- Published: Monday, 29 September 2014 01:06
- Written by coolshades
Jeremy Renner was in New Mexico and in the middle of filming “The Avengers” when a script crossed his desk that was a universe away from the Marvel superhero world and his role of the arrow-wielding Hawkeye.
"Kill the Messenger" spun the true story of Gary Webb, a San Jose Mercury News reporter whose 1996 series "Dark Alliance" delved into the connection between the CIA and Nicaraguan Contras who financed their rebellion against their government with cocaine they exported to the United States, drugs that helped flue the crack epidemic that swept urban neighborhoods in the 1980s.
Renner had such a strong reaction to the character that he not only took the part, but he also came on board as a producer, making "Kill the Messenger," a co-production with Bluegrass films, the first project made by his production company the Combine.
"There were a lot of reasons I wanted to do it -- being a story from where I came from...It being a true story," the 43-year-old Modesto native says during a recent phone call. "Then the type of story that it is, being a David and Goliath-type story, thematically. I like playing Everymen in extraordinary circumstances. Also, the hero's flawed; it's a complicated role.
"It represented a lot of stories I want to tell, like 'The Hurt Locker' and 'The Town.' These are the kinds of movies I want to continue making."
When the Mercury News published Webb's three-parter in August 1996, along with supporting documents that were made available on the newspaper's website, it created a sensation. The Bay Area Society of Professional Journalists named Webb its Journalist of the Year. But the acclaim didn't last. The Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other newspapers and television outlets soon questioned Webb's facts and his lack of any source within the CIA, and the Mercury News backed away from supporting their reporter.
"It's hard to say if the media spin on it had any value," Renner says. "I'd have to be in media to understand that. How people spun it the way that they did is kind of beyond me. I thought it was pretty obvious what he wrote, and then what people said about what he wrote is not at all true. I think it's much more a statement on the media and what people think is interesting."
"Gary was a reporter," adds "Kill the Messenger" director Michael Cuesta. "He wasn't an editor. His job was to go out and find the stuff and be the cop. ... Gary was that kind of guy. He was criticized for not taking no for an answer, ever, and being too dogged, but I think you need guys like that. You need people that are cops on the beat, in a way."
While Cuesta and others met with Webb's ex-wife and children -- Webb committed suicide a decade ago -- Renner stayed away while he was creating the character. Peter Landesman's screenplay is as much about Webb as a family man as it is about him as an investigative reporter, his fall from grace affecting his home life as well as his professional standing. Renner thought that was a vital element of the story, but he respected Webb's privacy. He is grateful for the videos and other materials they made available, a tremendous help when attempting to inhabit the skin of someone real.
True and Accountable
"When you play someone who exists or existed, it's an easier road in the beginning, because you have a road map of who the person is," he says. "There's information on them. Then you find out shortly after that, there are limitations because they did exist. You have to be true and accountable to that."
"I wanted to deal most with his life and his relationships with people, from his editors, the people he worked with, to his family, being a husband and father. That was the most important thing to me, because I needed to make Gary Webb a human being. This wasn't just any journalist who uncovered a story. This is a very, very specific thing."
"It's nonfiction in my mind, so you have to find all the truths and the flaws, the good, the bad and the ugly of it all. It's a different way to explore. You have a map and you can't veer too far off of it. As long as I could capture the essence of who Gary was and we could get the story straight, then that's all that mattered."
When Cuesta was planning the look of the movie with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, they referenced two 1970s classics, both Alan J. Pakula movies, the Watergate drama "All the President's Men" for the movie's first half when Webb is fighting the good fight and winning, and then the paranoid thriller "The Parallax View" for the latter scenes when his job and life fall apart. Renner is a fan of both movies and of that type of intense '70s thriller in general. Interestingly, while those films and "Kill the Messenger" all have a political edge in common, that is not what intrigues the actor.
"I have no interest in politics whatsoever, zero," he says. "However, stories with depth, with emotional depth and complications and flawed heroes, all of that is very interesting to me. Whether the world is at war or has any sort of political spin on it or the world goes into politics, I try to do my best to avoid politics within that world. Let's talk about humanity. Let's talk about this man, Gary Webb, this human, as a husband, as a father, as a journalist. Let's talk about what he uncovered."
Starting a Dialogue
As well as restoring Webb's reputation, Renner hopes "Kill the Messenger" will start another kind of dialogue. In a world run by a 24/7 news cycle where even the biggest story can be upstaged by the latest Kardashian peccadillo, he thinks about how many more "Dark Alliances" are out there, waiting to be brought into the light.
"I just wonder how many stories get buried," he says. "There is a great need for investigative reporting, a great, great need for it, and I hope this movie represents that."