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Stephen Gaghan, one-time Hollywood wunderkind, returns after a long absence with 'Gold'

Stephen Gaghan, one-time Hollywood wunderkind, returns after a long absence with 'Gold'
Screenwriter and director Stephen Gaghan. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Maybe it was the time he hurled a script at the Warner Bros. production president, frustrated by the studio's notes.

It might have been the interview in which he upset "Syriana" collaborators Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney by breaking an edit-room code of silence and revealing he'd ceded post-production control to them on his 2005 movie. ‎

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Or it could have been when he entertained shady Albanian financiers because he'd run out of film-financing options.

For the one-time screenwriting wunderkind Stephen Gaghan – he won an Oscar for "Traffic" in the year of  his first feature credit — there have been so many colorful stops on the Hollywood road even he has lost count. Few personalities in the modern era have clashed with the entertainment power structure so epically, or stuck to their guns so obdurately.

So when Gaghan's new movie "Gold," a dramatization of the 1990s-era Bre-X mining scandal, begins a qualifying run later this month ahead of its January release it won't only provide a chance to see Matthew McConaughey as a paunchy, balding treasure-hunter from Reno. (That's just a bonus.) The movie will mark a pointed retort to a whatever-happened-to question about a man who stirred significant buzz and an Oscar nomination 11 years ago — and hasn't been heard from since.

"Gold" is a rare piece for Gaghan, a movie he directed but didn't (at least according to official credits) solely write. But its story of Kenny Wells (McConaughey), a streetwise hustler who persuaded an urbane mining veteran (Edgar Ramirez) to team up in search of gold in the Indonesian jungle, ‎tells an incredibly personal story just the same. It's about a man, idealistic and headstrong, intent on pursuing a dream within a system that he fiercely believes (sometimes correctly) is aligned against him.

If every creative work is a reflection of its artist's psyche, "Gold" is a detailed map of Gaghan's soul, a parable for its director's long and benighted Hollywood struggle.

"It was my wife who said to me, 'Steve, this is so personal. Here's a lunatic who couldn't get the result he wanted and so just did it over and over until he could,'" Gaghan said. "And she's right. That is me — 'Oh, there's a wall, I'll bang my head against it, oh there's a wall, let me bang my head against it.'"

Gaghan is at his home in Pacific Palisades on a recent Friday. He's just finished breakfast with wife Minnie Mortimer and their toddler son Johnny, the youngest of Gaghan's four children. (Two are from a previous partner.)

Still boyish-looking at 51, Gaghan has a manner that might be described as patrician surfer — magazine-thin, well-coiffed longish hair, barefoot but fashionable-casual in a dark shirt and shorts. During the conversation, he continually moves around his deck, shifting positions on a couch and at one point sitting on the floor.

It is a few days after the election, and Gaghan is still exercised about it, lamenting the failure of the Democratic establishment to foresee the result. "My mother [in Kentucky] is a conservative, and every single person in her social circle was voting for Trump," said the filmmaker, intellectual and hyper-verbal. "You didn't need advanced metrics — you just needed to talk to them."

Passionate would be one word to describe Gaghan's politics — he was so worked up on election night he couldn't finish an editing session and paid a few thousand of his own dollars to complete it under calmer circumstances. That zealotry also infuses his attitude toward his films, which he tends to believe benefit from as much complexity and ambiguity as possible.

Even many serious filmmakers, after all, will occasionally give in on these scores when studios and their large checks are involved. Others will simply turn to the independent world or to upscale television. But Gaghan is an anomaly: a personal filmmaker who has stayed firmly in the studio system. It's led to a lot of frustration, a lot of skirmishes -- and, ultimately, a lot of inactivity.

"He was doing his Terrence Malick there for a while, wasn't he?" said McConaughey.‎

It was hard to be more on top of the world than Gaghan was after "Syriana." Spending many years as an acclaimed writer but coming up with just one modest directorial effort (2002's psychological thriller "Abandon"), the scribe had finally made the successful transition to big-time filmmaker.

His movie that December, an involved story about the global fight for oil resources, had grossed $50 million and drew warm reviews. Oscar voters nominated Gaghan for screenplay and gave Clooney the supporting actor prize.

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During the 1990s Gaghan was battling profound drug and alcohol addiction, which he opened up about shortly after the release of "Traffic;" he based the script in part on his own experiences. (Those around him, it should be said, emphasize he has long left that life behind. To this day he remains practically religious about seeking out support-group meetings, whether at home or in places as far-flung as Thailand.) With "Syriana,"  the triumph was complete.

But his life was far from paradise. The film had gone through many iterations in the editing room, as Gaghan struggled to make sense of its many twisting strands. Worried personally and concerned about placating a nervous Warner Bros., Clooney and Soderbergh, who were producing, stepped in. They streamlined several plot lines and even cut out one story entirely, according to a person who was involved in the production but asked to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize sensitive relationships.

The pair was fine with staying anonymous and letting Gaghan take the credit. But the director didn't hold his tongue in an interview and said he'd been cut out of the edit room. Clooney and Soderbergh were fuming, according to the person.

The unwinding had begun. Gaghan's projects with Clooney and Soderbergh, who at the time ran the hot production company Section Eight, soon dried up. (Neither Clooney nor Soderbergh would comment for this article.)

Gaghan set out to develop "Blink," an unlikely candidate for a feature, one that would turn into narrative a nonfiction bestseller by Malcolm Gladwell about the value of quick decision-making. The conceit proved unintentionally ironic.

Running into Leonardo DiCaprio at a New York restaurant, Gaghan convinced the actor to come aboard as producer and star. The project was soon set up at Universal. But crafting a compelling narrative took time. In the winter of 2006 Stacey Snider left the studio, leading to the project losing a champion. DiCaprio's schedule, meanwhile, filled up. Heath Ledger would soon take a keen interest in playing the lead role. When Ledger died in January 2008, Gladwell's book was found on his nightstand and a draft of Gaghan's script in his bed. With its potential star gone, the project lost steam again.

Time was ticking for the film, a kind of "Big Short"-esque tale about a man in the corporate world who could use the power of instant assessment to withering effect. As with so much in Hollywood, "Blink" proved at once to be hanging around too long and ahead of its time. Attempts to finance it independently in 2008 and 2009 failed, and by the time it was all over Gaghan had spent the better part of four years working on a movie that would never get made.

The filmmaker moved on to a film at Warner Bros. Linking up with his past studio collaborator wasn't an immediately intuitive option.The development process on "Syriana" had been difficult. At one point, Kevin McCormick, who at the time ran production for the studio, was giving notes on the script. Gaghan saw them as too many and too misguided. He let his feelings be known.

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"In this one meeting I just hit the wall and said, 'I can't take it anymore,' and threw the script at Kevin. And I yelled, 'Then you… write it.'" Gaghan then walked out of the room.

"And I was standing outside with all the trees [on the lot] and I thought, 'Now I'm all alone.' And I heard that voice in my head that said, 'What's the matter with you?' I thought the movie was done. I  thought I was done."

He wasn't. The studio and Gaghan would see through "Syriana" together.And after "Blink" collapsed, they would try to make "Dead Spy Running," a proposed "Bourne-ian" spy franchise from the novels of the Brit Jon Stock. Gaghan, seeking a viable job, was first attached to write for director McG; as the months and then years went on and the rewritten drafts piled up, he became more invested and climbed aboard to direct.

But Gaghan and the studio didn't see eye-to-eye on the film, in part because studios tend to favor clear-cut heroes and consequences while Gaghan strongly prefers ambiguities and subtleties. Eventually McCormick called and said the studio was going to replace him. Studio firings happen every week. But this one sat particularly badly with Gaghan.

"I had done 10 or 15 unpaid rewrites. And they just said, 'We're moving in another direction.' And I thought, 'I don't understand how people decide to make movies.' You go all in and think of nothing for three years and think we're going to make it awesome. And they just don't see it the way you do and they just call you and say you're out." (McCormick did not return a call to his production office.)

Gaghan tried TV, an AMC pilot called "White City" that didn't get off the ground. (He said despite this being the peak-TV era, he fundamentally prefers the closed-ended cinematic experience.)  He has also sporadically turned to independent productions, writing a script about a crime underworld, "Candy Store," with his friend Shannon Burke. There weren't many funding options, and at one point he found himself with investors of uncertain provenance.

"We tried to find these Albanian gangsters to bridge the American [indie] financing. I remember sitting in a meeting with one. He had some kind of squirrel on his head. He asked who the girl [lead actress] was." Gaghan told him the name. " 'She's a whore,'" he said.  "And I realized he meant it as a compliment! I went home that day thinking, 'This isn't really working.'"

Meanwhile, funds were draining from his bank account. The director is, self-confessedly, prone to living above his means. He and Mortimer, a fashion designer, decided to downsize—the Hollywood version, anyway. The couple sold their Brentwood home, listing it for nearly $5 million in 2014, and moved to a rental in Pacific Palisades, though it should be noted that it is a rental with stunning views above the beach.

In the meantime, Gaghan took writing jobs to pay the bills. Tapping on his laptop was both his chief virtue and main meal ticket; after all, he'd won an Emmy as an unknown, barely-30-year-old writer for his work on "NYPD Blue."

Most prominent among these gigs was "After Earth." Will Smith had called him in to do rewrites on the 2013 dystopian epic. Gaghan flew to the Philadelphia set, wrote for weeks — then ran into the wall of M. Night Shyamalan, another bullish auteur who Gaghan said "didn't keep a single one of my changes."

In maybe his most famous on-screen appearance, Gaghan had a cameo on "Entourage." He plays himself as he's called in for a high-end script re-write on a troubled movie, then paid an exorbitant sum without ever needing to write anything. He said the part has fed an inaccurate public image.

"It's really kind of haunted me. My career is really not like 'Entourage.' You win an Oscar for screenwriting and you get a lot offers because people think you have some kind of fairy dust. Then they pay you to come in and sprinkle it. And it doesn't even get used."

When "Gold" came around —the project was independently financed; The Weinstein Company's Dimension label would board only shortly before production- Gaghan was itching to get back, itching to be heard. The script focused on Wells, the son of a local businessman who wanted to be seen as more than just the small-timer he feared he was becoming. It leads him to get in over his head.

The project had had been around for years, attracting and then parting ways with the likes of Spike Lee and Michael Mann. Gaghan had known the writers, Patrick Massett and John Zinman. He began taking meetings.

On the surface it wasn't an obvious fit, not least because Gaghan's two previous movies had both been from his own scripts. But Gaghan felt a kinship with "Gold's" protagonist. Like Wells, he prides himself on a kind of autonomous fighting of corporate dominance and conventional wisdom, just as Wells did against the big mining companies and Wall Street firms eager to take his fortune.

"There's success and there's moral validity," said Teddy Schwarzman, a producer on the film and the principal at financing company Black Bear Pictures. "Kenny Wells didn't care about the money — he wanted to prove that he could do it. And that's Stephen. He's had success, but he's had this inexplicable drought, and I think what he really wants is to prove them all wrong."

The sun was intensifying above Gaghan's deck.  The director is an unlikely picture of domestic repose these days. His is a house where a volume of "My Struggle" sits next to a child's sink kick-stand. At one point he used words to Johnny that sounded somewhere close to "Come on Fuzzy, let's go find Duck Mouse.'" He said that, until "Gold," he was "home every night for [his two youngest children's] bedtimes, and that wasn't always on purpose."

Gaghan uncrossed his legs and shuffled his position once more, describing his discomfort with the studio system.

When he first was being considered for the "Gold" job, he traveled to Austin to meet with McConaughey. The star had a question for him: Why on Earth hadn't he made a movie for a decade?

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"I said, 'Because I didn't want to make a bad movie. And I still feel that way," Gaghan recalled.

But in Hollywood the perfect is often the enemy of the good, and a few minutes later Gaghan expresses uncertainty about whether waiting for the right set of creative circumstances was always worth it.

"In hindsight I made some wrong decisions. If I could say anything to anyone coming up I'd say, 'Make the movies.' You have a chance, someone is willing to back you, make the movie. You'll be so much more accomplished than where I am right now." I'm not even where Coppola was when he made 'The Rain People.' If you want to make 'The Conversation' you're going to need some practice."

In a way, Gaghan is an example of how a lot of people, and especially artistic people, possess a strength that is also their weakness. One person who worked with the filmmaker said he "can analyze too much—what makes him dogged about a script also makes him dogged with people."

Where this leaves Gaghan as a Hollywood figure is unclear. Has he been bullheaded and unrealistic? Or a bulwark of storytelling purity in an industry that seems to value it less by the minute?

"Gold," at any rate, is a bid for redemption, a chance to tell of his own ambitions via an on-screen character. Wells' story is, in the end, fundamentally about reinvention. That's a theme that has run under Gaghan's life in numerous ways. He is a salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner who climbed the social ladder in part by marrying into Mortimer's East Coast blueblood family (she is descended from the family that ran Standard Oil), one more strike in his bid to remake himself as a member of a Hollywood gentry.

It was his earthy roots, however, that may have helped him understand where a character like Wells came from. Gaghan, McConaughey said, intuits an outsider mentality thanks to a Middle American childhood in which success was evaluated differently. "You can't teach people an understanding of this kind of world and being a dreamer if you weren't present among them, or weren't in a way one of them," said the actor.

McConaughey added that the struggles in Gaghan's life may have solidified this resolve. "Stephen's got scars. He appreciates them—and earned them," he said.

The "Gold" shoot wasn't easy. Days were lost to floods; Thailand and Indonesia are not popular locations for a reason. The director persevered, displaying the lower-your-shoulder mentality that could ruffle feathers on studio lots.

It's tempting to read Gaghan's extreme persistence as another facet to the personality that drove him to addiction; obsession with the high of a drug and obsession with artistic purity aren't all that far apart. Gaghan says he was simply born with an innate drive to push through, no matter who's pushing back.

"It's kind of a true believer thing. People are saying no and you're like, 'Don't you see?' And they're like, 'I don't see,' for whatever system of reasons. And it becomes really painful, and at times it's made me really angry. So angry it's like you're going to have an aneurysm. But who do you take your complaint to? This whole thing is a giant luxury."

The conversation is winding down.  Worried he's said too much that's critical of Hollywood, he sought to lower the temperature. "It's not anyone's fault. It's my fault. If I had to do it again, I would do it the same way," he said.  "The system is the system and the system has needs that are specific. You can be Don Quixote and say 'that's not a windmill' and run toward it. But it's still a windmill."

He took a moment. "Someone else would have navigated it perfectly. But I can only be myself."

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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