Even filmmaker Stephen Gaghan will admit it’s been far too long since he’s had a movie in theaters with the Oscar-nominated political thriller Syriana. It got him his second Oscar nomination after winning an Oscar for writing Stephen Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic a few years earlier.
He’s finally back with Gold, a movie loosely based on the real-life Bre-X gold scandal with Matthew McConaughey playing Kenny Wells, a man struggling to keep his father’s mining business alive after his passing. A vision of there being gold in Indonesia, puts him in contact with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) who believes that he can help Wells find that gold. After a trying start where Kenny almost succumbs to malaria, Acosta finds evidence of gold, which gets many investing in their company, but as with the Bre-X scandal, things weren’t what they seemed.
Unlike Syriana and Traffic, there’s a lot more humor in Gold, mainly from McConaughey’s performance, which had him putting on weight and showing off a bald pate. The story is loosely based on a financial scandal that not many Americans know about, and Gaghan handles the material in a far lighter way than his earlier films, including a soundtrack of some of the coolest alt-rock from the ‘80s. (It’s more in the vein of 2015’s The Big Short where you can learn a lot about the mining business and how that market works.)
LRM sat down with Gaghan at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City for the following interview, which includes a few horror stories about getting other movies made and how this one came together, including an original song called “Gold” by Iggy Pop.
LRM: It’s been a while since “Syriana” and I know you were doing some stuff for TV, but I was surprised to see you directing someone else’s script, since I felt you established yourself as a writer/director. Was this script too good to pass up?
Stephen Gaghan: Yes, It was a really good script. You know, it's funny the way life works is interesting. I had never considered directing anybody else's script ever. Not once. And I had never even developed a script with anybody else. I had never even taken the time to have somebody write a script for me about anything, and so, it wasn't in my radar.
I was trying to make my movie Candy Store and it had gotten really close. It’s an original script I wrote with my friend Shannon Burke. We’re going to make it at some point but I had actors in out, in out, and the budget had fallen to a place where you know I thought, “I'll make this movie no matter what”. And I really looked at it and I was like, “I can't do this movie properly and this budget. I can't make a New York movie in New Orleans. I just had to be honest with myself. It was really hard cause I had a greenlit movie, and everybody was going. They literally had an airline ticket for me and they were like, “We want you to go. We want you on the plane to New Orleans on Sunday,” and this was Friday.
And I was just thinking. You know it was just this weird moment, and my agent--I have a wonderful agent named Brian Kend at CAA--a young guy, really talented agent--and I was just getting to know him. He called me up and says, “Steve, I have a script I think you may really like.” And I was like, “Really, for what?” And he goes, “To direct. I want you to read it.” I go, “Okay send it over,” and he sent it.
I had almost made a movie with Matthew McConaughey at Warner Brothers. We had a movie that I had written with a guy named Patrick Keefe from the New Yorker called City of Snow, and Matthew had been interested in it. It had some traction at one point, and I had spent a little time with him and I really like him and so when Gold arrived, it had Matthew attached, and so, I knew him and I knew his voice. I'm reading it and I'm hearing him doing the lines in the movie, and I got to page five or six and I actually just knew I wanted to do it. Takes me maybe ten minutes to read five or six pages, so, twelve minutes earlier I had never considered directing anybody else's script ever in my whole life. Ten minutes later, I picked up the phone and I called Kend and said I want to do this movie. He said, "I really think you should finish the script." I'm like, “How do you know I haven't finished it already?” I'm a fast reader. He goes, “Read the script,” and so I read the whole thing, and said, “Yeah I want to make it. I'll do it. I'm in.” He said, “Well you gotta meet with Michael Nozik,” and Michael Nozik had been involved with Syriana. I actually brought him on Syriana very late in the process to come and help. I like him a lot and Teddy Schwarzman, and Teddy's company Black Bear.
I went and had a meeting with Teddy and Michael. I just said, “This is a really good script. This is a great character. This is perfect for Matthew. Here's how I want to shoot it. You know I want this movie to be entertaining as hell. I don't think it's an issues movie. I think that any of the power of commentary should be done in a fable-like way not in a verité way. The story I think lends itself to the classic epic Hollywood filmmaking, not the hand eld language of we're cracking a story here.” So very different then Syriana in a way, which was very naturalistic, and I felt like this really shouldn't be naturalistic because the movie was essentially told by Kenny Wells. So you are watching a movie being told by a character.
So this is all I was saying in that first meeting; these were like the basic insights I had. So I was just ready to go. Like I said, it happened all at once, and it was a testament to the writing of (Patrick) Massett and (John) Zinman and their ability to create this great voice, because I read it and… look, there's always things to do to a script. A script is never done, but I was like “This guy is like Willy Loman. His voice is like Willy Loman. His voice is as good as Willy Loman, the milieu they created in Reno, Nevada is as good as Willy Loman.” Look, I know Arthur Miller really well, and all respect to Arthur Miller--he is one of my favorite playwrights. Massett and Zinman wrote a character in a setting that was honoring the work of Arthur Miller. It was really strong, and I was excited about it. Sure, I was the 45th director they went to, but I had a really clear vision for it, and I wanted to do it. At that point I didn't want to do anything else, so I stopped thinking about everything else. I didn't get on the plane on Sunday to New Orleans, and I went to make Gold.
LRM: And you got the movie done. That's always the thing. When you manage to finish a movie and it has a release date, that’s always like a miracle in Hollywood.
Gaghan: Trust me. Even having Teddy's strength and resources and Michael's passion and the great script and Matthew McConaughey, there were still ten reversals getting this baby to the altar. There’s just a lot of challenges to make any adult movie with a budget that will allow you to go to Indonesia or go to Thailand for Indonesia. It's amazing they get made. It's kind of a miracle.
LRM: I would think that would be one of the more daunting facts, all the locations. Was it actually shot here in the Waldorf?
LRM: Okay. If you’re going to come here to New York City and include the Waldorf, you can't fake that, like you said.
Gaghan: No, it's like right there.
LRM: When you are reading the script and realizing that. What's going through your mind as far as ... were the Weinsteins or Dimension involved at that point at all? This was like being done independently too, right?
Gaghan: Yeah, it's and independent movie by Black Bear Pictures, Teddy Schwarzman. Teddy is an amazing guy. He's a very interesting person. Very smart. Very strong. Real filmmaker. He like a filmmaking producer. He's a creative producer. The best aspects of them. Automatically, I knew we would probably have to shoot fast to get the locations. Like to be able to go to real jungle, real New York. You know you're going to be juggling it with how many days you get, because every day has a certain cost, and there is a real appetite on the part of the producers to go out and capture the world. In that first meeting, we talked about that. I know they had talked to some directors who really wanted to make it, but they won't go to the jungle. I just refuse to do that.
LRM: Seeing the scenes you shot there, I imagine some actors would have problems, too.
Gaghan: And I know some other directors they talked to that just refused to go on helicopters, and helicopters are scary. I was thinking about that, as a matter of fact, when (cinematographer) Robert Elswit and I were flying around in a helicopter in a storm going over those little mountains in Thailand, getting buffeted and the helicopter is flying 75 feet to the left, and I'm like, “Man, maybe that guy was right. God, I hope we get out of here.” But Elswit’s fearless…
LRM: I don't know if Robert Elswit has ever thought about it, but he has to write a book. I think he has at least one of those in him.
Gaghan: Oh my God. He's got ten. He did Syriana obviously and did all the great Paul Thomas Anderson movies but I couldn't have made the movie without him. He's just incredibly strong and indefatigable, an artist of the highest level. So sort of from the get-go they sat down with me and they were like, “Okay this guy likes the adventure. Wants to go and do it. Wants to go out in the world. Engage with the world.” And then I moved the time period even further back into the 80's and suddenly we were really dealing with a super period movie. And everybody went with it. People were happy with it.
LRM: Was it Matthew's idea to go for that look? Was Kenny Wells based on anyone particular from the scandal?
Gaghan: If you ever see a picture of Matthews's dad…You know, It's interesting. Kenny has some similarities to Matthew's father, and I think he has some similarities to Matthews brother, with Matthew's own incredible spin on it. But Matthew had very clear ideas about how he wanted to look, and how he wanted the character to feel, and they were, I thought, exactly right. He wanted him to be larger than life. He wanted him to have huge appetites. Huge heart. Be flawed in that anybody swinging for the fences is going to leave some wreckage.
And so, for my very first conversation with him when he actually portrayed the character, we were getting together to talk about the script months and months and months before we started shooting. He turned away and he turned back and he had been fully inhabited by this guy, so, he hadn't gained one pound at that point. His hair was his normal hair and suddenly he turned into this person. Just like you are sitting across from me. 100%. Body language, posture, weight, tiredness, voice. Everything. And I just looked at it and I started writing it down. He was improvising and I was writing it down, and all the stuff he said in that first meeting that just popped out of him like in an inhabitation of the script.
I actually snuck away and went to the bathroom and I texted my wife. I said, “This is so much better than you could imagine. This is like watching a real artist be an artist.” And I sort of felt like my job was going to be the sort of care and tending of this thing, and to make sure that the full power of it got to the screen the best I could.
LRM: Did you know anything about the Bre-X scandal beforehand? Did you feel like you had to do a lot of research into it or was it fairly well handled in that first script?
Gaghan: I never heard of it. I know it's a big deal in Canada. It was like Bernie Madoff or bigger, but I purposefully wasn't interested in telling the specific story of anything. Like I said, I wanted it to be a fable of capitalism, a fairy tale. I didn't want it to be a literal interpretation of something. It didn't feel like it served my interest to dig in to Bre-X, and that's the opposite of the way I worked on say Traffic or Syriana. I do a lot of research, and it's all based on true things and every story in them are true. They are all based on real things and real people. Real voices. And this felt like I just wanted the lens to be a little further bac, because all the mining adventures, all corruption of foreign officials, all nefarious deeds that happen when great fortunes are created. The mining business is the mining business. And if you look into any of it. Any executive of the mining business anytime. We are at 50th and Park? You can walk across the street and find 20 of them and just say, "Hey, tell me a story.” They'll say, “Oh my God. Is this off the record? Pull up your sleeves, buddy. I'm going to scare the sh*t out of you. Let me tell you what we did in Sao Tome.”
LRM: Has anyone in that industry seen the movie yet or anyone who knows enough about it to show them?
Gaghan: Definitely. I sought help from people I know who are in the mining business on the script before I went to shoot it just to make sure that it felt true, passed the sniff test in terms of attitudes and things that happened. Everyone was like thumbs up. The stories of the people in Gold ... I have a good friend who lives out in Locust Valley. There's some people in the gold industry that live out there. They told me stories that honestly, if you put them in a movie directly people wouldn't believe it. It's Dr. Strangelove.
LRM: I’m obviously a big music fan, and I loved most of what your choices for the movie, so how did you go about deciding what to use?
Gaghan: So hard.
LRM: Did you want to make sure it was right for the period? The story does go across a bunch of years.
Gaghan: I felt like I did want to use any music after '88, maybe right to the edge of '89, but I felt like anything that was like could be in this guy's world coming up to that point. And also my own taste. I felt like maybe Kenny would really be listening to Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings or The Eagles or whatever but I just didn't want to hear that in this period. I just felt like it had a different energy to it. Any opportunity to put Orange Juice in a movie or Big Dipper, and I looked at so many bands. I looked a super obscure Replacements tracks and REM stuff and just on and on and on. Every song that's in there ultimately was I felt exactly the right song for that place but there was probably ten others that I just love that I had to leave like my babies on the side cause they just couldn't fit. And then of course I got to work on an original song with Iggy Pop.
LRM: That’s pretty amazing. The first time I saw the movie I heard the song and couldn’t figure out if it was an old Iggy song I didn’t know or not and then I realized that it was a new song he wrote called “Gold.”
Gaghan: I think that when Brian Burton (aka producer Danger Mouse) and I went down to Miami and we were working with Iggy, one of Brian's notes was like for his voice. He wanted him to go back. I think I also said if you could do it like a Leonard Cohen song from the ‘80s
LRM: I first I thought it was Leonard Cohen, too.
Gaghan: Iggy's a great singer and… he’s just Iggy Pop. The guy invented stage diving
LRM: It's true.
Gaghan: It is true, so I’m like sorry, you go into the Hall of Fame just for that. Even if you didn't like work with Bowie and make Passengers and then do Fun House. I probably listen to that album, Fun House like 5000 times and so I knew the Stoogies really well.
LRM: Who came up with the idea of Iggy in the first place?
Gaghan: Danger Mouse--Brian. So we got together and were talking about it and He said who would you like to see be the vocalist? Who's your ideal person? I had a couple of women in mind and a couple of men and Iggy was one of them. I wasn't sure. To me that felt like reaching for the stars. It felt unrealistic. I actually was not confident to say that out loud because it's just like saying “Let’s get David Bowie” or whatever. It just felt weird to me. So I was kind of hesitating on the couch. Brian and I are friends and he just jumped in and going, “Okay because I think it should be Iggy Pop,” and I go, “Oh my god, so do I.” He goes, “Are you sure?” I was like, “Yeah, I'm totally sure that's who it should be.” He goes, “Okay, ‘cause I'm going to call him right now.” I'm like, “Call him.” He picked up his cell phone—we’re sitting on the couch—and he called him and left a message for him. It turned out he was interested. We went down and worked on the song with him. One of the best times of my life, being in Miami for four days with Brian and Iggy Pop, getting to be a bit of an amateur songwriter. It was like a dream come true.
LRM: You’ve forayed into TV since “Syriana,” so what was that experience like? These days, you can get a decent budget to do TV, so when you have an idea do you have to decide which way to go?
Gaghan: That's probably the place to do most of the stuff I'm interested in doing. The problem is I just love movies and I love the experience of being in a movie theater. I also love the control you have over someone's attention for the two hours that they watch at a movie theater. And maybe eventually everyone will watch everything on television, but for now there is still that theater experience, and it's so potent to me, that's just what I like doing. Yeah, I did the one pilot for NBC and we were really a cable show. It was basically Traffic set on the West side of L.A. It could have been AMC or it could have been HBO could have whatever. NBC passed on it. It came down to our show or Playboy. There were just branding their thing. Going another direction, so there was no chance. And then I shot a brilliant pilot written by Nick McDonald and John Dempsey about Afghanistan, about a Think Tank analyst in Kabul as NATO pulls out. The pilot turned out really, really well. I'm really proud of it but it was definitely obscure subject matter even for television. They just don't think it really ever had a chance.
LRM: That's too bad.
Gaghan: I was told it was never going to go on air before I shot it, which was certainly interesting.
LRM: But you still made it, and we’ll never see it
Gaghan: Yeah, it's like you basically make a DVD of it and then use it as a coaster.
LRM: That's a shame.
Gaghan: Very expensive.
LRM: I hope the turnaround for the next one is less than twelve years. It’s a drag when I talk to a director and then don’t see them again for so long. I presume they’re working during that time and not just sitting around.
Gaghan: I was just digging a hole deeper and deeper and deeper, and then suddenly you're like, “Where did everyone go? Hello, Hello?” Then Michael Novik pokes his head up from the top of the hole and goes, “Hey, come on up here. Let's go make a movie.”
Gold opens nationwide on Friday, January 27. Look for our exclusive interview with Edgar Ramirez sometime next week.