This weekend marks the opening of “Kill the Messenger,” the excellent film account of the journalistic work of Gary Webb, who first uncovered the connections between the CIA, drug trafficking and the Nicaraguan Contras. This story has special significance to local audiences, as much of Webb’s work was done in and around Sacramento and there are still many in the business who worked with him and others who knew him.
I am not one of those people. I have to admit that I somehow managed to remain relatively ignorant of this story, despite it being the kind of topic that would normally fascinate me. But in one of those odd, small worldy ways, I’ve known Gary’s son, Ian Webb, and we’ve been friends on social media for several years. So I reached out to ask him about the project from an inside perspective.
I had seen previous comments from Ian and other family members, who still live in the area, in other media outlets but they were limited in airtime or column inches – and so it seemed meaningful to provide an opportunity for longer form responses. Ian generously took the time to answer a few questions while traveling to New York for the film premiere.
Tony Sheppard: You mentioned via Facebook that your father would have approved of Jeremy Renner’s performance – are you more impressed with the detail level of Renner’s work or the larger, more holistic sense of capturing the essence of your father?
Ian Webb: I am sincerely impressed with Mr. Renner’s portrayal of my father. His mannerisms, the way he talked, etc. – he really brought out my father’s personality. It was apparent he spent much time watching all the home videos we sent him and whatever he could find online. I also have to hand it to the art department, they spent so much time with us (via email and phone) trying to get the look of our life at that time correct. We took hundreds of pictures of items which had significance in our life. My father’s awards, items he always had in his office, books he loved, music he listened to. The art department sent back a requested list of items they wanted to use in the movie and we sent about three large boxes to Atlanta. So many of the items in his work and home office scenes in the movie are actually things from our lives…things my father loved. They went as far as recreating T-shirts he wore and hockey jerseys from the team we played in.
Tony: While the film takes minor, immaterial artistic license with details such as your own age at the time, and the compression of certain events, do you think your father would have approved of the overall arc of the story? In other words, aside from those changes inherent in adapting a story for the screen, do you feel that it captures his work in a manner he would have considered fair and accurate?
Ian: I absolutely think my father would have approved of the necessary shifts they made in the timeline in order to tell the story in a two hour sequence. Besides journalism, he understood what it takes to tell a good narrative, how to keep people engaged. He was a big movie buff. They stuck to the heart of the story, all the major plot points are accurate, and they focused on who stuck with him and who ultimately turned their back on him.
Tony: You share your father’s love of motorcycles, are there other things you see in yourself that remind you of him? I’m prompted to ask because as a filmmaker, you’re in the storytelling business and certain qualities can transcend genre and medium.
Ian: I have certain qualities that remind me of my father, but I did not inherit his talent with words, my younger brother Eric was blessed with that. But I do understand what is necessary for a good story, be it fiction or nonfiction. When I’m in my chair editing, and I’m locked into a story I love, I’ll forget the world, almost get lost in the footage, even forget to eat…loose sleep over the story. My father was the same, once he was found a story to tell, a story he needed to tell the world, that was his world. He would stay in his office for hours and barely sleep. But he never forgot to spend time with us – I cannot fathom how a man so busy could somehow manage to be a such an amazing father to three kids.
Tony: This film is obviously uniquely personal for you and it helps to vindicate your father. But you’re also a film school graduate and this film must reinforce for you the power of the medium to change and correct perceptions of people and moments in history. Does the experience of seeing this film being made and distributed, and knowing what it means to your family, inspire you in your own work?
Ian: This film most definitely inspires me as a filmmaker, I unfortunately do not get enough opportunities to work on narratives as much as I’d like. But because of this film, I have learned much about my father I never knew. It’s been almost 10 years since he died, I was only 20 years old. At the time I knew my father loved what he did for a living, but now that I have found my passion career, I have an even greater respect for him and how important his job was. Since he’s passed I’ve read a lot about him, met people he used to work with, I’ve discovered what an amazing person he was, even more than I knew. So learning how passionate he was about his work makes me strive to be the very best at my job.