Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger)

Michael Cuesta: The Interview (Kill the Messenger)
Shakefire sat down with Kill the Messenger director Michael Cuesta to talk about taking journalist Gary Webb's story of exposing the government's involvement in smuggling drugs into the United States during the 80s. Cuesta has made quite the name for himself, having worked on hit television shows like Homeland and on numerous films. Kill the Messenger also marks the third colaboration between Cuesta and lead actor/producer Jeremy Renner, having previously worked together on  12 and Holding and the pilot for The Oaks.

Shakefire (SF): How did you get involved with the film?
Michael Cuesta (MC): Well I came very late to the film. The script was adapted in like 08 by Peter Landesman, who was a journalist for I don’t know how long. He’s now working in Hollywood doing script doctoring and getting his own film going. And Scott Stuber at Universal developed it from the book, from Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger, as well as Gary’s book Dark Alliance. So the script came to me for I would say three reasons. My representatives brought it to me. I was halfway through the filming of Homeland, the second season. I was an EP and then directing the episodes. Obviously I think that’s one reason because “Oh, a CIA guy,” which is a typical business thing. It’s like, “Oh, put him in that box.” But also I had a working relationship with Jeremy [Renner]. Jeremy and I did a small film in 2005 together called 12 and Holding. A little movie, and he played a very interesting, very likeable character. He had just come playing Jeffrey Dahmer. We really liked working together and we stayed in touch and I did a TV project with him, a pilot that didn’t get picked up for FOX right when The Hurt Locker was breaking, but we stayed in touch. And when this came out and it came to me and Jeremy was attached. He was the thing that got the project out of turnaround. He was pretty adamant that he wanted me helming this because he trusted me with his performance. So that’s how it came to me and when I read the script I was like, “I remember the story.” I didn’t know the personal part of Gary’s story and the suicide; that happened many, many years later. I didn’t know the specifics of the story. I didn’t know the cast of characters like the amazing courtroom scene, which is really true, where he wrote the questions for that lawyer. So that’s real. I’ve never seen that as a set piece and to be able to realize that was really exciting.

SF: If this story came out nowadays with how prevalent social media is, do you feel it would have gone away like it did because it’s kinda been forgotten?
MC: If it came out now? I guess it depends where it comes out. Right now it seems who really breaks stories? How do the stories get big now? CNN? It seems like CNN and MSNBC or FOX News even. It’s these three stations that we all sort of flick back and forth on, at least I do. Or the New York Times, or someone writes an incendiary article in the New Yorker or something I guess. You know Gary, when they printed it, they were the first newspaper to use the internet and that was the first story to use it. That’s one of the reasons why it broke so big because people were clicking. What Gary was adamant about was doing that because the story had a high unbelievability factor to it so he put all the sources in there and all the links. Now when they do that now, I’m not familiar with how many journalists do that with the story online where you can really go check the sources. We don’t really get into that. I mean it’s mentioned in the movie briefly, but that’s I think something that made the story so incendiary and how it spread like wildfire. But it took the African-American community to blow it up and it took Maxine [Waters] and Reverend Al [Sharpton] and all those people who held those rallies. Maxine to this day stands by it.

SF: Talk about adapting this true story and combining that with the fictionalization of making a movie. I enjoyed how you injected clips from the news and interviews into the story.
MC: Yeah, the script had very little of that. It’s very much a post-production medium, like making a documentary to pull stuff. I knew we wanted to do something with the war on drugs, and Peter, his first draft had some references to it, just quick little bits, but always knew that this is going to be me in the editing room for seven months to figure out how to do it. So that was a good part of it. I had someone constantly researching anything to do with even as deep as Iran-Contra, which by the way, just to be clear Iran-Contra is not this. I mean, it is, but it wasn’t raised in Iran-Contra. Very little of it was. As far as the truth and did this really happen, we combined a lot of things and moved things around. A lot of Gary’s personal like didn’t go where the affair happened and things like that. We moved things around and Sue Webb, his wife who I spoke with extensively, was totally fine with it. She understands we were making a movie, too, so this is based on a true story. It’s not like a dramatization of exactly what happened. It was tricky. I have to say, though, movies are a director’s medium because I didn’t adapt the script. The script’s given to me, then I have to now take it. It’s a baton, and then I have to sort of fix things, because there were things in there that were so blatantly not true. There were things I had to change in script and also in post-production that even we didn’t know. And then the whole thing with Gary’s suicide. It happened six years after the mob piled on. He committed suicide and there was this idea of the producers wanting to put that in the film and use that and I was, for a while, really insecure about it. As a filmmaker, do you really need this, and I just can’t go there. He wasn’t murdered; he committed suicide. There was proof. He sent letters to his kids, Gary was a manic depressive and there’s other things we don’t totally go into and he struggled with that all his life. Ultimately, when he died he was depressed and shot himself. The idea of not bringing that into the movie, because if you bring that into the movie it becomes a conspiracy movie. It becomes who killed Gary Webb, rather than the story about that Gary was discredited for doing the right thing. I do believe, ultimately, that was his death. Going up the escalator was my way of doing a very simple poetic moment of a guy just leaving and he went out with great dignity and nobility at that speech. So to leave that part out was a decision I made.

SF: Obviously Jeremy Renner is the cornerstone of the project. Can you tell us about assembling the rest of the cast?
MC: Jeremy was also a cornerstone of that as a producer. He did have to make a call every once in a while. We went to Ray [Liotta] and I was like, “Jeremy, Ray hasn’t read it yet. Call him. I know you know him through your blah blah blah in LA.” And Jeremy had to put his producer hat on. Typically actors just show up and do their work, but he did help out with that. It was easy because all these guys were very important to the film. They were all the steps of piecing the story together. They were all the parts; they were all important roles. So getting people wasn’t hard. What’s wonderful is they’re very open because they’re clueless. Who knows most about what this film is? Me. So they were very much on the set behind what I needed to do and how I saw the scene.

SF: Can you talk about filming primarily in Georgia and creating these scenes in Nicaragua and the prison all located in the state?
MC: Look, if I could I would have went to the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, where you could get a tax rebate, etc. DC, we got DC, that was real. We all went to DC at the end and we shot for two days. It was great. We ended the film there with Michael Sheen. You know, I was worried a little bit, but when I started getting all the stuff from Sue, his wife, on what their house looked like I was amazed. It looked very close, the way it sat on the street, to foliage around it and this one neighborhood where we filmed his home. And then the newsrooms are the newsrooms. They’re all interior so they can be shot anywhere. Atlanta is good. It works kinda like LA. It’s got a lot of looks. You can get a good urban look. That whole street scene, the abduction, it’s supposed to be Panama. It’s this one weird street in downtown. It looks Caribbean because of the way it’s painted and it has these old bus stops or something. As soon as I saw it I was like that’s it, I’m done, it’s there.

SF: How has your work on Homeland, because these two are somewhat in a similar vein, influence your work with Kill the Messenger?
MC: You know, I would say it’s a really smart, well-made procedural. I saw, at least the first half of the movie as Gary puts it together, as really just a straight procedural. A guy’s putting a story together, what are the beats? Homeland was a lot of that. Homeland is about the internal workings of the CIA and is completely fictional. Just the complexity and imperfectness of how our government works and how just people are in both pieces.

SF: We’re in this crazy transitional period of film and television. Having worked in both, what’s your general opinion on where the line is between the two formats and what’s more interesting?
MC: Well you hear it all the time, it’s called major television right now. I think it’s because the advent of cable, premium cable and basic cable. That’s what it is, not having to answer to advertisers. The major networks are all about the commercials. They’re about keeping you watching the show to watch that Amex ad that’s going to come off that Act Three act out. I think most network television is total crap and I can’t watch it. I directed two network pilots that have been picked up and I just thought of it as just a movie or like that, but once I started editing I had to give it to them like that. I think because the way TV is now, I think television is more cinematic. TV tends to be, I have to say, the better part of television is really about the writing. It’s about the writing and I find most movies are about the marketing. Even the specialty indies are like how do we market this? It comes from that mindset. What’s the poster look like? Who’s in it? TV it’s about the scripts. If it’s really good writing they’ll make the pilot and hope it gets picked up. Look at Mad Men and all that. Also television a medium where you can explore a character with time. That’s why I like it too. It’s never about film or television, though. It’s really about the project and what medium is the best to tell that story.

Kill the Messenger is out in theaters on Friday, October 10, 2014.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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