48-year-old Stephen Gaghan is responsible for some monster work. He wrote the screenplay for “Traffic,” which won him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000. He wrote and directed “Syriana,” which won George Clooney an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2005. He is credited as one of the forerunners of “hyperlink cinema,” a non-/multi-linear approach exemplified by the above films. He is presently writing a screenplay based on the Malcolm Gladwell book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Gaghan lives on the west side of Los Angeles and surfs often at a quiet private break a stone’s toss from the chaos of Malibu Point. I would love to describe his style of dress, his mannerisms, the sound of his voice, but we’ve never actually met. At the time this piece was due he was in the SW of France, riding summer swells, watching Dane Reynolds spin magic, then off to Toronto for the film festival. We did this interview the modern way: over email.
Tell me about your upbringing and how you came to writing.
I was raised in Kentucky, in an old house with lots of books. My parents were big readers. And backgammon players. Basically they'd just sit around reading and drinking and smoking and playing backgammon. I think at one point my mother owed my father a couple hundred thousand dollars from backgammon losses. She got even in a massive double-or-nothing play and eventually went ahead by a bit. I remember very clearly my mother making my father pay up. But mainly they would read and it was a big event on Friday night or whatever when we'd all get to go to my dad's study to turn on the one television in the house for “Wall Street Week.” So we read books and talked about books and recommended books to each other. I can't remember who it was who said, "Writers are readers moved to emulation," maybe it was Faulkner, but whoever said it, it's true.
When did you start writing screenplays? Was it a steadily upward trajectory, or did you get your ass kicked in the beginning?
I never really considered writing movies growing up. It just didn't occur to me. I didn't know anyone who did it, anyone who went west of the Mississippi River. It was all a giant mystery to me. But I loved “The Simpsons.” I remember exactly where I was when the pilot episode aired, the one where they adopt the dog from the greyhound track at Christmas. And I had an idea in the back of my mind that if push came to shove I could probably do that, write like that. I didn't know any “Simpsons” writers at that point, but I just knew deep inside that I looked at the world the same way those people did and that I could dredge up the same type of comedy from my own experience. I wrote a spec “Simpsons” and almost got hired on the show. In fact, I did get hired but then the exec producer was fired or quit or something and it fell through. But by that time I'd moved to LA and had too much pride to go back east with my tail between my legs. I just stuck it out in what I call “The Years of 1,000 Rejections.” Rejection in Hollywood is very confusing, by the way, because it goes like this: "We love your script. We LOVE your writing. You are brilliant. BRILLIANT. This is GENIUS writing. GENIUS. Don't know how you do it. WE LOVE YOU." And then nothing happens. So it's very confusing and takes a while, years it turns out, to parse. I was rejected by everyone from “Red Shoe Diaries” (responding to some poems and a short story I showed them, insert Israeli accent here, "You are a clever boy, but what do you know about love?") and from “Baywatch Nights” (not even real “Baywatch” but the spinoff. Here's the entire rejection, over the phone, "How did you get this number? No, seriously, how did you get this number?").
What got you interested in the War on Drugs?
The truth is I'd done about 19 years of intense personal research into the subject. I mean I was a world expert on, um, let's call it the consumer and interdiction side of things. And I'd been kicking around writing all sorts of stuff. “NYPD Blue.” “American Gothic.” A couple films, "Rules of Engagement" and "Havoc." And I had a general meeting with an exec at Fox 2000, Alex Gartner, who asked me if I'd been thinking of anything specific. I said, “Yeah, I'd like to write a satire on the military, like ‘Catch-22.’” And he said, "We have a deal with a director who's talking about something similar." And he sent me to meet Ed Zwick. I told him my idea and he said, "Interesting. I was thinking about doing the War on Drugs." I said, "That's a better idea." Through a total miracle he got me a deal at Fox to begin researching the subject. I basically disappeared down a rabbit hole for about 12 months, researching in D/C., going to the Drug Czar's office, the Pentagon, etc, and learning about the War on Drugs. Around the same time I was winding down my plucky personal research odyssey from the consumer side of things, and the two crossing yet diverging vectors left me full of ideas and sort of clear-headed. I also had a huge writing block. Basically, I used to work like this: I'd get a job or assignment and a deadline. Let's say it was 8 weeks out. So for the first 6 weeks, I'd be off drinking and running around and whatnot, and then about two weeks out I'd start thinking, uh-oh, you're running out of time. Then there'd be a week left and I'd say, "Impossible, it's too late. Can't be done. Better call and quit and return the money..." and then with maybe four days left, I'd say, "Well, you didn't call and didn't give the money back and you're a total fraud so you better just write something with this remaining time and turn it in and who the hell cares what happens." And then I'd work around the clock and somehow it would work out. But now I'd removed the whole binging/disappearing aspect to my work-performance and had nothing in the quiver to replace it with. I was just adrift. Ultimately, I shared this whole, "I've actually written nothing" truth with Steven Soderbergh and he was incredibly helpful.
You won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. What did that feel like?
I never put too much stock in awards, probably because I'd never actually won one. I mean basically I was All-State in soccer a couple years in high school and then nothing much good happened for about 15 years. So I was pretty inexperienced with awards and award season and all that kind of thing. I'd lucked into a writing Emmy with David Milch but the Oscar thing was just out of the blue and really nuts. In hindsight I realize that at the time one tends to believe that one deserves it more than just recognizing the blind luck quotient necessary to any film getting made, much less being made well, then being discovered by an audience, and finally revered by an audience. I mean, I thought, of course this is happening. I love the film, “Traffic.” In hindsight it's easier to see how many things broke our way, how lucky it was to have Soderbergh at the absolute peak of his inventiveness, how lucky to find that subject (thank you, Ed) at that time in my life, in that time (election year, Cold War winding down), etc. and etc. and etc. In my twenties I thought, oh this will happen all the time, this is normal, but it's really not. It takes luck to recognize your subject and have the opportunity to swing for the fences inside that subject, luck to have found collaborators like Ed and Steven. And by luck, I mean great reps—it was David Kanter who sent me in to meet with Alex Gartner, it was Alex who said, “Well here's a guy without a single feature script to his credit, but let's send him to meet our director”… on and on … it's just preposterous all the things that went my way. And of course I worked very hard ultimately.
What got you interested in petroleum politics and the oil industry?
It was Osama Bin Laden's first statements after the 9-11 bombings. He said, and you may not remember, because later he gave a bunch of contradictory reasons, but the first explanation was, "Get your planes out of the Holy Land." And I thought, “what planes? what Holy Land?" It turned out it was air force bases near Mecca, I guess. But an enormous event had happened and I didn't have any knowledge with which to frame the event. I recognized this and wanted to learn what was going on. Why did we have planes in the Holy Land? Why was this bearded trust fund kid so angry about it. I wanted to understand why 50 years of foreign policy was being tossed aside. I could feel the ship America making a hard, sharp turn, and I just wanted to understand what was happening. So I started reading and talking to people. Then Soderbergh sent me a book by Bob Baer and asked if I could make any sense of it. I read it and it was about finding out who did the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. And in the book, which is fascinating, there's one part where Bob writes that he'd come back from being Iraq Bureau Chief for the CIA and he couldn't get a meeting at the NSC because of being "lined up behind all the oil lobbyists." So I got together with Bob and asked him what he meant by this. That lunch, with Jennifer Fox and Bob, began the 4.5-year journey that resulted in “Syriana.”
Tell me about your research process with “Syriana.”
I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and again in D.C. Bob Baer called me up and asked, "So you really want to learn how the Middle East works?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Meet my Saturday in Nice." And I said, "Nice, France?" And he said, "Yep. It's August. It's hot in the Gulf. Everybody who can make a decision is in the South of France." We met with heads of state, arms dealers, foreign ministers, heads of secret police, terrorists, and every stripe of person in between. Then we went to Beirut. And the Persian Gulf. We were in Paris together. And London. We went to the “Oilman of the Year” event. We had all sorts of adventures in the Bekaa Valley, Damascus, the Western Desert, other places. It was like living a T.E. Lawrence book.
Was writing/directing a great revelation, as in having more control of your vision?
Writing and directing a film are two ends of the same job. The job is making a movie. When you're writing, you face the void, the something-from-nothing business. You have to make a million decisions—start here, it's about this, contextualize how, theme, theme, theme... And then directing is much more narrow. Ten thousand binary questions—this or this? This or this? This color or that color? This place or that place, this car or that car, this extra or that extra... SO you start the process extra wide, lens all the way open, and you work it all the way through to where you're picking the song for the trailer. Same job, just different parts of the same job, writing then directing. Then of course in editing you write it all over again. But somehow through it all, if you're lucky, you come back to the earliest inspiration, the original something-from-nothing moment, the reason you wanted to do it or were interested in the first place. For me it was, "What is a foreign policy, what is the role of the USA in the world?"
When your writing is flowing, what kind of headspace are you in?
Writing is the great mystery. I have no idea where it comes from. When it's going (which is really rare) it just goes, and time stops, and suddenly there are pages and pages and I'm sort of empty-feeling and you look at it and wonder if it's any good. Usually, when it comes from that zoned-out place of no thinking, no ego, no results, it's pretty interesting. It's that logical, connect-the-dots type of writing that has to be carefully looked at…because it's usually not true at all.
What do you look for in the projects you take on?
Ideas come from all sorts of places. But they have to be sifted against time. The best idea in the world on a Friday may look absolutely ludicrous on Monday. But over time the good ones stick, sometimes seemingly uninteresting things take on power over time, as other things start to stick to them. For instance, I've been thinking about Telco deregulation for a long, long time. I think it's an interesting idea for a film, that somewhere in there, in all the ins and outs of what happened, how the bill passed, what it's meant for the world, there's a great story, but I have no idea how to do it. I haven't found the way in. Something is still missing. Usually that's a human/relatable aspect that is undeniable, that has to be told. So I can read and think about something for years and years and then suddenly, bang, there's a simple story, and all the other ideas, points, twists, stories just fly to it like metal shavings to magnet and they stick and you start to have the shape of something real, but it's a long, messy, not very logical process that I wouldn't recommend to anyone.
The solitude and authorial god-ishness of writing as compared to the teamwork/collaborative aspects of directing, being on set. Talk to me.
As I said earlier, writing and directing feel like opposite ends of the same job. To me it feels like to earn the fun social/traveling/public component of filmmaking, the part where you actually get to collaborate with a great actor and make something, the fun of that is earned by the long, lonely, painful writing time. So as you narrow in the decision process from ‘anything is possible’ to the very concrete—"he carries that gun, drives that car, wears that size suit, walks with exactly that limp, from this injury..."—you move from total isolation to a fun, social milieu. People, in a way, are the reward for writing well.
Tell me about “Blink” and how it came to be.
I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, sitting in Cafe Gitane in NYC. Then I got to know Malcolm. Then we were both sitting there when Leonardo DiCaprio came in. And he said, “We should cook something up.” And it all just came about serendipitously. I'm still working on the script. It's been a loonnnggggg process, but I believe a good film will eventually come from it.
What are you reading right now?
I was just on a total hot streak with reading. I read three great books in a row. I read "The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner, "All There Is" by James Salter, and then "Eleven Days" by Lea Carpenter. These books all had the effect of making me want to write. That's the great gift. Same thing with a film I caught on the plane yesterday—“Beginners,” the Mike Mills film. My wife turned me onto this great band, Hooded Fang. I feel lucky to live in a place and time where there's so much good stuff coming out, in so many different forms, and it's almost all instantly accessible. Maybe that's the thing about growing up in Kentucky in the time just before cable television. I used to wake up early and wait for cartoons and before the cartoons would come crop reports and before the crop reports it was just white noise on the TV, those grey/white spots vibrating. I'd sit there eating cereal from the box waiting for the guy to drone the prices of sorghum and whatnot. They asked Mary McCarthy a long time ago why so many writers came from the south and midwest and she said, “It's because you grow up watching the planes fly by overhead and the trains go by without stopping and you wonder where the hell is everybody going.”
Who are your heroes?
I admire those people who seem to be doing exactly what they're meant to do, who manage to make all the systems fit to their vision. The Uncompromised, let's call them. There are very few of them in film, but seem to be more in other walks of life, but maybe that's the ‘grass is greener’ syndrome. For instance, just recently, I was at the Wavegarden in Spain surfing with my friend Takuji Masuda early in the morning. And the next two people to show up were Dane Reynolds and Craig Anderson. And then they surfed. And as I watched them I spoke with Dane's girlfriend and she was talking about their last few weeks. They were in Japan and here and there and in Europe, just traveling around, promoting a film, surfing. And I watched that guy surf the Wavegarden, just ripping it with a quality that truly seemed to come from some other planet—I mean, Dane doesn't look overtly like an athlete. He's not all ripped and eating protein shakes with an entourage. He shows up, stretches a couple times by touching his toes and then he goes out and surfs better than any human alive. And there's a quality to him, an ineffable THIS IS ME, DOING EXACTLY WHAT I'M MEANT TO DO, HOW I DO IT quality to him that seems real and true and is obviously super compelling to marketers and whatnot, but starts by being basically real. I happened to witness it in the early morning in rural Spain, where he showed up just to surf the artificial wave because he'd done it before and not been that happy with how he surfed it, so he was back, to do it better, and he did. And he did it for himself alone. And I got to see it. And it reminded me to look at parts of my life and hold them to that same standard of integrity, integrity in the sense of: Does this feel right to me or am I talking myself into it for some other reason? There's a freedom that is instantly recognizable in those who are in that zone of doing their thing in their way, whether it's in surfing or filmmaking or music or whatever.
How did you get into surfing?
I rented a house with some people in Malibu. I stayed out during the week. From the window I could see people surfing. One day, I woke up and said, “Why am I not surfing?” I rented a 9-0 Zuma Jay board and a wetsuit and spent three days in the white water. The third day I got one on the shoulder. Rode it all the way to the beach, jumped up and down in waist-deep water. When I paddled back out a guy I knew said, "Now you know the meaning of the word ‘stoke.’" But this moment occurred around the time I quit drinking. And when you quit something that has occupied so much time, has taken up literally almost two full workweeks every week, suddenly you have a ton of free time on your hands. It's like you walk around just having no idea what to do with all that time, you aren't hungover or staying up all night or chasing girls or whatever form it takes, and suddenly you're just standing around blinking in the sunlight saying, "I need a hobby or something."
What role does surfing play in your life?
Well, when I get the time to get out everyday, it's pretty much all I want to do. A lot of the time life intervenes and I lose that edge so when I go back out, I'm so crappy, I just get really down. Still, any time in the water is usually good time, and I've never yet regretted a session, but I wish it was more integrated into my life. It's pretty common, I suppose, but when you learn a sport when you're 5 years old, like I did with tennis or soccer, you never really lose it—I will always be able to hit a forehand that looks like a forehand; but when you pick up a sport in your late, late twenties, it's really hard to make it look right. And when I sit out a while from surfing, when I go back, it's just so wrong. It's insanely frustrating. I would give anything to have been raised on an ocean instead of on a clay tennis court in Kentucky, but there's really no going back. Ideally, I'd have a house right on a break and be able to go out for quick 40-minute sessions whenever it looks good. Still, we take surf trips and have a ton of fun. We were just in SW France, in Bidart and Guethary, and had an amazing time hitting all the beachbreaks, caught a great day at Parlimentia. There's just nothing better.
Do you follow surfing, as in the contests and the culture?
I follow surfing in a strange way, in that I want to make a film or something out of the world. I think about it a lot and have tried a bunch of ways in. I feel like maybe I finally have the right way to go about it. Also, I love sports stories so I'm always tracking the ups and downs of the pros, their personal lives, backstories, where they came from, what it's like for them. And also how they try to monetize what was at one point, for all of them, a great love. It's tough to monetize love. It changes it completely. I went through this with writing. I love good writing so much, have derived so much pleasure from it, but once you turn pro, you never read or watch a film the same way again.
What do you do when you want to get away from work?
I have to be on the water, pushing myself, trying to snap a turn I never could make before, or being in the water with guys who are so much better than I... I get to surf with people like Danny Fuller or Dan Ross every once and again, and watching those guys turn a little nothing wave into an absolute work of art, it just blows my mind, again and again, it never fails... Thinking about it a bit, there's a quality to surfing that's absolutely analogous to writing... when you're really doing it, when it's going well, in the zone or whatever lame phrase tries to capture it, time just stops and all the crushing self-awareness goes away, and everything feels so right, composed, infinite, and it all just stretches out, and it's all over in an instant and you have no idea how you did it or even what just happened... but it's the best feeling in the world... so good in fact that you can spend your
entire life chasing it.
*This piece appeared in Saturdays #003. Photo by Stephen's wife, Minnie Mortimer