Kevin Macdonald interview: A state of mind

THERE are certain words no film director wishes to hear, especially those who are on their first foray into working in Hollywood. "Brad's got a problem with the script," said Brad Pitt's agent to Kevin Macdonald, the director of State of Play, a big-budget adaptation of the award-winning 2003 BBC drama.

Brad Pitt had developed the script and agreed to play the lead role; Brad Pitt had chosen the Scottish director after being impressed by his drama-documentary, Touching the Void; and now – with ten days to go before the cameras rolled – Brad Pitt's feet had developed a severe chill.

The bungalow office at Culver Studios used by Macdonald was once Gloria Swanson's gym, during Hollywood's golden age, but her ghost brought little comfort as the production teetered on the edge of oblivion.

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It was November 2007. All the other roles had been cast. The 2 million set had been built and a talented team of technicians accrued, who, with the writers' strike looming and many films wrapping up, would be hard pushed to find other work.

Over the next few days Pitt, cold feet now clad in biker boots, drove his Harley Davidson down to the set, where Macdonald and he argued over the script until the star finally walked.

"He just said, 'I don't want to do it.' He was fairly good, as movie stars go, about doing his own dirty work," says Macdonald, on the phone from the back seat of a taxi in London. "He could have got his agent to do it, but we met up and he said he didn't want to do it now, he wanted to do it in six months and he didn't want to use the script – and I did. We were four days from shooting. All the other actors were ready, costumes, sets, technicians, everything was in place. I had invested a lot of time on this picture, I liked the script and so I pushed ahead."

Faced with the choice of pulling the plug or giving the director an opportunity to re-cast, Universal Studios gave him a few weeks to try to fill the role of Cal McAffrey (played by John Simm in the TV drama) with a star of equal calibre. In many ways, Macdonald went one better: "They asked me who I thought and I said, 'Russell Crowe.'"

The script was duly Fed-Exed to Crowe's ranch in the Australian outback, but with little hope, as the actor had recently finished making Ridley Scott's movie Body of Lies and had planned to take a break.

"Then I got an e-mail from him. He said he liked the script and (asked me] to come down to see him." Despite the fact that Macdonald's wife had just arrived in Los Angeles to spend time with him over Thanksgiving, he flew to Australia for 24 hours.

"It was a great trip. Russell got his mate, who is a helicopter pilot, to come pick me up and fly me out to the family ranch. Then, when we met up, we went for a long walk around his land inspecting the cattle and talking about the movie. I didn't know if he would agree. It was a difficult position for him, as an actor of his calibre, because he's stepping into a dead man's shoes. It was big deal in Hollywood when Brad pulled out. There were threats of legal suits. But Russell had liked the script, he'd watched my movies and liked Touching the Void. So that night I had dinner – some prime Russell Crowe ranch steaks – with him and his family and stayed over. He said, 'I'll talk to you in the morning.'"

Because Macdonald was flying back to Los Angeles the next morning, he rose early and was disappointed to discover that Crowe was still in his bed. "I thought, 'Well, he can't be that interested.' His mother offered to drive me back to the airport and I said, 'Maybe I should bang on his bedroom door for a quick chat.' She said, 'I wouldn't do that if I were you!' And so I thought he didn't want to do it but wasn't man enough to tell me." The car was just passing the ranch gates when Crowe's mother's mobile rang. "It was Russell, he apologised for not being up and then he said, 'I'll see you in LA in two weeks.'"

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Words a fledgling director on his first big job in Hollywood was only too delighted to hear. Macdonald had his man.

Looking at the movie today, it's hard to imagine Brad Pitt as McAffrey, a slobby, old-school journalist, disturbed by the collapse of his industry and distrustful of a new generation of journalist-bloggers. "I think part of the problem with Brad was that he wasn't right for the role. It was going to be a hard thing for him and so, in certain ways, he had a lucky escape and I had a lucky escape."

While the original BBC TV series also involved a newspaper reporter investigating a murder, it lacked the scent of newsprint that perfumes its big-screen cousin.

The movie, in many ways, acts as a eulogy to an industry in collapse, particularly in America where many big cities including Colorado and Seattle have seen their daily paper disappear in the past few months. It's also a tribute to the great newspaper movies of the past.

Macdonald, who says he dutifully buys two Saturday papers, two Sunday papers and a daily paper "at least two or three days a week", was inspired by All the President's Men and The Parallax View, both released in the 1970s. "I absolutely love newspapers and it was very important to me that this film be about the tension in the industry." Journalism was a career he had considered after graduating from Oxford, but he was drawn instead into documentary film-making.

Kevin Macdonald, 41, was born and grew up in Glasgow. He and his older brother, Andrew, who produced Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach, are the grandsons of Emeric Pressburger, the Hungarian scriptwriter who collaborated with Michael Powell on such British classics as The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. "I don't think of him in connection with my own work. I wasn't even going into movies when he was alive; instead, it's been my own road."

After completing a biography of his grandfather, published by Faber & Faber, he went on to make a documentary about him, The Making of an Englishman.

It was his first full-length documentary, One Day In September, about the Israeli athletes massacred at the Munich Olympics, that marked him out for success, and it won an Oscar in 1999.

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He followed it up with Touching the Void (2003), about two mountaineers who survived a horrendous accident on the high peaks of Peru, then finally embraced fiction, although still grounded in fact, with Last King of Scotland (2006), from which Forest Whitaker emerged with an Oscar for his role as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

His documentary background means that when shooting movies he likes to keep things loose on set, with room for spontaneity. "I'll rehearse the actors, but only up to a point. I like to keep it fresh and leave room for good accidents to happen." He says there were tensions on set when directing Crowe, an actor with forceful opinions.

"Russell Crowe is very opinionated and very tough and many times he is right, but there are times when he's not right and then you have a row and he can be fierce. You have a heated discussion – a disagreement creatively. Sometimes he will back down, sometimes he won't and sometimes you'll shoot the scene both ways.

"It was difficult at times, as Russell is used to filming with Ridley Scott, who will have five cameras on a scene and run it through maybe only three times; while I like a lot of takes, play around and change things – and also, (some] other actors need more takes. But I'm delighted with the way it all worked out."

This summer Macdonald, who now lives in London with his wife and three children, is expecting to return to Scotland to shoot his latest movie, an adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic children's novel, The Eagle of the Ninth. The plot follows a wounded Roman soldier and his loyal Celtic slave, played by Jamie Bell, as they attempt to solve the mystery of the Ninth Legion, who set off into the wilds of the Scottish Highlands and were never seen again.

While Hungary will double as England, Macdonald feels there is no substitute for Scotland's landscape. "I'm looking forward to coming up in the next few weeks to scout locations and do prep work – we really want to film in Scotland. Ten per cent of the dialogue will be Gaelic."

After the high drama behind the scenes on State of Play, which Macdonald only completed a month ago but which has already gathered fine reviews, and with the pre-production for Eagle underway, the director has no other plans. "I'm actually looking forward to a nice long break."

• State of Play opens at cinemas nationwide on Friday 24 April.


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Born in Glasgow on 28 October 1967, Kevin Macdonald wrote The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, a biography of his grandfather, the Hungarian-born British filmmaker Emeric Pressburger, in 1994, turning it into the documentary, The Making of an Englishman, the following year.

In 1999 he directed One Day in September, a documentary about the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The film included an interview with Jamal Al-Gashey, the last-known survivor of the terrorists responsible for the attacks in Munich, and the film went on to win an Oscar for best documentary.

In 2003 he made the BAFTA-winning Touching the Void, the true story of two climbers lost in the Andes in 1985, and in 2006 he made the multi award-winning The Last King of Scotland, starring James McAvoy and Forest Whitaker.

He lives in London with his wife, Tatiana, and their three sons.