In 2005, Stephen Gaghan was one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood and was coming into his own as a director with the release of his second feature, “Syriana,” which earned Gaghan a best original screenplay Oscar nomination and a best supporting actor win for George Clooney.
But then Gaghan suddenly went silent. After riding to the top of the industry with his Oscar-winning screenplay for Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” in 2000, and getting Soderbergh and Clooney to back “Syriana,” it looked like his rise was fizzling as quickly as it came.
It didn’t help that while promoting “Syriana,” Gaghan told the Financial Times that Soderbergh and Clooney stepped in and took over the edit from him.
“I wanted two hours, 24 minutes,” he said of the running time. “But Steven insisted on two hours. I think he was dead wrong and he ruined my movie.”
But Gaghan recently told Business Insider that his demise has been greatly exaggerated, and that the lack of work we’ve seen from him in a decade has come down to bad luck.
“I was on the one-half yard line three different times with three different movies and it would fall apart. It got really, really frustrating,” Gaghan said.
Looking back, Gaghan sees his failure in the business side of filmmaking. Because he wasn’t just writing, directing, but also producing a handful of projects at once, he found himself unprepared to wage the battles that are needed to figure out the logistics and financing to get a movie off the ground.
“I don’t think I’m very good at that,” Gaghan said. “In hindsight, I just have to have a strong producer.”
In January 2015, Gaghan finally ended his dry spell by putting his passion projects aside and taking a for-hire job. “Gold” (which opens in theatres on Friday) was a project that had been in development since 2011 and had gone through the hands of directors like Michael Mann and Spike Lee before landing with Gaghan. Written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman, the story is a modern-day “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” It’s loosely based on the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, in which the mining company reported it was sitting on a huge gold find in the jungles of Indonesia. That led the company’s stock price to sore, but it was all discovered to be a massive fraud.
Matthew McConaughey added close to 50 pounds and gave himself a receding hairline to play the role of Kenny Wells, the prospector who travels to the jungle with a geologist (Edgar Ramírez) to find their fortune in gold.
“It was like a fever breaking and I just felt so happy all of a sudden that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Gaghan said of directing “Gold.”
However, the joy would be short-lived, as the toils of shooting in Thailand and Indonesia almost ruined Gaghan’s comeback.
Comparing his shoot to watching “Hearts of Darkness” — the behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of “Apocalypse Now,” which was plagued with horrific storms, among other things — Gaghan said he insisted on filming “Gold” during monsoon season, but completely underestimated its power.
“I wanted real rain, I thought it was important to the story, but it came late,” Gaghan said. “When we got to the jungle, the locals were saying, ‘Monsoon very late.’ I’m looking up to the sky and it’s a blue sky.”
Not expecting a lot of rain, Gagahn had rain towers brought in for the first day of shooting. That would be the last day his set would be dry.
“The second day of shooting it started to rain and it was this weird event where two rivers connected and our river rose 35 feet in 12 hours,” he said. “It was astonishing. The third day we had to evacuate the set, our base camp was gone, the rain towers were upside down washing down the river.”
Gaghan got into a canoe to survey the damage and found that the set was completely underwater. “The water receded and not much was left and I was just sitting on a folding chair watching the water buffalo and wondering what are we going to do now.”
It seemed like the movie gods had struck again and would keep Gaghan from making a movie, but he remarkably rebounded and got enough footage in the jungle to continue on and complete filming.
With a transformed McConaughey and the pedigree of Gaghan, the film’s distributor the Weinstein Company thought it had an awards contender. But “Gold” didn’t gain traction and was shut out of the Oscars. The movie is now relegated to a release in the Hollywood “dump month” that is January.
Gaghan, however, is only seeing the bright side of things these days.
“I’m super proud of the movie and obviously the thing you hope is what you make stands the test of time,” he said.
But where does he go from here? Has he completely burned his bridges with Soderbergh, or is there a chance the two could reconnect once more?
“I talked to him three days ago,” said Gaghan, who added that he showed Soderbergh an early cut of “Gold.”
Gaghan said he has patched things up with Soderbergh and Clooney, and now he believes “Syriana” “benefited from their insight.”
“I literally owe every good thing that happened in my career to Steven Soderberg,” he said. “And that’s not just the good fortune that happened in getting to develop the script of ‘Traffic’ with him and being on set when he was making that and have him produce and back me to make ‘Syriana,’ but he’s just super generous. And ‘Gold’ was a direct beneficiary.”
It doesn’t look like we’ll have to wait another 10 years to see a Gaghan movie. It’s been announced that he will be writing and directing the bioterrorism sci-fi movie “The Division,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jessica Chastain. And he’s confident some of the projects he was working on before “Gold” aren’t dead.
“I think one or two of those projects will still get made,” he said.
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