Roger Donaldson's directing credits include landmark TV series Winners & Losers, two classics of the New Zealand film renaissance, and a run of movies made in the United States.
Donaldson was born in Ballarat near Melbourne, to a "failed doctor" turned car salesman, and a mother who had great faith in her two sons. He began taking pictures as a child, and in his teens became "obsessed", even turning the family bathroom into a darkroom. While training to be a geologist, he had an epiphany: "why not make a career of doing the only thing I could say I was truly passionate about: photography". At 19, escaping the draft to go to Vietnam, he crossed the Tasman with a friend, only to find his holiday job on the Manapouri power station wasn't going to happen after all.
Donaldson fell head over heels for Aotearoa. New Zealand "allowed me to reinvent myself". In Auckland, he managed to persuade a photographer to take him on. He was visiting advertising man Bob Harvey when Harvey needed a replacement to direct a Labour Party commercial. Donaldson quickly found a book on how to load a Bolex camera. Soon he'd set up company Aardvark Films, with his friend Mike Smith, and they began ploughing their revenues from ads into documentaries. Two of the earliest involved fast-moving vehicles. The love of speed runs in the family; his grandfather was a doctor who "was crazy about motorcars and going as fast as he could go".
After meeting Invercargill motorcycle racer Burt Munro, Donaldson was inspired by the old man's positivity and determination. He persuaded Munro to return to the Bonnneville Salt Flats in the United States, where in the 60s he'd set multiple world records in a souped-up 1920s cycle. Donaldson's documentary Offerings to the God of Speed (1971) took over two years to make. It debuted on TV slot Survey (as did hippy chronicle Start Again). Donaldson realised early that Burt's story had the makings of something bigger.
Donaldson soon became a skilled cameraman; he was editing and art directing too. He and Bob Harvey brainstormed the idea of an adventure series, featuring Sir Edmund Hillary. While directing this kayaking and climbing adventure, Donaldson and co spent days trapped in a Fiordland ice cave (he talks about it in this video interview). A Yeti-hunting adventure in Nepal was never completed, and another trip almost sank at Cape Horn, before the crew limped into the middle of a coup in Chile. Such encounters fed into the totalitarian elements of Donaldson's first feature, Sleeping Dogs.
By now Donaldson had met impassioned actor and writer Ian Mune. The two decided to make dramas together, and learn from each other as they went.
The duo begged and borrowed to make teleplay Derek (1974). Mune starred as a man messing up his last day at the office. The result was greeted with both disgust and acclaim; letters to the editor ranged from "superb" to "depraved". Then the pair began mining classic literature with the moody The Woman at the Store, which The Listener found "exciting" and "polished". Its success fuelled plans to create a series of TV dramas, the first time independent filmmakers had won a prime time series slot on Kiwi television.
Winners & Losers (1976) drew from stories by Kiwi authors. After directing two episodes as a team, Donaldson went solo for drama After the Depression and the light-hearted A Lawful Excuse (he discusses Winners here).
Donaldson then jumped into his ambitious first feature, Sleeping Dogs (1977). Sam Neill stars as a man trying to avoid both a repressive government, and those trying to overthrow it. Donaldson managed two to four hours sleep a night; ultimately he went 50 per cent over budget (he can be seen on location in this 1977 making of documentary and this extended 2004 doco). Mune co-starred, and helped adapt the original book, CK Stead's Smith's Dream. The result became New Zealand's fourth highest grossing film of 1977, and sold to over 30 countries. Its success helped lead to the birth of the NZ Film Commission and usher in a new age of Kiwi movies.
Advertising work continued to put food on the table. In 1979, he made a rare stab at madcap comedy: 50 minute children's adventure Nutcase, Donaldson rented a cinema to show it, in a failed effort to break Aotearoa's "exhibition monopoly". He also directed two episodes of swagman series Jocko, and this Egyptian-themed music video.
Breakup drama Smash Palace starred Bruno Lawrence in arguably his best role: as an ex race car driver who kidnaps his daughter. Completed at speed — it needed to be ready for Cannes just four months after shooting began — Donaldson's second feature won rave reviews. The New York Times found it one of the ten best films of 1981. Roger Ebert called it "one of the best films I've seen about a marriage in turmoil"; Pauline Kael found it "amazingly accomplished". Actor Keith Aberdein provides a memorable account of the film's making here (check out also this behind the scenes documentary).
Although Smash Palace got only a limited release in the United States, it opened doors in Hollywood. Tiring of commercials, Donaldson relocated to Los Angeles in 1982, just days after tax incentives for Kiwi films were put on ice. He was keen to find a way to make movies which did not require using his own cash. Work on a proposed Conan the Barbarian sequel lead Donaldson to legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis., who gave him a few hours to decide if he wanted to take on David Lean's troubled Mutiny on the Bounty project. Donaldson tells the story in this 1985 interview.
After casting Mel Gibson as mutineer Fletcher Christian, Donaldson found himself in Tahiti, dealing with hurricanes, oceans, a massive crew, and a cast of future acting legends. Anthony Hopkins played Captain Bligh. Nominated for the top award at the Cannes Film Festival, The Bounty won generally good reviews, and praise for its historical accuracy.
It would be another three years before Donaldson was suddenly hot in Hollywood, thanks to a script which had been hanging around for a decade: Kevin Costner political thriller No Way Out (1987). Donaldson shot a short storm scene in New Zealand. He followed it with Tom Cruise barman romp Cocktail, which did even better. Donaldson helped pick the soundtrack.
Although he hadn't imagined he'd end up living in the United States, it proved "a fun place to work". In the 18 years between The Bounty in 1985, and The Recruit in 2003, he made ten features. Many were thrillers or action films. En route he has shown a skill for making complex plotlines accessible — from the man investigating himself in No Way Out, to the globe-threatening brinksmanship of Thirteen Days. As he puts it: "I try to make my films very succinct and to the point, and not overly indulgent."
Donaldson has also embraced new technology. His 1994 remake of The Getaway was only the second Hollywood feature to be edited digitally, while Species made early use of motion capture effects. Later Donaldson rushed to get disaster epic Dante's Peak onto the screen, two months before competing film Volcano. In 2000 he completed "by far" his most ambitious film to date. Thirteen Days dramatised the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. He can be seen at work on Dante's Peak and Thirteen Days in this 1999 documentary.
Donaldson returned to scriptwriting with his Burt Munro movie The World's Fastest Indian, which he'd first tried to bring to the screen back in the 1970s. There were obvious parallels between the story of a determined racer who is keenly embraced on arriving in the United States, and Donaldson's own journey. The film, he said, was "about growing older ... about one's ambitions and what one does with one's life". Bounty star Anthony Hopkins signed on to play the irrepressible Munro.
Filming at the Bonneville Salt Flats went well — rain and hurricane winds did not destroy the sets until the last day on location. In New Zealand, the film pulled ahead of Once Were Warriors, to become the most successful local movie released on its home soil (at least until Taika Waititi's Boy in 2010).
In 2007 Donaldson was in London, directing entirely on digital for the first time. The Bank Job was inspired by a 1971 robbery. The Observer's Philip French praised the film's subversive fun, and Donaldson's "considerable verve". Soon after Donaldson completed book All Dogs Shot, a collection of photographs spanning decades.
In 2017 Donaldson completed another tale involving New Zealanders in fast-moving vehicles: feature documentary McLaren, about legendary Formula One driver Bruce McLaren. The following year he was named an Officer of the Order of New Zealand Merit, for services to film.
Retirement is not in his vocabulary. Currently he's developing a movie on WWll plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, and a series about a young Vietnamese film student who becomes a cameraman for the Viet Cong.
Updated on 31 January 2022
'Roger Donaldson: Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace, Hollywood, and more...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Gemma Gracewood. Loaded September 2014. Accessed 24 May 2018
Roger Donaldson, 'All Dogs Shot' Exhibition Services website. Loaded 2007. Accessed 24 May 2018
Roger Donaldson files, Archives New Zealand
Russell Baillie, 'A legend among motorbikes' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 7 October 2005
Simon Brew, 'Roger Donaldson interview: Sleeping Dogs, Costner, Statham, digital filmmaking and more' Den of Geeks website. Loaded 20 April 2018. Accessed 24 May 2018
Peter Calder, 'One way (up) for Roger' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 19 February 1988, Section 3, page 9
Carlo Cavagna, 'Interview: Roger Donaldson' About Film website. Loaded February 2006. Accessed 24 May 2018
Geoff Chapple, 'The $450,000 Question' (Interview) - The Listener, 24 September 1977, page 16
Nick Clement, 'The Roger Donaldson Interview' We Are Cult website. Loaded 28 August 2001. Accessed 20 January 2022
Jonathan Dowling, 'Roger Donaldson's Direct Hit' (Interview), The Evening Post, 27 February 1988, page 26
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, Sneak Previews - Smash Palace (Radio Broadcast, 1982)
Philip French, 'The Bank Job' (Review) - The Guardian, 2 March 2008
Pauline Kael, Review of Smash Palace, The New Yorker, 31 May 1982
Todd McCarthy, Donaldson Puts N.Z. On Filmmaking Map' (Interview) - Variety, Date unknown
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
Roy Murphy, 'Shooting Sleeping Dogs' - The Listener, 24 September 1977, page 19
Tony Reid, 'Amateurism No Curb To Adventure' (Interview) - The Listener, 31 August 1974, page 16
Kevin Thomas, 'New Zealand Film Maker Looking for a U.S. Smash (Interview) - The Los Angeles Times, 15 August 1981
'James', 'It was a film that you'd be hard-pressed to make anywhere else...hmv.com talks to Roger Donaldson' (Interview) HMV website. Loaded 13 April 2018. Accessed 24 May 2018
Sleeping Dogs press kit
Smash Palace press kit
Kaleidoscope - Roger Donaldson in Hollywood (Television Documentary, TVNZ, 1985)
Coming Home - Roger Donaldson and Steve Millen (Television Documentary) Director John Carlaw (Touchdown Productions, 1999)
Paul Holmes: Interview with Roger Donaldson (Documentary, 2006) From The World's Fastest Indian - Collector's Edition
On the Set of the World's Fastest Indian (Documentary, 2006) Producer Bek Fairweather (Digital Pictures) From The World's Fastest Indian - Collector's Edition