“Kill the Messenger” is the true story of reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who uncovers the story of a lifetime, the CIA used funds from drug smuggling to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Once the story is published, it changes Gary’s life and not for the better. I participated in a roundtable discussion with the director of the film, Michael Cuesta.
I’ve heard about your great passion for the project. Talk about what it took to get this film made.
Michael Cuesta: I came very late to the project. The script had been adapted back in 2008 by Peter Landesman, who was a journalist. He adapted from a book by Nick Schou called “Kill the Messenger” and Gary’s own book “Dark Alliance.” The script came to me because of three reasons. My representatives brought it to me when I was in the middle of directing the 2nd season of “Homeland,” so that’s one reason because I am the “CIA guy.” Which is a typical Hollywood thing, you know “put him in that box.” But also I had a working relationship with Jeremy. Jeremy and I did a small film together called “12 and Holding.” It was a little movie where he played a very interesting and likable character. We really liked working together. And we did a TV pilot that didn’t get picked up, right when “The Hurt Locker” was breaking. We stayed in touch, and when this came to me, Jeremy was already attached to it. He was the reason why this project got out of turnaround. He wanted me to direct this film because he trusted me. So when I read the script, I remembered the story. I didn’t know the personal part of the story, the stuff about Gary. I thought the script was fantastic.
Would the story have been bigger if there had been all the social media that there is today?
Michael: When Gary broke the story, they posted it online being so close to Apple in San Jose. It was the first story to be posted online by a newspaper. That’s one of the reasons why it broke so big. Gary was adamant about that, because the story had a high unbelievability to it. He put all his sources in the article. He wanted people to be able to go online and check his sources. I think that is why it made the story so incendiary and spread like wildfire. It took the African American community to blow it up. It took Rev. Al Sharpton with all those rallies to make the story so big. It took U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and her voice to make it big. She stands by the story to this day.
Can you talk about adapting this true story and combining it with the drama of a film? I liked how you interjected some real life clips from news stories into this film.
Michael: The script had very little of that. I knew we wanted to do something with the “War on Drugs.” Peter, in his first draft, had a few quick bits about it. I always knew that this was going to be me in the editing bay for seven months, figuring out how to do it. I had somebody constantly researching anything to do with Iran Contra. Let me be clear, Iran Contra is not this. Instead of selling arms to Iran, they sold drugs to America. Senator Kerrey tried to investigate it and got stonewalled. That’s real, by the way, that scene in Washington with Michael Sheen character saying he had investigated it and warning Gary not to go down that path. That was all real. But remember this is based on a true story. We moved some things around. I talked to Gary’s widow, and she was fine with that, understanding that this was a drama, not a documentary.
Tell us about Jeremy helping assemble the rest of the cast.
Michael: Jeremy was a cornerstone of the film. He was a producer and would have to make a call or two. I went to Jeremy and said Ray Liotta hasn’t read the script. So I got Jeremy to call Ray. He told him to read the script, and when Ray did, he said “I’m in!” All the supporting parts were very important to the film because they were the steps that Gary took; they are the parts to the puzzle that Gary solved. It was fairly easy for people like Ray or Andy Garcia to come in because it was just a couple of days work. There wasn’t any rehearsal, so they were willing to take a lot of direction from me. I think the Ray Liotta scene is an example of that. His scene is almost surreal, which is what I wanted. I wanted him to be almost a ghost and Ray was very into that. He did everything I needed him to do.
Talk about shooting here in Georgia, because I didn’t recognize a lot of places. I would have thought you shot a bunch of it in the actual historical locations. It’s hard to believe the scenes in Nicaragua and the prison weren’t shot in actual locations.
Michael: You know, if I could have, I would have like to film in the actual locations like Puerto Rico. Yeah, the only shots not in Georgia are the Washington D.C. shots. Those were shot in D.C. We ended the shooting of the film there in D.C.; shooting those scenes with Michael Sheen. I was worried a little bit shooting everything here. But when I got pictures from Sue Webb of their house, I was amazed on how close the house here looked like their house in California. The Nicaragua scenes were easy; we just had to find some abandoned warehouses and we would be fine. I have to say Atlanta works like L.A.; it’s got a lot of looks. You can get a good urban look here. That whole street scene, the abduction, that’s supposed to be Panama was in downtown on a weird little street that looks Caribbean.
How did you work on “Homeland” influence your work on this film?
Michael: I saw the first part of the film as a procedural. The first half as Gary puts the story together as procedural. “Homeland” was a lot of that. “Homeland” is completely fictional. I mean, there isn’t a chance in the world that Claire Danes character could be in the CIA. They do psychological evaluations every six months. There is no way that she would be able to do what she is doing and get away with it. Both are similar in their complexity and the imperfection of how our government works.
Thank you for talking with us.
Michael: It was my pleasure.
“Kill the Messenger” opens in theatres near you this Friday, Oct. 10th.