Kill the Messenger: Adapting and Telling the True story

In telling those stories, “Michael Cuesta is a very generous filmmaker,” comments Despres. “Michael is open and communicative with his cast and crew. He has a clear vision of the film he wants to make, and with his original background in photography he always knows what he wants to convey visually. But he also holds a deep sensitivity for character.”

Lucas Hedges, cast as Webb’s oldest child Ian, concurs that “Michael knows exactly what he wants – and he made sure to talk with me about the Webbs’ father/son relationship – but he leaves you a little freedom to find it. What matters to him is your telling him what you’re feeling about the scene; he wants to get at its reality, and it’s always the actor first.”

“Michael is great at telling us exactly where we are in the moment,” adds Rosemarie DeWitt, who portrays Webb’s wife Sue. “Because he’s got the whole picture in his head, I would also realize how he was crafting beautiful shots or creating the claustrophobic world that Gary was getting into. There were a lot of moving pieces to keep straight – as I found out when I read the books that our movie’s script is based on.”

Journalist Nick Schou, the author of Kill the Messenger, one of the books on which the film is based, came into contact with Webb soon after the “Dark Alliance” series was published, since their investigative work overlapped. He explains, “I wrote follow-up stories tied to the police beat that I w covering at the time. Gary read my material and called me to thank me for pursuing the related stories.”

Although they remained in touch, the two would meet only once. When they did, Webb inscribed his book Dark Alliance – the other of the books on which the film is based – to Schou: From one newsman to another, keep the faith.

A year after Gary died, Schou approached the Webb family to get their blessing on doing a book about Gary. Schou reflects, “I was shocked that no one else had already done it. I wrote the book because Gary’s legacy hasn’t been fully understood. When he died, the obituaries unfairly tagged him as a ‘discredited reporter.’

“I can’t remember how many rejection letters I got before Nation Books published Kill the Messenger, but I had this passion to get his story told and set the record straight.”

Despres adds, “The story Gary broke put him and his paper on the map. ‘Dark Alliance’ was one of the first investigative series to have been published simultaneously online – with bonus content – and in print. What our film shows is that the bigger newspapers were really caught off guard. They were incredulous that a smaller paper had tackled this important story, and was getting so much attention. So the mainstream journalistic establishment attacked Gary’s credibility and pressured the Mercury News, which was overwhelmed and unprepared to handle the controversy.

“Gary wanted to fight back, but they didn’t want to fight back with him and he had to go it alone while still pursuing the story further. It was a choice that cost him dearly.”

Platt muses, “Here were highly respected news outlets devolving into a high school brawl. You’d think that they would want to support one of their own. My character, Jerry Ceppos, ultimately had to make the decision that he thought was best for his newspaper; when he did, he was lauded for it by those other news outlets.

“My take on all of it is that there are people who do heroic things. Gary was one. However, he got out in front of the story too much – initially, with the unwitting help of his editors.”

Renner says, “The reaction to the ‘Dark Alliance’ series proved that Gary was doing something right. ‘Ruffling feathers, that’s good investigative journalism,’ to quote Gary. But when the Mercury News wouldn’t stand by him – that was the ultimate betrayal, crushing him. [For the Watergate investigations at The Washington Post in the 1970s,] Ben Bradlee had Woodward and Bernstein’s backs; Gary didn’t have a Ben Bradlee.

“Gary’s life and his identity were very much tied to his work, and that being taken away from him was tragic.”

Schou notes, “Having the movie finally be made now is not so much about pointing fingers as telling the story and giving audiences a sense of who Gary was. That the picture got made, and got made right and with the right people, is thrilling to me.”

Cuesta and Renner, says Schou, “shared the empathy and compassion needed to tell Gary’s story – and it’s an incredibly timely story right now because of how detached people are from what’s really happening behind the scenes in government, and because of the need to have an independent press.”

To get at the true story while also firmly placing it in a narrative context, screenwriter Peter Landesman had contacted Schou before the latter’s book was even published. Landesman began work on the script in 2006, culling material from the two books but also from his own research.

Landesman recounts, “I was an investigative journalist for The New York Times Magazine for many years, and I came to realize that there are some stories that are simply just too true to tell; Gary Webb wanted to do his job and expose a corruption the government didn’t want exposed, and the public, ultimately, was uncomfortable knowing.

“This screenplay became a personal mission for me. Gary’s not succumbing to personal and professional pressure to walk away from what he’d discovered, and the price he paid for holding his ground, is a cautionary tale among professional investigative reporters. Also, I had a similar experience with a 2005 Times Magazine cover story on sex trafficking and slavery that caused a similar firestorm. The difference was that the story – and I – were ultimately vindicated. Gary was a heroic, complicated, flawed man I could relate and connect to. His story needed to be a movie.”

Schou remarks, “As a former journalist, Peter had his own sources who could weigh in on all of this. But I made myself available to him to answer any questions he had about things I published – and things I hadn’t published.”

“Dark Alliance is gargantuan and labyrinthine,” marvels Landesman. “I spent quite a bit of time with Sue, Gary’s widow, to get a sense of the man. Then I felt I should put on my reporter’s hat and advance the ‘Dark Alliance’ investigations past where Gary had before he died; he was forced to stop, and became isolated, before he really understood how right he was.

“So the script became a combination of Nick’s book, Gary’s own account, Sue’s perspective, and truths that were beyond all of their reaches.”

Following in Webb’s footsteps and charting his own course deeper “inside the Beltway” than Webb had been able to, Landesman spoke to a wealth of sources. He interviewed not the “name” drug kingpins but rather the traffickers and pilots who moved cocaine into the U.S. He talked to Webb’s contemporaries. He met with the CIA’s onetime “head of clandestine operations in Latin America.”

Landesman marvels, “Everyone, even the bad guys, want to be heard. People who were on the ground abroad, or got screwed or forgotten want their stories told.”

Webb’s widow Sue gave Landesman invaluable insight into the human being behind the journalistic drive. He reveals, “Sue shared her memories of their personal time together and through the ‘Dark Alliance’ years, and her perspective on what his editors and some of the most powerful news organizations in this country put him through.”

Sue also shared home movies, on videotape, with Landesman and later with members of the cast and filmmaking team; one of these can be seen just prior to the closing credits of Kill the Messenger.

With Landesman doing his own investigative legwork, the screenwriting process took a few years. But he was also conscious of having to give the story a cinematic feel, while remaining faithful to what really happened, in order to drive the story forward and keep an audience engaged.

“A man’s life doesn’t happen according to a narrative shape and architecture,” says Landesman. “For a screenplay, you have to find the shape and apply the constraints of a movie’s demands: shape, time, narrative propulsion. But I never left the truth behind. I always honored and was true to, if not the facts, the spirit of the story.

“Ultimately, we had to change some names and some circumstances, and modify the chain of events. But Kill the Messenger is completely and entirely true. In general, I’m anti-conspiracy theory. But the newspapers and individuals in and out of government going after Gary exposed the power of a conspiracy of mediocrity to destroy professional exceptionalism and personal dedication.”

Cuesta remarks, “The more we learned of Gary, the more we wanted to put in. It was important for me to keep the film subjective, from Gary’s point of view; and to make it about what drove Gary, what he was passionate about, and what his obstacles were. People may wonder why the last few years of his life are not included in the film; I feel his journey was hard enough, and that the film is about his life – his triumphs, his flaws, and the monster he tangled with.”

“Peter had to wrestle a tremendous amount of information into a two-hour screenplay,” notes Despres. “Making a movie required that we simplify certain things and edit out certain aspects of the story that weren’t as central to Gary’s personal journey. It was a beast to wrangle, a real octopus. But I was thrilled at how he distilled a compelling script from it, one that audiences can really get caught up in.”

Stuber remembers, “Peter’s script was suspenseful and eloquent, and I could see the movie right there on the page.”

True to their word, the producers kept Landesman’s work intact. The screenwriter remarks, “The shooting script really did resemble my first draft. Jeremy brought a sensitivity to the portrayal of Gary beyond what I had envisioned, and Michael is super-smart and respectful of the truth.”

Aside from the home videos, personal Webb family photos were made available to the crew. Sue shared memories about Webb’s office, his habits, and their home life.

Cuesta reflects, “After talking with Sue and meeting the family, I felt comfortable with bringing my own experience as a husband and father to the film. Gary’s journey is not dissimilar to a filmmaker always trying to get his or her film made; with one foot at home, and one foot perilously dangling in a world of sharks, it’s never easy.

“Sue humanized Gary for me – all of his strengths and weaknesses. I think a lot of people who see the film will be able to relate personally to Gary.”

DeWitt made a trip to visit Sue before filming began. The actress explains, “Kill the Messenger is not the first movie I’ve done that’s based on a true story, but this time I would be playing someone who is alive and well. So I felt I should speak with Sue personally about playing her. I wanted to get a feel for her essence, and then make the part my own and use my imagination.

“Sue put me at ease and made clear how proud she was of what Gary achieved, but I was very aware of how she is always living with the memory of what happened. She shared the most intimate details of her life with me, and my hope is that by our telling this story Gary’s life’s work will be vindicated and Sue and her family can continue to heal.”

Sue and her children with Gary – Ian, Eric, and Christine – endorsed the production and visited the set, as did Nick Schou. Cuesta paused the filming schedule to be able to spend time with the family, while Schou joined a newsroom scene as an extra.

He reports, “I’m a journalist and so I’m into detail, but the attention to it on the set was astounding to me. Michael had two different cameras going and the scenes would be done over and over.

“I was a fly on the wall watching Jeremy work in a pivotal scene opposite Oliver Platt as Jerry Ceppos; I think Jeremy got more and more into it with each take, building intensity.”