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Originally published Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Thriller "State of Play" is fiction but explores real journalism

Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald says his new movie, "State of Play" (starring Russell Crowe), is a piece of fiction that deals with some of the contemporary realities of journalism. An interview conducted by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Opening Friday

"State of Play"

At several theaters. Rated PG-13 for some violence, language including sexual references, and brief drug content. See Friday's MovieTimes for showtimes.

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"State of Play," a Washington, D.C.-set thriller in which the worlds of politics and journalism intertwine, is a fictional story inspired by a British TV miniseries. But for director Kevin Macdonald, best known for his remarkable documentaries (the Oscar-winning "One Day in September," as well as "Touching the Void") and one fact-based drama ("The Last King of Scotland"), it was important to throw some truth into the mix.

Macdonald, in a telephone interview, said he knew and loved the 2003 miniseries. "It was a genre piece, which was focused heavily on the character relationships. It didn't have any of the real texture or patina of real journalism. The characters could almost have been cops, or private investigators. Paul Abbott, who wrote it, will gladly tell you that he never even met a journalist. 'Journalism of the mind,' he called it.

"I think one of the differences between the original series and our film is that when Paul Abbott wrote about journalism, he did it from a point of view of not feeling like he had to do any research — a completely imaginative process. Whereas I like to start with: What's the reality like? If it's not really interesting, how can we tweak it so it's interesting and build it up from there? To me, reality's always more nuanced and more surprising than what you can make up."

So the story evolved, with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, into something that closely reflects the current state of journalism. The film's fictitious Washington Globe, like its real-life counterparts, is struggling for survival, and within its walls are plenty of internal battles. Old-school reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) resents the intrusion of young blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) into his investigation of a murder seemingly connected to a local congressman (Ben Affleck).

"Blogs are fun, but they're not the same as reporting," said Macdonald. "I thought it would be a bit of fun, really, kind of like a romantic-comedy setup, the clash of two cultures."

Washington Post editor R.B. Brenner joined the crew as an adviser — and, Macdonald said, had long arguments with Crowe about ethics and journalism. (Crowe "is very suspicious of journalists," said Macdonald, with a chuckle.) And Macdonald worked with production designer Mark Friedberg to create a soundstage set that looked like a real newsroom.

"It was inspired by the visits I took to The Washington Post," Macdonald said. "The big struggle was to get enough junk. I used to come to the set every day when they were dressing that set, for a month, and say 'more paper, more junk!' "

Ultimately, Macdonald hopes that the film is both an entertaining thriller and a drama that touches upon an issue crucial to the future of journalism. "If journalists aren't around to ask awkward questions of people in power, people in power can get away with anything they want. That's the ultimate conspiracy, isn't it?"

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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