Friday, 8 May 2009

Interview with State of Play and the Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald

On a recent visit to Bath to promote his new conspiracy thriller State Of Play, Director Kevin Macdonald took time out before attending a screening of the film, organised by Bath Film Festival, to talk to Jez Conolly about the process of adapting the television series for the big screen, Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film, not Brad Pitt's much-discussed departure from the project) and his next film The Eagle Of The Ninth set, rather appropriately given the location of the interview, in Roman Britain.

J.C: Were there any elements of the State Of Play TV series that you would have liked to have included in the film that you had to leave out in the process of cutting six hours of material down to two?
K.M: Yes and no. I realized early on that it had to be its own beast. The film had to exist outside of the TV series to do something different. I ceased to think of it as a straight adaptation. It was the central ideas that interested me. I wanted to take those and run with them and make something that was my own interpretation. I was concerned that everyone was going to remember the TV series and question why it should be taken to America, but I think the themes of the material are strong enough to withstand that kind of adaptation. The ideas at the heart of the series, friendship, betrayal, guilt, are all there. I loved the idea of making a film about journalism, I’m a big fan of newspapers, I wanted to be a journalist myself. Everyone will tell you that newspapers are dying and so I wanted to tell the story of a dying newspaper and how a journalist on the trail of a huge, huge story in some ways saved the newspaper temporality.

What has been the off-the-page response from newspaper people to the film?
The actual reviews have been middling to good but the informal response from journalists themselves at previews, in the UK at least, has been fantastically good. Some journalists in America have said that it’s not really accurate, but we made quite a lot of effort with the central character of Cal McAffrey, to figure out who he is within the hierarchy of the newspaper and what his actual job is. Some of the critics have described him as an investigative journalist. Of course he’s not, he’s what they call in America the metro reporter, a relatively small time employee, somebody who works on local crime, corruption in City Hall and the like, but they didn’t pick up on that.

Brad Pitt’s walking away from the project is well documented. How much did Russell Crowe bring to the development of the character in the relatively short run-up or during the shoot?
Because he got involved at the last minute quite a lot of the things that go into forming the character were already there, the script was there, the sets were built including his apartment. He had to come in and ask ‘Okay, this is where I live - what am I like?’. I worked with a fantastic production designer (Mark Friedberg) so Russell started from the page and was then able to know what his car and apartment looked like on the inside. From that Russell was able to build up the character of somebody you’d believe you could meet walking down the street. He turned up the day before filming saying that he wanted to wear a pink cancer awareness armband. He felt that Cal’s mother had died of cancer and that this might help to explain why he had been unable to or refused to develop a long term relationship with a woman. He also wanted a little shrine to the mother on set, which you never see but it was important to him for it to be there.

You recently talked about Nic Roeg’s Walkabout on The Film Programme on Radio 4. You mentioned that films like
Walkabout are emblematic of something we’ve lost in filmmaking. What is it that we’ve lost, and can we get it back?
We’ve lost a lot of things I think. To start with it’s impossible to imagine a film like Walkabout being made today and distributed in any kind of commercial context. We’ve lost a broadness, a cineliteracy in the audience, and I think that even extends to something like State Of Play. Five years ago a film like State Of Play would have made a lot of money in America. These days it’s the fifth or sixth grown-up movie in a row that hasn’t really performed at the box office in America, which is sad and indicative of the fat that adults don’t want to go to the movies any more, that teen and early twenties audiences don’t really want to be challenged in any way, they want to have an experience that is about sensation, they don’t want to think about character, the story isn’t even that important to them. Nic Roeg was able to express the content of the film visually in a way that very few filmmakers have successfully done, through the use of the camera, editing, music, sound effects. I think the days when you could make mainstream art movies in Britain are pretty much over, but they may return.

With your move from documentary to feature, how much do you see the sensibility of documentary influencing mainstream feature films?

There have always been two schools of cinema; at the beginning you had the Lumiere brothers setting up cameras to record real events and almost simultaneously you had Georges Méliès creating works of fantasy and imagination. These two strains of cinema continued through the years and so on the one hand you had Hitchcock following the Méliès tradition, where every single thing is controlled, virtually every gesture is scripted, and on the other hand you had Vittorio De Sica and Italian Neorealism and Humphrey Jennings in Britain trying to make films that have spontaneity and capture real life, and I’m very definitely in the Vittorio De Sica tradition. One of the things that I love in a drama is that little sensation you get when there’s something in the way a person is talking or the way they move their face that feels very real. Mainstream entertainment cinema has adopted some of the tricks of the documentary trade, for example the use of handheld cameras. Effectively they are the same old Hollywood stories but with the veneer of the documentary style. With my own work one of the interesting questions I’m always grappling with is ‘who is the camera?’ Is it the audience or a person in their own right? What perspective is the camera giving? When you use the documentary camera as I do what you’re saying is the camera is a person, and that immediately differentiates how you view the movie. If you feel like the camera is moving like it’s a person, if it feels like it’s only in positions that a person could get into compared to a camera that is totally mobile and fluid, then I think it’s more honest.

I read a short piece by you about the much-missed cinematographer Jack Cardiff in which you single out The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus as the height of his achievements. Thinking back to what you had to say about Nic Roeg’s pure visual cinema, do you see yourself moving further away from documentary-style realism and into more painterly filmmaking?

Like many people I’m driven by cravings for new experience and adventure. I don’t have a grand master plan to adhere to a dominant aesthetic that will surmount everything in my life or in my work, so yes I would and if the right circumstances came along I would love to do something like a musical or a comedy. I don’t know if I’d be any good at them but if somebody gives you the opportunity to do those things I’d think why the hell not?

What can you tell me about your next picture The Eagle Of The Ninth? I believe it’s based on a childen’s novel.
It’s a teen novel really, and it’s certainly not a children’s film. It’s a book I read when I was 12 or 13. It comes from a genre of writing that doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in its original form. It’s a teen adventure, quite sophisticated, historically textured and accurate. It was written by Rosemary Sutcliff who wrote many historical books set at the time of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages dealing with the clash between the Celtic and Roman cultures. I found out that the producer Duncan Kenworthy owned the rights to it and I pleaded with him to let me do it. The idea is not to make something like Troy or Gladiator. I’m not going to have armies of 100,000 computer generated Romans. There’ll be a little bit of CGI used to recreate Hadrian’s Wall, but it’s really a character drama about the relationship between a Roman soldier and his Celtic slave. It’s an exciting old-fashioned adventure.

Was there a particular film that had a big effect on you as a youngster?
I had very unsophisticated tastes as a child. The film that I remember seeing as a ten-year-old and enjoying the most was called Sky Riders. It’s an adventure story about a very inventive gang of thieves who rob a fortress using hang gliders. It was made by someone called Douglas Hickox, and weirdly the very first award I received, for my film One Day In September, was called the Douglas Hickox Award given at the British Independent Film Awards.

What later films got you interested in filmmaking?
There are two films; one was, unimaginatively, a film made by my grandfather [Emeric Pressburger]. When I was at university I went to the film club where they showed The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp. I watched the film and was so moved by it because it felt so personal to him and everything I knew about him, but also because it was so entertaining and yet intelligent. That was something that I took on board; I wanted to make films that were entertaining but don’t insult the audience’s intelligence. I recognized so much of him in it and he died very shortly after I saw it so it’s a movie experience I remember very vividly. The other movie that really got me interested in making documentaries was The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, which is for my money the greatest documentary ever made. It changed the whole aesthetic of documentaries. It proves a man innocent of murder - what more can you hope to do in your life – and it used the camera like a psychiatrist’s couch. To get people to reveal things about themselves that they would never ever want to have revealed. There was a formalism about the film that I found completely mesmerizing. Morris used the same 50mm lens on every single interviewee and placed them all a certain length from the camera. I found that formalism, in opposition to the wild, handheld observational style which was very prevalent in documentary at the time, to be fascinating and influential on the documentaries that I made.

What was the last film you saw that excited you?
Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme. I haven’t seen much in the last couple of years that I thought was really new cinema. I loved that film because I thought it had a documentary sensibility to it and a warmth and inclusiveness. It also had the greatest surprise performance I’ve ever seen. Anne Hathaway gives a wonderful, ambiguous, unlikeable kind of performance in the movie which I thought was fantastic, and even though the film has faults I like the faults. I thought it was the kind of movie they don’t make any more, it was a 70s style movie and I enjoyed it very much.

State of Play is on general release now

Interview by Jez Conolly
With the kind assistance of Alexandra Chapman from the Bath Film Festival

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