Roger Donaldson moved to New Zealand from Australia at age 19. Starting out as a stills photographer, he moved into film with a series of commercials for the Labour Party’s 1972 election campaign. Around the same time, he also heard of the Invercargill DIY motorcycle legend Burt Munro, and made the documentary Offerings to the God of Speed.
Donaldson put himself in risky positions while filming adventure documentaries, including The Adventure World of Sir Edmund Hillary. With his friend Ian Mune, he created Winners and Losers, a landmark series of dramas based on stories by New Zealand writers, which in turn inspired the pair to adapt CK Stead’s novel Smith’s Dream into feature film Sleeping Dogs. The major turning point in Donaldson’s career was his feature Smash Palace, which screened at Cannes and earned rave reviews.
Since Smash Palace, Donaldson has thrived in Hollywood, working with notable actors including Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Pierce Brosnan. He returned to New Zealand to make the Burt Munro biopic The World’s Fastest Indian, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins.
In this ScreenTalk interview, Donaldson talks about:
- Filming commercials for Norman Kirk’s Labour Party
- Taking risks to film at high speeds on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah
- The treacherous conditions on The Adventure World of Sir Edmund Hillary, and having his feet warmed in someone else’s armpits while sheltering in a snow cave
- Getting support from Don Brash and the NZ Air Force for his counter-culture film Sleeping Dogs
- Arranging a private screening of Sleeping Dogs for then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon
- The moment he was inspired to write Smash Palace
- Convincing a reluctant NZ Film Commission to back the film
- Changing the child character from a boy to a girl after meeting Greer Robson
- How Smash Palace’s climactic train scene was filmed
- Writing a sequel to Conan the Barbarian with Ian Mune
- Taking over from David Lean as director of The Bounty
- Helping to create a Beach Boys revival thanks to the soundtrack to Cocktail
- Making up with Anthony Hopkins after falling out on The Bounty