5 Apr 2009: Director Kevin Macdonald tells Amy Raphael how he saved his new film after Brad Pitt walked out

One of the most hotly awaited Hollywood films of this year is State of Play, a political thriller starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren. It is an adapation of the widely acclaimed BBC television series, a complex tale of a journalist investigating the murder of an MP’s researcher, which was broadcast on the BBC in 2003. Paul Abbott’s multilayered script, set against the backdrop of Blair’s 2001 re-election and New Labour’s perceived failure to replace the sleaze scandals of the Tory years, showcased the very best of British actors. David Morrissey was the ambitious MP ruined by his affair with his researcher, John Simm the tenacious journalist and one-time friend of the MP, and Bill Nighy the sarcastic newspaper editor.

  • State of Play
  • Production year: 2009
  • Countries: Rest of the world, USA
  • Cert (UK): 12A
  • Runtime: 127 mins
  • Directors: Kevin MacDonald
  • Cast: Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Maria Thayer, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn, Russell Crowe, Viola Davis
  • More on this film

But the journey from small to big screen has been long and troubled. It was to star Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, reuniting the actors for the first time since Fight Club. Pitt, after reading the first adaptation of Abbott’s script, committed to the lead part of journalist Cal McAffrey and even got involved in choosing a director. Norton came on board to play the politician. Pitt then went off to make other films, while the script went through a series of rewrites. The story, which had already relocated to Washington DC from London, became less faithful to Abbott’s original.

By the time Pitt met the film’s British director, Kevin Macdonald, the actor was asking for the script to be closer to the first draft. After two weeks of intense negotiations, in November 2007, Pitt walked out. The delay meant that Norton, tied up with other projects, had to go too. The international press latched on to Pitt’s departure, suggesting all sorts of bad blood between actor and director, between actor and studio. Universal’s response was pretty straightforward: if the film couldn’t be recast in time to keep the remaining actors in place, it would consider suing Pitt. Macdonald had a week to find a replacement and struck gold with Russell Crowe. No legal action was taken against Pitt.

Throughout this star-studded saga, Macdonald has remained the single constant. The Glaswegian director won an Oscar in 2000 with his first feature documentary, One Day in September, about Palestinian terrorists taking Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Seven years later, he made his first feature film: The Last King of Scotland, which won a Bafta for best British film and a best actor Oscar for Forest Whitaker. But Pitt approached Macdonald to direct State of Play because he was a huge fan of Touching the Void, Macdonald’s acclaimed 2003 documentary which recreated the true story of two mountaineers attempting to climb the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, with near-fatal results.

When we meet, Macdonald tells me he is still on good terms with Pitt. “It’s amicable. I have no bad feelings towards him except that it was at the very last minute and that was tough on me and the studio.” He dunks a chocolate chip biscuit into his tea. “Actually, it was a fiasco. A week before shooting, I was left with this $2m set of a newspaper room; it was dressed and ready to go. I was thinking it was all going to be knocked down unless I could find another actor.”

But what really happened between Pitt and Macdonald? How did the situation reach stalemate? After all, it started so well. “I met Brad when he was in New Orleans filming Benjamin Button around two years ago and we hit it off. He’s a very likable person, so I started working on the script.” This was an immediate challenge. Not only was Macdonald a fan of the source material, but he also struggled to see how the character work that had been developed over the space of six hours could be squeezed into two hours: “It was like taking a national treasure and knowing that you’re going to be reviled for altering even tiny bits of it.”

He decided to start from scratch and rework the story with Tony Gilroy, who wrote the screenplays for the phenomenally successful Bourne series. Over time, other writers became involved too, including the ubiquitous Peter Morgan, the man behind The Queen and Frost/Nixon and co-writer of The Last King of Scotland. As the action moved from London to Washington DC, so the story developed from a political thriller into a dramatic exposé of the declining state of print journalism.

If it sounds at all worthy and bland, it isn’t. Despite the rewrites and the change of cast, Macdonald has made it work. It’s a genuinely engaging thriller that lingers in your mind. It’s not State of Play for an American audience, just a great film inspired by a British television series. Paul Abbott, who is executive producer on the film, had a hand in the script and spent some time on set. Is it as good as the original? He laughs. “It’s a totally different beast. If the film could have been six hours long it would have been as good a story. In the end, though, it’s an equally satisying rendition. The end of the film made my heart soar; it gave me just what I needed.”

Macdonald explains how he wanted to update the film version. “The original State of Play wasn’t set in any recognisably real journalistic world. It’s not what really interested Paul Abbott; in fact, he’ll tell you proudly that he didn’t even do any research with journalists, whereas we spent a lot of time getting advice from the Washington Post. I thought the crisis in newspapers was something to be explored; I love All the President’s Men and, in fact, all films about journalism. I thought we could make the last film about newspapers before they die.”

Macdonald laughs, but he has a genuine love of newspapers and would rather get inky hands than surf online. After leaving Oxford, where he read English, he turned to documentary-making only after failing to make it as a foreign correspondent; he had a romantic notion of working in Latin America despite not speaking Spanish. “I suppose making documentaries is like doing journalism on film. I always loved digging away at the story, trying to find out things that people don’t want you to find out and piecing it all together. I love the treasure hunt aspect of it, the thrill of the chase.”

McDonald’s first documentary, in 1994, was made pretty much as a joke. His brother Andrew’s first job was as a producer on Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave; Kevin decided to make Digging Your Own Grave, about the making of the film, on the premise that Andrew “was going to fuck up and it would be a disaster”.

Yet both have gone on to become driving forces in British film. Andrew has produced films as successful as Trainspotting and The Last King of Scotland while Kevin has on his CV not only an Oscar and a handful of Baftas but, with Touching the Void, Britain’s highest-grossing documentary. The brothers’ grandfather was the late Emeric Pressburger, the feted screenwriter, director and producer who collaborated with Michael Powell on films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes

Although Kevin insists he’s easy going both in his personal and professional life, he also admits to a stubborn streak attributable to Pressburger. “If there’s a principle really worth sticking up for, I’ll go the whole way. My grandfather died before I started making films, but I definitely learnt this from him: believe in your own judgment and stick to your guns – 99% of the time, you’ll be glad you did.” When he was making One Day in September, Macdonald didn’t stop until he got an interview with Jamal al-Gashey, the only known surviving terrorist from the Munich Olympics. In Touching the Void, he had to keep filming at high altitude, with bleeding nails and split lips, as one of the original climbers began to unravel.

However, even this wealth of experience didn’t prepare Macdonald for Pitt walking off State of Play a week before it was due to start shooting. So what happened? “There were lots of different factors. Partly it was to do with his personal life; he was incredibly overstretched. They kept doing reshoots on Benjamin Button. He also did Burn After Reading. He’d got suddenly six kids in the space of two years. And we disagreed with what the film should be. I think it’s fair to say he wanted it to be much closer to the original.”

Macdonald chooses his words carefully. “Brad and I saw it differently in that I think movies have to be really simple; you can’t be too complicated in a two-hour film. But he wanted to have so many characters from the original State of Play, so many of the incidents. I just couldn’t see how it would work. And we both realised, although we were probably both in denial at the time, that actually he wasn’t right for the part of journalist Cal McAffrey. The dynamic between the journalist and the politician Stephen Collins has to be one in which the former admires the latter and feels slightly unworthy in his presence. The journalist has receded into himself in some way, he’s unable to have stable relationships with women, he’s obsessed with work and lives in a weird, messy place piled high with papers and books. He’s a slightly closed off, schlumpy kind of person.”

McAffrey is also in love with Collins’s wife, Anne Collins (Robin Wright Penn), and Macdonald couldn’t imagine Pitt being the guy who couldn’t get the girl. “There’s something very damaged about McAffrey and again I’m not sure Brad would be good at damaged.” Once Pitt had walked, Universal asked Macdonald who his ideal replacement would be and without hesitation he suggested Russell Crowe.

So the script was sent to Crowe’s Australian ranch. Macdonald followed. He had lunch with Crowe’s parents. Crowe then gave him a tour of the ranch as Macdonald tried to persuade him to do State of Play. Crowe’s mum drove Macdonald back to the airport, entertaining him with tales of her son’s experiences on various films. Macdonald spent just 24 hours in Australia but he got his man.

Why Crowe? “Because there are only a handful of actors who can get a Hollywood movie made. And Russell is the best so he was my first choice. He’s a real actor, an actor before he’s a movie star. We lost Brad, but we gained someone better.” What about his hellraising reputation? “I was worried about it, yeah, of course I was. He’s a tricky customer. He’s very forceful, very opinionated. But you don’t make movies to have a great time, necessarily. You know that you have to go through disagreements and have upsetting days; it’s part of the process of shooting a film.”

Although Macdonald and Crowe have an Oscar apiece, it’s the actor who has all the Hollywood experience. Was the director able to pull rank? “That’s a very difficult thing. It’s what I learnt about going to Hollywood. As a director, you are less important than the actor until the first day of shooting. In a way, you’re only there as a director because the actor will work with you.” He laughs. “It’s strange to experience the way the star system has developed. When you’re on set, as director you have to call the shots, you have to have the final say. But when you have someone as strong and forceful as Russell, it’s not always as simple as that.”

The combination of a stubborn director and a potentially irascible actor is a curious, if not uncommon, one. Despite Macdonald’s laid-back exterior, it’s easy enough to imagine the two having blazing rows. He looks straight at me when I suggest this, frowns and then laughs. “Yeah, we had a few. It sounds incredibly dry, but we argued a lot about journalism. Russell thinks that almost all journalists act out of self-interest and that most journalism is deliberately misleading and inaccurate. That newspapers and journalists act from their own agenda. Which obviously partly comes from his experience of journalism and having his life reflected in newspapers.”

In Macdonald’s State of Play, Cal McAffrey is part of a dying breed: the heroic, old-school journalist who relies heavily on sources and leads and takes time to find the real story. His method is challenged by Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a bright young blogger who wants to post the Stephen Collins story online as it’s still developing. McAffrey becomes Frye’s mentor but not without a considerable struggle on both sides. Macdonald says that Crowe has a “certain genius for creating a character” and this is the best he’s been for years, appearing on screen fresh from his ranch, relaxed, carrying some extra weight and with shoulder-length hair. It is hard to imagine Pitt offering the same subtle air of despair as Crowe. It’s inspired casting.

John Battsek, who produced One Day in September, thinks that Macdonald is now in an enviable position. “Kevin has never failed to deliver, which puts him in a select group of film-makers. If there’s a pecking order in British film, I’d say he’s right near the top of it. He must be the most sought-after director in this country next to Danny Boyle.” Funnily enough, before Macdonald made The Last King of Scotland, he was given a half-hour masterclasss by Boyle. “He gave me 10 practical pointers about how to direct a film. Simple things like ‘You can’t worry about being too popular. When everyone on set’s tired and there’s pressure to stop you have to keep going.'”

I contact Boyle to ask what he makes of Macdonald and, after enthusing about Touching the Void, he says: “He was particularly concerned with how to deal with the sex scenes on The Last King of Scotland. So we had a chat and he goes and makes a film for which Forest Whitaker wins an Oscar. He leapt from supposedly not knowing what to he was doing to winning an Oscar for his lead actor. That’s all you need to know about Kevin.”

With backing from the struggling but indispensable Film4, Macdonald hopes to spend this summer in Scotland making The Eagle of the Ninth, an “intimate Roman epic” based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel. He has got as far as casting Jamie Bell as a Celtic slave, so there’s no reason why the film shouldn’t happen, but Macdonald is smart enough to know that nothing is safe in these unsettled times. “It’s as tumultuous a time for the film industry as it is for the newspaper industry. The threat of the internet and piracy is huge. It feels like being a hot metal press worker in the 1970s as the new technology is coming in.”

And what would be the ultimate project for the director nipping at Danny Boyle’s heels? “I’d love to make a film about the conquest of Mexico. It’s the most fascinating story about the clash of civilisations. I know exactly how to do it too. There’s just a small question of money …”

Who’s who in the new version? UK versus US characters

The six-part serial State of Play (2003) told a complex tale of double-dealing and journalistic zeal, and won three Baftas. So, for fans of the BBC original, here’s who corresponds with the original players.

The UK cast

Cal McCaffrey John Simm’s journalist was young and idealistic, fiercely tenacious yet enormously appealing.

Stephen Collins In David Morrissey’s hands, the scandal-hit MP was shadowy, vulnerable and utterly believable.

Della Smith Kelly Macdonald’s cub reporter was fiercely ambitious, yet supportive, and admiring of Simm’s McCaffrey.

Cameron Foster Bill Nighy played the newspaper editor with combative panache.

The US cast

Cal McAffrey Russell Crowe, a last-minute replacement for Brad Pitt, plays the journalist as a truth-seeker of the old school, reluctant to embrace modern technology and contemptuous of blog culture.

Stephen Collins Ben Affleck’s politician has a slick, spin-doctored certainty that makes him remote but real.

Della Frye Rachel McAdams’s young blogger starts the film at odds with Crowe’s traditional values but grows to respect his methods and to value the press as a democratic force.

Cameron Lynne Helen Mirren’s newspaper editor anchors the film with regal assurance as she battles to maintain editorial principles under pressure from new owners to boost circulation at any cost.

• State of Play is out on 22 April