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Inside a Washington thriller

Director takes newspaper tale to the big screen

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 12, 2009
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In "State of Play," Russell Crowe plays an old-school Washington newspaper reporter on the police beat. His college roommate (Ben Affleck) is a crusading congressman. When the congressman runs afoul of scandal - part Gary Condit, part Blackwater - Crowe finds himself torn between personal and professional loyalties. The film, which is based on a six-part 2003 BBC series, opens Friday.

The film's director, Kevin Macdonald, is best known for "The Last King of Scotland" (2006), which earned Forest Whitaker a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Idi Amin. Macdonald made his reputation with such documentaries as "One Day in September" (1999) and "Touching the Void" (2003).

Last week Macdonald spoke about "State of Play" by telephone from London.

Q. Washington is itself a kind of character in the movie.

A. There have been so many movies set there, of one sort or another, not just political. So the thing I was most conscious of was how not to make the city a cliche, how to see it differently. Most of my films in the past have been documentaries, where I'm showing the audience a world they're unfamiliar with. That's true in "Last King of Scotland," too. That's not true of Washington.

Q. Which felt more foreign to you: Washington or Uganda?

A. [Laughs] Well, I often used to joke with the producers on this film that it was harder to get permission to film in Washington than in Uganda. There I just had to wave the letter we had from the president.

Q. I have to assume you're a fan of the paranoid thriller.

A. I am. But while I like paranoid thrillers - our conspiracy in this movie is true! Newspapers are dying, and privatization really is talking over the world.

Q. Did you screen any in preparation for this?

A. I did, yeah. Like everyone I know, I love Alan Pakula's movies. You can't make a film in Washington, D.C., and about journalism without feeling the weight of "All the President's Men." And "Parallax View," visually, is a wonderful movie - "Klute," as well, especially the music. Also, a filmmaker whom I particularly love is Costa-Gavras.

Q. I also have to assume you're a fan of newspaper movies.

A. "Missing," which is kind of a newspaper film, is my favorite. Also "His Girl Friday." I once made a documentary about [the film's director] Howard Hawks, and watched it 10 times. Making a film about journalism was what most attracted me to this project. There are a lot of great movies in which journalists are at the center, and there hasn't been one for a while. I suspect there won't be another one for a while. I may have made the last newspaper movie.

Q. One of the things about "His Girl Friday" is that it casts a woman in what had been a male role. You did that here with Helen Mirren, as the newspaper editor.

A. The best thing in the series was Bill Nighy, a wonderful comic actor, playing the editor. He was viper-tongued and acerbic. He was fantastic. Adapting it, I tried to make all the characters different. But the one I couldn't get out of my head was Nighy's. Then I just hit on the idea, "Change him into a woman." So who can do the same things the character did, but as a woman? Helen was the obvious choice. She was the first person we went to.

Q. You had to condense a six-hour series into a two-hour movie. Was that harder or easier than you'd expected?

A. Both. It was hard to begin with because there seems to be such a lot of plot in the original series. But what I found when I worked through it the first time is that, really, the plot is very simple. There are a lot of curlicues around the plot. The opening and ending [of the movie] are pretty much the same, as are the character relationships. But the rest is very different.

Q. There are so many real-life parallels that the movie draws on: Blackwater, the Gary Condit case. Do you think your background in documentary helps you in getting across that feel of real-life issues?

A. I think it probably is a factor. My instinct is always to go to the reality first. The reality is much more nuanced and interesting, and that's always what I found. When you get the real thing, you get something that isn't a cliche. That's the fight we're all fighting: How are you going to be entertaining and suspenseful yet show them something they haven't seen before?

Q. Reality does that?

A. For me it has.

Q. You haven't given up making documentaries.

A. I like documentaries a lot. When I did "Last King of Scotland," I went off and did a documentary afterward. When you're making a feature film, you're like a horse pulling a cart with 300 people on it the whole time. It's draining. To go off and make a documentary when there are just two of you and the camera, it's liberating and fun.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.