Jeremy Renner co-produced and stars in Kill the Messenger, based on the story of real-life investigative reporter Gary Webb, whose articles exposed the "dark alliance" between the CIA, sales of cocaine and crack in the United States, and financing the Contras in Nicaragua.
In an interview, Renner and director Michael Cuesta spoke about bringing Webb's story to the screen. Renner explained what he most admired about Webb, and how he found a key to the character in the similarity between reporters and actors in seeking the truth in a story.
It's not an easy thing to live by, it's a code. It's either you are born with it or not. But he was tenacious, he persevered. I had to start out very small, trying to figure out who he was as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a journalist. A lot of us are defined by what we do. And for Gary, he did fall into that category. He defined himself by what he did and his job was his life. And so I had to then figure out what his job was like and that was a very foreign thing to me - journalism, life as a reporter. So I had my work cut out for me and it was a fun road. But also when you play a guy that exists or existed, you have a roadmap kind of spelled out for you. There are challenges that come with that because you are playing a guy that people know about or can research about so you can't veer too far off of that. So there is a responsibility of being truthful as the job of journalism is or should be.
Cuesta spoke of trying to convey Webb's "rock star quality," and why an early scene showing Webb walking to his office was especially important to him.
One of my favorite moments in the movie is the beginning where he walks through the Sacramento bureaus, past all of the other papers, to get to his very small office. In the script, the way Peter [Landesman] wrote it is like one sentence. But I knew that sets it up. It was like the outsider but he was cocky in a good way. He was tough, rock 'n roll and very much a cop, a kind of Serpico quality. Jeremy nailed so well, the physicality, the energy, just that walk.
Later you can see his transformation in the movie, just physically even in the scene when he is in bed when the Ray Liotta character talks to him. He is so vulnerable and physically he is wounded at that moment.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when, after congratulating and rewarding Webb for the stories, his bosses at the San Jose Mercury News start to back away. They buckle under pressure from the powerful people whose activities were disclosed in the stories and from rival journalists more committed to discrediting the competition than finding out what really happened. Cuesta said that originally there was a lot of dialogue in that scene, but Renner's expression conveyed his reaction so compellingly they let him improvise a few words and left it at that.
He explained that he broke the film down into three different movies.
The first was the All the President's Men, part of it. The optimistic part; Gary always had a spring in his step and he was very much in control. He is running into different things, he is running up the steps. He is moving. Then, when he is in Nicaragua was the first time he was a little bit of a fish out of water, but he is still in control until the parking garage scene. That was always one of my favorite little bits. That was the first moment of possibly understanding that maybe what he is doing can be dangerous. But we broke it up as that. The first part was very much procedural like guy on the beat, guy on the case, like a cop movie almost.
And then there was sort of that whole moment when he writes the story which is sort of rock 'n roll which is like -- how do you visualize that? So that to me was just collage.
And then the turning point was the machine, it's the only part in the movie where you are out of his point of view. I saw that as sort of this machine that is rolling, the snowball getting bigger. Gary goes on the defensive and he slowly starts to separate from everyone. He goes out on the boat. The boat moment was sort of a poetic version of that separation from everyone. He starts to get further and further away. I had to reference the paranoia classic The Parallax View.
Renner and Cuesta talked about the challenge of getting audiences in 2014 to pay attention to an expose in 1995 of CIA activities that took place in the 1980s. Renner said:
I don't know if it ever really got told. It never really got figured out. We didn't really have the support to really kind of keep digging. And we're also talking about 10-year-old news back in 1995. So who's listening? He's not even alive, who is really listening? I will tell you, we need to have people like Gary Webb to make sure we do listen.