There are only three lines of dialog in All is Lost and two of them are monosyllabic.
Still, after the initial rush of doing a movie with Robert Redford abated, sound editor Brandon Proctor had the same reaction as his colleague, Steve Boeddeker:
How are we ever going to do this?
The script called for Redford’s character, Our Man, to be alone on a thirty-nine foot sailboat when it strikes a half-submerged shipping container. The rush of incoming seawater would short out his radio and he would be forced to fight a solitary struggle with survival without any link to the outside world.
It’s a drama, not a documentary, and J.C. Chandor, the director, was opposed to any narration or voice-overs. Somehow all the perilous circumstances had to be communicated through visuals and sound. Boeddeker and Proctor agreed informally to divide the work, with Boeddeker assuming primary responsibility for the sounds of the boat while Proctor would concentrate on the sounds made by its skipper. But they worked in the same building, only one floor apart, and would often view each other’s work, there was much overlap in assignments. They both leaned heavily on supervising sound editor Richard Hymns, an experienced sailor, to position the luffing sails and creaking shrouds in the right places.
None of those luffing, winching, hatch-opening sounds were available from the production tracks; they all had to be recreated later. Either there was no room to get a microphone in an advantageous position on the small boat, or the director was talking through the whole take. For one reason or another, the team at Skywalker Sound had to construct everything from scratch. They did just that, in one case ordering and shipping to the foley studio the exact model bosun’s chair used on the boat. Bit by bit the sound team assembled all the sounds of a boat in crisis.
It was part of Chandor’s overall plan for the film that audio would define the space and direct the attention of the audience. A coming storm is heard as an ominous rumble before the darkening clouds can be seen on the horizon. But it fell to Proctor and his associates to realize this goal in an effective manner. They worked to make distinctive sounds that would capture attention. They augmented the sound of the collision with the shipping container with the sound of nails scraping on glass to give it a scratchy feel that would suggest the disintegration of fiberglass. Throughout the film natural sounds were layered and enhanced for dramatic effect.
It’s a gripping story, well told in authentic locations, but the first pass was less than fully convincing. Something was missing; somehow Redford’s character was not fully present on that small boat. Proctor recognized what was missing; it was the sound of the skipper just being. One could hear him open cabinets or grunt when salvaging rations from the hold. But there was no sound of him just breathing or shifting weight with the roll of the hull. He brought in a “sound-alike” actor to remedy this and recorded hours of almost silent sound effects. When these sounds were introduced to the edit, the whole film came alive. Now the audience was present with Our Man for every challenge, sharing the experience.
This solution presented its own challenge. It was everyone’s hunch that Redford would not be comfortable being “looped” by someone else even if was just for breathing and grunting sounds. They scheduled a screening to show the progress of the work and Redford immediately apprehended the value of the intimate recording of his presence. He agreed to be available for an ADR session to duplicate the work with his own voice.
With only three lines of dialog, ADR should have been a cakewalk but, with the breathing effects, three days of studio work were necessary to fill out the sound for the movie. It was work that demanded that the 77-year-old star recreate the exertions of being in a boat upended in a storm but it yielded the authenticity that enables the audience to share the experience.