In the hours before their first live-action feature “Adrift” hit theaters, Aaron and Jordan Kandell were in good spirits at home in their native Hawaii. Any nerves the two screenwriters might’ve had about how the film might be received were likely calmed by having already spent the last five years imagining worst-case scenarios in recounting the true-life story of Tami Oldham Ashcraft, who defied death over the course of 41 days in the middle of the South Pacific while sailing with her husband Richard, pushed off-course during a trip from Tahiti to San Diego by Hurricane Raymond in 1983, which all but destroyed the couple’s yacht.
“Aloha,” the two said warmly, noting that over the phone it might be difficult to tell the identical twins apart.
“If you find yourself laughing, you can attribute that to Aaron,” says one Kandell, who is quickly interrupted by the other, who argues, “Those will be quotes from Jordan.”
Although the two may have trouble distinguishing themselves to strangers, they have had no such issues as artists, drawing on their island roots to not only lend such rich detail to films such as “Adrift” and “Moana,” on which they notched a “story by” credit, but also a romantic, lyrical sensibility to the stories they write for the screen, that would make them stand apart in the film industry even if they didn’t live an ocean away from its base of operations. After first making the Black List with “The Golden Record,” the story of Carl Sagan’s pursuit of the perfect 90 minutes to capture the sounds of earth to send out into the ethos, the Kandells have stormed into Hollywood with projects ranging from the Josh Gad comedy “Super-Normal” to a top-secret live-action project that will extend their relationship with Disney.
Yet the first two films that have been produced from Kandells’ work have shared themes that are close to home, literally and figuratively, for the brothers, who admit they “are probably more comfortable on water than on land,” or at least so says Aaron, and their gift has been giving audiences the sea legs to not only experience the awesome power of the ocean, but to leave theaters with an entirely different floating sensation. This is true even with the tragic circumstances of “Adrift,” which finds Tami (played by an indomitable Shailene Woodley) desperately trying to salvage the Mayaluga, the yacht she shares with Richard (Sam Claflin) after the category five hurricane has come and gone, leaving them stranded in the open water with no land in sight.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur, the daredevil behind other survival tales such as 2012’s “The Deep” and 2015’s “Everest,” the film is immediately arresting as a thrilling woman-against-nature tale, yet the Kandells, along with co-writer David Branson Smith, devise a clever narrative structure that suggests where Tami gets her super-human strength to subsist on little more than peanut butter and purified water — the cans of Spam and fish seem out of the question for the vegan — by toggling between her romance with Richard and actions under duress than neither she, nor the audience, may have thought her capable of. If nothing else, “Adrift” is enjoyable enough to spend time in the company of Woodley and Claflin, who are easy to fall in love with as their characters fall for each other, but the way in which the Kandells illustrate exactly how Tami uses her memories to endure proves exciting on its own.
While the film rides a wave of strong reviews and a respective box office bow, the brothers spoke about how they first became aware of Oldham Ashcroft’s story, how they embarked on screenwriting to begin with and protecting their work as writers by becoming producers on “Adrift.”
Was screenwriting a mutual career choice from the start?
Jordan Kandell: It was, like everything in our life. We have done and continue to do it all together, so the short and long story is we always were reading together. We were bookworms and we went to USC to major in creative writing and actually poetry specifically. But as we were writing, we realized it was the least collaborative form of writing that you could do. You’d write ‘Two roads diverge…’ and [then you’d ask] “God, what colored road is this?” And Aaron’s like, “Yellow, yellow!” And it’s like, “No, I think it should be auburn.” It doesn’t really work. So we knew we wanted to work together and we both wanted to write and then we were taking screenwriting classes. One weekend, we had an idea and we started to write it and six days later, we finished our first script and it clicked – our twin powers activated. [laughs]
Did you expect being from Hawaii would be such a professional asset?
Aaron Kandell: Not consciously, but we end up making movies revolving around or on the water in the ocean. For whatever reason, it seems to be something we keep choosing to write about and make films about. We grew up swimming, surfing, kayaking, paddling and basically anything you can do on the water, so it wasn’t necessarily our intention, but we tend to pick projects that move us or have characters or stories that we find mythic or primal, and those stories — “Moana” and “Adrift” — have been the two that have been made so far.
Jordan Kandell: I actually always set out [to be] the Christopher Walken of screenwriting, like if he’s going to have to do a dance in every role that he takes, like a little cameo two-step, we have to have a Hawaii reference, just a little easter egg that we put into every project that we do, so it’s a requirement.
How did Tami’s story come to your attention?
Aaron Kandell: One of the first stories we ever had in our minds was to do a modern retelling of Odysseus and King Aeolus. It was going to be a story about love and sailing and tragedy and loss, but it was a fictional story about twin brothers – I don’t know where we got that from. [laughs] We have a background in journalism, so we always like to take a deep research approach for authenticity to anything we’re telling, even if it’s fictional, and in doing that…
Jordan Kandell: …We found Tami’s story. We bought her book and read it overnight and had everything that we were wanting to tell in our made up story, but it was more incredible because it was true. On all the National Geographic lists and the Outdoor magazine lists of the top 10 survival stories of all time, she was the only woman on those lists and we just couldn’t believe there weren’t more stories like that. Having a daughter, I wanted to put that into the world and show them that these are stories that can represent you as well. So we quickly contacted Tami and that started the five-year journey for us.
What was it like to get to know Tami beyond her book?
Aaron Kandell: It was a lot of peanut butter. [laughs]
So that’s where that came from.
Aaron Kandell: Yeah, there’s a reason she survived because she’s one of the most inspiring and strong women we’ve ever met — and really having her be strong enough to be vulnerable and raw and go deeper into the emotional experience to recreate and relive the survival for us when we met her so that we could really understand it. She showed us her personal trove of the journal that she kept on the ship and the ship’s log at the time and her polaroid photos of her romance in the Markesian Islands with Richard.
Jordan Kandell: It was unbelievable to have her collaboration and her trust in us to tell her story. It made us more motivated to try to do it justice. Her book [“Red Sky in Mourning”], which was re-released [recently] is a day-by-day recounting of what she had to go through to survive – physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically – and to have her fill in the gaps with the actual ship’s log in her handwriting and tear stains and salt stains that you could hold in your hands and, to have the polaroids, to have her relive those moments in depth in interviews with us, you rarely get that rich of a resource in telling a true story. She just opened it all for us.
The structure of this is very clever, starting out just after the shipwreck and interweaving the survival with the romance, so you can see the mental strength Tami draws from her relationship with Richard by seeing their romance juxtaposed with their physical deterioration. How did you figure that out?
Aaron Kandell: Quite honestly, the inspiration for that is her book, intercutting her survival with her memories of the romance in Tahiti. When we started to shape it with her and talking about how we wanted to tell it, there were influences from movies that we loved growing up like “Two for the Road.” It was one of the most amazing survival stories that we’ve ever come across and also one of the most romantic, so [we were] trying to find an equal balance between those two different plots that would communicate to each other into a greater symphony at the end.
There are some jaw-dropping action scenes in this, but when you’re writing those scenes, were there practical or budgetary considerations you had to account for?
Jordan Kandell: It’s a question I could answer with our screenwriter hat on or with my producer hat on. My screenwriting answer is we just try to tell the most affecting, emotional, impactful version of the story possible and not let the practicalities and the budget and all those considerations [interfere]. That was part of the decision as well to not keep the entire story on the boat a la “All is Lost” or “Life of Pi,” but to take you to the land and to break away. There was a practical as well as a tonal choice there, but it’s easy as a writer to say, “And then they sail into the heart of a category five hurricane” – one line that takes us a second to write – and then the three weeks you spend shooting that with greenscreen and the months of visual effects to make it look real.
What was it like putting on the producer’s hat for the first time?
Aaron Kandell: For us, trying to bring Tami’s story from page to screen with as much integrity and authenticity as possible, we made a decision early on to try to ensure the quality control of authenticity from building it all the way through. This was a passion project for us that we found and believed in and we like to say nobody cares until you make them care. That’s the hardest part and that’s our job is to communicate our passion for a story to an audience member, whether that starts with an actress like Shailene Woodley or an incredible filmmaker like Baltasar Kormakur and then a studio like STX, who’s going to make it. Then, ultimately, it’s a greater, wider audience, but your audience starts small and builds. That’s the only way a movie gets made, so we were using that passion to continue [to push] through all stages of production.
I understand you guys go way back with Shailene…
Aaron Kandell: We do. We had the fortune of befriending her in Hawaii on the set of “The Descendants” and then I randomly, serendipitously was in Pittsburgh [because] my wife was getting her post-doctorate there, while Shailene was shooting “Faults in Our Stars,” so we were hanging out all the time. We really deepened our bond with outdoor adventures and kayaking on the Three Rivers of Pittsburgh, so it’s just been a natural evolution of seeing her blossom as an incredible actress and artist and also our own careers blossom in parallel and trying to find the right project where those would converge. [“Adrift”] felt like a really strong and good match for that.
Tami’s veganism stood out as something that might not be as strong if it wasn’t Shailene in the lead role – did you actually write with her in mind?
Jordan Kandell: Yeah, we found Tami’s story while Aaron was in Pittsburgh and when we met the real Tami, she in so many ways reminded us of the real-life Shailene in their adventurous spirit, their willingness to go out to explore a horizon that other people can’t see and their fearlessness and their courage and their desire to follow their passion no matter what other people think to see where it leads. They’re both Southern California girls and very kindred, earthy spirits, so we did write it with Shailene in mind and she was the first actress we sent it to when we finished the screenplay. We were fortunate that she agreed that the role fit her. Of course, in prep, we retooled things like vegetarianism/veganism to be truthful to both Tami and Shai.
What was it like seeing the finished film?
Jordan Kandell: A process. [laughs] A film, like a screenplay, is never truly finished until 7 pm tonight when it’s released into the world. We were still making changes on the film as late as last week, always trying to get it as good as you can — visual effects shots and things like that. You go through post and you’re reshaping the film. It’s just like another version of the writing stage, trying to find the best way to tell the story.
Was it informative to your approach going forward to see the back-end?
Jordan Kandell: It’s fantastic lesson to learn as a writer and really for us it was an extension and evolution from “Moana.” The Disney Animation and Pixar model really treats writers like TV showrunners in the animation field where they put you at the front of the train, so we’re in every editorial meeting, every ADR recording session, every story artist pitch meeting and review session, every meeting with the music team and Lin-Manuel Miranda. You’re really involved in all aspects of production, and with animation versus live-action [in “Adrift”], it completely changes and elevates your writing because you can see immediately on screen what works and what doesn’t. What you thought might land as a line that Ernest Hemingway might debate over for hours, you throw up and it feels artificial. That can be communicated by a look by an incredible actor and it’s better that way.
Just a silly final question — I’ve read when you were 23 you wrote out a mission statement…
Jordan Kandell: Wow. You pulled the Jerry Maguire card on us. Okay, we’re ready. I’m going to stretch for this one.
So let me just ask – have you accomplished most everything on it already?
Jordan Kandell: There were three things on our mission statement that were goals. This is true. One was to write a screenplay that we sold, two was to get a movie made and three — and really the important one — was to get a movie made that we were proud of. That third goal I can say has been achieved with the two movies we’ve been fortunate enough [to make] with the small miracle of getting [any] movie made. But it’s fortunately a goal that continues. Finding projects that we’re passionate about, that matter to us and thus hopefully to other people and then trying to tell them in the best way that we know how, that’s always going to be the goal of the projects that we choose and the projects that we try to make.