“I have a question for you,” Stephen Gaghan informs me. “What America do you live in?”
It’s a rhetorical question, of course; Gaghan, the Oscar-winning writer/director best known for Traffic and Syriana, is just amused by my question, about the morality of would-be heroes in his new movie Gold. We’re in a hotel suite in Midtown Manhattan, just five blocks from the golden tower that houses the shady businessman that is about to be inaugurated President of the United States, and that alone serves as an answer to his question. The reality doesn’t excite him, but that hard truth informs his work.
“Let me ask you another question,” he says, before I have much time to answer his first inquiry. “Do you feel that the people responsible for the catastrophe of 2008 and 2009 paid any price for it? Who do you think writes history?”
In the case of Gold, it’s more like Gaghan and his crew rewrote history. Gold concerns a desperate businessman — played by a paunchy, balding Matthew McConaughey — who tries to get rich by mining gold in the unforgiving wilds of Indonesia. It’s loosely based on the infamous Bre-X scandal that rocked the industry in the ‘90s, but the parallels to today’s America — and Gaghan’s own life story — run deep.
Screenwriters Patrick Massett and John Zinman took a lot of creative license from the start, sticking the scandal in the late ‘80s and bringing it from Canada to Wall Street. And they used only the contours of the event: a mining executive partnered with a geologist in Indonesia, who then claimed to have found the biggest gold deposit in history. They got rich filthy rich and became the toast of the mining industry, cutting lucrative deals with Indonesia’s brutal dictator and financiers alike … until it turned out the gold strike was fraudulent, wiping out billions of dollars in investor money.
The first thing Gaghan had to do was put aside moral reservations about the industry, because otherwise, his characters could never be sympathetic. His realistic attitude about the crooked authors of history certainly helped.
“You look at any subsurface mineral story, or anything that has to do with the mining business or the timber business or the oil business; it’s filled with perfidy, murder, greed, rapaciousness, double-dealing, corruption of foreign officials,” he says, no doubt distressed by that reality but energized by the storytelling possibilities it presents. “That’s it. That’s the stock in trade. Oh, and they destroy the environment on top of it.”
Gaghan was more interested in the mentality of the men who built those industries. He had long wanted to make a movie about the 19th century gold rush and settling of the American West — “I wrote 60 pages of a movie about a fur trading company, way before The Revenant, and that story was in there,” he says — and Gold provided that same kind of template.
Edgar Ramirez plays a version of the Bre-X geologist, but McConaughey’s character, Kenny Wells, is more or less a total invention. He’s somewhere between dreamer and hustler, a charismatic smooth-talker who is down to his last dollar after running the mining company he inherited from his father into the ground. It’s impossible to take your eyes off him, and not just because McConaughey proudly sports a potbelly (he gained 47 pounds for the role) and terrible mullet. His ambition is not so much to make money but to build something great and make his mark on the world.
It was the Kenny Wells character that most attracted Gaghan to the project and gave him several personal connections to the story.
“Those are the kinds of people I grew up with: One of the great characters of my childhood was John Y. Brown Jr., who got the rights to the Kentucky Fried Chicken formula from Colonel Sanders, and built that giant company,” he says. Gaghan, a Kentucky native whose family was friends with Brown, rattled off the basics of the man’s improbable rise: Brown, himself a charismatic gambler, went from manager of the University of Kentucky basketball to fried chicken magnate, then married Miss America and won the governorship.
“I loved this guy,” beamed Gaghan, who said he went door-to-door for Brown during his campaign for governor. “Was there collateral damage in the rise of John Y. Brown Jr. as he’s building Kentucky Fried Chicken? Probably.”
KFC has nothing to do with gold mining, but Gaghan felt he was channeling that sort of American ambition when making the film. And he didn’t just admire it from afar. Gaghan’s own father was a small businessman, having eschewed his family’s artistic tradition (his grandfather was a critic for Variety and great grandfather was a composer). “I remember very distinctly, it was one of his classic lines of my childhood: My dad would say, ‘You want to be a philosopher king? I don’t really think they’re paying people for that these days. You need to be CEO of Procter & Gamble.’”
Obviously, Gaghan took a different path, with twists and turns to rival the plots of the movies he’s written. Gaghan was once a bit of a golden boy, having won an Emmy for writing an episode of NYPD Blue before he was 33. He won his Oscar less than a decade later and was nominated again for Syriana, which he wrote and directed. But his public airing of drama that went down in the editing room of that film — star George Clooney and producer Steven Soderbergh took over the work on the final cut — broke Hollywood protocol. That, and a reputation for creative stubbornness, made his professional life difficult in a town where fortunes rise and fall on rumors spread at lunch.
Kenny Wells’s arc takes him from desperate salesman working out of a bar back to the heights of his industry, another element of the Gold story that resonates for Gaghan — though he’s reticent to see it that way, exactly.
“There’s what something looks like from the outside — and that might be accurate — and what it feels like from the inside, which I can talk about,” he says. “I was really lucky, I got to work with Steven Soderbergh on two movies that were enormously challenging, that nobody thought would ever be made, that I am really proud of. And then I spent a decade trying to do the same thing I was doing before, writing complex and challenging movies.”
The reason he didn’t get a movie made for a decade, he says, was more about what he was writing than his reputation.
“In the wake of the financial collapse and the writer’s strike, a memo went out around 2008 that said, essentially we’re out of the business of making these kind of adult dramas,” he continues. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get that memo until 2014. In those six years, I kept doing the same thing I was doing, in the same way I did it. Working really hard, being paid well, working day after day, but the movies weren’t getting made.”
Gaghan jumped at the chance at directing Gold, because it was the sort of film he had been writing and failing to get made. He enjoys the big blockbuster movies that dominate Hollywood, but doesn’t much want to make them, so now he has to work around the system, seizing opportunities wherever he can find them. That’s how history gets written.