All Is Lost, which chronicles the harrowing fight for survival of a veteran mariner left adrift after his vessel collides with a stray shipping container, rode what is for a Hollywood film, a distinctively simple premise to extraordinary acclaim. The screenplay for All Is Lost, written by Oscar nominee J.C. Chandor, remains one of the shortest ever sold, at just 32 pages. Light on dialogue and heavy on physical action, let’s see how Chandor’s minimalist approach was realised in his script.
Much is made of the sounds and atmosphere that the protagonist, referred to as OUR MAN, experiences around him (key to placing audience members into the subjective shoes of a man paying attention to every trickle, creak, rumbling cloud and deafening silence that stands to threaten his security). The practical actions of OUR MAN, who is a capable and informed mariner, are laid out in detail on the page, so that their precise and extended nature become involving once filmed. This importance placed on the
steps taken by OUR MAN emphasizes the realism at play, and piques our curiosity. What is written on the page as an action can be communicated in as few as 5 words, but which becomes a prolonged portion of screen time.
There are few lines in the film, but the opening narration in flash forward is essential to setting up both the character’s fate and his manner (being steadfast and resolute even in the face of death). All Is Lost is an intensely subjective film with its focus on a singular character, so we must identify with them implicitly. Much of the script is simply describing what occupies OUR MAN’s field of vision. We are privy to precious little outside of what he is privy to, so we begin to share his though process (we guess
and think of solutions in real-time with him).
The script highlights which Day the scene takes place on, to keep its progress clear and communicate how far along our character is in his mounting desperation.
Implicit language suggests time-skipping actions, without directly calling for a montage, for instance:
A FULL DAY OF:
Fiberglassing… he almost falls over the edge.
The drawn out nature of the sequence is suggested by the descending typography, and this montage takes up far more space in the final screen time than it does in the scripts word count. Typically you’ll want to avoid writing specific filmmaking techniques into scripts you intend to sell for others to adapt to the screen, and it’s recommended that you entirely avoid describing non-audio-visual phenomenon like thoughts or emotions not betrayed by an outward reaction (i.e. ‘He smiles’ is fine, but ‘He smiles,
knowing this was the best night of sleep he’s had in ages’ is not). This information should be communicable on screen without the aid of the script, but a largely non-verbal film, the performer taking on the role of OUR MAN can make use of the script as a compass the character’s thoughts and emotional state, heightening their performance even as they remain stoic.
It’s a task star Robert Redford was truly up for, and with the symbioses of Chandor as both writer and director, All Is Lost pulled off a truly unconventionally written work.