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Between Takes

An interview with filmmaker Stephen Gaghan.

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Years before I met filmmaker Stephen Gaghan, I saw Traffic, his multi-narrative film about the illegal drug trade directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Released in 2000, it was smart and political and gripping and oozing humanity. It stretched my bandwidth before “bandwidth” was a buzzword. It won Gaghan an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

So began his celebrated career: He wrote and directed 2005’s Syriana, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Jeffrey Wright; 2002’s Abandon, starring Katie Holmes; and 2020’s Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr.; and he directed 2016’s Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey.

When I did meet Gaghan, about a half-dozen years ago, I was in awe of him and a little intimidated. I thought: “Hollywood big shot.” To my surprise, he was humble, sensitive, kind, and thoughtful. Our friendship kicked into high gear on a trip to the North Shore in 2015, where a bunch of us stayed together in a rented house at Log Cabins. When we weren’t bouncing around in the surf, we engaged in voracious conversation. His love of language comes across in his eloquent and empathetic manner of speaking. He possesses that wonderful quality of awe and fascination in the people he admires—to the extent that he forgets that he himself is someone hugely admired. 

Steve—I’m calling him Steve—grew up in Kentucky, attended the University of Kentucky, and eventually graduated from Babson College. He did a stint in NYC, where he wrote fiction and worked at The Paris Review. He wrote the screenplay for Traffic at an oceanfront studio in Malibu, interspersed with surf sessions. A regularfoot, he rides shortboards and marvels at ace blow-tailers like Dane Reynolds and John John Florence.

Today, Steve lives with his wife and kids at Malibu’s western end. He writes at a little beachfront studio on PCH close enough to the water that if he dropped a pen out his window at high tide it would land with a splash. “I think the horizon is really important,” he says. 

On the day we spoke, he’d just finished a draft of his screenplay adaptation of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir. We sat on a rock overlooking a lesser-known Malibu pointbreak. Steve’s son, Gardner, surfed out front. The sun was low, the waves were playful, the horizon was way the hell out there.

Years before I met filmmaker Stephen Gaghan, I saw Traffic, his multi-narrative film about the illegal drug trade directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Quaid, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Released in 2000, it was smart and political and gripping and oozing humanity. It stretched my bandwidth before “bandwidth” was a buzzword. It won Gaghan an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. 

So began his celebrated career: He wrote and directed 2005’s Syriana, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Jeffrey Wright; 2002’s Abandon, starring Katie Holmes; and 2020’s Dolittle, starring Robert Downey Jr.; and he directed 2016’s Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey.

When I did meet Gaghan, about a half-dozen years ago, I was in awe of him and a little intimidated. I thought: “Hollywood big shot.” To my surprise, he was humble, sensitive, kind, and thoughtful. Our friendship kicked into high gear on a trip to the North Shore in 2015, where a bunch of us stayed together in a rented house at Log Cabins. When we weren’t bouncing around in the surf, we engaged in voracious conversation. His love of language comes across in his eloquent and empathetic manner of speaking. He possesses that wonderful quality of awe and fascination in the people he admires—to the extent that he forgets that he himself is someone hugely admired. 

Steve—I’m calling him Steve—grew up in Kentucky, attended the University of Kentucky, and eventually graduated from Babson College. He did a stint in NYC, where he wrote fiction and worked at The Paris Review. He wrote the screenplay for Traffic at an oceanfront studio in Malibu, interspersed with surf sessions. A regularfoot, he rides shortboards and marvels at ace blow-tailers like Dane Reynolds and John John Florence.

Today, Steve lives with his wife and kids at Malibu’s western end. He writes at a little beachfront studio on PCH close enough to the water that if he dropped a pen out his window at high tide it would land with a splash. “I think the horizon is really important,” he says. 

On the day we spoke, he’d just finished a draft of his screenplay adaptation of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir. We sat on a rock overlooking a lesser-known Malibu pointbreak. Steve’s son, Gardner, surfed out front. The sun was low, the waves were playful, the horizon was way the hell out there.

Gaghan, shooting a TV pilot in Morocco. Photograph by Darin Rivetti.

JB You just finished writing a script. How does that feel?

SG I’m leery about any victory laps that are premature. [But] I have a nice feeling because, from a craft perspective, I feel like I pushed myself. I feel like I’ve grown a little bit trying to do something difficult. But I believe in the cinema gods. I think you really can jinx it. It reminds me of how when you’re in the water and you think to yourself, “I’m just going to get one more,” sometimes it creates a lull, you know?

JB What drew you to the project?

SG I had a powerful reaction when I read the book. I couldn’t believe the scale of it. It’s a surfing life, and by the time you get to the end of it you have this feeling of having lived this life—this intense relationship with the sport and with the ocean—with all these twists and turns. I can’t imagine anybody [else] ever articulating as many aspects of the deep nature of surfing and the deep nature of why people surf. And the diagnostic look at various waves all over the world—the intimacy that Bill has with Tavarua or Kirra or Jardim do Mar or Paul do Mar or Ocean Beach, the breakdown between Sloat and VFW’s. So I was struck by all that granularity. I was also just really taken with Bill’s voice. 

JB How did you find your way to surfing? 

SG I grew up playing a lot of sports in Kentucky. Kentucky is not a famous surfing state, though we have the Ohio River. And I kind of went off the rails when I was, like, 13, and was pretty much off the rails for around 19 years or something. When I was 32, I was kind of getting clean, and it looked like it was going to stick after a few failed efforts. So I found myself just having an unbelievable amount of free time, because when you’re living that lifestyle, it’s like you’ve got both arms and legs tied behind your back and you’re just hopping around on one leg trying to get things done. Then suddenly it’s like, “I just got an extra 40-hour workweek,” you know? And I’d wanted to surf since I read  “Playing Doc’s Games,” the piece that Bill wrote on Mark Renneker, in ’92, when I was on the train going from New York down to D.C. for Earth Day. It really, really landed. Anyway, I was in Malibu. I rented a board and a wetsuit from Zuma Jay, and I climbed the fence at the Colony and got out there. One of my friends, Raf Green, happened to be out in the water that day, and he saw me. I was surfing the whitewater or whatever, and then finally I actually got a wave on the shoulder, and I rode it all the way in to the beach. And I jumped up and down with my arms in the air, double fist. Not a claim—just, like, a cheerleader routine or something. Then I go paddling back out as fast as I can—I just can’t wait to share this amazing thing that’s just happened. And I realize as I’m paddling out that my friend was actually paddling away from me. Eventually, a couple of waves later, I found myself near him, and he said under his breath in the quietest way imaginable, “Looks like somebody got the stoke.” I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but I was like, “Whatever it is, I definitely have it.” I got out of the water that day and said to myself, “I’m doing this every day for the rest of my life,” which is exactly how I felt when I had my first drink when I was 13. And I went out every single day. Nothing’s really changed since then, almost 24 years later. It became a pretty central part of my life. 

If you could make movies for $1, I think a lot of psychopaths would flourish. 

JB Adapting Barbarian Days to the screen must feel like a kind of dovetailing of your two biggest passions.

SG It’s a testament to Bill Finnegan and the life he lived, which I think is a really valid, interesting life. He’s a man who had a lot of doubts about how he’d fit his surfing life and his work life together. Could you be a surfer dude and be a New Yorker writer? Could you come out writing about Renneker, and would people care? Did it matter? Could he be taken seriously on a policy level? There’s also the bravery and understated courage to tackle big waves, big projects, big ideas. Bolivia, civil war in Venezuela, La Familia cartel in Mexico, the richest lady in Australia who’s a mining magnate, human trafficking, sex trafficking in Dubai, war in Sudan. Could you write the book Crossing the Line, about a year teaching in a school in South Africa in the height of apartheid, and combine it with this really serious passion for the water and testing yourself against big waves? And how do you make that fit together? It’s also a 40-year marriage. It’s having a daughter. To have a warm circle of friends and people that care about you. And build that kind of life. And yet, write this book that says, “No. It’s barbarian days. That’s the touchstone, that fugitive patch I felt as a 12-year-old off the south coast of Oahu. It’s a surfing life.” Bill captured that. My life has overlaps, personally and emotionally. All of this stuff that I relate to. Pushing my parents away young. Traveling around the world. Testing myself in weird situations. But it’s that backside stuff that I really care about, like how you go into the night. How do you go into the night and not go gently? What does that look like? What’s it feel like? I think that his book—and his life—carefully read and considered, provides a real road map for that.

JB Describe your writing process.

SG I like to work early in the morning, as early as I can before anything gets hectic. It’s very hard for me to get into the world that I’m working on. And then once I feel myself slip into it, I don’t want to leave. I want to just stay in there. And then suddenly it’s not me. It’s like I’m putting myself in a position where something just starts to happen. It just comes out. And I have to, in the best way I can, almost get out of the way. But I don’t know how or why or when that happens. It’s like a weird alchemy. And you can think it’s happening, but it’s not. I can be really forcing it, grinding away for weeks and weeks and weeks, and suddenly something just starts to happen—and then I just try to stay in that and ride it as hard and as far as I can.

JB What’s it like moving between Hollywood and the surf world?

SG I’ve been lucky to work with people that I admire and I’ve also become friends with people I admire in the surf world, and they all share the same thing, which is curiosity and always questioning their own judgment. In my professional life I’ve tried to steer away from people who are more about the trappings of something versus the nuts-and-bolts machinery of making something. Because people that make stuff, I find, are generally just great people. You can be some guy who makes a house, you can be a guy who makes a surfboard, you can be a guy who makes a chair, you can be a guy who makes a movie. I build a script with my hands; it’s like hammer and nails, and it becomes a structure in three dimensions in my mind. And then I go try to put actors in it, and then I go to crew it up, and then we go and make it. I spend years and years of my life working on something, and I never feel like I get it right—really down on the stuff I do. With surfing there’s also a gigantic learning curve. It’s not dissimilar to what I went through to try to learn how to make movies. I wasn’t like Wes Anderson, where I knew from the time I was 6 years old I was going to make movies. I just kept bumbling into stuff. And I bumbled into surfing. It was, like, a thing to fill time when I wasn’t out in downtown LA and East LA getting into hijinks. I would give anything, anything, if I could go back in time and convince my parents to move to Southern California or Hawaii when I was 9.

Both filmmaking and surfing came as unexpected paths for Gaghan, who balances the pressures of the former with the joys of the latter.  Seen here, post-surf on holiday in France. In his latest project, though, he’s found a coalescence between the two. Photograph courtesy of Stephen Gaghan.

JB But you may not have become the filmmaker that you are. 

SG I would be a good surfer. [Laughs.] People on the outside of the film world often don’t realize that when you’re in the work, the levels of self-doubt are incredibly high. You have instincts and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh. My instinct is telling me this, but is my instinct right?” The creative process ultimately comes down to somebody having the final say. And things get really contentious. At the beginning, everything is real friendly. As the path narrows and narrows and narrows, eventually it comes down to some real heavyweights—at the level of Kelly and John John in their chosen field. They’re right up there, they’ve done this a lot, and they are really fucking good at it. They may not see eye to eye; it’s hard to see things through someone else’s eyes. They may really like each other, but the stakes are high. So you’re put through a mill that I think would keep anybody pretty grounded. If you could make movies for $1, I think a lot of psychopaths would flourish. But there’s a real crucible that you go through because you need resources. You need highly talented technical experts to collaborate with you. You need a whole litany of things that most people don’t think about. 

JB Was there a moment when you realized you’d made it, that you were born to be a filmmaker?

SG I don’t think I’ve ever said to myself, “Oh, I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.” That’s not how my brain works. I still, today, wonder what I should do with my life. I think a lot about what I’m writing—in this case, Barbarian Days. I think about how memory and imagination move us around in time. “Life” isn’t really a fixed point in time, not in the lived experience. Film should be able to capture that as well.

[Illustration by Sören Kunz]