Roger Donaldson was born in Ballarat, Australia. At 19 while studying to be a geologist, he crossed the Tasman to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam. After a fruitless stretch as a Nelson beach photographer and a stint as an Auckland photographer's apprentice, a meeting with ad-man Bob Harvey led to his first filmmaking commissions.
"I came to New Zealand and fell in love with the place," says Donaldson. "I'd wanted to make movies since I was a kid, so being forced out of home, it seemed a good time to make the switch. I decided to start with commercials. My attitude was that nobody was going to make any openings for me, so my next move was to go down to the library and find a book on how to load a Bolex."
Donaldson began ploughing his advertising revenues into a series of self-financed documentaries under the banner of his company, Aardvark Films.
Offerings to the God of Speed (1972) which debuted on TV slot Survey, was about Invercargill DIY legend Burt Munro, who set speed records in Utah on his ancient Indian motorbike (Donaldson's dream of turning Munro's story into a movie would finally bear fruit 34 years later, with hit movie The World's Fastest Indian). Survey also screened hippy chronicle Start Again.
Donaldson went on to direct adventure documentaries that saw him sailing around Cape Horn with yachtsman Peter Mulgrew, and a series with Sir Edmund Hillary shot in Nepal and New Zealand. The first, The Kaipo Wall, is classic Kiwi adventuring as Sir Ed takes an A-Team of friends into unexplored Fiordland; the second, a Yeti-hunting Nepal adventure, remains uncompleted.
Donaldson then met Ian Mune, a firebrand performer and writer, who introduced him to a world of actors and other people wanting to make New Zealand drama.
Their first film together was a TV drama called Derek (1974), the deadpan tale of a male office worker (Mune) confronting turning 30. It was a sensation for several censor-challenging scenes, and led to the commissioning of a landmark series of TV dramas, Winners & Losers (1975), based on stories by notable NZ authors. Donaldson and Mune alternated directing duties.
Donaldson's first feature was an adaptation of CK Stead novel Smith's Dream. Sleeping Dogs (1977), as it was now titled, starred Mune and Sam Neill (in a career-launching performance as a man alone, up against a police state). The film's arrival coincided with an audience willing to support our stories on screen, and its relative success is credited with providing the impetus for the founding of the New Zealand Film Commission.
Smash Palace (1981) starred Bruno Lawrence in one of his best performances, as a petrolhead father fighting for access to his daughter. Made quickly so that it might make a deadline to play at the Cannes Film Festival, the picture become a Kiwi classic, and got Donaldson noticed in Hollywood. Critic Pauline Kael described it as "amazingly accomplished", helping turn American industry heads in Donaldson's direction. The director praises Bruno's talent and compares his experiences of working in NZ and Hollywood in this Kaleidoscope interview, shot in 1985.
Legendary producer Dino De Laurentis then enlisted him to take over the troubled production of The Bounty (1984) and he found himself in the South Seas surrounded by a giant crew and a toey Anthony Hopkins. Though not the commercial hit it might have been, the film was nominated for the top award at Cannes.
Donaldson has since thrived as a Hollywood-based studio director, first winning Stateside box office success with Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out in 1987. Donaldson followed it with Tom Cruise hit Cocktail. He would collaborate with Costner again on the critically acclaimed Thirteen Days (2000), based on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Donaldson's films have been mixed in subject matter and genre, but have always shown a high degree of craftsmanship. In 1994 he commented on the decision to move from indie to studio filmmaking: "it was never really my intention to leave New Zealand ... [but] someone was going to pay me to make movies."
His long-awaited homecoming production was The World's Fastest Indian (2005). Donaldson transformed the Burt Munro story into an internationally successful feature starring Anthony Hopkins as the irrepressible Southland speedster. The film's domestic success pushed it ahead of Once Were Warriors as the most successful local story released on its home soil — at least until Taika Waititi's record-breaking Boy in 2010.
In 2007 Donaldson found himself in London directing The Bank Job, a speculative account of a real-life 1971 robbery. Observer reviewer Philip French praised the film as subversive fun, and Donaldson's direction as showing "considerable verve".
Pierce Brosnan spy thriller November Man was released in 2014. Since then, Donaldson's listing of upcoming projects has grown busy: including a feature-length documentary about legendary Formula 1 driver Bruce McLaren, a remake of classic anti-war movie All Quiet on the Western Front, and globespanning thriller Icarus Factor. For many years there have also been rumours that he is developing an Everest project, based on the Ed Hillary story.
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Philip French, 'The Bank Job' (Review) - The Guardian, 2 March 2008
Smash Palace Press Kit
'Roger Donaldson' (IMDB entry) - The Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 26 September 2011
All Dogs Shot. Exhibition Services Website. Accessed 6 February 2010