In the 1980s, the CIA was complicit in the marketing of Nicaraguan cocaine to lower class Californians in order to fund the country’s Contra rebels. This was a thesis that San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb put out into the world in the late 90s, and was eventually destroyed because of it. The new film Kill the Messenger is Webb’s own story, a “David vs. Goliath” tale in which David is crushed and ruined by forces that can spin the media in their own favor, while easily discrediting the blood-sweat-tears efforts of a reporter who had to keep many of his sources anonymous.
Director Michael Cuesta creates a vivid portrayal of Webb (played by Jeremy Renner) presenting him as a dedicated working man and also a conflicted father. Kill the Messenger becomes more than the story of a media victim, but a patriarch who tries to maintain control of what means the absolute most to him.
Cuesta has directed three previous films, L.I.E., Twelve and Holding, and Roadie. He also has experience in TV directing, having helmed the pilots of “Elementary,” “Blue Bloods,” and “Dexter.” Cuesta has also filmed episodes of “Homeland” and “Six Feet Under.”
I sat down with Cuesta for a brief chat on his film, his perspective on the story of Webb, the “earthquake” that Kill the Messenger experienced, and more.
Kill the Messenger opens in Chicago on October 10.
How did the input of Gary’s ex-wife, Sue, influence how you wanted to portray Gary, especially regarding his domestic life?
I spoke with Sue before preproduction to get a sense of Gary just as a man. It really helped me access the character of the film because I related to a lot of the things, what Gary was like at home, and how he saw his vision for his profession; his doggedness for his vision, and his passion. And my wife has been living with that for a long time, so I used that. I kind of had to inhabit the character as well as Jeremy does, so that Jeremy and I could have these conversations, and we had worked together before so he had trusted me. Talking to her was a a big part of making Gary real, and not this deity or martyr or something.
When you were making ‘Kill the Messenger’, what were some significant news events that you remember happening at the same time?
The big news at that time was Trayvon Martin. That was the news cycle on television. I wasn’t reading a lot of newspapers. When I make a film, the news would be on when I would be cooking dinner after work, and I learned about it from the TV. But I close myself off when I make a film, and I think that was the big news event.
In terms of what we notice in our news, do you think we are more or less distracted in the same way, or has the amount of new reporters and voices out there made it possible for these tales to ring through?
It’s about what [the reporters] choose to report, ultimately. To really look at how it works and how things get out there and how they don’t get out there. And i think the second Hitz report being buried, that’s a perfect example of how that works, and it happens with “Dark Alliance”, with his series, the way to bury it was to discredit it. Because they were jealous, and the other part was that they released it but they have the people who work in public relations who just said to throw the article on page seven. A lot of what came out of a result of these allegations is that people don’t know; it should have been bigger. I do see … I am empowered by the fact that something happened, little small steps, and I like to think that this movie is another small step. It’s a necessary film to be out there for people to be aware of what happened with these guys.
What movie about film do you think is most honest or true to your experience? What movie about filmmaking?
I would say Day for Night, and The Player [laughs]. Well, The Player is a satire, but I think it captures a deep, dark truth. Day for Night in its sort of energy and all that, but The Player would be more in that it got everything right. That’s one of Altman’s best.
Your film is being released by Focus Features, which went under a distinct leadership and image change in the midst of ‘Kill the Messenger’s’ post-production.
We lost the guy who we probably needed the most to support this film, James Schamus, the president of Focus Features. He got fired four weeks into editing. He called me before and asked to see the director’s cut, and he was supportive and then a week later he was fired. They’re a different Focus now. It’s in the hands of marketing people. James was very supportive. I did a lot of research, I knew that getting into the project when the script was sent to me with Jeremy already attached I remembered the story and I remember everything breaking, but I didn’t remember all of the discrediting, I didn’t know that part so much. I didn’t come from journalism. I was directing music videos and commercials and filmmaker and photographer, and then I was like, “Holy shit, this is what happened to that guy? Fuck, I remember this.” And then I started to read a lot before I signed on and I realized I had to do this film. And then when I went into Focus gave me a thick book called “The Politics of Heroin” about the CIA’s complicity in the drug trading, more reading in the drug trade, this sort of government and nations complicity in the drug trade in general. It’s fascinating; but James, he was really into it. There’s a little piece of Webb in it. That was the one big earthquake that happened during post, losing him, because he was everything. He’s like, “lock it, it’s your movie, go.” It was tough, I had to do deal with new people coming in who don’t really know, and he also really trusted the filmmaker. I got like two notes from him going off to make the movie, and they were smart and simple and clear. I did use them.
People in Hollywood say they make movies … they don’t. I make films, I’m a filmmaker. I actually do it. It’s not as much as an intellectual process as you think, it’s practical. It’s craft, that’s where I come from. I feel like a lot of people in Hollywood, they just talk and they like to hear themselves talk, and they give notes and it’s like, you’re not making it better, you’re just changing it.