The Roger Donaldson Interview

❉ Nick Clement talks to the director of Dante’s Peak, Cadillac Man, 13 Days, Species, The Bounty and other Hollywood blockbusters.

Australian-born filmmaker Roger Donaldson.

For over 40 years, filmmaker Roger Donaldson has been delivering exceptional motion pictures which stretch various genres, always delivering a rock-solid final result that’s just as interested in character and plot as it is in style and atmosphere. From intimate dramas including Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, and The World’s Fastest Indian, to slick political thrillers like No Way Out, 13 Days, The Recruit, and The November Man, Donaldson has also dabbled in disaster-movie territory (Dante’s Peak), science-fiction (Species), comedy (Cadillac Man) noir thriller (The Getaway, White Sands, The Bank Job), and historical adventure (The Bounty), among others.

After cutting his teeth on commercials, documentaries, and television content in New Zealand during the 1970s, the Australian-born filmmaker rose through the ranks of the Hollywood studio system in the 1980s, alongside cinematically muscular contemporaries such as Phillip Noyce, John McTiernan, Tony Scott, and many others, cementing himself as one of the most dependable, big-budget craftsmen of his generation. Donaldson recently spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about his fascinating career…

Roger Donaldson during filming of ‘Species’ (1995).

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, Roger. I grew up watching your films, and I’m such a big fan of your work, so this is a treat for me as a movie lover. To start, I’m curious, was there one particular film that kicked off your desire to get into filmmaking? How did your journey begin?

I’d always loved watching American movies as a kid, and my dad and I would often do the Wednesday night double features at the local drive-in, seeing stuff like To Hell and Back. And my mom, she was more high-brow, so she took me to a Melbourne art house to see films by Bergman, like The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal. So, it was a combination of growing up in a film-friendly environment, and then my desire to do something exciting and creative. I studied geology in school, but ultimately I found it to be a career not for me.

Did you go to film school?

No, I never went to a formal film school. Back then, there was no school for film in New Zealand. I loved photography and got into that field, and through that, I ended up shooting my own commercials. Bob Harvey, who ran an ad agency, gave me some work, a big chance, really.  Bob wanted to get into producing movies, making films that made political and cultural statements, so that’s how I really got started.

Roger Donaldson during filming of ‘Smash Palace’ (1982).

What are some of your favourite films? Or, rather, what are some films you could watch at any point of the day?

My Life as a Dog – directed by Lasse Hallström – I love that film. It’s really wonderful on all levels. A Man Called Ove is great. George Miller’s second Mad Max film is of course a favorite. A good thriller is always appreciated. I like a lot of very different movies, and of late, streaming television has really changed the landscape in a big way.

Yes, it really has. And sadly, the major studios have stopped producing the types of films that you became famous for making: the well-appointed, star-driven programmer that featured adult-skewing plotlines, and relied just as much on character as they did on action. These days, those films are in short supply from the majors.

Absolutely, that’s very true. These days, the streamers are still making some of those things you’re talking about, but it doesn’t replace the experience of sitting in a dark cinema with great projection and sound and sharing the experience of watching a  film with a group of strangers.

No, it doesn’t. And most notably, they don’t have the same look and feel as your films did, and the films that came out during the 80’s and 90’s. You really nailed that slick yet still gritty aesthetic, where everyone looked fabulous, and you had the gorgeous sunsets, and the visual mist and haze and the gloss and sweat. That style of filmmaking is gone, and today, things look too digital and artificial.

Yes, I guess you’re responding to a style of filmmaking that isn’t really being done anymore. Digital has changed a lot about the industry, but to be honest, I’ve always enjoyed the new technology and have been very excited about various digital possibilities.

If I’m not mistaken, The Getaway was one of the first major studio films to be edited digitally, is that true?

Yes, you are absolutely right! That was incredible, because on that film, we really changed the way things were traditionally being done, and all of a sudden, I had so many more options at my disposal as a director, when putting the picture together in the editing room. You could just do so much more. And when I worked on Species, I did some of the earliest motion capture work that had been attempted. So I’ve always been a supporter of digital stuff when it comes to making movies.

Wow! I didn’t realize there was motion capture work in Species. But before we get into that super-fun project, I wanted to ask about working with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger on The Getaway. That was a film that I saw as a young teenager, and it made a big impression on me, in any number of ways. Baldwin and Basinger were at the peak of the stardom in that movie, and they brought such intensity to their roles. What was it like working with them during that time period?

I have nothing but fond memories of working on that picture. My wife and I got together during production, so it’ll always be very special for me. And working with Alec and Kim was great because they were a couple in real life and were playing a couple on screen.  I’m sure that dynamic was both helpful and difficult at times, but they both gave the project their everything and their relationship added a  special dimension to the film. I loved making that movie!

Do you think you could get Species made today?

No, not likely, especially in today’s political climate, it would be very hard. It’s too provocative and you’d need an actress to fully commit. Movies like that aren’t really being made any more on that level. We had a very specific vision for the type of movie we wanted to make.

Yeah, that’s a film I saw at the ripe age of 15, and it really made a big impression! And the joke is, the film has a very feminist message, which many people would likely gloss over when looking at it now.

Yes! The Sil character is in many ways the most empowered character in the piece and that’s the way I’ve always seen it. Natasha Henstridge did an amazing job with the role and worked alongside an incredibly talented and experienced cast. We did a lot with that picture, in many respects, and it’s endured throughout the years.

I recently revisited Smash Palace, which I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I was blown away by the rawness and the emotional immediacy of the film. It’s probably because I have a five year old son that the film resonated even more with me now. But what I noticed is the tremendous sense of intimacy for the characters and their situations. And this was one of the few films you’ve fully written. It feels very personal.

The New Zealand Film Commission gave me some funds to write a script – it was going to be a road movie.  I was in England on holiday and looking for inspiration.  I happened to read a newspaper with a headline story about a local cop who had taken his son hostage. I felt it was a very compelling angle for a movie, so the script evolved into what it ultimately became. And yes, to your point, I wanted it to feel real and relatable, and the characters all had to have sense of unpredictability to them.

That’s one of the great things about Smash Palace. It’s very intense and dramatic, and then at the same time, it’s very much a black comedy, especially the final moments, which are very gripping, if you’ve never seen the film, you truly don’t know if that trigger is going to get pulled. It’s got a great tone.

Yes, that was always the intention, to keep the viewer on the edge in more than one way.

How hard was it going from the small productions of Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace to the way-more-complicated The Bounty, to say nothing of taking over the project from none other than David Lean?!

I’d gotten a lot of pats on the back for Smash Palace, and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown hired me to work on a project called Shattered Silence, which ultimately went into turnaround. I then developed a Conan sequel for Ed Pressman and through Ed I met Dino DeLaurentiis who had seen Smash Palace. Dino had bought the rights to Conan off Pressman.  Dino had fallen out with David Lean over the development of The Bounty.  Apparently, Lean and Dino couldn’t find common ground on the schedule and budget, so they parted company. Dino then offered me the opportunity to direct The Bounty rather than Conan.  I then stepped in and off to the races we went!

Were you at all intimidated by any aspect of that film? The scale is massive, it also places a strong emphasis on the historical and psychological toll that the people endured, and on top of it, you had one of the most insane casts imaginable of both veteran and up and coming talent, including Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, and Laurence Olivier, including many others.

I have to say; I was definitely intimidated a bit by Laurence Olivier – Sir Laurence Olivier. I grew up in a small country town in Australia where anyone with a title was someone special.  He was also one of the most famous actors in the world – but then, as now, I discovered that once the cameras are rolling, most people are keen to do their jobs – and do them well – fame seems to recede into the background.

The Bounty was far more ambitious than anything I had done to date.  We filmed in London, Tahiti and New Zealand on a 120-day schedule.  This was a very different scale of filmmaking to anything I had done in the past and I must say I enjoyed the challenges.  Debbie McWilliams was the casting director and she did an amazing job of putting together a cast that still impresses.

I’ve noticed a recurring theme throughout your work. Whether intentionally or not, the essence of speed, and communicating speed through visual storytelling, has always been glimpsed in your films. It’s there with the racing elements to Smash Palace, in your McLaren documentary, but also in The World’s Fastest Indian, and I might argue that Dante’s Peak, with the rush of the volcano, plays off this idea as well. And in The Bank Job, which requires a heist to be pulled off effortlessly in a certain amount of time.

I’ve always been fond of racing and driving fast cars, and I’m drawn to stories which are both fast moving for me as a storyteller, and fast moving for the viewer to experience. I always ask myself: What’s the point of life? What’s the point to racing?  I guess I like it when things are pushed to the limit.

I always thought you would have done a great James Bond movie, and I’m sort of shocked that you never ended up helming an adventure.

I had discussions, at one point, with MGM and the producers for one of the Bond movies. But honestly, I’ve forgotten which one it was!  In retrospect, it would have been fun to have had a Bond film on my resume.

The World’s Fastest Indian feels like one of those passion projects that willed itself into existence. It’s one of those great movies about people that don’t seem highly interesting to financiers. How did you get that one made?

I’d started writing that project in 1979, but every time I had the chance to make it because of the financing being in place, I was never happy with the script. I’d made a documentary about Burt Munro in 1972, and I’d always had it in my mind to make a feature version of his incredible story. And over the years, I just kept working and was always busy, and then my agent Ken Stovitz suggested Anthony Hopkins would be perfect for the part. Tony agreed to come on board and he was absolutely perfect for the role. It was wonderful to reconnect with Tony after we worked together on The Bounty. Of all my films, I feel it is one of the most personal.

It’s one of Hopkins’ warmest, most vulnerable, and endearing performances of his career. And when you look back at your filmography, one starts to notice how you’ve worked with some major movie stars on more than one occasion. You worked with Hopkins on Indian and The Bounty, with Pierce Brosnan on Dante’s Peak and The November Man, and Kevin Costner on No Way Out and 13 Days. That’s really cool to notice in retrospect. I actually just watched the last hour of No Way Out just recently. I’d forgotten how great that film is. What was your immediate reaction when you read that script?

That I had to make it! One of the producers, Mace Neufeld, sent me the script to read. I loved the potential of the story and it was a gripping thriller, so I was interested in making it. It had so many great twists and turns, and in case any of your readers haven’t seen the film, I promise you, the film has a great hook.

Yeah, you really dominated with the sexy studio programmer back in the day. I love those movies so much!

Streaming television has taken over in that regard as it’s gotten harder to get those films made today.

Tell me – is there a “director’s cut” of White Sands floating around in the Warner Brothers studio vault? I loved that movie, and had always wondered if there was anything that maybe had been taken out.

No, there’s no other cut to White Sands. I loved making White Sands. We based the movie out of Santa Fe which was a wonderful location to film from. I’ve had the great fortune to work with some incredible actors in my career and White Sands was no exception – Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Mimi Rogers, M. Emmet Walsh, Miguel Sandoval, James Rebhorn and Samuel L. Jackson – they were an extraordinary cast put together by legendary casting director David Rubin.  The person who handles casting on a movie has an enormous impact on the end result. and I must say I have been lucky to have worked with some of the best casting directors in the business.

Australian cinematographer Peter Menzies, Jr. shot the film and masterfully captured the magic of the American West.  Peter and I collaborated on The Getaway as well – set in Phoenix and Yuma – maybe there is something about hot, dry locations that we both understood – but I am grateful to Peter for the wonderful visuals he managed to capture.

On Cadillac Man, you worked with the late, great Robin Williams. He was one of those actors from my childhood who you couldn’t help but love, and I really enjoyed his darker, more dramatic side that he explored later in his career. What can you say about the experience of working with him?

Robin was incredibly funny, but at the same time, you could sense those hints of darkness living inside of him. You never questioned if he could be funny, or if he’d show up ready to work. That was who he was, always “on” and ready to go. And every comedian needs an audience, so as a result, you could never turn him “off.” You’d be laughing along with him all day long although you knew there might be something else going on underneath.

My favourite film of yours is 13 Days. I think it’s one of the best political thrillers of all time, and one of the best evocations of life in the White House, during any era. I’d love to hear anything you have to say about working on that movie.

That’s one of my movies I’m most proud of in my career.  That and Dante’s Peak were the two most ambitious films that I have made. In Dante’s Peak the scale of the devastation presented onscreen was incredibly difficult to achieve, but having done it, it was one of those epic movies that you don’t forget making.  I think from start to finish, we had over 3000 crew.

That said, I’d always been interested in American politics, as it has so much impact on the rest of the world, and as a kid growing up in Australia I listened to the radio and followed the events that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis showdown between the USA and Russia. I distinctly remember thinking the world was at the brink of nuclear catastrophe. I kept a journal as a teenager and have entries about the Cuban Missile Crisis, so it was particularly satisfying to examine in detail what I considered to be one of the most important political events of the twentieth century.

13 Days was shown to NATO members at various government screenings, and I’ve been told it was also very much loved in Cuba. Fidel Castro appreciated the film as he felt it painted an accurate portrait of the situation from all sides, and the film precipitated a fortieth anniversary gathering of the surviving Cuban, Russian and American politicians and military figures over a weekend Havana.  I was fortunate to attend and take my daughter, India, with me – it was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had because of a film I made.

Roger Donaldson at work.

You forged an incredible working relationship with cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak on Species, Dante’s Peak, and 13 Days. I always loved seeing his name in the credits for any movie because you knew it was going to look fabulous, but when you guys collaborated, the results were always spectacular. What can you say about working with him?

Andrzej brings so much energy and an eye for composition to every film he shot. On Dante’s Peak, during the sequence where the town is partially destroyed, we had 23 Panavision cameras rolling at the same time – it’s a brave DOP who is game to orchestrate something of that scale. It’s a miracle that we got everything done on Dante’s Peak. We used a limited amount of CGI, mainly just for the lava, and the rest of it was miniatures and practical effects. Andrzej always brought a great sense of reality to what we were doing, regardless of the material.

You got some of the best reviews of your career for The Bank Job, which is more than likely the best Jason Statham movie ever made. It’s one of those great yarns that are filled with lively characters and all sorts of incidents. What were your experiences working on that film?

Well, it of course had a great script, and I was interested in telling a story about the various class systems that exist in the U.K.  The Bank Job was inspired by a real robbery of a bank in Central London.  I managed to track down a number of the people who were part of the real story including one of the bank robbers. The key crew members were particularly impressive – production designer Gavin Bouquet in particular did a marvellous job recreating period London. Working in contemporary London is difficult when making a period film, but Gavin used every trick in the book to overcome the obstacles. Lucinda Syson did an incredible job with casting, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux nailed the costumes.  All of the crew were terrific.

I loved working with Jason and encouraged him to draw on his East End London roots to make the most of his part. I don’t think there was another actor who could have quite done what Jason did with the part of Terry Leather.  Saffron Burrows also drew on her London roots, and of course, David Suchet added a most memorable turn as an evil pornographer.

New Zealand editor John Gilbert, who cut The World’s Fastest Indian, joined me in London and then in Melbourne to finish the film.  Maybe there is a shorthand between us, because of our shared time in New Zealand, or maybe it’s just that John does a hell of a good job in the editing room and understands what I’m after, but we had a lot of fun putting the film together and maybe that’s the secret.

What are you currently working on? The IMDB lists a couple of new titles, including The Icarus Factor, and The Guinea Pig Club.

I’m always reading new scripts, and there are a couple of things I’m developing and working on, in various stages of development. I’m also writing some new stuff, which is exciting. The Icarus Factor isn’t happening right now, and the script for The Guinea Pig Club is excellent. It’s always about casting and financing. Nothing is ever set in stone until those two items are locked in place.

This interview has been edited for content and for structure. Special thanks to Ray Dillman for making the discussion a possibility.


 Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.

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1 Comment

  1. A very important story to read in calm and to take time to know more about Australian Film as well as the making of FILM itself in a way of helping humanity!!!

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