Kill the Messenger screenwriter and former journalist Peter Landesman has learned from experience that some stories are just too true to tell. When investigative reporter Gary Webb exposed a conspiracy that reached to the highest levels of our government, he became the target of a savage smear campaign to discredit him. Landesman realized this was one of the great stories that had never been told. By combining elements of Nick Schou’s book about Webb, Kill the Messenger, and Webb’s book Dark Alliance with his own research, he penned a cautionary tale that remains faithful to who Webb was and honors the spirit of his story. Opening October 10th, the film stars Jeremy Renner.
At our roundtable interview, Landesman revealed what first drew him to the project, how Webb’s experience mirrored his own, his research for the movie, why Webb liked being an outsider and didn’t cultivate inside sourcing, why he felt compelled to re-report Webb’s story, Occam’s Razor and the release of the CIA’s 400-page report, Webb’s troubled relationship with his editor, the Webb family’s involvement in the film, the circumstances surrounding Webb’s suicide, how journalism has become so corporatized that the craft and the mission have been forgotten, and Landesman’s upcoming Untitled NFL Concussion Drama produced by Ridley Scott. Check out the interview after the jump:
How did this project first come together for you?
PETER LANDESMAN: Well, you know my background as a journalist. It came to me at a time when I was doing both journalism and writing screenplays. I was writing a movie for Michael Mann at the time and I was simultaneously working on a story for The Times Magazine about Watts called L.A. Gangland. A neighbor told me that he saw a book called Kill the Messenger about Gary Webb coming out and I knew of Gary obviously. He was an apocryphal story for all of us. I had had an experience a lot like Gary’s with this story I wrote for The Times Magazine about sex trafficking. So, I was predisposed to what happened to him. I took a look at Nick’s (Nick Schou) book and I realized this is one of the great stories that had never been told. It was a story that I felt missionized to tell, and in some way, to revisit and maybe relive what I’d gone through. But then also, Gary needed his story told and he’d been buried, just like a lot of journalists had been buried. When they’re disposed of and when they’re controversialized, they disappear. This was an effort to revitalize him.
How did you put your knowledge into the kind of reporter life that Jeremy did so well?
LANDESMAN: Researching this movie was an interesting experience. My personal sources in the intelligence community and the military are very good. They’re excellent. I have very high up, in-depth sources. Here’s the beautiful thing. When you’re researching something for a movie, you get a very different kind of reaction than when you’re researching something for an article for The New York Times. In a movie, everybody’s got cover. In The New York Times, in the magazine, everything is very thoroughly and sometimes bitterly fact-checked, and no one gets away with anything as you know. So, I actually re-reported Gary the entire way. I went back to the beginning. The interesting thing about Gary is he was an outsider and he liked it that way. He didn’t want to cultivate inside sourcing I think partly out of pride and partly out of narcissism. It was one of his downfalls. I think partly because he didn’t have the connections. He was in Kentucky, then Cleveland, then San Jose, not Washington radius. But I had very good ones because I was in New York and Washington and overseas a lot. So, I re-reported the story and I found out that Gary was more right than he even knew before he died. He’d made mistakes, but they weren’t mistakes of substance. They were mistakes of he just hadn’t gotten there yet. And then, of course, he was thrown under the bus by his editors, so he was just stopped. But in terms of the verisimilitude of the screenplay and the movie, that was my life. I just wrote what happened because I knew what happened. I knew how that work was done.
At the very end of the movie, you have the crawl about what happened and how the CIA released the 400 pages of documents. Why did they come out with that if they’d pretty much buried this story?
LANDESMAN: They prepared it and then they waited. By the way, I’m not anti-establishment. I’m not Gary. My politics are very centrist and sometimes, especially when it comes to foreign affairs, lean to the right. Gary is anti-establishment and a reactionary. He’s a political leftie. I’m not. I’m a big believer in the police and I’m a big believer in the military, and I think their jobs are really fucking hard. So I’m not anti-CIA. I have a lot of friends in the CIA and I have a lot of sources in the CIA. There’s always that quid pro quo relationship, so I’m very balanced. But the CIA, they always fuck things up. What they’re very good at is covering up. They don’t always fuck things up, but they often fuck things up. But they are very good at covering up, and they prepared the report and they waited. They waited for the biggest news story during that presidency, which was Monica Lewinsky, and they released it and who gave a shit? It’s not complicated. It’s Occam’s Razor. It’s really simple. They just waited until there was enough cover and they released it, and nobody paid attention. In The New York Times it was page 23. I’m not even sure it came out in the L.A. Times at all. In fact, I think they spiked the story. I don’t even think they wrote about it. That’s true across the board. And obviously, The Washington Post [didn’t write about it either], because the people there had a personal vendetta against Gary. So that’s what happened.
That’s why the movie title should be changed to Kill the Editors.
LANDESMAN: (Laughs) I think there are people who have strange political agendas, but they’re sociopaths. Most editors are just worried about their jobs. They’re overwhelmed. They’re underpaid. They do the best they can. At the San Jose Mercury News you had people in charge who weren’t even editors. Jerry Ceppos was the head of Business Affairs. He liked to think of himself as an editor and took this on and saw this as his elevator up, and he was completely overwhelmed and not up for the job. It’s not what he did. Dawn Garcia, who was Gary’s editor, had a different name in the movie. It was Anna Simons. We changed it so many times. She was an aspirational, young Latina editor, which was rare in California at the time, and the daughter of immigrants and just kicking ass and doing the best she could. I had an editor like this at The New York Times Magazine who was very aspirational, very ambitious, and she smelled controversy and she ran. They don’t want that smell on them. Dawn did the best she could, and then realized they were in trouble, and she was terrified for her job. Also, the San Jose Mercury News is an aspirational paper. Everybody there wants to work for The Times and go onto The Post, so they saw it as a stepping stone. They saw this trouble and they were all terrified. Gary was easy to throw under the bus, because he was so articulate and so pissed and needed to shut up and didn’t.
LANDESMAN: I was making a movie called Parkland. I was directing something else. It was very logistically difficult. I was directing it and then in post. Michael (director Michael Cuesta) is good, and Jeremy (Renner) is great, and Focus is Focus, and it had great producers, so you didn’t even need the screenwriter around. If I were not directing, I probably would have been more involved producorially, but I was on another movie.
Did you get Gary Webb’s family’s blessing before the project started?
LANDESMAN: Oh God, yeah. I wouldn’t have done this without their blessing. I mean, I got very close to them. Gary’s ex-wife, Sue, is a stoic, lovely woman and her kids are great. It’s a great family. What happened to that family is an enormous tragedy. It happens to a lot of families. I wouldn’t have moved forward without involving them in a personal way, and I still remain close to them.
Have they seen the movie?
LANDESMAN: They’ve seen the movie. There were a lot of tears.
Can you talk about how two bullets in the head was a suicide? Can you do the math on that?
LANDESMAN: Not a problem. Again, it’s Occam’s Razor. I know it’s a much better story if he were murdered. If you were going to kill Gary Webb, you would have killed him five years before he died. Killing him in 2004 did nothing for you because he was already out. He had a bad, poorly oiled, old revolver and he slipped the first time. Look, he’s killing himself. He’s nervous. So, he’s sweating. The trigger slips. He ends up going down and shooting through his jaw. That’s survivable. And then, who knows if he was unconscious and woke up or he was awake, but he adjusted and then finished the job.
Were drugs involved because that was always a rumor with him?
How did the CIA get involved in drug dealing to promote a revolution?
Well that’s what I’m saying. One is just as absurd as the other.
LANDESMAN: Yes. There are plenty of reporters I know who do cocaine. Gary smoked cigarettes. He smoked dope. He drank. But the least dangerous people on planet Earth are pot smokers. They fall asleep. (Laughs) They wouldn’t be dangerous. With Gary, everything that was important to him was ripped away from him – his family – maybe that was his own doing. His kids. I have kids. If I couldn’t see my kids, I’d want to kill myself. He couldn’t do the thing he was built to do, which was to report and to piss people off. I mean, he had no reason to live. I understand.
We had Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate scandal in the 1970’s, but if that had happened in 1995 when Webb began his investigation into the CIA’s Contras/cocaine connection or today, they might have gotten thrown under the bus. What’s happened and why aren’t editors defending their writers anymore?
LANDESMAN: Because I think journalism has become so corporatized and so much of a business that the craft and the mission have been forgotten. I can tell you my own experience writing that story. It’s all in the notes. You can ask me questions about it, but you know what I’m talking about. It was an identical experience to Gary. It was a story. It was a huge expose. It was discovering something that no one had found before. This is all about relationships — you guys know – between reporters and editors because everybody is a human being. They got excited because who doesn’t want to break a story like that. But then, of course, the reporter goes out in the field and risks his life and comes back with something and it’s fucking scary. It’s real and it’s scary to check, and it says something scary, and it challenges people who have a lot of power and a lot of money and a lot of position. It’s like the seven stages of grief. Then you go through the next process, which is okay, do we really want to do this? Yes, we want to do it. Let’s just make sure we’re really right. And you do that process, and that’s what fact-checking is supposed to do, so you feel good about it. But you’re still going to piss people off and they’re still going to take you down.
In 1973, you had editors who were programmed to not give a shit about those problems because they were protected. And then, newspapers went from being owned by the Grahams to multi-national corporations who have relationships with other multi-national corporations who need governments to pass laws and tax laws to help them. And now suddenly, stories are really about are we going to get hurt financially. Once you make those equations, you’re fucked. Once you make those equations, then it doesn’t become about truth. It becomes well is it too true?
I’ll tell you one thing I learned after being a journalist for a long time and on this movie, and the line is in the movie, which is, “There are stories that are too true to tell.” And they’re too true to tell because they piss off too many people. They challenge too many people and they challenge our precepts and understandings and the architecture of our society. What you need are the Ben Bradlees (former Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee) who don’t give a shit and who’d rather resign. I thought Michael Mann’s movie, The Insider, did this really well. I mean, it was a movie, but it was pretty true, and Pacino’s character was very much like that.
What’s happened is that journalism has become corporatized, and today, the journalism I did for The Times just isn’t done anymore. Six month long lead journalism where I’d spend a hundred grand in a war zone or doing an investigative story, who can afford that? Now you have wires sending in sanitized, homogenized… and it’s not stories. Now we’re getting data. We’re not even getting understanding. We’re getting just information that comes in daily and is revised the next day and revised the next day, and by the time you’re in on Friday, people forget what happened on Monday. And nobody writes on Saturday what all this means. Nobody’s doing that work anymore.
What are you working on next?
LANDESMAN: I am directing a movie that starts in October for Sony that Ridley Scott is producing that I wrote. It’s an amazing story about the forensic pathologist who discovered the concussion disease in football players and sports. It’s kind of a David versus Goliath story of him versus the NFL, the networks, and Congress to get the truth out.
What’s it called?
LANDESMAN: I don’t know yet. Maybe it’s just called Concussion.
I Don’t Know Yet would be good, too.
LANDESMAN: (Laughs) That’s funny!