Interview: Michael Cuesta on CIA Secrets and the Importance of Journalism in Kill the Messenger


Any thought that the ’70s-inspired political thriller genre is dead need look no further than Kill the Messenger, the true story of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner), who back in the late ’80s and ’90s was leaked information by an unlikely source revealing that the CIA knew about crack cocaine being imported into the country by druglords, who in turn used the profits to fund Nicaraguan Contras.

The story was explosive and Webb won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, though soon found himself becoming the target of a blacklisting by other reporters and the government itself who tried to debunk the truth in controversy. It also led to Webb becoming increasingly paranoid, realizing he had angered many highly dangerous people and possibly putting his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and family in danger.

Also co-starring Mary Elisabeth Winstead, Michael Sheen, Tim Blake Nelson, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia and more, the film creates a direct resonance to what is going on in the world today in terms of how news is reported both in the world of “entertainment journalism” and real-life political events of far greater importance.

It also reteams Renner with Michael Cuesta, who directed him in the little-seen indie 12 and Holding back in 2005, but who has gone on to become an Emmy-winning television director on shows like Showtime’s “Homeland,” following a run of acclaimed indie films like L.I.E.. “Homeland” and “Messenger” has transitioned Cuesta into a filmmaker who has become deeply invested in investigations into government and CIA involvement in controversial actions, something he is already exploring for his next film project. sat down with Cuesta a few weeks back for the following interview. Be warned that the political thriller nature of Kill the Messenger makes it better to not know too much about the real-life story going into it. For instance, over the course of the interview, we talk about Gary Webb in the past tense, which may be seen as a spoiler for those who go into the film not realizing his ultimate fate (which is only stated as an afterword at the end of the movie). For some reason, I often get you confused with Miguel Arteta. I’m not sure why and I don’t know if you’ve ever met him.
Michael Cuesta:
No, I know Miguel.

CS: You started out on the same indie scene and then went to TV?
Yeah, yeah. I remember that he read a script that I wrote many years ago that he wanted to direct. I had never gotten that request from someone, another director wanting to direct something I’ve written. Anyway, the movie never got made. It was a small odd film that I wrote and he had notes about it but he wanted to come on board as a director and at the time, I was like, “Miguel I love your work, but I kind of want to do it.”

CS: You wanted to direct yourself.
Yeah, I wanted to direct it, that’s why I wrote it.

CS: Was that before “L.I.E”?
It was right after and then we met on “Six Feet Under” and we kind of stayed in touch. He sent me a few projects that he was producing that he wanted to attach me to as a director, but I wasn’t available.

CS: When I was researching which one you were, I realized you directed “12 and Holding,” which was the first time I saw Jeremy Renner in a movie.
Really? He was already known for “Dahmer,” that was the movie where he really broke out and it was way before “12 and Holding.”

CS: Which one of you found this script?
My representatives brought it to me. It was developed by Universal and it was put in turnaround, I think because journalism movies weren’t hot at the time. One had failed at the box office–“State of Play,” that Russell Crowe thing–so it went into turnaround. I think because of the timing, me coming on board, I’ve been known to take on a couple of difficult subject matter as well. It’s my involvement with “Homeland” and the success of that show and it’s showing of the inner workings of an imperfect powerful agency. And then of course, I had worked with Jeremy before. He came with the script–he was already attached–so that to me was a no-brainer. Any chance to work with him again. I remember the true story of the guy, but I didn’t know the extent to which he was discredited and how his own kind turned on him. That I found heartbreaking but also important to tell that story.

CS: I was around at that time and what I remember was the outrage about the CIA potentially putting crack into poor neighborhoods, which was never really the story, but that’s what ended up being what the public remembered, more than anything else.
More than a reporter that actually never said that it was this sort of conspiracy plot, but it was spun like that, and that was one of the things that brought him down. I make a point of that in the movie. A lot of the way the story was packaged and what people turned it into was the CIA targeted bad neighborhoods, but what Gary was saying was that there was a connection, but he believed that it was just bad timing as far as crack being invented and also people looking the other way, turning a blind eye to just drugs ending up on the streets of America in general. If you’re dealing with guys who live in the States who are sending money back, where are those drugs going? They knew. No one gave a sh*t.

CS: As we saw in the title credits sequence, this broke after this huge war on drugs campaign by the government.
The last thing they wanted out there while Nancy Reagan was out there saying “Say No to Drugs” was that they actually had a hand in that, absolutely.

CS: Peter (Landesman, the screenwriter) also has a background in journalism. I have to imagine he did a ton of research
I used Nick Schou’s book in terms of digging in deeper. I talked to Peter but Peter worked as a screenwriter on the film but he adapted those two books. I would say for me to have a full understanding of the project was of course going back to Nick Schou’s book “Kill the Messenger” but then going into Gary’s book, because it was important to come from Gary’s point of view, so if you read Gary’s “Dark Alliance,” which is the whole story. It’s 500 pages, a dense dense account of who all the cast of characters are, as well as his journey through putting this story together.

CS: Does it talk about his marriage and all that stuff as well?
Oh, yeah. “Kill the Messenger,” Nick’s book, did that a lot because Nick was able to talk to Sue a lot. And then of course, Peter did. Peter had a great interview with Sue as he was putting the story together. It was a good 25-page transcript of a conversation between them, so I worked off of that and then of course when I spoke with Sue myself, then I started to really understand Gary as a guy, which for a director, is key to really inhabit your character, your protagonist, almost in a method-like way. I really related and empathized with him.

CS: Was Sue really open to being involved with this? I would think that was a dark chapter of her past.
Yeah, she was supportive of the script from the get-go, all the way ’til now. She’s out there talking about the movie now.

CS: Did Rosemarie get to spend any time with her?
Rosemarie did. After she was cast, she went up to Sacramento, spent a weekend with her.

CS: Jeremy was attached early on, but there are a lot of different roles and characters like Ray Liotta shows up for a great scene we can’t actually talk about. In fact, a lot of actors show up just for one scene, so how do you go about casting something like this?
It was pretty easy to cast, as far as getting big names or really great actors like that, because they all play an integral art of Gary’s story, either for the good or for the bad. I think they felt like they were all playing a real big part of this story rather than just a cameo that could get cut, and they all had their own agenda. Ray Liotta’s character is a combination of a few people. (NOTE: Semi-SPOILERS for the next section although we cut out a few things to keep it sort of vague) He’s more representative of a story that Gary did get that he was not allowed to use, so the timing was very close to reality in that it was a DEA Agent who came with a lot of information about a CIA pilot that was running drugs during that time, and Gary wasn’t able to use that story. We combined that character with an ex-CIA operative that Gary had met as well. What Peter did and what I even took further was this idea of what did Gary need at this moment? He needs that golden ticket to show up at his doorstep and just appear before him. The irony was that that guy, his agenda was to use Gary as a priest so he can confess, but almost like a psychologist, Gary can’t use it. He even says, “You can’t use this.” And he tells him, “I’ll end up dead. This is something you can’t use, so if I’m not going on record, this is not going to help you.”

CS: I’m a little wary of including that as that may be a pretty big spoiler for some.
No, don’t, because that was the straw that broke his back. Well, no, the straw that broke his back was the paper writing a letter retracting (the story) but in reality, Webb did go in with that but was not allowed to use it.

CS: What about someone like Tim Blake Nelson?
Tim was the most helpful of all the actors, because he’s a writer. We did some work on the script. We’d sit in my trailer in the morning and run some scenes together and then we would rework certain things. He was very helpful with that.

CS: I feel like he’s one of those actors who can show up for a day or two, do a scene and it just turns out great?
But he would never say, “This is not how the scene should be, it should be like this.” I would ask for his help. Like if we had trouble with some of the dialogue, he would just make some suggestions and we would rework some things.

CS: One thing I really liked about the movie was the music and one of the biggest surprises was hearing a song I had never heard by Mott the Hoople. I heard the voice and I immediately recognized it as Ian Hunter, but then I thought it must be some new younger singer I’d never heard of who just happens to sound like him.
Well, Gary was a huge Mott the Hoople fan and (SPOILER) when he commits suicide and when he was found dead in his apartment?.

CS: Which is also kind of a spoiler?
Years later? he had Mott Hoople on the turntable and then Ian Hunter sent me a photo of himself saying “Good luck on the movie. I love Gary,” because they had met and Gary was a huge Mott the Hoople fan and he was a punk rock fan. Was he a Joe Strummer fan? I asked Sue and she said, “Yeah, I’m not sure but the Clash was more my thing,” so I just felt that if Joe were alive, he would embrace this film, because he wrote so much about the Sandinistas and the Contras. So that moment where he writes the story, it cost us a fortune to get that song (“Know Your Rights” by the Clash) but I thought it was important for the storytelling.

CS: I remember enjoying your earlier movie “Roadie” because it involved so much music from Blue Oyster Cult.
I’ve played in punk bands. I have five guitars. Music is a huge part of my life. I can’t help but not put it in the movie, having a guitar somewhere. Look at “Roadie,” that’s all about that.

CS: Although it often costs a lot of money to get the songs you want.
Well “Roadie” was tough. Clearing the music on that was another whole story that I (won’t get into). That was a nightmare.

CS: What about the other aspects of doing a period piece even if it’s just 20 years ago? Is it hard to do that kind of thing?
I thought the story was timeless. We did some screenings and people were confused what time period it was, but it almost didn’t matter because the story is the story, but it did matter in that this story was printed in ’96, so it came out ten years after the fact. The story was never reported on much in the ’80s except for the Kerry investigation that went on and he was stonewalled, so none of the papers picked it up, very little. If anything, everything was buried, so Gary’s story, the mob mentality that went on is the result of a lot of jealousy. A lot of these papers knew that they had the story and they didn’t get it.

CS: Especially the L.A. Times and the Washington Post, they weren’t there.
Sure. He says (the editor) at the L.A. Times that “It’s f*ckin’ five miles from our door. How did we miss this?”

CS: That still goes on with the internet and the different trades who are always chasing each other to claim a story as an exclusive before anyone else can get their story up.
Yeah, to get scooped, right.

CS: Sometimes it’s just about who has the fastest fax machine receiving the press release.
Or to stay behind a reporter who has brought the big one, like Gary did, I would think that there are other reporters that have gotten close and were told to not go down that path.

CS: I’m sure there were reporters with better CIA contacts?
Like the Washington Post.

CS: This film is a true testament to really good journalism.
Or the need for it.

CS: Like with “State of Play,” because there is a need for the public to know that this stuff happens in the world of journalism.
No, completely. I would say that if there’s one thing I would like people to take away is that, the importance of dogged investigative reporting, journalism, and the importance of these guys. The importance to have cops on the beat like Gary was.

CS: And journalists who really stick to the story and do whatever it takes to get as much facts and people on the record as possible.
Look, but you can see why the Merc pulled away. You might not agree with it but you can understand them sending other reporters back and getting conflicting stories or this person disappeared. The way it happened in reality was very complicated so I felt like dramatically we had to have it be like “your source is now gone and all these things are taken away and untrue.” They didn’t actually print that. They just printed the apology letter saying that mistakes were made in never getting a CIA operative on the record, and Gary made a point of, “Is that ever going to really happen?” A lot of the other papers used their supposed CIA operatives as “unknown sources” and an “unknown source” can be anyone! It’s like what you get on Fox News now, who comes on. Some analyst comes on and “Who the hell is that guy?”

CS: That also seems to happen all the time on the internet where someone reports a story and backing it up only with “our source says?”
People just make sh*t up. But no, they put their sources on the internet, they were the first paper to do that, because they felt the story–and this is from Webb, he said it in the movie—had a high unbelievability factor, so they were the first paper to list the links to his sources on the website, plus the transcripts of the interviews, essentially letting people into his notebook. No one has done that before, so the irony is that this guy did responsible reporting. Look, can anyone ever prove this? No f*cking way. It’s unprovable, “because it’s the CIA, they’re a secret organization, Jerry, they don’t talk!” We have it in the dialogue.

CS: You would literally have to start secretly trailing CIA operatives which would be almost impossible. Have you talked to any reporters who were working the news beat during the time this was going on?
I have come across two people who were at the Merc during that time. One person showed up at a San Francisco screening–I was just there two days ago, in the Bay Area of Berkley–and he was just thankful that the film got made, and then another guy called into NPR and started to take it apart. He started to take Gary apart and I just thought that it was inappropriate. I’d say, “Give me some facts about what Gary got wrong” and he couldn’t. At least I got him to admit that mistakes were made by the paper, too.

CS: What are you doing next? Are you still doing “Homeland” stuff?
No, I left “Homeland” after the end of the second season to do this and to develop a couple of my own TV projects. I shot a pilot. I’m entertaining a TV show about mega-churches and I’m also signing on to get a film made about our government military and CIA policy in Beirut in the early ’80s, which led to the Iran Contra (hearings). It’s more of an absurdist drama, more in the vein if Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H*,” not like this or “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s not a turgid drama, it’s more borderline black comedy.

CS: You kind of went off on an interesting tangent with “Homeland” and this, and if you go back and look at your earlier films like “L.I.E.”?
When you start to read into a subject, I have to say that it came out of this, of doing my homework. I remember Iran-Contra but to go back to that period, it’s the biggest scandal since Watergate. What’s bigger? Now we have Snowden, now we have these whistle-blowers and (Julian) Assange, but in the ’80s, it was the Contra war and the scandal.

CS: I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff to be explored there.
It’s great drama and there’s comedy in it. There’s the mistakes the CIA made? there was something called “Codename: Bail,” a lot of people don’t know about it, and it was basically a program that the CIA was working secretly outside of the other CIA, so the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing. It was dealing with all that we’re dealing with now, multiple alliances in the Middle East and I don’t think our country knew how to deal with it at the time. When you had six different versions of groups that were in Lebanon and Hezbollah came out of that. The early ’80s was when they were formed. It’s not a political, didactic? it’s educational but also fun.

Kill the Messenger opens in select cities on Friday, October 10.

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Weekend: Jun. 20, 2019, Jun. 23, 2019

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