bay. During most of the film, we hear the routine sounds of a sailboat—sails flapping, water gurgling along the waterline, the splash of passing ocean waves. The sounds ratchet up when a sudden storm rolls in. The wind shrieks in the rigging, and monster waves slam into the side of the hull. As the boat capsizes and turns turtle, the storm and wave sounds combine to make it a personal experience for anyone who has been to sea.
The sinking scenes were filmed at Baja Studios in Rosarito Beach on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, which was built by James Cameron to film “Titanic.” The horizon pool gives the impression that the boat is in the middle of the ocean.
The filmmakers used three giant water tanks for different shots, including the world’s largest exterior tank, which sits right on the ocean and has an infinity-edge horizon line. The 17-million-gallon tank features a real ocean look, allowing filmmakers to get footage making them look out at sea while in an environment that allowed them to pull off their special effects.
“We did pretty much everything you can do to a boat on the film,” the director said. “We sunk it, brought it back to life, sailed it, then put it through a massive storm, flipped it over and sank it again.”
Using hydraulic rams/cylinders, they manipulated one Cal 39 to sink one side under the water and then let the boat’s natural buoyancy flip it back up. They also sank one Cal 39 repeatedly and brought it back up again for another shot, which makes for breathtaking action when projected on a 70-foot-wide motion picture screen.
The director shot the film in natural light and with various digital cameras, some optically stabilized and handheld. The audience sees some of the action as if they were doing it, such as Redford’s laborious climb up the Cal’s 55-foot mast. We see his feet, the swaying mast and the ocean below. We also hear his grunts. The sequence is startling and effective.
Compared to other big budget, sprawling productions such as “Captain Phillips,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “All is Lost” takes a different tack. We have just one man, one small boat and one ocean. Unusual and innovative, the movie’s novel approach really works, making it an outstanding work of fiction and movie making.
I thought about the movie after leaving the theater. Running scenes through my memory, I thought some just didn’t feel right. What was worse, I became concerned some sailors might actually try to follow the survival tactics filmed. As a step-by-step guide of what do when everything goes wrong, the film has a lot to be desired; however, in the visual medium of motion pictures, you have to keep the action up and the details down. This is not a training film, after all.
When the Cal 39 is holed, Our Man’s first course of action should have been to keep the water out, including stuffing something into the hole, followed by plywood or floorboard or anything pushed, prodded and screwed directly into the fiberglass hull. You can’t just sail away from a multi-ton shipping container by attaching a storm anchor to one end of the steel monster. And with a hole in your boat’s starboard side, it’s probably not a good idea to sail away on a starboard tack and return on a port tack, dipping the hole farther underwater as the sailboat heels.
When making a distress call, you use mayday, not SOS, as Redford does in the movie. Like me, many boaters have the procedure taped beside their boat’s VHF radio. To repair a hole in the hull, you use epoxy and not polystyrene for your patch. And you use protective gloves for pity’s sake.
The list goes on, but the main point is that with just a little more nautical expertise, the movie could have been a real learning experience for seamanship and survival courses. But that said, it’s still a heck of a movie.
Hollywood rediscovered the small-boat movie and did so with a major star, using state-of-the-art equipment and techniques. When Redford climbs the mast, you are there, whether you want to be or not.
The ending is ambiguous by design. The film begins with Redford saying “all is lost” before flashing back to the collision and hull-holing eight days earlier. Film scenes slam together like a nautical nightmare. Time is displaced and actions pile up one after another as if seen in a dream.
The film’s end credits pay touching tribute to the three 1978 Cal 39s purchased for the movie: “These three boats generously gave themselves up for art: Tahoe, Tenacious, and Orion. They took their final sails in the Pacific Ocean and performed beautifully in the film as Our Man’s boat, the Virginia Jean. Rest in peace.”
Somewhere along the line, so the story goes, Robert Redford’s wife got worried about her husband doing too many of his own stunts.
“If Robert Redford gets hurt, he comes home,” she was quoted as saying.
At the Cannes Film Festival, where the film received rave reviews, Redford revealed that he damaged his left ear during filming and suffered permanent hearing loss. He didn’t go home.
“All is Lost” came and went quickly at the major movie houses, but it will probably be around in one form or another for a long time. This small-budget, single-actor film will have a lasting impact on the future of small-boat movies.
Marlin Bree, a long-time solo sailor, has written extensively about solo sailing adventures, both his own and of others. His books include Broken Seas: True Tales of Extraordinary Seafaring Adventures; Wake of the Green Storm: A Survivor’s Tale; and In the Teeth of the Northeaster: A Solo Voyage on Lake Superior. His Boat Log & Record (4th edition), is a logbook for small craft sailors and singlehanders. His website is marlinbree.com.
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