In shooting “Gold,” based on the true story of a prospector who flips the precious-metals industry on its head with an elaborate scheme, cinematographer Robert Elswit joined director Stephen Gaghan to create an atmospheric period movie enhanced by the use of both film and digital cameras.
“The story is set in the 1980s, but we weren’t imitating that era’s style of filmmaking,” says the DP, reteaming with the director for the first time since 2005’s “Syriana.” “We wanted to build an authentic feeling that served the story and affected people’s emotions in a very subtle way.”
In the film, Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a character based on Canadian stock trader David Walsh. We meet Kenny on top of the mining world, taking over the company his father passed down to him. Then the industry takes a turn. He pawns his wife’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) jewelry, and flies to Indonesia to meet his partner, Michael Acosta, (Édgar Ramírez), hoping for one more score. The only problem? Their “find of the century” is nothing more than fool’s gold, and the authorities step in to investigate.
The action unfolds through Kenny’s recollections for the FBI, and Elswit visually defines the separate parts of the character’s life using three different formats. He deploys anamorphic lenses to shoot 35mm film in Thailand, which stands in for Indonesia; a digital camera and anamorphic lenses record most of the U.S. scenes, including Reno and New York; and spherical lenses are paired with a digital camera for the interrogation scenes inside a hotel suite.
“Anamorphic gives you the scope and scale you want to show in Thailand, and shooting on film created a softer, more romantic look for the moments that make up his past,” Elswit says. “Then, for scenes in the suite, it was more about making it feel clinical, a little harsher.”
The DP also uses space to tell the story. In a sequence where Kenny contracts malaria at the Indonesia dig site, the camera moves closer to McConaughey and the wide anamorphic lenses allow viewers to feel his physical anguish.
“You don’t have a lot of choices with anamorphic, but shooting up close and wide is a marvelous way to make you feel present,” notes the DP. “We also had the camera a foot away from Kenny and Michael in a hotel scene where you think they lost it all and they’re trying to salvage the whole thing. It’s a moment where they become friends.”
The production saw its share of floods, rock slides, insects, and snakes. During the second day of shooting in Thailand, the roof of the main set ended up six feet underwater. “Finding those places and shooting in them was challenging,” recalls Eslwit. “But they were great places to work.”
The Weinstein Co. released “Gold” on Jan. 27.