Written by twin brothers, Jordan and Aaron Kandell (Moana), Adrift tells the amazing true story of Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claifin), two young lovers who set out on a journey across the ocean in 1983 and sailed directly into a Category 4 hurricane. In the aftermath of the storm, Tami awakens to find Richard badly injured and their boat in ruins. Stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no communication or navigation tools, Tami must find a way to save them both. According to Jordan, as soon as they discovered Tami’s story, they knew that it was one that needed to be told onscreen.
“We were doing journalistic research for an original survival sea story that we were prepping to write,” begins Jordan. “We have journalistic background and so we always try to [bring a]… sense of reality and authenticity, even if it’s a fictional story. So, I think in the first hour we came upon Tami’s book because it’s incredibly well known as one of the all-time great survival stories. But when you look at these vast geographic and other magazines had lists of 10 best new incredible survival stories, Tami’s was the only one that featured a woman! To us, we just couldn’t believe that. It said everything we wanted to say in our meetup story, which was going to be about twin brothers and loss. I don’t know why we had that idea (laughs). But it was a true story, it was a woman [who] survived incredible odds and it had an incredible love story on top of it. So, it just has everything and we just knew we had to tell it as soon as we read it.”
“The thing that’s most amazing to us about Tami is that she thinks anybody would have survived the same situation,” Aaron reflects. “She’s the kind of hero who doesn’t think she’s a hero and that’s what makes her more heroic. She just has this strength and this indomitable ability and this humility about her that makes her deeply inspiring [to us]. [It’s the kind of inspiration] where you go, ‘That’s the kind of person that, if I had to be stuck on a boat, I would hope I could be stuck with them’ because that’s the person that’s going to make it no matter what. I don’t think we could have survived that.”
While it’s always a challenge to bring reality to the big screen, it can be even more daunting to have those who lived through the story over-seeing the process. However, with Tami, the Kandells were amazed at her candidness and willingness to explore her past.
According to Jordan, “The most exciting part of the process was that, not only is Tami everything strong and fearless and humble that Aaron said, but she’s also incredibly warm, open, collaborative and willing to trust in us to tell her story. Then, she was willing to open up her polaroids and her ship’s blog and relive this harrowing journey in incredible, powerful detail in interviews with us over the five-year journey it took to make it. That’s just a blessing to have someone do that and, of course, it infuses us with even deeper desire to tell her story.”
Although Tami and Richard had only known each other a few months before their journey out to sea, there is little question of the impact and intensity of their romance. As she spoke to Jordan and Aaron about her experience, they too became convinced that their love provided her with a spiritual sense of strength.
“Tami has always described her relationship with Richard as true love, like a deep soul connection love,” Aaron responds. “To this day, I think she believes that, if he was still here, they would be together. In the movie, they got engaged and were planning to sail the world together and spend their lives together. She told us that she says in her book that she’s not sure exactly what got her through it. She went over the course of the 41-day harrowing journey in a lot of different questions and doubts. We have her ship’s blog where she’s writing things like, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ ‘Why me?’ ‘Am I being punished, God?’ It was a very Jobian thing that she would explore. She doesn’t know if it was a higher power, a guardian spirit or angel voice that spoke to her in her moment of dire need and kept her going and motivated her and kind of guided her but she what she ultimately arrived at—and believes—is that it was Richard’s love that got her through it… Her love for him was [the reason she survived and] what gave her the ultimate strength.”
One of the more compelling elements of the Kandells’ script is its interest in moving seamlessly between past and present. In doing so, the story juxtaposes love and survival in a fascinating ebb and flow. With this in mind, Jordan believes that the interplay between timelines stems from Tami’s book and gives the film an almost musical element.
“Honestly, the inspiration for that comes right out of adapting the book, which is Tami recounting her survival while also processing her emotions through memory of the cinematic lush romance with Richard…,” he muses. “There’s something really beautifully sonic about having these two different melodies that we interweave and create a more intricate harmony when brought together. That structurally and creatively was a challenge and an inspiration. It was also a way to honor what she told us [about how] love is what she believed got her through it. Then, the love story is as important and essential to understanding the survival story. Those two have to be communicating with each other.”
Of course, the Kandells’ are perhaps best known for their role in writing the script for Disney’s Moana. As their first major writing credit, it’s interesting that both stories centre around two adventurous women that strike out onto the ocean. In this case, however, Aaron contends that, while the comparisons are natural, they are not intentional.
“It’s one of those, ‘How did they happen? Is it a coincidence?’ As Tami says, ‘what it steers your path’. We actually found her story before Moana,” he explains. “We started writing the opening scenes of Adrift the day we got called and hired for Moana. We had to put Adrift on hold while we worked on Moana and then came back and started writing Adrift the day after we finished. So, the fact that they happen to be both stories about young women who kind of find their inner strength and power by sailing out to sea and getting into a storm and being mentored by older male mariners is a coincidence or something of the highest order.”
Interestingly, the open water is featured so predominantly in both films that it almost becomes a character unto itself, breathing life into the narrative. In light of this, the Kendalls believe that their interest in the ocean stems primarily from their upbringing on Hawaii, offering them a place of spiritual inspiration.
“I think for us, personally, nature and the ocean are respectful communion has always been our church and our spirituality,” Jordan insists. “It’s where we feel most comfortable. We are more comfortable on water than we are on land. It’s where we go to recharge and cleanse ourselves and find inspiration and creativity. Yeah. This is our fifth screenplay involving the ocean that we’ve actually written. I guess we feel a calling back towards it.”
“Is that the nature in you or is it nurture?,” offers Aaron. “We have salt water in our veins. Our parents threw us the ocean when we were six months old and that was every day for us. So, it’s certainly a function of both of those things. Being born and raised in Hawaii and living here still, there’s a value system to when you live on an island, (in Hawaii certainly, but I think about all island cultures around the world). There’s a respect for and a communion with the ocean because it surrounds you and has you in a blue embrace at all times. So, [you go] to that as your source for joy, for sports, or food. It’s something that a category five hurricane (for story plundering) is something that you can’t escape. We’re surrounded on all sides by it and it failed. Yeah. We ended up blending and diving into it as often as we can, as deeply as we can.”
Adrift is in theatres now.