'Gold' Rush: Stephen Gaghan directs Matthew McConaughey in cautionary tale of American ambition

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The dream of gold, a big score, untold riches, runs through movies like a virus. In stories like Greed and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, fortunes are won, souls are bargained, with a terrible price to pay.

Steven Gaghan cites these films and other Hollywood classics when describing Gold, a Weinstein Company-Dimension release which opens on Jan. 27. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Édgar Ramírez, the drama marks Gaghan's return to directing some ten years after he wrote and directed Syriana.

Talking by phone from his home, Gaghan confesses that he had been unhappy about his own projects and writing when he learned that Michael Nozik, a Syriana producer, was working with a spec script by Patrick Massett and John Zinman. Coincidentally, Gaghan had befriended the writers years earlier when they were working on "Friday Night Lights," and followed their efforts over the years getting Gold off the ground.

The story "has it nascence in some true stuff that happened with Bre-X, a Canadian mining group, in the 1990s," Gaghan says, "but honestly, it's all mining stories rolled into one. If you know anything about mining or the mineral business, it's just filled with perfidy, double-dealing, insider trading, bribing public officials, raping the countryside, enormous profits and then more double-dealing."

Bre-X's stock prices soared when its officials announced a huge gold discovery in the jungles of Borneo. But the stock collapsed when the mining samples turned out to be fake.

"Patrick and John based their script loosely on that," Gaghan explains, "but I felt they were also trying to tap into all the great literary stuff of the American West. For me it brought up Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but also There Will Be Blood and even The African Queen. The script also reminded me of great character studies like Midnight Cowboy and The Last Detail. When I read it, it seemed like a biopic."

Matthew McConaughey was already attached to play Kenny Wells, a down-on-his-luck speculator operating out of a bar in Reno. Bald and sporting a potbelly, Kenny is a fast-talking gambler who dreams of a big strike that will restore his family's mining business.

"I knew Matthew because we had talked about doing another movie, City of Snow," Gaghan says. "Matthew's from Texas, played a lot of sports in high school, dated a cheerleader. His dad was a salesman in oil supply, pipes and that kind of stuff for oil fields. His brother Rooster did the same thing, both were really successful."

Gaghan's father was a businessman in Kentucky, giving him a shared vantage point with McConaughey about a slice of 1980s America—salesmen who failed as much as they succeeded. "Those collective memories formed what we wanted Kenny to be like," Gaghan explains. "Not a golden movie star with perfect teeth and a perfect smile. Nobody looks like that. My dad was skinny, had a little paunch, chain-smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, drank every day. And I think Kenny was pretty similar."

More so than his dissolute appearance, McConaughey will startle viewers with his maniacal intensity, his unwavering assurance, and his willful blindness about the motives of those around him. In the story Kenny is on the verge of losing everything he has when he forges a deal with internationally famous prospector Michael Acosta, played by Édgar Ramírez.

"I knew Édgar from Carlos," Gaghan says. "We had dinner and I was captivated by him. He's sincere, passionate, an intellectual. Incredibly handsome. He could be James Bond."

Goldgave Gaghan the opportunity to explore the friendship between "a hugger, an open book, an out-front guy saying, 'Love me, love me, love me,' and Mike, who's retreating a bit, he's making the world come to him. You know it's hard to make friends, everybody's fixed in their ways, you look at each other kind of funny. I wanted to show that kind of a male friendship."

The two embark on an expedition to Borneo, where Mike has found signs of gold. Because of recent terrorist activity in Jakarta, the production shot in the jungles of northern Thailand instead of Indonesia.

"It is just an astonishing rainforest," Gaghan enthuses. "Rivers, big snakes, giant spiders, all manner of creepy-crawly. At a point in the movie we wanted it to rain, so we thought we'll go around the monsoon season."

The crew assembled almost all of the sets, including full-sized coring rigs used to drill soil samples, along a river. The monsoon came late, with rain starting on the second day of shooting.

"Water buffalo in the field were suddenly up to their knees," Gaghan recalls. "The wheels of our crane were probably a foot under water. The river ended up rising 35 feet. The roof of our main tent was about twelve feet high. When we came back the next day, it was six feet underwater. Trees were floating by, parts of houses."

Gaghan remembers another set, a village hut built next to a 600-foot limestone cliff, that was destroyed in a landslide. "Thank God I was working with Robert Elswit and his crew," he says of Gold's cinematographer. "We knew each other from Syriana, which was a long, tough shoot. We have a really good shorthand, and Robert's indefatigable. It's a two-hour bus ride to the set, so we're up at four, and then we had to improvise everything once we got there. It certainly wasn't like a backlot."

Goldhas an unusually complex structure, with events unfolding in three separate time frames, all tied together by Kenny's narration, which itself operates on several levels. "I wanted the ’80s to look like I remembered it," Gaghan says, "whether we were in Indonesia or Reno or New York City. Also, we're trying to imagine how Kenny would imagine himself as he tells the story. So we used three different formats to match how Kenny would feel about himself."

For the opening Reno scenes, Elswit shot in a digital format with anamorphic lenses and a desaturated color scheme. For Borneo, Elswit used 35mm film, again with anamorphic lenses, but with the colors boosted to resemble old Technicolor movies. In this section, Gaghan emphasized two-shots in longer takes that lingered over the characters—reflecting Kenny's more heroic sense of himself.

"Nobody, nobody is better at 35mm film than Robert Elswit," Gaghan says proudly. "He forgets more about film stocks in a week than I think anybody else knows about film. He has stuff he saved from 45 years ago, stashed away, telling me he can have it sent over to Thailand."

As Gaghan points out, the actual narrative in Gold takes place over a 24-hour period, the "real time" of the movie. For these scenes Elswit went back to digital, but used prime spherical lenses to crush the space around Kenny as he is interrogated in what Gaghan calls "the nicest suite in the worst hotel in Reno."

Gaghan reveals part of the interrogation scene, a battle of wits between Kenny and an FBI agent played by Toby Kebbell, early in the movie. Deciding how to shift among the story's time frames was a challenge both in pre- and post-production.

"What's tricky when you have a narrator is choosing a vantage point," the director notes. "Often the narrator is speaking from some point in the future, and in other cases as the story goes along. I think there's a universal rule of drama that you want the audience to invest in what's happening in the moment. And when you hear someone narrating, that voice is pulling you away from that moment.

"So the struggle for me in this film was to balance Kenny's great narrative voice—he loves his story, he's always wanting to tell the best version of events. But I decided to pare that back, to hide the narrative construct. I didn't want viewers to see that the story's being told from the future. I wanted them to focus on Kenny's Heart of Darkness journey up a river to a dream of commerce."

Without revealing any plot points, the secret to Gold is that Kenny is always giving a performance. At times, several different performances. For every person he meets, he has a part to play. Mentor, lover, enforcer, goad, confidant, Kenny never reveals his true personality as he glides through a story that turns in on itself.

The moral compass of Gold turns out to be Kenny's wife Kay, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. "Hats off to Bryce," Gaghan says. "She came on almost at the last moment, and took on a tough character. She embraced a kind of lousy physicality of not being movie-star glamorous. She's a woman who might work in a bar in Reno, she's a heartbeat away from losing her house, yet Bryce also has to convey that she's cut from the right cloth. She's on a deeper con, if you will. She knows what's really good about Kenny and she never wavers about it."

In a way, Gold is as much a shape-shifter as Kenny is. Adventure, thriller, romance, the movie circles around what Gaghan believes are the core issues we face as a nation.

"What's the best and worst of our country?" he asks. "We're unbelievably hopeful and optimistic, we believe we can do things that will change the world for the better, we'll take these giant cuts, swing for the fences. Often we won't think about the consequences, and the consequences are quite different than we expected.

"The kind of dreamer Kenny is, he sounds nuts. ‘Out there is a mountain of gold. All we have to do is find it and dig it up.’ But everyone with that vision sounds crazy. It's like Henry Ford saying every car is going to be the same color and there's going to be one in every driveway and people are like, 'I like my horse.'"