“That literally is his hair, it’s gotten redder. One of our tanks was so chlorinated, if it was a dye job, it would have stripped it in a day,” is one of the many frank revelations made by J C Chandor, the director tasked with steering Robert Redford through 106 minutes of screen time, alone, in the sea, saying barely a word, as he braves the elements lashing his boat to pieces. It’s a performance that will surely feature on all the shortlists come Awards Season, and has already been nominated for a Golden Globe.

robert redford

The unforgiving camera of 'All is Lost', in UK cinemas from today, stays fixed throughout on Redford, capturing every wrinkle, every sunspot, on the face of one of the century’s great screen beauties – surely an actor to be permitted the same vanity as the rest of us? Apparently not…

“He looks much better than that in real life,” assures Chandor. “I was unforgiving on purpose. I could have lit him to be beautiful, but this is meant to be an older guy, I told him I didn’t want him looking 65, I wanted 78, and a real 78, not Robert Redford’s version.

“He could not be less vain when you meet him, and I told him I wanted that same guy on screen. So he’d walk up and go, ‘Action,’ and we’d think, ‘This is the guy we always thought was so vain?’

“He knew what he wanted to do, he just didn’t want to see it, so he never looked at a monitor, didn’t even walk by them.”

robert redford

This starts to sound like a project that would send chills down the spines of half of Hollywood, and that’s before you add the prospect of spending nine weeks on your own in water – “some weeks we’d have a 3-day weekend, just to give him a break,” says Chandor reassuringly. So why did Chandor home in on Redford, and why – WHY? – did he get the nod?

“I wrote the film in a vacuum,” the director explains. “I was lonely because my family were living away while I was working, the letter (which starts the film) was the first thing I wrote, and it was the letter I hoped would never be written, the sadness of lack of fulfilment. I’d had great success coming out of university as a director, and then I fell into days, weeks, months, years, professionally, where my life was sifting through the hourglass without much concern, and there was a sadness to that when you think that you were destined for something else, and you see it not happening. I had a child, responsibilities, so I had to go get a real job, so it was the letter you hoped you would never write… those roads not taken, if you’d just taken the smooth path. It’s the exact opposite of Robert Redford’s path, and he knew that.”

Chandor remembers attending a talk given by Redford at his beloved Sundance Festival, where his voice disappeared off microphone for three or four minutes, before returning.

“And then it came back in, like the voice of God, and there was something about that moment,” the director remembers. “I realised, without the amplification, he’s just a guy.” The character in the film has no back story on which the audience can feed, and he’s credited only as Our Man, something Chandor admits "was frustrating, but essential".

robert redford

Ok, but why did Redford, who need never prove himself on celluloid again, feel the need to put himself through such a project?

“I wish it was my persuasive powers,” laughs Chandor, “but the script – all 31 pages of it – is the answer.

“He had just directed himself in a film, as well as acting for the first time in 10 years, and he embraced not worrying about schedule. He would walk in, and he’d do it, and he’d aimlessly walk off and read the New York Times and relax… not relax, because he was having the shit kicked out of him, but not care so much. He took to that.

“He loved that it was forcing him to just act. He wasn’t going to direct, be the guy, he knew that it was going to be intense, and it was.

“He has something to prove to himself, and always has. From the age of 27 or so, when he had his first hit on Broadway, he has always been given the choice of a smooth, beautiful highway and a bumpy dirt road, and he has always gone left. He told me he’s had family members telling him sometimes, ‘You’re just doing this because it’s harder.’”

'All is Lost' is in UK cinemas from today, 26 December. Watch the trailer below...