Jeremy Renner and director Michael Cuesta braved the red carpet on Thursday night for the premiere of their gritty new docudrama “Kill the Messenger,” based on the life of late San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb.
Webb’s stories exposed connections between South Central crack cartels, and CIA-funded paramilitaries in Nicaragua and solicited a shaming campaign from other papers (and, by some reports, government intimidation) before he took his own life in 2004.
“The thing is, Gary actually wasn’t a whistleblower,” said “Homeland” veteran Cuesta. “He was a journalist. He was just doing his f—ing job. Before the script came to my attention, I didn’t know the grind that he went through, the discreditation campaign, the price that he paid; so that really made me want to make this movie. There’s a sense of knowing that this thing he’s tapped into is way bigger, but he doesn’t stop. So, I admired that courage and I think we need those people.”
“I think that it has suspense elements to it, but at its heart, it’s a drama,” said producer Naomi Despres. The script, written by former journalist Peter Landesman — who was unable to make the premiere, as he’s currently directing a drama about concussions in the NFL — was initially developed for Universal. First Renner was attached, as star and producer; after Cuesta signed on, Despres reapproached the studio, who then put it in turnaround at the studio’s indie-friendlier arm, Focus. “It’s not like doors were flying open to make this movie, for us, ultimately, the scope of the movie, in terms of the larger story it tells, is so compelling that there were a lot of fans around town.”
“With Jeremy’s involvement, we actually had offers to finance it independently; once we put the movie together, with him — and to his credit, he came onboard when there was no financing in place — we felt confident we would get it made. He dove in and committed himself.”
“There was no pitch process; we already had a great script, and that was our road map, and then it was just aggregating the right team, and an amazing cast,” Renner said. “Some producing partners to support the creatives, it all just sort of happened. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it happened in the right way.”
Lucas Hedges, who plays Gary’s son Ian, described himself as attracted to the project both for the hard-hitting subject matter and also a chance to work with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt: “I’m very, very obsessed with IMDB, so I knew who a lot of the people onboard were. I loved the story, I loved the relationship with Ian and his dad, I loved Jeremy, I love ‘Homeland,’ and Sean Bobbitt is, I think, the best DP alive right now.”
Hedges was then called to meet his real-life counterpart, and exchange hugs and handshakes with the rest of the real-life Webb clan on the red carpet as well.
Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays Sue Webb in the film, spent some time with the journalist’s real-life widow in preproduction. “The movie is about Gary, essentially, and about what happened to him. They wrote Sue kind of, very crassly, to give her some oomph, and she and I had lunch, and she was like: ‘They have me cursing like a sailor! What’s going on?’ And once we had met, and I saw that she wasn’t all about the bravado, I was able to work on that, and get some of that out of there.”
“And she shared some home movies with us,” DeWitt said, one of which appears at the end of Cuesta’s film, “and it actually informed a lot of the essence of what we did, which is just, everything was about her love for her kids, and her love for her husband. So, no big arias for her in the movie.”
How did Sue Webb respond to the movie? “Talking with Sue earlier, I think she feels like Gary was vindicated, in a way,” DeWitt shared.
In prepping to inhabit Gary’s role, Renner was taciturn about stepping on toes. “The stuff with the Webbs, that was more with Peter (Landesman) and Nick Schou, who wrote the original book. I came in when all that was done, and I avoided dealing with the Webb family to find out who Gary was, because I didn’t want to be digging up hard questions that they maybe didn’t want to talk about. But they were very involved and generous with the information we needed.”
“Once cameras were rolling, I had to just focus on Gary. And playing the part. At the end of the day, I could go worry about, you know, working behind the scenes. So it’s back-and-forth, throughout, but I really liked the challenge.”
Attendees including Renner, DeWitt and costars Paz Vega, Michael K. Williams and Ray Liotta, plus the original Ricky “Freeway” Ross (one of Webb’s key interviewees) and “Exodus” star Joel Edgerton, chowed down on miniaturized pizzas and Korean-style fried chicken at the afterparty at Michael’s on 55th Street.