Kill the Messenger is one of those rare films that focuses on some controversial events surrounding specifics agencies that are supposed to have the best interest of the American people in mind. It takes a look at the late Gary Webb, his crusade to uncover an alleged conspiracy within the CIA and his life around that time. For me, seeing the movie would have been enough, but having the chance to interview director Michael Cuesta when he came to Boston to promote the film was an added bonus that I couldn’t pass up on.
For those of you who know a bit about his work on the Showtime original series Homeland, you could probably see him choosing something like Kill the Messenger to work on. Here, he talks about how him getting involved with the film happened and got into specifics about why he got on board with the film:
Michael Cuesta: I was the last one to come on. Jeremy Renner was already a producer and an actor, and he sent me the script. So, when I read the script, it was already adapted from the Kill the Messenger book and Gary’s book, Dark Alliance. I read the script and I remembered the story. I didn’t know the level that he was discredited or how many papers wrote contrary things about him. So, that was the part I didn’t know as a result of that, The CIA releasing these reports, which was partial vindication. That’s how it came to me. Then from there, I’m just drawn to stories that don’t have easy answers. It’s not so much that I was looking for a political thriller or anything like that. It was very much about relating to this guy and his reason for doing what he did. That’s why I got involved. Jeremy was big part. He and I worked together before (12 and Holding) and the chance of doing another film with him was exciting.
As he says in his previous response, Kill the Messenger isn’t the first time he’s worked with Jeremy Renner. He continued to talk about him and talks about how things have changed a bit since their first time making a film together:
Cuesta: I knew this guy was going to be big. He just came of Dahmer and he’s done some of these dark roles. So to get a chance to work with him again, he was already nominated for two academy Awards before this for The Hurt Locker and The Town. That was a big, big reason I got involved.
One of the people shown to have some interesting connections with this entire scenario filled with controversy was Ricky Ross. As Cuesta explains, the two hadn’t met until a couple of days before we sat down for this interview. How did he get his information on him? That’s also explained below:
Cuesta: I just met Ricky (Ross). He and I just did a Q and A two nights ago. He’s just a regular guy. He’s so soft-spoken, it’s amazing that a guy like that was running this huge operation in the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. I never spoke with Ricky. I went off of the homework that is involved when getting into a project like this. The articles that were written about him, it was key to dig those up. The L.A. Times articles were the hardest to dig up, because there were so many of the things that were written about this. And The Washington Post was easy, because we have those in the movie. So, to read the first one, the Robert Caro/Walter Pincus co-written article that sort of began to completely say the opposite of what Gary said. A lot of that, I came from his point of view, so I think I had to know him by talking to his wife. I got to know what he was like at home. The procedural part of it: being a reporter, being “on the beat” so to speak, that was the easier part. It was really being able to color his character with more human nuances and fall abilities and things like that.
There are a few other people in the film that they didn’t get to meet up with for various reasons, but they had to do some research on them as well. One of the people who helped with this was Peter Landesman. He wrote the screenplay and used the investigation skills that he learned from his old job:
Cuesta: Because he was an investigative journalist, Peter Landesman (writer of the film) did some investigative work on his own. There was one guy he talked to. It was Jonathan Winer, who worked with the Kerry investigation, so the Michael Sheen character, I know Peter spoke with him briefly, but that character was a combination that included a guy named Jack Blung, so it’s two different guys. He never spoke with Norwin Meneses or Danilo Blandon or Coral Baca.
Coral Baca was an impossible for target for them to get before the creation of the film. He didn’t go into details on why they couldn’t get her beforehand, but he did talk about her being involved with the Ricky Ross documentary coming out during same time as Kill the Messenger:
Cuesta: There’s a documentary about Ricky Ross that’s coming out and they were able to get Coral Baca to speak in the documentary. She’s in the trailer and I’m like ‘How is it that you got her and we didn’t get her?’ She’s in the documentary and they’re releasing it right around the time of this film.
One of the main features in Kill the Messenger comes in the form of the political thriller that we all expect to see when we sit down to watch the film. It’s very important to all of this, but Gary Webb’s family and personal struggles also play a significant part in the film’s core.
Cuesta: That was one of the tragedies of all this, because as it was happening, he was dealing with a lot of personal stuff. His family was his rock. He loved them so much, and the moment that he was transferred; it was partly because he was being obviously downsized and demoted, but also that he had to leave them and live in this sh*tty hotel room there. That was devastating for him. Also the affair coming out like that. That actually came out a little later when Gary was on a book tour, but Sue (Gary’s former wife) allowed us to put the screenplay to bring that into the story. Because they’re all one. It didn’t happen as soon, because they divorced in 2000, which was three years after he went through the grinder.
As Cuesta talks about, one portion of Webb’s life is something that many can understand. He put a lot of time into his career, and it’s seen as something that negatively affected his life as a family man. Cuesta sees his issues with his family as something that did a ton of damage to him:
Cuesta: I related to that. It’s huge part of his downfall. Without him losing his family, I don’t think it would have been the story that we told. I don’t think he would have fallen as far, so it’s super important. And it’s good to see Jeremy just be a father, be a man. That’s why those scenes in the kitchen were super important to see that he was that guy. I looked at Gary’s videos. He was just always home eating breakfast, fighting with the kids, playing around. I threw in a little video in the end to show how close Jeremy captured that spirit. Sue, the wife, gave me tons of home videos to watch.
The cast in this movie is pretty good on the surface, so you would think that getting many of these actors would have been difficult. However, that simply wasn’t the case:
Cuesta: It wasn’t that hard to cast, because each role was super important to his investigation and his journey. It’s not like they’re cameos or it’s charactery. As far as the plot, they all play a very integral part of the journey. All very important characters that are there to relay information that the story becomes. So, they all knew they were going to have their moment. It was relatively easy to get them. And they trusted that they were going to make the cut, because a lot of these guys get cut. Like Barry (Pepper) got cut from one scene. And Ray Liotta! That’s tough one to cut. He really got a moment in the movie.
Michael Cuesta has directed films that don’t seem to go with one another. It’s not completely odd for directors to take on films of varying subjects, but that always intrigues me. I asked him about that and what he looks for when making a film:
Cuesta: There’s definitely genres that I don’t like, like romantic comedies or something. I just never know what it is. It’s usually a book you read or you’re inspired, because I’ve co-written a few small films. It’s usually a character or something that I relate to. If it’s some freakish quality in them that I relate to. But I never know what the story is, I don’t think a lot of filmmakers really look for something. They usually wait for something to pick them. I just leave myself open.
Another thing that intrigues me about directing is the difference between working on film and on television. That came up during the interview, and ended up speaking about which form of entertainment he prefers the most:
Cuesta: I always treated pilots like a mini movie. And sometimes I would get into trouble. I would partner up with a couple of writers that wrote it. They’ve only done television, they don’t come from movies. I would always get them to think in terms of movies and not t.v. as far as how you tell the story. I found t.v. tends to be too obvious. And the things that feel cliché and obvious, I’m always trying to strip that away in television. I prefer films as all directors do. A lot of it has to do with the post production process. I cut this with just my editor for seven months. You don’t get to do that with a t.v. show. I prefer to make movies. It’s really hard to make movies of substance. That’s what I would like to do. That’s what all filmmakers would like. I haven’t made a commercial movie yet. I’ve done that in television. I’ve done that for Blue Bloods and Elementary, which were very t.v. friendly, easy, more obvious types of things. I have to make a living too. One thing about filmmaking, about directing, about Steven Soderbergh nuts and bolts filmmaking – I do shoot a lot of my own stuff too – is that you gotta be doing it to be a filmmaker. Most people in this business talk about making projects like this and they actually don’t make them. I actually advise any independent filmmaker to do television because it may be a great show or something like that, but you’re getting behind the camera and you’re working your craft and you learn how to tell stories better through experience. Either watch movies or do that. To me, it’s better than film school. To learn that way and keep learning your craft, that’s what t.v. is good for. You can get a lot of jobs. I haven’t done that many episodes, but I’ve seen filmmakers that I admire go in and do some episodes to get paid. Like Lodge Kerrigan, the great indie filmmaker. A New York guy. I brought him in to direct an episode of Homeland. And now he’s doing some episodic stuff, but he’s gearing up his next film, he’ll take it to Cannes (Film Festival) and he’s like a celebrated New York film artist, but he doesn’t get paid for those.
After talking about how Lodge Kerrigan filmed an episode of Homeland, Cuesta begins to talk about how he pitched in to get him that opportunity. Lodge has a history with both Cuesta and Damien Lewis from before that show even aired. As a matter of fact, the film Keane that was directed by Kerrigan and starred Lewis was one of the things that got the two onto the Showtime hit series:
Cuesta: Clean, Shaven and the one with Damien (Lewis). Which is how I cast Damien. That’s why Lodge came to direct one. Because Damien and I were like ‘Damien, you have this job (on Homeland) because of that movie and I gave that DVD to David Nevins at Showtime. We have to get Lodge to direct and episode.’ They didn’t want him, so Damien and I had to basically guarantee the episode. That he wouldn’t f*ck it up. We really supported him. He had trouble making the schedule. He eventually got to it, but he was like taking four hours to do one master shot of a scene. He’s like painting the scene, he’s yelling at the extras, he’s trying to block it and design it a certain way, and I’m like ‘Lodge, I’m there too, but you’ve got fifteen minutes to get the shot. I’m not going to pull it, but that mean guy over there that’s ready to pull the plug on you.’ But Lodge pulled it off. He’s doing it.
Cuesta then goes on to talk about more differences between t.v. and film from a creative standpoint. To some varying degree, I’ve heard plenty of actors and directors talk about this. It’s clear why some do prefer doing television these days more than they used to.
Cuesta: I think that t.v. seems to be more about good writing now and so many movies seem to be about the marketing. Who’s in it? What the poster is? What’s the big high concept? Or what’s the franchise? You know what get’s the hot t.v. thing? A really good, well written pilot. Where it’s about the quality of the writing, then they find the director. I get some of them, because of my record. They don’t go to the t.v. guys. A lot of the episodic guys that used to get the pilot ten years ago who are not that interesting or doing interesting projects aren’t getting those jobs anymore. Scorsese’s getting those jobs. They’re going to Soderbergh. He just did The Knick. He shoots everything. I’ve done that. I was a director/cameraman when I did music videos and commercials. That’s where I came from. It’s so exhausting. Just physically. To do that for twelve to fourteen hour days. Maybe he only does eight to nine hour days, which I doubt, but that guy is a…man.