Exclusive: State of Play – Director’s Commentary

The helmer on adapting the TV series.

by | April 24, 2009 | Comments

State of Play

As State of Play readies for release in the UK, director Kevin Macdonald takes us through a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills from the production…

“I was sent the script through at the end of 2006 and I was somewhat dubious about the idea of turning such a good TV series into a film. Brad Pitt was attached at that time and I went to go and see him to talk about the possibility of doing it and we spent an afternoon chatting about it. What we both agreed on was that to set a film in the world of journalism was a wonderful idea. I’ve always loved films set in that world because you have a lot of excuses for such wonderful eccentric characters but without the clichés. We also thought that now was the time to make a film about the crisis in journalism and particularly in newspapers. We thought that was an interesting theme.”

State of Play

“At that time I started working on the script. There already was a script — written by Matthew Michael Carnahan — but it was very much a condensation of the TV series. I felt we needed to move away from it more — I wanted to do an interpretation and not a version of the original thing. Everyone’s always going to blame you if you stick too close to the original whereas if you move further away it makes it its own entity and it’s a lot easier. We started working with Tony Gilroy and once he’d firmed up a draft we showed it to Brad and he didn’t like it. We discussed for a bit and he and I had the classic “creative differences.” He wanted something much closer to the series and I felt, and still do feel, that thrillers need to be incredibly simple. You need to make something incredibly simple and then make it look complicated. Movies just aren’t built for the level of complexity you’d find from the original series. So he walked off the project less than a week before we were due to start shooting.”

State of Play

“The studio stuck with me and stuck with the film and they said, “Who else would you like?” I said, “Well, probably the guy we should have had from the beginning — Russell Crowe.” It’s not a great thing to lose someone so close to the start of production, but in Brad’s defence I think that probably, subconsciously, he felt that perhaps he wasn’t right for the part. Although I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself at the time, I think it was probably a part he wished he could play but actually he found he wasn’t suited to it. With Russell we ended up with someone who really was suited to it.”

State of Play

“Part of the problem with Brad was that the dynamic of the relationship between the journalist and the politician was meant to be one where the journalist is a damaged figure who’s turned inwards on himself and he looks up to his friend who’s gone a completely different way than he has — very glossy, ambitious and seems to be affecting change in the world. The journalist is a scruffy character who’s let himself go and for Brad to do that, to be the guy who doesn’t get the girl, somehow it’s very hard to buy. Russell was perfectly suited to it and he really made the part his own and the truth is it’s now very hard to see anyone else in that role. He always puts character first and any other considerations fall by the wayside. He took the look of the guy and his damaged, flawed nature much further than I expected and it was much bolder than I’d imagined.”

State of Play

“Russell is fantastic at the little details that he’ll come up with for the character, non-verbally or in some subtle way. But the master of it is Robin Wright Penn, who has so little screen time as the wife. I remember when she came onto set, her first scene was a scene in which she didn’t have any dialogue — a scene towards the end where they’re all sitting around a conference table and Ben Affleck‘s character is giving his version of events. Robin’s character, Ann Collins, is very affected by this because she’s hearing her husband reveal the truth about what happened. You just see Robin’s face three times during that, and at the end she stands up and leaves because she can’t take it, but what Robin Wright Penn registers in those three shots is just fantastic and I remember being blown away by it on set.”

State of Play

“There are a lot of characters in the film and plenty have very little screen time. Helen Mirren‘s character is quite an angry woman. She’s stressed throughout the whole film and yet she manages to convey a depth and subtlety of character even though, in the hands of a lesser actor, the part would seem quite limiting. The reason I turned that character into a woman was because I couldn’t stand the influence of Bill Nighy, who played the role in the TV series. I saw the show a long time ago and I deliberately didn’t watch it again before we started because I didn’t want the weight of influence on my shoulders. But the one character I didn’t know how to translate, and the performance that really stuck in my head, was the Bill Nighy character. He made it so much his own and it was only when I thought I’d turn it into a woman that suddenly I thought of Helen Mirren. She’s got many of Bill’s qualities, but she’s also believable as a Tina Brown-esque character, part of the old school of journalism now trying to get to grips to the new era. I actually met with Bill Nighy about it, and he was very interested to come back, but the reason I didn’t in the end was because I was trying to escape the influence of the series and I thought that could have been the kiss of death. I was finding it so difficult to separate the character from him.”

State of Play

Jason Bateman was the first person I cast in the movie. I didn’t know him, I met him on someone else’s recommendation, and he didn’t want to do any of the big parts, the part that really leapt out at him was this character who’s only on something like 15 pages of the script. I cast him there and then. He’s great because he’s comedic but he’s also rather unpleasant as a character. At the end, when he cries, you realise he’s actually a rather pathetic individual — all front which is cruelly exposed. It’s a great moment in the movie, because after the twists and turns of the plot you get a 15-minute relief with him. It’s a hard balance to get right in the cutting room, trying to get the comedic elements to mix with the thrills and the twists.”

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