“It’s funny with this film,” says Kevin Macdonald about his taut conspiracy thriller “State of Play,” starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck and opening Friday, “because I find myself spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about a film that might have been, that wasn’t.”
That would be the “State of Play” that almost starred Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Just weeks before cameras were set to roll last year, Pitt abandoned the project - at odds with his director over a script that had jettisoned many of the elements from the six-hour British miniseries that the movie is based on. (Norton left as well, due to scheduling issues.)
“It all happened very last-minute, within a week of shooting,” recalls Macdonald, on the phone from his home in North London. “It put us in quite a tricky position. But in hindsight, I think we ended up where we should have been. ... Russell was the right actor for the role, and somehow we got there, albeit by a very circuitous route.
“And although we were both probably in denial about this, the reason that Brad and I couldn’t work it out creatively was that I think we realized, in some way, that he wasn’t right for the part.”
And so, with no star, and millions of dollars on the line, Macdonald scrambled.
“We had a whole crew and a cast and a huge set and everything all waiting there,” says Macdonald, 41, a Glaswegian who made the move from award-winning docs to feature films with 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland.”
“There was a lot of pressure to do something quickly, and it was one of those situations where either we have an actor within a couple of weeks or the movie’s not going to happen. ... So I sent the script to Russell with some urgency and he read it in a couple of days, got back and said, ‘I’m interested. We should talk.’ “
And so Macdonald got on a plane to Sydney, to meet with Mr. Crowe.
“My wife had just flown out to see me in L.A., from London,” he remembers, chuckling. “She arrived and I pretty much straightaway left her, without either me or her children, and I went to Australia.
“My only trip to Australia - and I was there less than 24 hours. It was surreal.”
Macdonald says that compressing six hours of intricate political thriller (the BBC series aired in 2003 and is available on DVD) down to a two-hour movie was not so much a matter of ruthless editing as it was rethinking the material. Tony Gilroy, writer of the Bourne films, was key.
“I started off trying to be ruthless, but then I realized, actually, that was the wrong way to approach it,” Macdonald explains. “The right way was to say we’re reinterpreting the very basic ideas behind the mini-series: the truths and friendship and betrayal ... and then to leave everything else out, really. In a way all we ended keeping was the beginning and the end” - and a key action scene, set in a hospital, in the middle - “and actually very little else.”
As for Gilroy, Macdonald said he learned a lot from the writer and director (“Michael Clayton,” “Duplicity”).
“It was a very entertaining two months, really, I spent off and on with him,” he says. “He had broken his leg and he was kind of trapped in his apartment in New York - it was like something out of ‘Rear Window.’ Every time I went to visit, he was more curmudgeonly about the fact that he couldn’t go anywhere, or do anything. And we sat in his little back garden and worked out the story. ... He was so influential in terms of simplifying it, of saying, ‘This is why you’re finding difficulty making it work, because it’s too complicated.’
“And I hope that the film has a sort of forward-leaning momentum to it, which is something that Tony is very good at. His fingerprints are on it.”