A dreamer’s tale, a cautionary tale, Gold, in the way of classic adventure storytelling, exposes the true nature of men. Whether you’re working out of a dive bar in Reno or in the gilded towers of Wall Street, the pursuit of gold reduces all men to their purest elements.
Gold, inspired by actual events, is the epic tale of one man’s American dream and everything he’ll do to keep it from falling apart.
The screenplay for Gold was written by Patrick Massett and John Zinman (Friday Night Lights), who also serve as producers, and directed by Academy Award winner Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Traffic)
Matthew McConaughey stars as Kenny Wells, who embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of America, a man raised in the mining business, the type of men, like his own father, who aren’t afraid to go out in the mountains and dig fortune from the ground…
The global financial crisis was destroying the economy, with many terming it the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was 2008. Everyone was struggling–losing jobs, losing homes.
In Los Angeles, screenwriter/producer partners Patrick Massett and John Zinman stumbled upon an article about the Bre-X gold scandal of the 1990s, in which the Canadian company Bre-X Minerals Ltd. reported the discovery of a huge gold deposit in Indonesia, courtesy of a mining entrepreneur who’d teamed up with a geologist. Initially a mere penny stock, Bre-X soared with billions in enthusiastic capitalization.
Money was on everybody’s minds now. Remembers screenwriter/producer John Zinman, “A lot was going on in the country with the financial crisis and the 1% movement with the growing disparity in the country, and this story seemed to ring a lot of those bells.”
So the screenwriting duo transplanted the notion to the US in the 1980s, creating the fictitious character of Kenny Wells, a Reno prospector with a loyal girlfriend named Kay, a brainy geologist partner named Mike Acosta, and a deep-seated desire to make something of himself. “We pitched it to a lot of places and everyone passed,” says Masset. “But we loved it and believed in it and thought there was such a great character in Kenny Wells and such a great world that nobody had ever seen in modern times, although there were some elements of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But this is so global.”
The more they thought about it, the more they believed in Kenny Wells. Massett points out, “We really love characters that are underdogs, that have to fight from the ground up to prove themselves and have something to prove, and Kenny is so colorful and so wonderful but he’d also hit rock bottom.”
Kenny was getting older without success. “You reach a certain age,” muses Zinman, “and you reflect on the men you knew in your life growing up – – my father, friends of my father, the idea of what it means to be a success in America, a man who provides.”
So in 2009, Massett and Zinman wrote GOLD, a fast-moving, character-driven spec screenplay with a colorful plot full of twists and turns, all of it brimming with wit and personality as it spanned a sprawling global scope. Plus, it had a provocative mystery at its core.
The screenplay got everyone’s attention, quickly making it onto Hollywood’s Black List of best unproduced scripts. The writers decided that rather than auction off the script, they wanted to partner with a production company so they could stay involved. And they wanted a partner who responded to the themes that intrigued them.
“Every single person at some point has to go out into the world and make something out of themselves,” reasons Zinman. “It explores ambition, ideas of self worth, and at its core it’s a story of friendship. These two guys—Kenny Wells and Mike Acosta–share certain needs. They both have the drive to be reconsidered in a more favorable light. They recognize something in each other – – whether it’s deception or collusion, the friendship is the glue that holds the other themes together.”
From Massett’s viewpoint, “Kay accepts Kenny as he is, but Kenny wants to be better than that. That’s a Western American theme in men – – our identity is so attached to our material value and our title.”
Suggests Massett, “In a nutshell, it asks, what profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?”
Adds Zinman, “And it’s about belonging! Kenny thinks, if these fuckers won’t let me in their club, I’ll buy their fucking club. So the need to belong is a theme that propels Kenny’s character.”
Producers Join Up
Massett and Zinman found somebody who responded to those themes in producer Michael Nozik at HWY61, who read the script in 2010, optioned it, and began developing the project with them.
Suggests Nozik, “Kenny Wells is a classic American character who goes from rags to riches, to rags to riches again. It’s a terrific dramatic adventure story with an iconic character. It seems like the reinvention of Willy Loman in a more modern-day setting.”
Indeed, Death of a Salesman was one of the screenplay’s inspirations and a movie discussed more during development. “Loman is about the dream of being a great man,” says Massett. “I don’t think we get as dark as Arthur Miller with Willy Loman, but there’s certainly that broken American dream.”
Another influence was Glengarry Glen Ross. Points out Zinman, “Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross – – that humanity, the slight desperation beneath his bonhomie, that story was definitely a touchstone for us and he was a touchstone.”
Directors responded to the script—among them, Nozik’s partner Paul Haggis, then Michael Mann, but the financing didn’t come together.
Then Black Bear Pictures founder Teddy Schwarzman expressed interest in partnering on the project, and began talks with Nozik, Massett, and Zinman. In 2012, Black Bear became officially involved.
Recognizes Schwarzman, “Everything starts with a screenplay that captivates you. For me, the characters were so rich, the world was so diverse, but ultimately thematically it was a story about the American dream. It’s a story about what it takes to achieve that dream – – about the lengths to which you will go and the things you will sacrifice. I think that’s the struggle that every American feels and everybody across the world feels. While Kenny Wells is very distinct in his mannerisms and his style of doing business, I think there’s a little bit of Kenny in everybody and there certainly was in myself, and I was just captivated with the story and wanted to bring it to the screen.”
It all crystallized for Schwarzman, who points out: “It does hearken back to some great films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King. There’s something classic about the storytelling here and the characters, and yet at the same time it’s completely contemporary despite being in the 1980s. It’s themes that we’re still dealing with today, and issues that we all struggle with in our daily lives – – greed, ambition, betrayal, honesty, hope, futility, desperation, it’s all here. It’s a wild ride that takes you from the small mining town of Reno to the heart of the Indonesian jungle to the board rooms of Wall Street, where everything that you think you know, you may not.”
Schwarzman became an avid proponent of the project, and wouldn’t give up. “We bought the script outright in 2014,” he remembers.
Massett and Zinman saw new momentum mounting, with Massett noting, “Teddy’s a trooper. He fights. He’s got passion. He reminds me of the old-school Hollywood producers. He gets behind the projects he believes in and he doesn’t let go. It’s rare and special. He’s a very special producer. A lot of times, producers just follow the money. They gravitate to the projects where money is flowing. Teddy pushes the projects he loves to the money, so they get made.”
Matthew Mcconaughey Becomes A Gold Producer
Around now, Matthew McConaughey expressed interest in GOLD. Recalls Schwarzman, “Matthew got involved through a great deal of luck, to be honest. We were very much thinking of going to a director first, but the script got out into the ether and Matthew read it and there was something he responded to in a very personal way to the character of Kenny Wells.”
The actor had movies already booked out ahead for several months, but he wanted to join Gold as its star and a producer.
Explains McConaughey, “It was one of the few scripts that I said, I have to do this. I have to be this guy.”
Specifically, Kenny Wells reminded McConaughey of a fellow named Chicago John who his father had introduced him to briefly in 1987 in Texas. “My dad took me the day before Christmas to Wal-Mart to get some stocking stuffers. On the way, he pulled over behind this abandoned shopping strip mall. There was this old white van down there and out of that white van came this guy, Chicago John. In the back of that van, he had washing machines, dishwashers, old microwaves, telephones, gadgets, all kinds of shit,” recalls McConaughey. “My dad goes over there and swaps some cash. My dad gets back in the car and says, Here, here, and wraps this thing up in some paper towels and says, put that in the glove compartment.” After driving away, his dad let him unwrap the purchase. “And in there was this silver and gold watch. He goes, `God damn! This is a $24,000 Rolex made of titanium and I just bought it for four grand!’”
McConaughey explains, “And when I read this thing about Kenny Wells, it had who I thought Chicago John was, the story I had created for him over the years, and a little bit of who my father was. My father invested in a diamond mine in Ecuador. There were no diamonds in Ecuador! He got over there and got his machete and hacked through the jungle. We always used to like to say to dad, Boy, if it was a shitty deal, he wanted in. He’d rather that it be a shitty deal but work with some really fun people and have it be an adventure, than have it be a really good deal and work with a bunch of stiffs. And so, in my impression of who Chicago John was and who my dad was at that time, there is a whole lot of Kenny Wells.”
The way McConaughey perceives Kenny Wells is, “Kenny is a great big dreamer. He’s got a lot of dreams. When we meet him, he’s at the bottom of the barrel; he’s not doing too well. He took over his father’s company which was very successful and he’s run it into the ground. He literally gets drunk enough that he has a vision. He has a dream one night that there is gold over in this place that he’s been to some years earlier, and he’s brave enough to follow-up on that dream.”
Overall, McConaughey contends, “The story for me is really about what a man like Kenny Wells will do to keep his dreams alive. How far will he go? And he will go all the way.”
As far as producing, McConaughey says, “It was very important to me because I understood this story and this character that I wanted to be part of how the ship sails, where we go, what direction we head, from finding the director to all the characters’ stories and relationships. I wanted to make sure I had a creative hand in that, at least to the approval standpoint.”
Writer/producers Massett and Zinman had not envisioned McConaughey in the role when writing it, but, says Zinman, “Once Matthew entered the conversation, it was like a light bulb. He has the right energy!”
Director Stephen Gaghan Comes Onboard
Who to direct? Stephen Gaghan, the writer of Traffic and writer/director of Syriana, had certainly proven his cinematic prowess with global material dealing with current events.
If you meet Massett and Zinman you’ll think immediately the big guy is the brawler and the smaller guy is the poet. Then you’d have it backwards. Or maybe they’re both brawlers and poets. They did great work for years on “Friday Night Lights”. I knew them long before I got a look at Gold. They’d say “we’re writing a script on a gold prospector, modern day. I’d say that’s a great idea. They’d say, oh Michael Mann is directing it. I’d say, lucky you. When I finally got my eyes on it, the films that leapt to mind weren’t just Treasure of Sierra Madre, and Wages of Fear, the classics of adventure storytelling with a point, but films like Midnight Cowboy, and The Last Detail, in other words my favorite films.
“When Stephen read the script and came to us,” Schwarzman remembers, “he just knew the characters. He simply understood the world, understood the characters, and understood the struggle – – the struggle to matter, the struggle to prove yourself, not about how much money you can make, but about the impact you can have in the world and what that says about yourself. And it became a personal story for him as well.”
Producer Michael Nozik already had a relationship with Gaghan, having been a producer on Syriana, “So I knew he was particularly good at handling stories that have ambiguity in them. He loves to live in the world of ambiguity. And this is a story with essential ambiguity. Is the lead character guilty or innocent? Is he somebody you love, somebody you can be engaged with? Stephen has an interest in big themes, and themes about the American experience, and in some ways this is a story that reinvents itself.”
As for movie inspirations, “We all talked about The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as an archetype – – you go out in the desert and the blindness of gold and the ambition of greed blinds people to their own desires, and makes people do crazy things that aren’t part of their personality. Kenny is somebody who is at times blinded not by greed, but by the ambition to succeed,” reasons Nozik. “Stephen was very understanding of this character as an archetypal American. He’s very specific but he lives in the bigger realm of an archetypal character, a Willy Loman, who has become archetypal in American literature and the American experience – – the salesman that won’t ever die.”
The essential struggle to make a living resonated too with Schwarzman, who observes, “There’s elements of truth in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, Wall Street, Boiler Room even, where you see art imitating life and our Three Greenhorns was very indicative of that: people who had been hit by the stock crash of ‘87, people who were trying to find their way through the world who believed that they were entrepreneurs who could find a way to succeed. What they were doing is no different than what people in lots of different industries who were hit by economic decline were trying to do, which is survive and thrive.”
Assesses executive producer Ben Stillman, “GOLD is a script that required a certain delicacy and intelligence while also being really fun. Steve totally understood that from the beginning. Part of his pitch was that the script would take care of itself on the intelligent side, while he would bring this energy and understanding of the relationships at the core, whether it would be Wells and Acosta and that buddy relationship, which he did great work to make even realer, or the relationship between Kay and Kenny, which is the central part of the movie, really the heart of it.”
McConaughey had his own questions for Gaghan: “I wanted to find out, as a producer and actor, do we have the same measure and threshold of what we consider excellence? Of what is a good scene, of what is a really good take? Of what is a really good choice for who could play Acosta or Kay or someone else? And do we have the same sense of humor? You know, behavioral humor. Kenny Wells is a really funny guy. He has his own moments where he’s trying to be his own standup comedian and tell his jokes, but it’s mainly real behavior from who the guy is. And another sensibility is, do you have a similar sense of what’s cool? And by that I mean, obviously trying to be cool is not cool. Characters and people that know who they are, for right or for wrong, that’s cool.”
Gaghan joined the project in 2014. McConaughey worked with him on fine-tuning scenes, as when Kenny and Acosta go to Danny Suharto. McConaughey reasons, “It’s their last chance! It’s like it’s fourth and one from our own one-yard line, and we have to throw a Hail Mary to get this deal and to get him to come on board and be a partner. What was written was originally a nice page of dialogue where Kenny sits down and says a very out of place joke about Cadillacs and pussy and stuff, and Mike thinks, oh geez, Kenny spoke out of tongue, we’re gonna lose the deal. Then Danny loves it. He goes, I love Cadillacs! I actually have a Cadillac.”
McConaughey remembers, “I told Stephen, we’ve seen Kenny use that version of salesmanship throughout the story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This being fourth and one from our own one, something else has to happen! The stakes have to be higher. It has to cost more. It has to be harder to pull it off. Stephen came up with the idea that Danny owns a tiger.”