When the Australian-born director Roger Donaldson set about making his debut feature in his adopted home country of New Zealand, people told him he was crazy. The year was 1977, and no full-length motion picture had been produced in the island nation for more than 15 years. There were no movie studios; sources of funding were scarce. But Donaldson persevered, and the result, the allegorical political thriller Sleeping Dogs, proved a success at home and abroad, becoming the first New Zealand film to garner a U.S. release. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling, and, after completing one more film down under (1981’s blistering study of a busted-up marriage, Smash Palace), Donaldson traveled to Los Angeles for “a working holiday” — one that just happened to last for more than 20 years.
Another quixotic Kiwi dreamer provides the inspiration for Donaldson’s latest movie, The World’s Fastest Indian, which tells the true story of Burt Munro, a retirement-age gearhead who traveled from the wilds of Invercargill to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats and set a land speed record riding a custom-enhanced 1920 Indian Twin Scout motorcycle. A “road movie” if ever there was one, flush with the wide-open spaces of the American West, the film follows Burt (played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins) as he rides from L.A. to Salt Lake City, charming everyone he meets with the single-mindedness of his pursuit and benefiting repeatedly from the kindness of strangers — experiences to which Donaldson says he can easily relate.
“The first time I came to Los Angeles was in 1969, as a photographer taking pictures for Air New Zealand,” he tells me as we meet in a Santa Monica restaurant shortly before Christmas. “I remember going into a coffee bar in Hollywood, and since I didn’t want to be seen as a tight-ass Australian — you know, you don’t tip in Australia and New Zealand — I left a $1 tip for the cup of coffee. Then I’m walking down Hollywood Boulevard and suddenly there’s a tap of my shoulder. I turned around like I was about to be robbed, and there’s a guy there holding up a $100 bill, saying, ‘I don’t think you need to tip me this.’ I’d gotten confused [over] the currency and I’d left him a $100 bill! That story to me was always a good example of just how America is. It’s a very outgoing, welcoming place. And I think Burt had the same experience. I know he did.”
During his extended Hollywood sojourn, Donaldson operated very much like a studio contract director of the 1930s or ’40s, adapting from one genre to the next with chameleonic versatility. There were thrillers (The Recruit and White Sands), fact-based political dramas (Marie and Thirteen Days), a clothing-optional sci-fi opus (Species) and even an off-kilter Robin Williams comedy (Cadillac Man). Undeniably, it’s a career that has had its highs and lows — Donaldson was even nominated for a Razzie award for his direction of the 1988 Tom Cruise fetish object Cocktail. But whatever the order of the day, Donaldson has time and again shown an affinity for wronged men and reluctant heroes, and an aptitude for separating out strains of humanity from the DNA of the Hollywood blockbuster. Particularly in the crack nail-biter No Way Out and the surprisingly affecting disaster epic Dante’s Peak, the din of human drama rises above the grinding whir of plot mechanics.
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“The movies that I’ve done are the movies that I chose to do,” he says. “Nobody put me up against a brick wall and said, ‘You have to do this.’ Every movie I’ve done has had a real reason behind it. With Dante’s Peak, having been a geology student, I was always fascinated by volcanology. Species was the beginning of motion-capture technology, and I was also interested in the whole Carl Sagan SETI project. It was a great opportunity just to meet the people, and to go to Arecibo in Puerto Rico. There were even naked girls — you know, you can’t really complain.
“With Cocktail, I liked the fact that it was going to be shot in New York and Jamaica, and there were elements that I brought to it that were very much me, like the music. It was a much more serious movie on paper, and I just felt like the music sort of made it come alive. Two number-one hits came out of there: Don’t Worry, Be Happy and the revival of the Beach Boys.”
Still, there’s no denying that Donaldson, who made a documentary (Offerings to the God of Speed) about Munro early in his career and has wanted to dramatize the story ever since, feels a special fondness for his latest project — the first since Smash Palace for which he also contributed the screenplay. “I think it’s as much about my own experience of coming to America as about Burt’s, which is why the story stayed alive with me,” he says. “Even though two-thirds of the movie is set in America, it seemed to me like a project that could bridge the gap between these two countries. It seemed like a good way to go home, emotionally, for a while anyway.”
Following its brief Oscar-qualifying engagement in late December, The World’s Fastest Indian reopens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, February 3.