Director Macdonald finds District’s ‘real texture’

“With most movies set in Washington, they only go there for three or four days, to get a few shots of the Mall,” remarks director Kevin Macdonald. “We shot there for five weeks.”

That immersion in our storied city is a big reason “State of Play” is one of the most convincing Washington movies ever made.

Based on a British miniseries, the film stars Russell Crowe as a newspaper reporter investigating the murder of a homeless man he soon realizes is linked to the death of a congressman’s mistress. She also worked for the politician (Ben Affleck) as the researcher on a committee investigating a shady paramilitary firm. To further complicate matters, Mr. Affleck’s congressman is an old college friend of Mr. Crowe’s journalist.

You don’t just see the usual shots of the Capitol and the Mall in “State of Play,” though. Mr. Crowe’s Cal McAffrey lives in a Mount Pleasant apartment, and scenes take place at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the Maine Avenue Fish Market and Crystal City’s Americana Hotel.

“The big challenge for me is always, in every film, to take the audience somewhere new and show them a world they’re not familiar with. Novelty is one of the big keys to making a good movie,” Mr. Macdonald says by telephone from London.

There have been plenty of Washington-set political thrillers, so he tried to make his new by “approaching the characters in a different way” and “showing Washington in a different way.”

“That’s one of the things that’s fascinating about D.C.; it has these two sides,” he says. “There’s the underbelly, if you want to call it that, and then the theater of power. Obviously, the point of our story is that those two worlds are connected. We wanted to show that visually.”

The 41-year-old Glasgow-born director made three or four trips to the city before shooting and immediately fell in love. “The first day I came to D.C., I rode on the Metro. I think the Metro is probably the most beautiful modern metro of any metro I’ve been in. Except maybe Moscow, which has a romantic 1920s feel to it,” he says. “I loved the Rosslyn Metro in particular, which we shot at the beginning of the movie.”

After seeing the Kennedy Center, he decided he had to get it into the film, and a scene was written around it. “It is like a mausoleum in a certain way, the exterior with its huge blank wall with elegant columns,” he says. “It speaks to the facelessness of power. It’s a beautiful object, but redolent of something very morbid because it is in memory of JFK.”

He also filmed in the Department of the Interior building and the Department of Housing and Urban Development building. “Other departments were not so helpful,” he comments wryly. While shooting around Capitol Hill, for example, he was stopped by Capitol Police, who threatened to take his film. “There are about a hundred thousand tourists with HD cameras around here; they should be worried about them, not me,” he remembers thinking.

That experience illustrates one reason filmmakers don’t shoot more in the District, Mr. Macdonald thinks. “They don’t because, although the film commission are incredibly helpful in D.C. and try very hard, the federal authorities in particular are not particularly helpful,” he says. “We tried forever to film inside the Cannon Building. We went through months of negotiations and they turned us down at the last minute. You can’t film at the Capitol. Most film companies think it’s not worth the trouble.”

It’s no surprise that Mr. Macdonald spent so much time researching the city, looking at the “seedier sides of town,” talking to “a lot of cops and journalists” and trying to discover the “real texture of this place” when you consider he started his career making documentaries. His examination of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, “One Day in September,” won the Oscar in 2000.

He didn’t start out as a filmmaker, though — he planned to practice the profession he depicts in “State of Play.”

“I wanted to be a journalist and just couldn’t get a job” on leaving college, he says. “It was the recession of 1990, and there were no internships at British papers.”

That’s why, despite the success of his first fiction feature — the insightful political drama “The Last King of Scotland” — he has no plans to stop making documentaries. “That whole journalistic side, the quest for a story, the thrill of the chase, I enjoy in documentaries a great deal. You don’t have that in fiction film, where you have a script and know what you’re going to do every day.”

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