On a sunny afternoon at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington, DC, fellow WAFCA member Lauren Bradshaw and I sat down with acclaimed actor Jeremy Renner and director Michael Cuesta to discuss their new film Kill the Messenger. Renner & Cuesta talk about the struggles and joys of filming in the nation’s Capitol, portraying real life people versus fictional characters and how much research they did before production began.
Lauren V. (DCFilmGirl.com): It’s important for a movie to bring an important story like this back into the public consciousness. How much did both of you know about the story before you came onto the project and before you started filming?
Jeremy Renner: I knew nothing about it. My only recollection or experience with it was a very downstream part of this story, which is when they started doing PSAs for the “War On Drugs”. I auditioned for it, as an actor, in about 1992. I didn’t get it, but I remember sitting in a room and they asked me to tear it apart, so I tore it apart. They did that thing, “This is your brain on drugs.”
Lauren B. (ClotureClub.com): The egg in the frying pan?
Jeremy: Yeah, exactly! Then I start freaking out and flip tables. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t really know what it was for. I just remember the “War On Drugs” stuff, which is a very downstream part of what [Kill The Messenger] is. I’m from this area where the story broke. I’m from [an area] 70 miles from Modesto, California… San Jose and Sacramento. I knew nothing really of the story, “The Dark Alliance. In the news, media… nothing. I was blind to it. That was the main impetus for making me want to go explore this some more.
Michael Cuesta: I came to the project pretty late, after Jeremy’s production company sent me the script and he was attached to play Gary. When I read the script, I quickly read the books, Kill The Messenger and dug into Gary Webb’s book The Dark Alliance. But, I did remember the story from the 90s. I just remember [thinking] “What?!” about the story of the CIA being complicit in spreading crack in America. I didn’t know about [Webb] being as discredited as he was and that he made a great sacrifice with what happened after that. The in-fighting, paper vs. paper, is what I really found an important story to get out there. I find it quite relevant to what is going on now. That is really where… the injustice of that, I became passionate about that. Of course, [Jeremy] playing Gary… as I was reading the script and reading the book, I imagined Jeremy in the role and thought, ‘This is going to work.” I’ve worked with him before and I knew he was going to be incredibly honest and nuanced with this character and not over-characterized or overly archetypal.
Lauren B.: What kind of hindrance or help did the government provide you guys? I am assuming more of a hindrance? [Everyone laughs]
Jeremy: Everything that was done was 3rd grade, harmless stuff. No one has really gotten in the way. Don’t get me wrong, I may get audited this year… but that will probably be like the worst thing that will happen. OR my identity might get stolen.
Michael: No, we have a consultant… like a “D.C. insider” to help us with, “I would be really careful with this piece of dialogue or what this scene is implying.” Things like that. We really trusted him. He also consults on other films. I think he did… [to Jeremy] Did he do the Bourne films?
Jeremy: He did Mission [Impossible]. He’s like a ninja. He’s everywhere.
Michael: He was the only one. Then I worked off of, obviously, Peter Landesman, who was in investigative journalism; he adapted the book into the script. I worked with Peter and his knowledge of it. Peter did a little investigating of his own, beyond the book, and then Nick Schou [helped], who wrote Kill The Messenger and knew Gary. Then Peter and I got to know the family. I got to know his wife a little bit, a few long phone calls, so that was helpful. It was always important for us to come from the man, personally… to get the audience on his shoulders.
Lauren B.: So the family did have a big influence on the movie?
Michael: They did. Sue e-mailed me. I asked her, “What kind of music did Gary listen to?” It is in the book, but she even dug deeper so we put Mott the Hoople and punk rock in the movie. He played hockey. She told me some interesting things. She actually told me some interesting things about Gary working in his home office. She didn’t say it in these words but, ‘he loved to be home, but he would be in the office alone and he needed to hear us outside the door.’ So, he needed to know they were there but he still needed to be by himself. I found that really interesting and I related to that. I’m sure Jeremy can relate to that too. We’re both professional artists. We have that too because we both have families.
Lauren V.: I loved the scenes that were filmed in DC, the scene where [Jeremy] and Michael Sheen were sitting in front of the Capitol. It looked really beautiful with the cinematography. As an actor and director, is it more beneficial for you to film in a natural setting instead of in front of green screens and a set?
Jeremy: Absolutely. When you have the real deal it’s always easier. The actual filming of it is more difficult because you’re filming in front of the Capitol! There are a lot of people around. We had a limited time to shoot it because when the sun hits a certain angle it’s really bright. Then I remember… [to Michael] What did you say? “We have to get this by lunch because there’s going to be a huge band.”
Michael: Yeah, it was last year and they were putting up a band show in front of the Capitol…
Jeremy: We were filming!
Michael: If you look at the scene you can start to see…
Jeremy: They’re building platforms and tents.
Michael: I told Michael [Sheen] and he was like, “What?! Maybe we should have shot somewhere else”. But we were in DC! We had to be here. Then at the [reflecting pool] I isolated them onto the water. Some of my favorite shots, just because I always wanted to be a photojournalist and I’m a photographer, are the two of them… it’s the classic kind of spy movie. The long lens shots of them isolated against the water was really about Gary in a much bigger, wider battlefield, so to speak… or lost at sea and the beginnings of fighting an unwinnable war. You can’t do that in a studio with green screen. Also, DC was a big character in the film, obviously, so we had to come here. I was asked if we could do it another way but there was no way. Of course, I had support from my producers. This was the one place we had to come. Nicaragua, we didn’t go to, we were able to work in Atlanta.
Also, I loved the reality of it. This was what 70s movies I grew up with. Those movies, remember the sound was always a little compromised? Now, we have better mixing. But, when we got the dailies for that scene it was really noisy. My editor kept telling me, “We’re going to have to loop it” and I’m cutting for months. I just didn’t want to get into it with anyone by saying, “I’m not messing with it. No way.” Then, in ADR we did get some coverage for it but as I was mixing it and putting it in, I was horrified by it. My instinct was right. I literally, after 14 hours, in one of the mix nights, Jeremy, I pulled it all out. Naomi [Despres] was going to kill me because we went over time. We worked 16 hours; everyone was bleary-eyed and hating me, but I’m like, ‘There’s no way we are going with ADR in this scene. That’s why we were there.’ I wanted it to feel real. Then I had a great mixer and we figured it out and got it to be right. If someone misses a word here or there, it’s alright. This is a movie! You need to be in it emotionally. I wanted it to be real.
Lauren B.: How did the two of you meet? I love Dexter, Six Feet Under, andHomeland. I heard that you [Jeremy] were going to be in Dexter?
Jeremy: He wanted me to be in Dexter! I told him I can’t do any other serial killer movies or TV shows.
Michael: He and I did a film that we’re both very proud of called 12 and Holding. We met on that and I was blown away by him. Of course, when I did the pilot… in the book, I knew Dexter had a brother and after the pilot was picked up, there was this talk, “Who’s going to play the brother?” Of course I was like [points to Jeremy]. People were like “Yeah!!”
Jeremy: I was doing 28 Weeks Later, that’s why I ultimately didn’t do it.
Michael: It was also… he just played the most infamous serial killer of all time [inDahmer]! I totally get the choice.
Lauren B.: You just wanted a break.
Jeremy: [laughing] Yeah!
Michael: Then we did a pilot together a few years after that for Fox, that didn’t get picked up.
Lauren V.: Jeremy, you have played so many different characters throughout your career. Gary Webb is based off of a real person, so you had research and people you could talk to to get to know him. You’ve also played a lot of fictional characters. Is it more pressure to play a real person or do you find it more helpful since you have more to base your performance off of?
Jeremy: It’s both of those things. I don’t look at it as pressure, but there is a sort of accountability and responsibility of playing someone that existed or exists because you want to get it right. Regardless of whether it’s Jeffrey Dahmer or Gary Webb, people have very different feelings about them. You’re limited to the truths, and (to get to the other part of your question) when you have a road map, it’s easier because you have a road map that’s already spelled out for you. You don’t have to make things up. You just have to dig into the hows, and whys, and buts of it all that makes this person interesting. What’s my way into this individual and how do I bring him to life again? So, I’ve always found it very challenging to play someone who existed or exists but the initial part of it is easier, then gets more complicated because you have to be accountable, responsible, and truthful.