The Heartfelt Story That Inspired a Film
Cast: Sam Claflin, Shailene Woodley, Jeffrey Thomas, Grace Palmer, Elizabeth Hawthorne
Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Synopsis: Starring Shailene Woodley (Fault in Our Stars, Divergent films) and Sam Claflin (Me Before You, The Hunger Games films), Adrift is based on the inspiring true story of two sailors who set out to journey across the ocean from Tahiti to San Diego.
Tami Oldham (Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Claflin) couldn't anticipate they would be sailing directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history. In the aftermath of the storm, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and their boat in ruins. With no hope for rescue, Tami must find the strength and determination to save herself and the only man she has ever loved. This film is the unforgettable story about the resilience of the human spirit and the transcendent power of love.
Adrift began with Tami Oldham Ashcraft's incredible true story of perseverance, grit, tragedy and, ultimately, the sustaining, healing power of love. She chronicled the harrowing events of her 41-day journey from shipwreck to safety in her book, 'Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss and Survival at Sea." The title is a rueful riff on the adage, 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning." But no mariner's lore could have prepared Tami or her fiancée, Richard, in 1983 for the hurricane that shifted course and bore down on their 44-foot sailboat.
Ashcraft wrote her book ten years after the accident with co-writer, Susea McGearhart, and it took her four years to complete it. Two of the book's many fans were twin brother screenwriters, Aaron and Jordan Kandell. They discovered it when researching another seafaring story idea, borne of their love of the ocean.
'We were born and raised in Hawaii and have always been very close to the water. We grew up surfing, kayaking, paddling and diving. The ocean has been integral to who we are. I had the good fortune to train on the Polynesian Voyaging Canoe Hokule'a and that was my introduction to sailing and it got me very interested in what it means to be out in the deep ocean, how that really cuts to the bone of who you are and how, in those extreme conditions, you discover what kind of a person you are," Aaron explains.
'We found Tami's story when we were writing a fictional film about survival at sea. We took a very journalistic approach to the research and very quickly came upon Tami's story," Jordan continues. 'We stayed up all night reading it. It is such a powerful, emotional story, we instantly knew we had to tell it. We realized her amazing true story was better than anything we could have invented. The very next day we reached out to Tami to try to connect with her, to hear first-hand from her and to seek out her collaboration and involvement."
The Kandells traveled to Ashcraft's home in the San Juan Islands and she shared her memories, journals and photographs, giving them a much deeper, more intimate and nuanced understanding of her love affair with Richard and her harrowing experience at sea. 'Tami is such an inspiring woman and an incredible storyteller. It was important to us to not only have her blessing, but to also work closely with her to represent her voice and story authentically." The Kandells set to work writing the script. But the day they started Adrift is the same day they got hired for a different, yet thematically similar seafaring story, 'Moana." Both Adrift and 'Moana" are films that follow a young woman who feels the calling of the sea and goes on an epic adventure with a more experienced sailor and gets caught in a storm.
The day they finished 'Moana," the Kandell brothers dove headfirst back into Adrift. After writing the first draft, they sent the screenplay to their friend, Shailene Woodley, who they always hoped would play Ashcraft. 'We've known Shailene since her role in -The Descendants,' which filmed in Hawaii. We were on set for much of it and befriended her. Then Aaron was fortunate enough to be in Pittsburgh the year she happened to be filming -The Fault in Our Stars' there," Jordan explains.
'Just a coincidence but that was also about the time we found Tami's story. So, while we were watching Shai come into her own and really blossom as this incredible actress, we were also developing this story. And so, we wrote it with her in mind. The second we met Tami, she reminded us so much of Shai," Aaron continues.
'Yes, in her strength, her free spirit, her willingness to lead a different kind of life that followed her own sort of horizon and her own path. So as soon as we finished, she was the first person we sent it to, hoping, praying it would resonate with her and, fortunately for us, it did," Jordan adds.
Release Date: June 28th, 2018
About The Production
Shailene's 'On Board"
In fact, Woodley did not respond immediately but for good reason: the actor/activist had been arrested on Indigenous People's Day for participating in a peaceful protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
'I got the script via email the day I was arrested and it got lost in my inbox. Then a month later, my agents called me and asked me if I knew Aaron and Jordan and I said, -Of course! They're my homies from Hawaii.' They told me they had written this hot script and sent it to me and asked me if I'd read it and that's when I realized I had completely missed it in my inbox!" Woodley recalls.
In the interim, filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur read the script and, like the Kandells, could only envision Shailene Woodley in the role of Tami Oldham Ashcraft and, with intention and hope that Woodley agree to star, Kormákur signed on as director/producer.
Many things about Ashcraft's experience appealed to Kormákur, chief among them, the opportunity to work with Woodley in telling this specific, female-driven story. 'I had never done a movie with a woman in the lead before and I liked the idea of a young, strong female who is the hero of the story and I thought Shailene was perfect for the role. And I also thought the love story was very powerful, especially the way it was told. I had been hoping to do dramatic romance and this one explored the intrinsic, sustaining force of true love in a unique way," Kormákur says.
By this time, Woodley had read the script and was all in. 'I was so captivated by it, by who Tami is and the love story. I really felt the energy of the divine soulmate connection between Tami and her fiancée, Richard," Woodley recalls.
Kormákur was uniquely qualified to direct Adrift. He is a world-class sailor and, with features like his Icelandic movie 'The Deep" and more recently 'Everest," he has some experience helming cinematic survival stories shot mostly in-camera. Like those two films, Adrift offered more than just a 'disaster movie."
'I like to sail and did it competitively when I was younger, so that drew me to the material. I liked the distinctive structure, how the past unfolds and affects the story in real time, the mirrored juxtaposition of a relationship in the best of times and the worst of times. I thought it was an interesting mix of genres – a good love story usually needs an obstacle and the accident at sea of course provides that. The element of being in this dangerous situation and the love that gets them through it, that was compelling to me," Kormákur explains.
Developing the Story
As the film approached production, Kormákur collaborated intimately with Woodley. 'She was very involved," Kormákur explains, 'we worked very closely together. I felt her feedback was critical. I knew she could play a strong woman with heart and depth. But, because it is a movie about a young woman and I'm a man, a dinosaur - that's probably the right word now - I thought it was important to have the support and participation of someone who has a better knowledge and understanding of what it is to be a 23-year-old woman."
'Balt is one of the most collaborative people I have ever worked with," Woodley remarks. 'He has a strong point of view and he will fight for what he believes in, but he will also respect your choices and wants your input. To have someone like that at the helm, who welcomes everyone's opinion, is a gift. The script was great, but he wanted me to bring my perspective to the part. He really solicited my viewpoint and heard me. I was most keen to ensure that we took care of and honored Tami's real story. The story was so rich and had so much depth to its truth, I wanted to make sure we were honestly depicting what happened. He felt exactly the same way. I am so grateful to him for that," Woodley explains.
To that end, screenwriter David Branson Smith ('Ingrid Goes West") joined the team, further honing the screenplay to delve deeper into Ashcraft's story, reflecting Woodley's contributions and her discussions with Kormákur.
Ashcraft's charismatic beau, Richard, is the reason for the ill-fated sailing trip and, arguably, Ashcraft persevered because of her love for him. They had a powerful bond, almost from the beginning. In her book she writes of their first meeting: 'I thought I'd keel over. Blood rushed to my cheeks. Oh, not this revealing blush again, I thought. But there was nothing I could do to stop it … He was definitely affecting me in a way no man had ever before."
'I studied Richard quite a bit," Kormákur recalls. 'The Kandells conducted some deeply insightful interviews with a friend of his that weren't connected to the book or this incident, which helped me understand the kind of person he was. He had a quiet strength and magnetism, but he was also meticulous, a gentleman, sensitive, soft spoken, more worldly. He was not a risk taker, he was a planner, a navigator and she was more daring than he was. I liked the energy between them – they were very different but played well together. When we began to consider Sam for the part, he was working in Tasmania, so our first contact was on the phone, and I felt like I was talking to Richard. He was totally right for the role."
Woodley and Claflin rehearsed together for two weeks in Fiji prior to principal photography which cemented their bond.
'It was so helpful. We immediately felt a fondness for each other and then a relatability. We really just clicked. It was great to get to know him outside the work environment, to go over the script. Working with Balt, we went through every single scene to make sure the characters developed the way we all saw them. There was a truthfulness to our relationship that resulted, hopefully a chemistry, based on how we experienced the characters before we even got on the boat," Woodley recalls.
She adds, 'Sam Claflin is the best. He is hands down, the hardest-working, most generous, compassionate, kind, loving, enthusiastic, beautiful individual that I have ever worked with, male or female. The elements that we were working in were not easy, shooting on a boat in open water for 14 hours. Never once did he complain. Never once did that man get tired. Not only is he incredibly professional, but so creative and so fun to be around."
The romance between Richard and Tami initially attracted Claflin to the project and became his touchstone throughout filming. 'I always approach the script from the character I would be playing, but what was amazing about this was that I began to read it through Tami's eyes too, their connection was that intense. I really fell in love with them and rooted for them. After doing more research on them, the story became even more compelling to me. And of course, I knew it would be easy to fall in love with Shailene, and it was." Claflin says.
Filming & Floating: Pushing the Limits
Kormákur, an avid outdoorsman, approached the filmmaking with his usual Herzogian gusto. To underscore the dire circumstances the couple faced, Kormákur was determined to film as much in camera as possible – meaning, on a sailboat in the ocean - but he never asked his stars to do anything he wouldn't attempt himself, an attribute Claflin particularly appreciated. 'Baltasar is a Viking. Literally. He is the man you want at the helm of a movie,
especially one like this. He is so passionate about Mother Nature; he was really in his element. That's why I think -Everest' was such a wonderful film because he had those actors practically living the experience. It was amazing and powerful for Shailene and I to be doing our own sailing, he really wanted us to know what we were doing, not pretending. He's really a force of nature himself, who not only wanted us to experience everything, but he wanted to be there experiencing it with us too. He's so resilient and so patient and he made it look so easy that he made me more determined to do it too. He really knew what he wanted but also made space for our contributions. He also wasn't afraid to push us to our limit – cast and crew – because he knew we could. Everyone was on their -A' game because of him," Claflin recalls.
Throughout much of the movie, Woodley's character, Tami, an expert sailor, tries to pilot the damaged boat to safety, even as she is severely wounded. Woodley trained in advance of principal photography to perfect her nautical skills.
'I am a swimmer and water is something I am extremely passionate about and very connected to. I had a lot of practice with water but nothing with sailing. I spent about a month before production in Hawaii learning how to sail on all different types of boats. When I got to Fiji, I sailed for about another month before production began."
Mastering Tami's seafaring prowess was only a portion of Woodley's preparation.
Ashcraft herself served as Woodley and Kormákur's North Star. 'Her book was the ultimate guide. I read it a couple times. I really wanted to understand her perspective and psyche and the book helped immensely. It became our outline during production – every day when we were about to do a scene, I would check the book alongside the script. We would reference the scene to the book to make sure we were being as truthful as possible," Woodley recalls.
The Real Tami
About midway into production, Tami herself visited set. 'It was amazing to meet her finally but also, I was hyper-aware of how emotional this experience must be for her, the trauma of being stuck out at sea. She's such a profound, strong individual who truly seemed to embrace this film. My prayer is that she has found healing as well through this experience," Woodley recalls.
'One of the first things she said to me was, -You remind me of him so much,' which was really a special moment for me," notes Claflin. 'Having her seal of approval was so important."
'To have her around and her embrace of the movie was humbling," Kormákur adds. 'It was a delicate emotional balance on so many levels – we're not making a documentary, we're making a film, but we're all human beings. We tried to strike the right balance and everyone, cast and crew, felt that she deserved our best effort. She is a wonderful person and we were honored that she wanted to be a part of it. I really hope she will be pleased."
'There's a concept in Hawaii called pono, which is righteousness, and that applies so much to Tami. We felt so fortunate to be the vessels through which to tell her story to the world. To get her blessing meant everything," says Jordan Kandell.
Ashcraft describes the process of having a movie made about this life changing experience as 'emotional and surreal," but ultimately gratifying.
'It was a dream come true, to see all the hard work and dedication and care everyone had. Their real dedication to telling my story. It was so wonderful when Shailene raised her hand and said she would do the film; she was just perfect and so thoughtful and generous of spirit to me. And then when Sam came aboard, he was just great. It's uncanny how much he looks like Richard and he had that charismatic way about him that Richard had. I think the universe sent us Sam to play Richard. I stayed in contact with the Kandells on and off for five years as they worked on the script. Baltasar was the only guy for this, not only because of his background as both a sailor and a filmmaker, but also because he is a kind, accommodating, gracious human being. When I came to set and saw Shailene and the wrecked Hazana boat, it was an out of body experience. It just hit my heart. The experience at the time made me understand that I had a wellspring of inner strength and a fortitude, a will to live that I hadn't recognized before. But seeing everything again also underscored how lucky I really was to survive."
Nature vs. Film: Capturing an Authentic Story
Adrift filmed for 49 days, primarily on location in Fiji, with a few weeks on stage in New Zealand. The bulk of principal photography happened on open water in Fiji.
'I do feel there is a real value in actually experiencing these kind of true life, man vs. nature stories. Or in this case, woman vs. nature. I think that kind of authenticity translates for the audience and certainly helps everyone, cast and crew, relate to the story, the emotions. Being out on a boat in this vast ocean as the waves are hitting, for 12-14 hours a day, you just can't fake it. It does give a sense of what it must have been like for Tami and Richard. Especially for the actors, it strips them down to the essentials. So I try to do as much as is safe in the elements," Kormákur says. Kormákur had a head start in that he is a skilled sailor, comfortable in the water as only a person from an island country can be.
Also unfazed by the ocean rigors was renowned cinematographer Robert Richardson, whom Kormákur considers a kindred spirit on every level. 'I was thrilled when he indicated his interest in shooting Adrift. And he really pushed himself – and me – in the best way. He did everything he could to get me out in the water on a regular basis, which of course I loved. It's completely selfishness on my part – I want to live my life to the fullest, I don't want to just sit and watch it at video village – and he was the same. I've probably never shot with anyone that close to my own ethos. He was a challenge and a total pleasure," Kormákur says.
Part of the challenge of shooting on the water is that traditional filmmaking techniques are not always the most effective, which meant that Kormákur and Richardson had to be flexible and inventive.
'Yeah, I can't tell you how much camera equipment we lost," Kormákur jokes.
'Truthfully, one of the best shots was done boat to boat. We did manage to sail a Technocrane out there, but one day it just broke down. It's not like we could re-set with another one in the middle of the sea. So Bob said, -Let's just shoot it, the waves are great,' and he went handheld and sat on the prow of the boat and filmed it. He's a passionate filmmaker and highly collaborative and literally put himself out there, hanging off of boats and always upgrading the shot," Kormákur says.
Kormákur and Woodley matched Richardson's commitment to the 'Outward Bound" adventure of Adrift, as exemplified by a river gorge location, a cliff jump, and the undeniable influence of nature on filming.
'You have your ideas, you can storyboard all you want but, in the end, you have to let nature dictate the filming… and usually something interesting happens. There was a day we had planned to shoot an important part of the love story where Shailene jumps off a cliff into the river. We had scouted the perfect location and done all this planning but the water level changes all the time and as we neared the shooting day, it was clear that it would be too shallow. So we found another place. The stunt team thought it would be safe but it was a little harder to get there," Kormákur recalls.
'A little harder to get there" is a massive understatement as Woodley explains. 'To get to the location, there was a 25-minute hike and then we had to white-water raft down a river, the entire crew, with hard hats. It looked like we were on a vacation with family except that the crew also had to bring bags and bags of gear. We had a safety meeting that went something like this: -Once you hit this boulder, if you flip over, this is how you float down the river until we can come rescue you.' It's like what people pay to go do on a weekend. And then we got there and they had to build a crane to shoot the scene. We waited on a sandbank, staring at these whitewater rapids and these magical canyons. Eventually we continued down the river and got to this peak where we cliff dove and shot the scene. I recall changing atop one of the boulders while our epic costume department held towels up…this day was about as roots as it gets." To get home, at the end of the night, our unparalleled stunt team strung these ropes along the rapids for the whole crew to hold onto as we walked up the river. It felt like some sort of obstacle course…the most beautiful, exhilarating adventure," Woodley explains.
Magical Moments on Location
And then there was the exhilarating jump from the cliff to the river itself. The scene illustrates Tami and Richard's bond - their different personalities – as he is reluctant while she is all in and convinces him to leap into the water with her. Guided by the stunt team, Woodley, Claflin and Kormákur (and even some of the crew) made the leap.
'It was an incredible day and at the end of it, we did these amazing cliff jumps, three or four times. The whole crew got involved. It doesn't get any better than that. That's the beauty of working with Balt – as much was done in the real environment as possible," Claflin says.
Nature constantly contributed to the filming experience of Adrift in surprising and disarming ways. Says Woodley, 'I have so many favorite moments, it's impossible to pick just one. Another magical day, we were out on the boat, filming. A pod of what seemed like hundreds of dolphins surrounded our boat and stayed nearby for quite a while. That was so profound and so beautiful, one could say even, spiritual. One day, we got to go on this amazing hike on this remote island. We had the most insane views of the ocean and the sea. The whole thing every day, honestly, was a different type of treasure - even the days that we were miserably seasick."
Woodley also developed a genuine affection for Fiji and its people. 'I feel blessed to have gotten to know the Fijian culture, the Fijian community, and I hold much respect for them. Community and family and friends are the basis of their entire culture, from my experience. The way they really prioritize their shared values and society is extremely special. The place, of course, is stunning and we were privileged to visit different remote areas. But to me the real gift was their sincere kindness, their desire to help us get to know them, to show us around." Woodley notes.
Filming in Fiji: A Collaborative Effort
The Fijians, of course, are experienced sailors, which was a boon to Adrift. Because of the nautical requirements, the production included a special 'marine coordinator" in the person of Neil Andrea who performed similar duties on 'Dunkirk" and 'Kong: Skull Island," to name a few. On a daily basis, Andrea organized the logistics of filming in open water which relied heavily on a ragtag but effective armada.
'We call this analog filmmaking, where it is actually practical boat use. A typical day would begin by mobilizing the entire crew, everything from craft service to the camera department needed to be transported to particular vessels, set up and ready to go by shooting call.
For Adrift, we used a host of local boats to transport gear and personnel. It was a mixture of rigid inflatable boats, long boats, pangas skiffs and hard sided aluminum boats. We also used local Fijian crew and captains as well as vessels. There was definitely an advantage to that because of their experience and knowledge of the location – it wasn't an area well-traveled by commercial boats, there were reefs and other obstacles that they were very familiar with, all of which was especially helpful to us," marine coordinator Andrea relates.
Choreographing the daily shooting regimen involved a complicated dance of ferrying personnel to and fro, allowing the crew to be near enough to do their jobs and to come to the hero boat quickly if necessary, but to be far enough so that Richardson's camera could capture the vast expanse of the sea without the support flotilla hindering the shot. Plus, Adrift was never meant to be a halcyon boating excursion.
'Our director, Baltasar, is well known for making movies in extreme conditions, obviously -Everest' and his Icelandic movie -The Deep.' In Adrift, while parts of Tami and Richard's sail were beautiful, the movie revolves around a hurricane, which we tried to recreate in open water. We weren't recreating a perfect day at the beach; we were depicting an event that went terribly wrong so we really needed to push the limits of heavy seas, weather and the environment. There's a fine line between telling the story as accurately as possible and keeping everyone safe and we managed to do both," Andrea says.
Of course, some of the hurricane scenes and the aftermath were too dangerous to achieve in open water and those shots occurred on stages in New Zealand, later to be enhanced by visual effects supervisor Dadi Einarsson and his team at RVX Studios in Iceland. One of the biggest stars in the movie, the doomed sailboat Hazana, appeared in both Fiji and New Zealand. Executive producer, Ralph Winter, explains the task of recreating a series of camera-friendly replicas.
'We purchased a boat for the Hazana that was a little bigger than the real one – that gave us more room to move the camera. More real estate to stage scenes and set everything up. But the bad news was we couldn't find a second boat just like it. So we cobbled together different versions. We made one in wrecked condition that could look like it was taking on water and would function to a minimum extent on the open sea. And then we built an interior that would also take on water - we used that in New Zealand where we built an exterior tank," he explains.
'So we had to adapt these things so that they would work on the open water or work on an existing exterior tank. We wanted to see that floor listing, to see gravity, the water inside the hull, so either in Fiji or New Zealand, a constant for us on this picture was being wet. We were either sloshed around in open water or being soaked on a back lot."
Recreating the Storm
To mimic the roiling sea and punishing force of the hurricane, the crew mounted the various Hazana iterations on a high-tech gimbal against green screen – ironically, the worst of the storm was also the driest, in terms of the shooting schedule.
'For the really dramatic, violent moments, we took the Hazana and put it on a motioncontrolled base that allowed us to do repeatable moves on several axes to simulate the extreme conditions of the storm that we could not have done on the open water. That was all done on the backlot, dry for wet … well, relatively dry," Winter explains.
Einarsson took that footage and added the devastating hurricane, in the computergenerated environment. 'We had a mixed bag of responsibilities, from Manta Rays and other creatures to matching skies so the continuity is correct. Our major mission was to create the storm sequence and a fully computer-generated ocean. It's a pivotal moment in the film, obviously. We started with a low-resolution version of an ocean and a yacht. We could play with angles and previsualize what the sequence could be but ultimately that becomes a collaboration between visual effects, Baltasar and Bob Richardson," Einarsson says.
Einarsson has collaborated with Kormákur since 2010 and the two share an easy shorthand. 'The thing about shooting as much as possible in the real environment is that it brings a layer of reality also for the visual effects – the hope is that Dadi and his team had a baseline which they could augment but it was always tethered to the real world," Kormákur says.
Release Date: June 28th, 2018