For his first film as a producer, star Jeremy Renner chose Kill the Messenger, a sobering and intense look at the real-life rise and fall of investigative journalist Gary Webb, whose reporting for the San Jose Mercury News on the alleged smuggling of cocaine by the CIA into the United States — where it was converted to crack and sold in inner cities, with the profits funneled back to the Contras in Nicaragua — was explosive and controversial.
Webb ended up making enemies, not just in the government but in the mainstream press, where tottering institutions like the New York Times and Washington Post were simply peeved that they had been scooped by a smaller paper and set out to destroy his work and reputation with the help of their friends in the government. They succeeded, and although his reporting was later proved to be largely accurate, Webb was tragically not around by then to be vindicated.
It’s a powerful and still relevant story, and Renner excels in the role. Den of Geek got a chance to chat with Renner about the film (which also stars Oliver Platt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta and Andy Garcia), and even managed to sneak in a question or two about playing Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye, again in a little picture coming out next May called The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Den of Geek: Were you familiar with the Gary Webb story before this? If not, how did you kind of find your way into this project?
Jeremy Renner: No, I didn’t know anything about it and it was only brought to my attention by the script by Peter Landesman. It was during the first Avengers in New Mexico I read the script. I remember getting halfway through it and I was telling my business partner, look, this character’s great, the story — does it need to be on a big screen? There’s a lot of headwind to go make this movie. Why on the big screen? He said, “Just keep reading, keep reading.” I’m like, all right, all right. I kept reading, kept reading. Got to the end and read the post titles on it and realized it had to be on the big screen because it’s a true story.
And then I realized wait, this happened around the corner from where I grew up. I grew up in Modesto, California, and San Jose’s just a stone’s throw from where I was. I knew nothing about it…I’m like wow, this needs to be looked at. It’s a great character. It’s got really wonderful themes of a journeyman or every man in very extraordinary circumstances. He’s good at what he does. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. But I love that he’s kind of an everyman, a rebel and it’s David and Goliath thematically. I love those kind of stories. So creatively that made sense for me too as well.
Does doing the franchise stuff like the Marvel movies or The Bourne Legacy help grease the wheels in any way to push through a project like this?
Globally you can, having big movies like that — I mean, ultimately the movie was paid for by foreign sales essentially. The movie’s already presold because, “Oh, Jeremy Renner and X, Y, Z, that sounds kind of interesting, cool, we’ll buy that.” So that’s how we got the money to film the thing. No one’s throwing money at this thing. I mean, you still have to work hard to try to get people to believe in what you’re doing, but yes, absolutely. I don’t think it would have gotten made, with me anyway, if it wasn’t for Bourne and Avengers and all those other globally known titles.
What kind of research did you do? Did you meet with his family or talk with people?
Yes, but I consciously didn’t want to spend time with the family until I was really locked into the story and Gary. I mean, there’s a lot to juggle here, a lot of spinning plates. I was pretty sensitive to them and they had to also understand we’re doing a movie so not everything’s going to be exactly as it was time-wise. I remember his wife was like, “I definitely knew that he’d already cheated on me at that point,” or whatever it was.
So I didn’t want to get involved with the family until I added my own take. And then they did come to set towards the end of the movie and that was wonderfully awkward and amazing and emotional. But they were very willing to give me like a lot of home videos of Gary just tinkering around and playing hockey, birthdays – to see how he was with his kids, with his wife and doing mundane things. Then I looked at how he was as a journalist and what he spoke about and what he cared about. I read a lot of his articles and things like that. That got me on the road to find him, you know.
I don’t know what was more egregious — what the government was doing or what the press did to him.
They both were equally terrible, I think, which I like about it. There’s no ultimate villain in this, you know. You can blame the Mercury News. You can blame his editor. You can blame the government. You can blame the CIA. I don’t think anybody’s pointing any fingers. We’re just telling the story of what it was and like it is. It was egregious. It was terrible. It’s awful. And people had to retract and apologize and a lot of it was a little too late.
There’s a really wonderful non-biased sort of view on this Gary Webb experience and I think the Columbia Journalism Review did it. I read it and I think it got a lot right in that it said Gary Webb was right, but where did he go wrong? Well, he maybe oversimplified and maybe there’s some hyperbole there that can lead to misinterpretation. But ultimately the text was the text and the media went after him because he scooped some big interests.
These events took place two decades ago but the story seems almost more relevant now, especially in terms of where the press is now and what their focus is these days.
There’s a lot of relevance, I think, to it but we’re also talking about a time where the Internet was just starting to open up. Now whistleblowers, if you will, are all kind of hiding amongst the Internet. But Gary Webb was just out there on the front line just doing it. I think that’s a wonderful message about journalism being accountable.
So are you still in Avengers mode? Are you done with that shoot?
I’m all done with Avengers. Just finished about a month ago and it’ll come out in May. And I go on to do Mission Impossible 5 next week. But I’m enjoying this process. It’s great to do press for a movie that there’s a lot to talk about, especially with journalists, you know. It’s quite fun.
Some people felt that Clint Barton was a little shortchanged the first time around. Has Joss (Whedon, Avengers writer/director) worked to correct that?
Well I think everybody knew, but at least I got to be in the movie. Joss and I had talked about it all and realized, you know, there’s going to be time to do another one. But at least I got to be in the movie a lot which is great. But this one (Avengers: Age of Ultron), everything we talked about that we tried to do in the first one that we couldn’t or didn’t have room, we got to do in this one and do it exponentially more.
So there’s a lot for me to do in this. There’s some essential storylines that Hawkeye’s a part of and really cool secrets that are revealed. There are new relationships, and relationships that existed are deepening and shifting and changing. It’s really great. It’s really, really quite a fun universe to be in. So I’m very excited and very happy with what we achieved on this one.
Do we see a little bit of his personal life in this one, would you say? I’m asking because there’s a comic that’s out now (Hawkeye by Matt Fraction) that people are really enjoying, where it shows what he does when he’s not with the gang.
Oh really? I should read that. It would be interesting. I’d love to see that. Yeah, you’ll see there’s some stuff revealed. You’ll see some stuff. I can’t tell you what because there’s some spoilers in there but yeah, all I know is you get to see a lot more of Hawkeye which is great.
Kill the Messenger is out this Friday (October 10).