Stephen Gaghan’s writing career started quite promisingly,
publishing a short story in The Iowa Review before he was even 26. He also impressed the
writing staff of "The Simpsons" with a spec episode entitled “Family Wheel of
Jeopardy,” as well as producer and talent agent Bernie Brillstein
with a collection of "Saturday Night Live" sketches he’d written. But a career in
television writing in the 1990s— including stints at "New York Undercover," "The Practice," "American Gothic," and "NYPD Blue" (where he shared an Emmy for Outstanding Writing
for a Drama Series)—soon gave way to screenwriting. His first produced
film credit was "Rules of Engagement" (2000), which starred Samuel L. Jackson
and Tommy Lee Jones, but he received much acclaim for his next film, "Traffic" (2000),
which was based on the 1989 British miniseries Traffik. Traffic went on to win four Academy Awards, including
a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Gaghan. Around the same time as
Traffic’s release, Gaghan revealed that he had himself been a longtime
drug addict, finally getting clean in 1997. Subsequently, he made his
feature directing debut with Abandon (2002) and was one of three credited writers on the
historical drama The Alamo (2004). His next great triumph occurred in 2005 with
the release of Syriana, a multi-character drama he wrote and directed that
examined the danger of the world’s addiction to oil. The film earned
Gaghan his second Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Original
Screenplay, and George Clooney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
More recently, he’s one of the writers (uncredited) on the 2013 big-budget
sci-fi film After
Earth, which stars Will Smith and his son Jaden. “I’m in
the adult-serious ghetto,” Gaghan says about his niche in Hollywood.
“That’s my pigeonhole. I made it, I dug it out, I climbed in the
hole—it’s dark and airless. But I dug it, you know? And no other
hole exists.” -- "Film Craft: Screenwriting" editor Tim Grierson
My father’s father wrote for a Philadelphia newspaper and aspired to be a playwright. We had in our house a couple of crazy unproduced plays that he had written. For the one creative writing class I took in my life, I didn’t do any writing—I decided that I would plagiarize his terrible play to not fail the class. That didn’t work out very well. Later, when I won the Oscar, there was a federal judge who contacted me to say, “I went to school with your grandfather, and he was a smart guy, got the classics prize in Greek, was voted most likely to succeed, that kind of thing.” My grandfather thought he was gonna take over the world, but he didn’t—I think he got drunk for 50 years, and then he was a nightclub columnist and reviewed plays. He was a charming guy—you know, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking newspaperman. He was married to my grandmother, who was a painter, and his father had been a concert pianist, so there was this thread of drunk, failed artists that went back on my dad’s side. The thing I wrote in Syriana where Jeffrey Wright’s dad carries a card in his wallet that says, “If you find me, call my son”? That’s based 100 percent on my grandfather, who carried that same card. I try to imagine what that was like for my dad—he’s working and suddenly gets a call: “There’s this guy here, can you come get him?” So when I was seven and told my mom, “I’m gonna be a writer,” she said, “Oh, that’s a terrible idea. You’ll live in misery and die teaching other people’s children badly.” My parents wanted the safer path for me, and I think they failed miserably achieving that.
I didn’t mention anything about writing again until I was about 20. It was a secret that I kept inside of me. I didn’t know anyone who was a writer—I didn’t even know what it meant to be a writer. I just loved books. But there was nothing on the surface that said I would be a writer. I didn’t work at it. I didn’t write. I didn’t even know how to type. But I just had this sense in a totally mystical, strange way—I would get in trouble, and there would be a voice in my head that would say, “Well, you’ll be able to write your way out of this one.” I don’t know where it came from.
And as I got into my teens, I started reading better
books, beginning with the Beats and then the hippie writers, people
like Wallace Stegner up in Northern California, and all the political
New Journalism stuff, the Boys on the Bus dudes and Ken Kesey. I loved
those guys, and I loved the lifestyle—take tons of drugs and you too
can write One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think I had the chronology of
Kesey’s achievements a little cockeyed, but by then I loved the trio
of great drunk Americans: Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Not so
much for the writing yet— I just really liked the drinking and smoking
and all that stuff.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I wrote spec screenplays. I was really poor, and I thought I was just gonna do this for a while to make a little money so I could write novels. I thought movies were a second-class art form. I condescended to it—I didn’t know enough to know it was really gonna be hard.
Things changed around the time I met Michael Tolkin. When I saw "The Player" (1992), when I was still living in New York, I had thought, “I wonder if I could do that.” A couple of years later I had become friends with an executive who was working with him on a project for HBO about Microsoft, and she put the two of us together. When he and I first met, we talked about Proust, and we both loved Tolstoy, and we had a lot of similar references. So we ended up spending the whole meeting talking about "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and "The Kreutzer Sonata." And I was just so happy. I didn’t care what happened after that—it was just the greatest afternoon. I thought, “I love this guy. He’s so funny and so cool, and just an absolutely first-rate artist in all of his thinking.”
We teamed up on the HBO project, which was a satire about Bill Gates and Microsoft, a sort of "Dr. Strangelove" piece about technology, called 20 Billion. We’d break up the scenes, we’d write our scenes, we’d get back together, and his scenes were just so much better than mine that I couldn’t believe it. I’m lucky I could see how much better his were—I mean, that’s the first real break, realizing how not-good you actually are, and cutting through all the nonsense smoke that’s usually being blown at you in the zip codes around Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. But I knew—I knew he was great and I was terrible, so I started literally sitting behind him and watching him type when he would write his scenes. We’d keep reworking the story, and this went on for a long time. And then one day, I riffed out a subplot involving two characters who were sort of like the girl I was living with at the time and myself. I wrote the scenes, maybe 15 pages, in a few hours. I showed Michael the scenes, and I saw it in his face: “Hey, this is actually pretty good. That’s gonna be in the movie.” And he was happy for me, too. And when it was over, I was at the point where I felt like, “Wow, I’m writing scenes that should be shot.” Three years of my writing career had gone by—I used to think, “I’ll just dash off some Simpsons episode and make some money and come back to fiction”—and in that time, I had written volumes of terrible stuff. But watching Michael changed my approach to everything. I realized that this was a real art form and that I didn’t understand it. I had to prostrate myself before it and study it if I wanted to be good. I had some other friends around this time, too, who were doing very interesting scripts: Charlie Kaufman and Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson. We traded our stuff back and forth. I saw early drafts of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Rushmore (1998). I saw fully formed film artists who were my peers and I wanted to do what they were doing—get my own voice or vision of the world out into that world. I had no clue how this was going to happen, but suddenly I just really loved this fucking art form. It’s like haiku repeated 10,000 times in one document. The bar was set way higher than I thought.