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State of Play - Kevin Macdonald interview

Kevin Macdonald, State of Play

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KEVIN Macdonald, previously best known for helping Forest Whitaker to Oscar glory in The Last King of Scotland, talks to us about his latest film, State of Play, and the casting of Russell Crowe after Brad Pitt dropped out.

He also discusses the current crisis in journalism and why it was important that the film reflected that.

Q. Were there times during the making of State of Play that you thought it might never happen, especially following the withdrawal of original stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton?
Kevin Macdonald: Oh yeah. Developing anything in Hollywood is very difficult and putting a film together is a nightmare. It’s enough to make you feel sorry for the studios, to be honest. How they ever manage to get them all packaged is unbelievable. So, when I originally got involved, I’d been invited to do it by Brad Pitt, who was attached to star in it. We had a meeting of minds over the idea of making a film about journalism today and the crisis in journalism and its threat. Our aim was to explore that theme within the context of an entertaining thriller. He went off and was working on Benjamin Button and various things, and I started developing the script, but you’re never really sure whether it’ll get there or not. So, it began to get to where I wanted it to be and he read it but didn’t like it. So, we agreed to disagree and he departed the project.

Q. What happened then?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, at that stage, the film could have collapsed. But the studio really liked it and was behind it, and so they said to me: “Who would you like to have in the part?” And my first choice was the best actor among all the stars, I think… the man who really puts character first is Russell Crowe. I wanted to make this a character piece within a thriller and Russell understood that. He read it, enjoyed it and saw what it could be and we delayed by a month and then started. But there were times when I thought this isn’t going to happen. But nowadays I look back and view it as quite some rollercoaster ride.

Q. Do you think with the benefit of hindsight the writers’ strike also helped it?
Kevin Macdonald: The writers’ strike didn’t really have that much to do with it, to be honest. It might have been part of the consideration of the studio as to why they went ahead and made the film anyway because they didn’t know how long the strike was going to go on. They may have felt that if it went on for a year they needed films to release. But it didn’t really affect us that much, to be honest. We were ready to shoot just before it began.

Q. You mention a crisis in journalism. How do you view it personally? Is there a crisis?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, if you look at what’s happening to newspapers, they are economically unviable as a product now, and yet they’re so important as our source of news. Websites, which have news, tend to get their news from newspapers. They don’t pay for it, but they get it from newspapers. So, the websites get the advertising and the newspapers have to pay for the journalists and print costs.

In America, for instance, the only reason you know what’s going on in Iraq is because the Washington Post and the New York Times are spending $1 million a month keeping their bureaus open in Iraq. Nobody else has bureaus there at this time. They’re losing huge amounts of money to do so, but they feel it’s in the public interest and it’s something they should be reporting on. But in the current economic climate they cannot afford to keep doing that. Journalists are being sacked all over the place in every country, newspapers are closing down, revenues are going down… not just because of this crisis but because of the flight to the internet.

And so I wanted to represent that in some ways in the film and one of the central relationships is between a young blogger working on the internet side of the newspaper [played by Rachel McAdams], the sort of great white hope for the paper, and this old dinosaur of a print journalist played by Russell Crowe, and that friction between the two of them. That really interested me. But there’s also something fascinating about the world of journalism as a movie setting. It obviously has a good history of producing great movies [All The President’s Men, Zodiac, etc]. So, I thought maybe this could be the last one because it’s kind of about the death of papers in a way. It felt like there was something new to be said.

Q. And you were able to get a cameo from Bob Woodward [one of the two journalists to uncover the Watergate scandal]…
Kevin Macdonald: Bob Woodward actually was in the film but we cut the scene that he did, which I was very annoyed about! We had him in a scene where Robin Wright Penn’s character gives a press conference. She stands up and says: “My husband has done something wrong by having this affair, but I forgive him.” There’s an array of journalists at this press conference, including several very prominent American journalists and Bob Woodward. I was very proud of having him in the audience for that, but we ended up cutting the scene!

Q. What made you cast Brennan Brown – aka Mr Dresden in the Orange cinema ads – in the role of a sinister spin doctor?
Kevin Macdonald: Well, I liked the idea that when you first see him with Jeff Daniels… Jeff is usually seen as a comedic actor, so you have these two characters who turn out to be very sinister, but your initial impulse towards them is that they’re friendly, sweet comedic people. It starts you off at a side-angle.

Read our review of State of Play

Read our interview with Russell Crowe