By: Joe Strupp
Screenwriter Peter Landesman, who’s been contracted by Universal Studios to write the screenplay for a movie about journalist Gary Webb, said he got interested in the story after reading about it in Editor & Publisher.
Landesman, a former New York Times Magazine writer, said he had known for years about Webb, who penned a controversial CIA drug series for The San Jose Mercury News and later killed himself.
But when a neighbor gave him copy of an E&P story in 2006 about the just-published Webb book, “Kill the Messenger” By Nick Schou, Landesman said he saw a movie idea.
“He literally gave me your article and I called Nick immediately and went to have a drink with him and I saw it was a no-brainer,” Landesman said late Thursday from his Los Angeles-area home. “I read it and I told him I would be honest and upfront and I wanted to bring it to the best places.”
That sent Landesman to Universal, which opted for the rights and contracted with him to write the story based on Schou’s book. “The first place I took it to took it – Universal,” Landesman said. “It is a film that is very salient.”
Webb was a prominent investigative reporter for the Mercury News when the paper published his series on CIA involvement in the crack epidemic in 1996. After the package ran, other news outlets began to criticize the work and attempt to poke holes in much of Webb’s theory.
Eventually, his editors also found fault in the series, ran an apologetic editor’s note, and demoted Webb to a suburban beat. He quit the paper in 1997, spending several years in a series of non-journalism jobs before taking up with an alternative weekly in Sacramento, Ca., in 2004.
But just months after starting at that paper, he was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head in his home. It was ruled a suicide.
Since the series ran, and Webb’s death, critics have continued to question his work and claim some of his reporting was off. But many others, including former colleagues and author Schou, contend he was unfairly treated and that his series was a good piece of journalism that exposed CIA misdeeds.
Landesman said he planned to pursue that side of the story in the screenplay, similar to Schou’s account in the book.
“We are once again making these deals with the Devil,” Landesman said about today’s government and CIA activities. “Gary had stumbled on something. Webb discovered this massive industry at the time that dove-tailed with the very thing our government wanted to snuff out with a war on drugs.”
Landesman said the fact that other news outlets took such harsh shots at Webb is also part of the story. “The New York Times, The Washington Post and the L.A Times came after Webb in a way that was deeply personal and politically agendized and systematically destroyed him and his story,” he said. “Webb had the audacity to report it like any other story, not understanding what the ramifications would be.”
He also holds Webb’s newspaper accountable for not supporting him: “The Mercury News turned their back on him, that is a huge part of this movie. There is no lonelier place than a man who has been abandoned.”
Former Mercury News editors Jerry Ceppos and David Yarnold, who oversaw Webb on the project, were not immediately reachable for comment Friday morning.
Landesman, who has also written a screenplay for a film about Deep Throat source Mark Felt, expects to have the Webb screenplay finished within six months.