Neal Dodson: How to make a movie with Robert Redford

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This week, Paste will be running a three-part interview with producer Neal Dodson. Along with his producing partner J.C. Chandor, Dodson burst on the independent film scene in 2011 with the financial crisis drama Margin Call, starring Zach Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, and Demi Moore, among others. This month the duo premiere their second feature, All is Lost, starring Robert Redford and…no one else. A boat. The sky. Some waves. In this preview of the interview, Dodson describes how they landed Redford for what may prove to be one of the defining roles of his late career.

The project existed in J.C.’s head. He was in the middle of writing it and he hadn’t really cast it in his head yet. Which is odd because he tends to have actors in mind, even if they don’t end up being the actors that he gets.

He was thinking about it in the winter, right when we had finished Margin Call and hadn’t yet played Sundance. We got our Sundance call on Thanksgiving. He was thinking about it at Christmas and New Years. So we went off and we weren’t even the biggest success at Sundance by any stretch of the imagination. Marcy May Marlene and Like Crazy and a lot of other movies were certainly more talked about at Sundance than we were. And they’re certainly great movies. But we were sort of… I think it felt a little like “Maybe it was a Hollywood movie,” people were like “Oh they’re bringing in this big Hollywood movie,” but it was a tiny little movie; it just had a great cast!

When we got there, J.C. went to the filmmakers brunch that happens every year where they set the directors up. He was sitting in the very very back of the room eating some bagels or something, and Bob [Redford] was giving this whole speech to the filmmakers of that year, talking about the state of film and thanking them for bringing the movies that they made. It’s very inspiring and a famous part of the Sundance experience if you’re a director there, getting to hear Bob give you his two cents on the state of the film business and independent film and art. And right as he was sitting there, the speaker that was behind him went out, and then came back on as if someone had re-plugged it, or it had short circuited or something. So suddenly he hears Bob’s voice booming in his ear, and he’s looking up at him and thinks “Wow, what an amazing tool that voice is. This is one of the most iconic voices of all time. I wonder what it would do if you took that tool away from him. What would that do. What would it reveal? Or would it reveal anything at all?”

And so since he had this thing that he was working on that was dialogue-less, it suddenly sort of struck him that maybe this was the guy. He didn’t even really meet Bob until after Sundance that year. He basically saw him from afar. And kept writing. And then we went on our little journey to Berlin which was a month after Sundance. He pitched me and Zach Quinto, and our Foreign Sales Agent, this guy named Glen Basner who runs a company named FilmNation. He pitched the three of us on All Is Lost, and he told us the story and he had these napkins and he was drawing boats and shipping containers and waves and all these things on maps to show us how all these things sort of worked. He pitched us the whole movie and he said “And I think I want the guy to be an old guy.”

And he said to Glen, our sales guy, “Who does that need to be in order to make the movie? Here’s who I’m thinking of—Robert Redford.” Glen was like “Well, that could work.” And J.C. said “Ok! Let’s go after that. Maybe he would respond to this.”

So he finished the script which, by the way, was thirty-one pages long. A piece of prose. There’s a small piece of voice-over at the beginning of the movie and other than that it’s just descriptions of what happens with this guy.

It was written in Final Draft, but Final Draft always tries to correct your errors in formatting, so it was a nightmare with that because he’s writing in these long paragraphs. Final Draft hated it. The program was angry at J.C.

So he had this 30-page draft of this story. Like a short story. Which we sent off to Redford, to his production company and to his producing partner, Bill Holderman at Wildwood. We didn’t know, but we just said “Give it a read, we’d love Bob to do this movie with us.”

At that time we were calling him Mr. Redford. Until he instructed us not to ever again. But I believe Bill read it and interestingly enough Bob’s wife, Billie who is an amazing painter and a phenomenal champion of the film and champion of us which is awesome—the two of them fell in love with it and said “Bob, you really need to take a look at this. It’d be really interesting.”

Unbeknownst to us, he had really been looking to find a project to get away from directing, and directing himself, and a lot of the stuff he’d been spending the last 15 years doing, and get back to being just an actor. It was so bold and so stark and so rare to see a project like this that it really appealed to them and they thought it would to him, so he read it.

It’s a quick read, needless to say. He asked for a meeting with J.C. so he flew out to L.A. and met Bob, and they sat down and had a brief little conversation about how cool it was that Margin Call had come through Sundance and Bob loved Margin Call and loved the script and thought it was really bold, and that it was appealing to him. And J.C. had had this whole plan—you know, two hours worth of explaining how it would work, what was scary and “Well, maybe the guy could have some more backstory but I don’t think that’s the right thing,” assuming that Bob was going to have a lot of concerns. Because it’s all so bizarre, this story.

And at one point J.C. said “Do you have any concerns or questions?” And Bob said “No, I think this is exactly what I need to be doing right now and I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t a total crazy person and you’re obviously not, so—”

And he remembers Bob sort of slapping his leg, he said Bob slapped his leg and said Let’s do this.” And that was it.

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