A sinking ship rescued him. The first time director J.C. Chandor heard Robert Redford's voice in person, he knew the actor would be perfect for a film that had no dialogue. In 2011, Chandor was in Sundance for the premiere of his first film, 'Margin Call.' Redford came down from his mountain to give a motivational speech to the filmmakers. Chandor was standing in the back when technical difficulties began.
"Bob's voice started cutting in and out," Chandor recalls. "You'd hear that famous voice, and then you'd hear nothing. And I started thinking, ‘What would it be like if you made a movie where that voice doesn't say anything?' "
Chandor is the first Sundance filmmaker to ask Robert Redford to appear in one of his films. "I don't know if they were scared or what, but it started to bother me, and I wondered if I should have hurt feelings," jokes Redford.
Chandor broke the taboo. He sent Redford a bare 30-page script about a man sailing solo through the Indian Ocean whose boat is hit by a shipping container and who spends eight days trying to survive. Redford is notorious for punting projects down the road. ('A Walk in the Woods' has been on his plate for nearly a decade.) But shortly after he received the script, he and Chandor met in New York. Once Redford realized he wasn't crazy and could pull it off, he signed on, ceding all power to the then-37-year-old director – something a middle-aged Redford would have never done.
"The more time I spent with J.C., I saw that he had a vision I could give myself over to," says Redford, during his second Telluride talk. "I wouldn't have to double think or overanalyze."
The one unspoken wild card was whether Redford could pull off the physical part of the role. An avid skier and hiker, Redford is fitter than most 30-year-olds, but he was still 76. The plan was originally for Redford's face to be used for close-ups and a double to handle the tough stuff. Redford wouldn't have it. He'd done many of his own stunts throughout his career, and he didn't want to change now.
"As you get older, there's only so much you can do. So when we get to this thing, I'm sure it was a combination of ego and DNA saying, I can do it," he says.
Chandor was worried that the shoot might maim his star – the film eventually sank three boats off the coast of Baja – but learned Redford had significantly more energy and verve than your average AARP member.
"We'd have him in the water eight hours a day, and the next morning I'd get up and Bob would be in the hotel pool swimming," says Chandor. "I was like, ‘What the hell?' "
Chandor tried to put limits on Redford's adventures, knowing one wrong fall, one broken ankle would kill the film. But Redford didn't listen. There's a key scene where Redford jumps from his sinking boat to his raft, a distance of six feet with an eight-foot drop. Chandor expressly forbade Redford to do it, but next thing Chandor saw through his lenses was his star making the leap. Redford's daring was eventually taken for granted by the crew to the point where they were evacuating one of the sinking stunt ships and everyone was removed before Chandor and the crew realized Redford was still below. They almost lost their star.