Jeremy Renner was still shooting “The Avengers” when he came upon the script for “Kill the Messenger.”
It was there, in the midst of filming what would become one of the biggest blockbusters in movie history, that the Modesto native found a powerful personal story that needed to be told.
“Kill the Messenger,” the first release from Renner’s fledgling production company, is the real-life story of former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb. The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist penned a controversial series in the late 1990s alleging a CIA connection to the country’s crack cocaine epidemic. Renner plays Webb in the film and follows him through the reporting, publication, backlash and repercussions of the piece. “Messenger” opens in limited release today and in wider release later this month.
“Halfway through reading the script, it sounded like an interesting character. Then when I finished later on and did more research, it went from a movie I wanted to do to a movie I had to do. It’s an important story, a true story. There were 100 reasons pointing to doing it and being connected to it. Being set 70 miles from where I grew up and not knowing his story is one of them. I wanted to make his voice heard,” Renner said from New York while on a brief return to the States before jetting overseas to continue shooting “Mission: Impossible 5” with Tom Cruise.
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The Beyer High graduate and Modesto Junior College alum’s career has been filled with the kind of dichotomies that “The Avengers” and “Kill the Messenger” represent. While he is known as a star of some of the biggest action franchises around – from Bourne to “Mission: Impossible” – he spent years toiling in small independent films before breaking out.
So when this movie came to him, he felt it would be a great fit for his new production company, The Combine. And it didn’t hurt that it was a nice reminder to the public that he is more than the man with the muscle.
“This represents the work I want to do. Some people only know me as an action star. I have to constantly remind Hollywood and others to remember ‘Hurt Locker’ and ‘The Town’ and things like that. That’s what the company is for,” he said. “No one is throwing money at these kinds of movies. If you don’t have a superhero cape or Godzilla or Transformers, it’s not happening. That’s what studios are making now. They want to make movies like this, but it’s not in their wheelhouse. So it is great for guys like me and companies like mine. We get to scoop up these stories. We can still make these movies, and they are worth it, absolutely.”
The true story he got to scoop up for his first film was a complex one with national implications and private tragedy. Webb’s 1996 Mercury News series, “Dark Alliance,” alleged that in the 1980s, the CIA was supporting Nicaraguan Contra rebels who were smuggling large amounts of cocaine – which was then turned into crack to be sold cheaply on the streets – into the United States. Webb’s series, which subsequently became a book, caused a firestorm by suggesting the CIA allowed the drug smuggling and dealing operations in the name of helping the Contra militia.
Many other news organizations, including some of the largest national papers in the country, including The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, followed up on the story with reports that were critical of Webb and the allegations of a CIA conspiracy. His own paper also published a letter to readers questioning some of his evidence and conclusions. Webb resigned from the Mercury News a little over a year after “Dark Alliance” was published. He eventually got a job at the weekly Sacramento News & Review, and in 2004 took his own life.
Renner said the fact that some of Webb’s work since has been validated is a reminder of the importance of a vigilant media.
“I think a lot of people will want to know more about Gary Webb and the story. It inspires people. Gary Webb grew up in a time when Watergate came out. That inspired people to get into journalism and be watchdogs and break stories. That’s an important thing,” he said. “I think there need to be more men and women like Gary Webb out there. We need to keep government, the world, everyone, accountable. I think the pushback Gary got was just as important as what Gary did.”
Still, Renner said the story isn’t about demonizing the CIA or government or any news outlet. He said he was just interested in recounting Webb’s life as a reporter, husband, and father – flaws and all.
“I wanted to make it a personal story and figure out the whole ‘Dark Alliance’ out of that,” he said. “The tricky thing with this is, to expose really good investigating reporting, you have to let the reader come up with their own damn opinions. You have to not spoon-feed them. You just show what you know. This story is relevant today and important because of that.”
Renner brought in “Homeland” and “Dexter” executive producer Michael Cuesta to direct. The project was his first feature film since winning an Emmy for directing the pilot episode of the Showtime hit “Homeland.”
The director told the Los Angeles Times recently that the film represents the kind of work that allows Renner to truly shine.
“I’m not discounting any of his (franchise) work, because he’s a movie star, and that’s what movie stars need to do to finance these kinds of films,” Cuesta told the paper. “But we haven’t seen him play a mature guy with a family and a passion for his calling in life, and he is perfect for that. His face communicates so much in the quiet moments, you don’t have to have any dialogue.”
The film co-stars Rosemarie DeWitt, Andy Garcia, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Sheen, Robert Patrick, Paz Vega and Ray Liotta, among other Hollywood veterans.
“Kill the Messenger” also is the first film on which Renner serves as producer. He said the new role isn’t all that different from what he has been doing, except people listen to his opinions a little more with the new title.
Already, Renner has a “handful” of projects ready to go for The Combine. The company’s next film will be another true story. The movie, “Slingshot,” will be about the world of rally racing, something Renner got interested in after driving a leg of the off-road Baja 500 race.
“I thought, this is a great world for a movie. It’s a very different style of racing than American racing,” he said. “Around the same time, my business partner, funny enough, read on (the automotive website) Jalopnik about a car wrenched together from Craigslist for $500 that ended up racing in the World Rally Championship. It’s ‘Bad News Bears’ with duct tape. He is racing against $500,000 cars. It’s a pretty awesome and true story.”
Renner said that so far, finding the time for his producing projects has been the hardest thing. In August, he wrapped filming of the sequel “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and then immediately began work on “Mission: Impossible 5,” in which he plays secret agent William Brandt alongside Cruise. Last month, he flew in from Africa to be in Washington, D.C., and New York to promote “Messenger,” then flew back to London for more shoots. Renner will be filming “M:I 5” through the end of the year.
Meanwhile, “Kill the Messenger” and Renner already have garnered positive reviews from The New Yorker, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. Variety calls it his “best performance since ‘The Hurt Locker.’ ”
Juggling all of his responsibilities, including his new producing duties, has been a challenge. But he said he had a little unexpected help thanks to his years working on his side business of home renovation. “It’s like building a house, which is something I’m very familiar with,” he said. “There is a critical order to producing things in putting together a movie, just like a house.”