Striking Gold: Director Stephen Gagan on Battling the Elements in the Making of ‘Gold’
Academy Award–Winning Screenwriter and Director Stephen Gaghan Returns from the Jungle with His First Film in 11 Years
It’s not difficult to get on people’s radar with a script like Traffic. Stephen Gaghan adapted the script from a 1989 British miniseries, delivering a pitch-perfect multilayered screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 drama—and winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process. That early success opened the door for the Kentucky native to explore the projects that interested him most, not only as a writer but as a director. After a difficult experience getting his directorial debut off the ground, Gaghan’s sophomore feature as a writer-director, 2005’s Syriana, brought back a lot of the critical praise that had forecasted the arrival of a new talent with Traffic years earlier. Gaghan hopes to strike the same success with Gold, his first film since Syriana and his first time working with someone else’s screenplay.
Gold tells the story of Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), a struggling businessman who leaves Reno to try to find fortune in Borneo. Gaghan spoke with Boxoffice recently about how he put the long-gestating project together, even after a monsoon threatened to pull the entire production apart.
How did you first come across the project?
The producer, Michael Nozik, who I worked with on Syriana, had been developing the script for a long time. He and I had a great time working together and we knew each other pretty well. [Michael] thought of me, and after some great representing from my agent I was able to get this sort of opportunity. It was a global adventure that would require somebody that would go to a jungle in the middle of a monsoon and make a movie and, you know, that’s definitely me. Somebody reached out to me about a TV commercial the other day and they warned me, the only thing about it is that it’s in Colombia—and there’s Zika. And I’m like, “I don’t care about Zika. I want to go to Colombia!”
If you look at Traffic or you look at Syriana, they’re stories about systems and they’re about America, and they’re about what it feels like to be an American, and I think that’s what Gold is about at its core. It’s about the American dream and how it never quite looks as dreamy when you get close to it—and I love that subject. Then it had the business storyline, and I’m fascinated by how business intertwines with the American character. We’re a nation of entrepreneurs and it just always appealed to me that way.
Gold is about some sort of hard-luck dude working out of a bar in Reno who goes to Borneo and makes the largest gold find in the history of the world. Of course I was interested. I also knew that Matthew [McConaughey] was attached to play Kenny Wells, the main character, and I knew Matthew a little bit. I honestly was four pages into the script and said to myself, “I want to do this movie.” I saw McConaughey as that guy so clearly, and I just knew we had a chance to make something people would remember, because if you know Matthew, even if you spend a second with him, you can just see him playing Kenny Wells. I got so excited about it that after page four, I literally picked up the phone and called Nozik and told him I wanted to do this movie.
As a writer yourself, how did you approach the screenplay? Do you have a screenwriting credit on it?
No, I don’t have a writing credit. John [Zinman] and Patrick [Massett] wrote a great script; it’s one of those scripts that was around for a while—Michael Mann was going to make it at one point and it was just a great script. I maybe sprinkled a little fairy dust on it here or there, working a little bit on the arc of friendship between Edgar Ramirez and Matthew, and a little bit on the role that Bryce Dallas Howard plays, that sort of thing. But in general it’s their script and I consider myself lucky to have gotten to work on it. I was really psyched to get to work on someone else’s document because it’s a connection by the director, it’s interpretive, and I loved it.
How important was it to get the casting right in this film? You have an actor with such a magnetic personality—Matthew McConaughey. How do you get the pieces in place to turn this into an ensemble film?
One of the greatest strengths of the film, now that I can look at it with a little bit of distance, is the ensemble cast that we were able to put together. You hit it right on the head: Matthew is a really strong actor and his character is larger than life, so we had to get a really strong group of people—people who wouldn’t disappear on screen—and we found some awesome folks. We got Bill Camp and Corey Stoll, two incredible actors out of New York; a guy named Macon Blair, who was in Blue Ruin, and I think he’s going to be a big deal. And, of course, Bryce Dallas Howard. We had to have a strong woman, and we needed another movie star that could face off with Matthew and hold her own and be tough, interesting, and real. It had to be someone who was comfortable in her own skin, and that’s Bryce. The character of Acosta that Edgar Ramirez plays is a very strong supporting role. He’s a sort of mystic figure and drives the whole storyline. Kenny sets off to go to Borneo to find him, and then talks him into going up the river together, à la Heart of Darkness, to find the gold. In terms of our story, what’s fascinating is that all this happens very early in the movie, and then you have all of these crazy twists and turns and fallout of what happens when you accomplish your dreams. We had Avy Kaufman casting the movie out of New York, and she did an incredible job.
How difficult was shooting this film on some of the remote locations? Are we talking about something as difficult as Fitzcarraldo or Heart of Darkness?
It was full-on Heart of Darkness with a side of Fitzcarraldo.
We wanted to shoot the monsoon and went to this really old rainforest inside a national park in the middle of Thailand. Not the Thailand that you see on a postcard, but this other Thailand, one with 20-foot pythons and giant spiders. It started raining but they were saying, “Oh the monsoon hasn’t come yet. The monsoon is late. Maybe it’s going to come in the fall,” and it came on our second day of the shooting! It was pretty astonishing. Two rivers connected that hadn’t connected in a very long time in that part of the world, and basically within about 18 hours the roof of our main set was about two feet underwater. You’ve never seen something like that. I was at breakfast with a cup of coffee and my feet are squishing; I’m halfway through my cup of coffee and water’s up to my ankle. I finish my cup of coffee and water is up to my knees. I return my tray as I’m wading through water. You have 600 Thai crew members and everybody is up to their waist, fire is getting extinguished by the rivers, and we evacuated. There were $500,000 in cranes upside down and half the set washed away into the ocean 60 miles away. That was day three. We came back to the set and the set was gone. Some structures were still standing but everything around them and connected to them was gone. We had water buffaloes, so at least the water buffaloes were happy—you have never seen happier animals. They were in the dry field when we started shooting and were very unhappy, but in the middle of the second day they were up to their chests in water and smiling. When I came back to the set in a boat, the water buffaloes were up on the hill just looking down like, “This is the best day we’ve ever had!” You can’t make it up—it’s just one of those things that happens when you’re making a movie and you have to be really nimble and just roll with it. You have to pivot. It was a good production team and we just sorted it out. We caught up in a few days, but we lost 80 percent of our locations. So much of what we were shooting was on the river.
How much of a delay in shooting did this represent?
What it meant was that I never got any time off. We had stuff [to shoot] in Jakarta, so we shot that while they cold scouted new locations and built our sets. Then we came back down and we split the [shooting] schedule. The whole schedule was in Thailand, and we were there for a long time, so we worked around it. We were able to sort of compile [the footage] together, but you’re in the jungle, you’re two hours from anything and you’re sitting there with 600 Thai crew members and 595 of them are working on their first movie, so you just kind of say, “Let’s go that way! We’ll shoot over there!” This process really reminded me of a documentary in that way.