Requiem for a Journalist

A discussion with Michael Cuesta, director of Kill the Messenger

Movies Features

Director Michael Cuesta has been the man behind the camera for some of the most talked about TV shows of the last decade: Homeland and Dexter. Now, he has taken his knack for riveting, thrill-ride storytelling to the next level with Kill the Messenger starring Jeremy Renner.

Based the true story, Kill the Messenger follows Pulitzer Prize-winning San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb, recounting how he uncovered a story that led to the origins of the crack epidemic on the nation’s street in the mid ’90s. As the story unfolded, he eventually linked the epidemic to the CIA as they were allegedly aware that major drug dealers were smuggling cocaine into the country. Through a web of leads and hardcore investigative journalism, he stopped at nothing and risked everything, including his family and career, to uncover the truth in a news story that stunned the entire nation.

We had the chance to talk to Cuesta about making a journalistic thriller based on a true story, his favorite classic journalism films, and the answer to the question we are dying to know: Is he more of a Dexter or a Carrie?

Paste: Were you familiar with Gary Webb’s story before signing on to direct Kill the Messenger?
Michael Cuesta: When I read the script, even reading the log line, I remembered this story breaking and the allegations and [Gary Webb’s] little press junket. I remember seeing him on Montel Williams. I wasn’t aware of the discrediting of him, what went on as a result of writing the story and what ultimately happened to him. After that, I did a lot of reading and research and just really saw it. It was an injustice. No good investigative journalist should have to go through what he went through—despite the fact that the editors made some mistakes. If Gary got one thing wrong or didn’t connect all the dots completely, he needed to keep writing. He needed to keep investigating and he didn’t get that chance.

Paste: When you were working on the film, did you get any criticism or help from the San Jose Mercury News?
Cuesta: I didn’t talk to them, but my production designer got a lot of push back trying to get newspapers and props and things like that. They weren’t that helpful. There was one reporter who did some follow-up work for Gary who was pretty helpful—Pete Carey, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter. We feature him in the movie briefly. When I was making the film, I tried to shield myself from that because I just wanted to focus on the craft of making this and getting it right. I didn’t want any doubt. I really tried to put the blinders on and just tell this story, but it’s all in the script. You got to get it right.

Paste: The cast is amazing. Did you get the cast that you wanted?
Cuesta: Mostly everyone said yes. There were a few passes here and there but not many. The reason why I think it was relatively easy to cast those roles is because they’re all really integral parts of the investigation of the story. They can’t be cut, they’re really deep in the story, and have stakes to it. They’re not just like some cameo or something.

Paste: How long did it take you to get this into production?
Cuesta: It was written in about 2007, and Universal developed it. Scott Stuber produced it with Peter Landesman, and he wrote the screenplay, adapting it from Nick Shou’s book, Kill the Messenger and also Gary’s book, Dark Alliance. It went into turnaround because journalism movies were failing at the box office. The big one that failed called State of Play—it didn’t do well so they figured that they don’t work. That mindset is crazy. I think the budget was much bigger at the time, and then when it came to me they were thinking of making it for a smaller budget. I felt that I could make it work for the money that they wanted to spend on it—and it wasn’t a lot. I was the last one to come on board through Jeremy Renner. Once he was attached, he had a lot of say who we wanted to direct the film, and I think I was on top of the list for him.

Paste: What are some of your favorite journalism films?
Cuesta: Well, the main one—and I would say it was more of the first half of the movie—is All the President’s Men. The whole Pakula thing was very much a reference for me and the cinematographer. We kept referencing All the President’s Men, and we actually referenced The Parallax View—he actually is a journalist in that movie. I wanted to use that a little bit for our film. The idea of isolation—the idea of someone separating from society. That was sort of like Gary going out and fighting this unwinnable war and getting further and further from his family and from everyone who is pulling away from him.

Paste: Why do you think it’s a difficult thing to sell a journalism film to general moviegoers?
Cuesta: Well, look, this is a journalism movie, but it’s also a thriller. It’s a story about a guy who was very passionate and was right. He’s flawed, but you root for him. You root for the guy because he really, truly believed in truth and justice. Even when Michael Sheen says to him, “Some stories are too true to tell,” Gary’s like no, no, no. He saw himself as the watchdog. I think people relate to that. I don’t feel it gets caught up in the minutia of didactic journalism twerps and things like that. A movie like All the President’s Men could easily not work today. It was of its time. That movie is a procedural all the way to the end.

Paste: You have a diverse résumé of TV and film projects, but many of those characters are fictional. How did you approach handling a story based on a real person?
Cuesta: On this, I wanted to be on his shoulders and see the movie through his eyes and keep it subjective. There are moments in the film where I was either slightly surreal or ambiguous at times, which is very much a film fictional technique to use because it’s not a documentary, and it’s not a dramatization. It’s based on a true story, and […] I as a filmmaker [tried] to have the audience understand where he was—like you’re located with him. Those are the things that I’ve done with fictional things like Homeland. As a director, I tried to ground that show as much as possible. It’s completely not believable that anyone would ever be able to be in the CIA who is like [Carrie Mathison]. All that stuff is not believable. What Gary goes through in the movie happened. Did it happen exactly from scene to scene like we did it? No. I moved things around. Was he followed in a parking garage? No. I used that to inform the audience, have the audience feel what he’s beginning to feel. Also, in the scene when someone’s fucking with his car, that actually happened earlier in his career when he was digging into some local corruption stories when he lived in Cleveland. I used storytelling devices to inform paranoia and stakes—to push the story forward.

Paste: You’ve also directed episodes of Blue Bloods, Dexter, Six Feet Under, True Blood and the movie L.I.E. Do you seek out that kind of variety when you’re looking for new projects?
Cuesta: I know what interests me. I don’t like romantic comedies. I love the idea of doing an interesting love story, but they’re usually much more complicated. When writing a film, you just know—your instincts say, “I feel this. I relate to this character.” I have to know the protagonists on an emotional level and really understand why they’re doing what they’re doing like an actor would. I really have to know the tone and rhythm of the film to tell the story in the most honest way. That’s always been the case. For my first film, L.I.E., my main character was a little bit of me growing up. Not that I was abused by a pedophile or had that kind of relationship, but that was important. I remember writing the first scene in that script, and I’m like, “What did I used to do growing up? I used to walk across on the Long Island Expressway on this thing.” That’s where my protagonist is going to start. I wrote what I knew. I’m not an investigating journalist, but I understand Gary’s passion and how he doesn’t give up. I understand a bit of his home life, too. Usually, that’s the access point for me.

Paste: What about your connection to Dexter and Carrie Mathison?
Cuesta: It’s funny—I was telling everyone that I related to Dexter more than I related to Carrie Mathison because he is such an outsider. I relate to that a lot. But one thing about that show—I always thought it was my responsibility to never take the teeth out of the show. I wanted to always remind the audience that what he does is really horrible because there is a part of him that takes pleasure in it—and I’m not a serial killer.

Kill the Messenger opened in theaters Friday, October 10.

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