How Atlanta doubles as Nicaragua in “Kill the Messenger”

Director Michael Cuesta: We just had to find something green and overgrown.
An old jail in Douglas County doubled as Tititapa Prison in Kill the Messenger

Courtesy Focus Features

With this weekend’s release of the thriller Kill the Messenger, Atlanta adds a new locale to the growing list of places it’s doubled for in film—Nicaragua. When director Michael Cuesta and star Jeremy Renner arrived here in the summer of 2013 to shoot a drama based on the reporting work of Pulitzer Prize winning San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, they knew the script called for Webb’s story to take him to the jungles of Nicaragua. Webb was the first journalist to expose a connection between the Nicaraguan Contras, the CIA, and the crack cocaine trade in California.

In town to discuss the gritty drama, Cuesta, best known for his work on the Emmy-winning series Homeland, told me shooting the sequences was as easy as finding an abandoned Don Draper-era suburban subdivision.

“We just had to find something green and overgrown,” Cuesta explained. “It wasn’t that hard. We were here last summer and shot until August. Ten minutes outside of downtown Atlanta is this weird, Twilight Zone-like overgrown abandoned suburban housing community but with no houses, only a series of interconnecting streets. We used one of them for the landing airstrip. We just extended it a bit in post-production. If you look closely at those scenes, you can spot the abandoned old street lamps in the background. With the help of a little CGI work, we were able to achieve the textures needed for our film.”

An out-of-service Douglas County jail, meanwhile, doubled for Nicaragua’s infamous Tipitapa Prison, where Renner as Webb goes to visited convicted drug lord Norwin Meneses (played by Andy Garcia). “The prison was a great find,” said Cuesta. “It was about to be torn down so it looked the part. We had a week of prep to move some dirt in there and to get it looking like a sun-bleached prison in the middle of the jungle.”

The old Georgia Archives building was used for newsroom sequences and the Marriott Marquis hotel ballroom served as the backdrop for the film’s finale, in which Webb addresses a gathering of former newspaper colleagues and says, “I thought it was my job to tell the public the truth, pretty or not.”

After news outlets, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, questioned his reporting, Webb killed himself in 2004 at age 49. “It’s important to have these guys around and talk about the sacrifices they make to get stories like these out there,” said Cuesta. “It’s about that sacrifice of digging deep even when you know it’s dangerous. We need people with that dedication and doggedness. That’s what drew me to this project. I related to Gary in a lot of ways. I understood his emotional life.”