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After ‘All Is Lost,’ Redford talks about the risks of acting

Interview » Playing a sailor in peril in “All Is Lost” was hard, but “all in all, it was worth it.”

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Oct 21 2013 07:25 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:36 pm

It’s not unusual for your average 77-year-old man to lose some hearing in one ear.

Robert Redford is not your average 77-year-old man. So the story of how he lost partial hearing in his left ear is highly unusual.

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It happened while Redford was working on his latest movie, and what many are calling the best performance of his career, the survival drama "All Is Lost" (which opens in Salt Lake-area theaters on Friday).

Redford’s unnamed character is on a solo sailing trip across the Indian Ocean when disaster strikes. Alone, he must deal with a sinking boat, harsh weather and being cut off from the rest of the world.

In one particular scene, filming in the same tank in Baja California where James Cameron shot "Titanic," Redford acted through an intense man-made storm.

"We were at the apex of the storm, the boat was tossing and turning and just about to tip over," Redford said in a recent phone interview from New York. "The wind was coming in, the rain was coming, the waves were getting to be 6 or 7 feet.

"I was having to crawl along, to fix something, against tremendous wind. I was being hit with everything."

On Redford’s left side was a crew member with a firehose, with a hard stream of water simulating the crashing waves.

"We did about four takes," Redford said. "It kept hitting in the same side of my head. I couldn’t see anything. I was just groping my way along. I just remember getting hit on the left side of my head."

He developed an ear infection, and when it cleared up, he noticed his hearing was decreased.

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"I went to a hearing guy in Utah, and he said, ‘You’ve lost a substantial part of your hearing in that ear.’ I asked, ‘Am I going to get it back?’ He said, ‘No.’ "

The partial hearing loss, Redford said, was an acceptable risk, considering the challenge of the role.

"All in all, it was worth it," he said. "I’m proud of the work. I felt it was a chance to do something at this point that was different and bold."

That chance started when J.C. Chandor, the movie’s writer and director, was part of a small crew on a weeklong sailing trip through the southern Caribbean some years ago. The boat encountered a substantial storm on the last few days, and "I promised never to leave sight of land again," Chandor said in a phone interview last week from San Francisco.

Chandor was struck by "a lot of the aural [experience], the claustrophobia that comes with such openness, all kind of stuck with me as a visual, cinematic, interesting thing."

He was reminded of that a decade later, while editing his first movie, the financial-disaster drama "Margin Call" (for which he received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay). On the train to Long Island from his family’s home in Providence, R.I., that winter, he saw sailboats dry-docked in Connecticut railyards.

Seeing boats that spend most of the year unused, he thought of their owners. So he created a character "who had this unused potential of adventure."

On the train, Chandor wrote a letter, written by this character at the end of the drama, that served as an apology to those he left back home.

"I didn’t quite know what the story was or how we got there," Chandor said, "but the movie would begin with this death letter."

In the next four or five months, Chandor wrote a 31-page screenplay — well short by Hollywood norms, which usually equate one script page to one minute of screen time.

The screenplay broke other rules. There were no flashbacks. There was no backstory. There were no other onscreen roles. And there was almost no dialogue, aside from that letter, which is delivered in voice-over at the beginning.

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