Interview: Director Michael Cuesta on Issues in ‘Kill the Messenger’

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CHICAGO – What happens when too much truth is exposed, and those who will feel the backlash from that exposure are too powerful? The new film “Kill the Messenger,” directed by Michael Cuesta, seeks an answer to that question through the true story of journalist Gary Webb, a victim of his own investigative reporting.

Jeremy Renner portrays Webb, a newspaperman for the smaller market San Jose Mercury News. Webb discovers a connection between the influx of crack cocaine into U.S, inner cities during the 1980s and the CIA-backed Contra rebels in Central America Nicaragua. His reporting opens a Pandora’s Box of implications, including his employment, family and the competitiveness of bigger newspapers, who missed the story. Webb’s life becomes a surreal nightmare, just because he kept the truth alive.

Jeremy Renner, Michael Cuesta
Michael Cuesta Directs Jeremy Renner (left) in ‘Kill the Messenger’
Photo credit: Focus Features

The director of “Kill the Messenger” is Michael Cuesta, a veteran of TV and film. After debuting with the feature film “L.I.E.” in 2001, he became a prominent television director with credits including “Six Feet Under,” “Dexter,” “Homeland” and “Elementary.” The release of “Kill the Messenger” is his fifth feature film, and his second with actor Jeremy Renner. Cuesta sat down with, for a background interview on the issues and answers in his excellent and telling paranoid drama. One of the greatest moments of journalism was the circumstances behind “All the President’s Men.” What does “Kill the Messenger” say about journalism today, that contradicts the almost heroic courage displayed in that previous generation?

Michael Cuesta: Since the Reagan administration, the media has become more of a conglomerate, and is driven by profit. In doing that, the appeal has to be for a middle base because of ratings. Also the media became more pro-American around the time of Reagan, emphasizing what Katharine Graham [former publisher of the Washington Post] once said, ‘we live in a dirty and dangerous world, there are some things the public should not know.’ That idea is perpetuated in the ‘insider journalism’ that takes place in Washington. There has been an emphasis, especially since 9/11, that the government is here to “protect the homeland,” and has given itself unprecedented powers to do so. We see an exploitation of that power in “Kill the Messenger.” How are those powers, in your opinion, even more dangerous today than shown in the film?

Cuesta: I think what we are fighting is scary and serious. The Middle East is a mess. Arming multiple sides in these wars is hard to understand, and that’s when it gets scarier. I hope these current feelings are not exploited as they were after 9/11. Obviously broadcast journalism first, then the internet, has changed the way journalism is supported. What do we lose when funding is cut off for basic reporting, and how do you think the power we spoke of in the previous question can take advantage of it?

Cuesta: That begins with less investigative journalism, there are less watchdogs. The journalism of Gary Webb, as represented in the film, is a dying breed. And now, television news has given over to just opinion, with each network trying to satisfy their audiences.

I’m proud of the film because it does shine a light on the importance of guys like Gary Webb. One of the reasons I had Jeremy Renner wear reflective sunglasses in the film, is that I wanted him to be viewed as a ‘good cop.’

Andy Garcia, Jeremy Renner
Andy Garcia and Jeremy Renner in ‘Kill the Messenger’
Photo credit: Focus Features When Ray Liotta appears in the film, it is reminiscent of Mr. X in JFK. Since his character is so crucial to what Webb is going through, how did you want to approach the scene, and how important was it to get Liotta to communicate it?

Cuesta: One thing about Ray in the film, it was important to keep him very still in the scene. I wanted him to be a ghost, to minimize his movements, and just have him glide across the floor. The approach was almost Charles Dickens-like – the ghost of the past comes in to provide some explanation, and I wanted to give it an Ingmar Bergman feeling. From Gary’s point of view, it’s what he needed, and inspires him to keep digging, Liotta represents the truth standing in front of him. The rest of the casting was very precise as well, with character faces making the symbolic points for many of the crucial characters. Which of these faces really surprised you in post production, as far as there skill in creating something beyond the dialogue?

Cuesta: Jeremy Renner. The scene when he is leaving his family on the driveway, and the scene in which he breaks down a bit, but pulls it together for his son. Those moments with Jeremy, what was under the words in the pain he was feeling, was the transfer moment between father and son. We saw in the film that Gary Webb began to live in a cocoon of paranoia. Who or what, in the context of the film, caused this feeling in Webb?

Cuesta: It was the newspapers, not looking out for one of their own. And he was brought down for profit reasons, a corporate mentality of that time [mid-1990s], which has only gotten worse. The bigger papers were undone by Gary’s smaller market reporting, because he exposed them as missing what was in front of them. You had a controversy regarding the NC-17 rating for your film ‘L.I.E.’ What is your opinion of the ratings system, and how do you think it most affects films such as ‘L.I.E.’ in how they are perceived in the marketplace?

Michael Cuesta
Michael Cuesta in Chicago, September 16, 2014
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Cuesta: Ratings are the Antichrist, and the ratings board are hypocrites. The bigger films will always get the rating they want, because they will give the ratings board an onslaught of alternate cuts – sometimes just taking out one frame – burning them out to get the rating they want. ‘L.I.E.’ was a smaller film, and we did one trim, which was all we could afford to do. They slapped it with the ‘NC-17,’ and the distributor said screw it, we’ll take the publicity associated with it, and it did get press. How did your work on ‘Six Feet Under’ change your perception of death? Do you believe our consciousness will survive the demise of our bodies?

Cuesta: I was only a guest director, but ‘Six Feet Under’ did make us laugh in the face of death. The whole theme was living with death, and it was really smart because it showed that it was all around. Because the circumstances were so f**ked up among the living, death didn’t seem as big a deal in that context. It is said that the TV show ‘Elementary’ – for which you directed the pilot – is superior to the more lauded Benedict Cumberbatch ‘Sherlock,’ but in a different way. What did the production want to do to make this ‘Sherlock’ stand out?

Cuesta: I approached the pilot like a movie, and I think the New York City setting is great, because of the fish-out-of-water element. And also Holmes as an addict, we embraced it, because we felt it made him more vulnerable and accessible. I wanted the character to be scrappy, like Sid Vicious, and it went on from there.

“Kill the Messenger” opens everywhere on October 10th. Featuring Jeremy Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Barry Pepper, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen and Andy Garcia. Written by Peter Landesman. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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