F1 Cars, Cocktails and Lava Spewing Volcanos – Director Roger Donaldson (The VH Interview)

I had the opportunity to speak with the Australian born film director Roger Donaldson about his new documentary on the inspirational, if tragic, life story of New Zealand F1 Racer Bruce McLaren who was sadly killed in an accident at the age of 32. It’s a must see for fans of the sport and film-goers who were thrilled by the recent Senna Documentary. We also discuss how he got into the film industry, the people that he’s worked with in that time and what projects he’s currently developing.

Can you tell us about McLaren? How the project came together and what attracted you to it?

I was approached by the producers to do this film as they knew I had an interest in car racing from making The World’s Fastest Indian (starring Anthony Hopkins). So they knew I was interested in New Zealand sports heroes and it was an opportunity to go back home as I live in California. I saw Bruce race as a boy – I saw him drive in Australia at Sandown Park. In the early 80s when I was making a film Smash Palace, Bruce McLaren’s father, who I knew, lent me a M8GT car that was the first road car Bruce built and was in Smash Palace as a still on a wall.

Then I thought people don’t know why the McLaren is called a McLaren and don’t realise their logo is a flying kiwi. I have a passion for this particular brand of car from having the pleasure of driving a few McLarens around a race track and just being a stupid idiot in friend’s cars so there were a lot of reasons for me to do it. I hadn’t made a documentary since the one in the 70s on Sir Edmund Hillary where we went to Mount Everest and I thought this was an opportunity to do something different. I underestimated how much effort it would take to do it and it was an incredibly difficult undertaking but everyone involved to pulled together in the end.

Did you face any major issues with McLaren car company? And what type of distribution is the film getting?

The McLaren car company had nothing to do with the films production nor inception, but since the film has been made they’ve been helpful keen to embrace it as obviously it’s a film that sells their heritage and the present day McLaren car company seems to be very enthusiastic about the film. The film is being released Friday on 50 screens all across the country then on VOD and DVD/Blu Ray from Monday.

How did you get into the film industry?

I never imagined myself as a filmmaker and got into the film industry by accident. I’d wanted to be a geologist in Australia but I moved to New Zealand and sadly there wasn’t any geology there. My other interest was taking pictures and I was doing commercials when the opportunity to make these little films for the New Zealand Labour Party came up after the guy who was meant to do them for this company I was working for got ill.

I was good friends with the guy who ran the agency I said “I’ll make them for you” he said “I didn’t know you made films” I responded by saying “oh yeah, I make films too”. I’d never made a film in my life; I just lied my way into it. So I went out borrowed a friends camera and that was the first film I shot which turned out to be successful that was the beginning of my film career. I continued making commercials to fund my first film and in the late 70s I made my first feature film Sleeping Dogs with Sam Neill and Warren Oates. Warren was a total legend – he turned up on the set smoking a joint with a bottle of beer and the script in his hand. If you see the film he’s actually reading the script and it’s in the movie. You wouldn’t realise he was reading the script because you didn’t think anyone would be doing that in a movie.

What are your thoughts on Cocktail?

Cocktail is one of those movies that vacillate between being people’s favourite movie of theirs that they grew up with to one that people who are more snobby film-goers tend write it off. I personally think that’s a movie from the 80s that really defines that era. The last time I was in London I was buying fish and chips and the guy behind the counter was putting vinegar on the chips and was flicking the bottles around like Tom Cruise. This other guy said to him “who do you think you are Tom Cruise?”

My movie has moved into the vernacular and you can’t ask for much more than that. Tom and Bryan Brown had great chemistry; they got on together and were a real joy to work with. We had a lot of fun. There aren’t many films where we’d all go out on a Saturday night together and hang out as a group. That normally doesn’t happen.

How did Cadillac Man starring the late Robin Williams come around and what’s your fondest memory of working with the much missed actor?

My dad was a car salesman that’s what inspired Cadillac Man. I was sitting on a plane one day this guy who was also a salesman spoke about someone who came into their dealership held the place up- he was looking for the person who was getting up to mischief with his girlfriend and I thought “God that would make a great movie” and that’s how it started.

My most fond memory wasn’t ​working with him but going out with him on a Saturday night to New York’s comedy clubs. Robin would have the poor guy who was on stage thrown off and would get on stage and take over the show.

You come from a generation of Australian film directors that where successful in Hollywood. Was it a good period to be around?

Yeah it was. I was lucky to be there in the 80s and 90s. I made two giant movies, Dante’s Peak and Thirteen Days, which took an enormous effort to make but it was the most enjoyable experience that I’ve had in the film business because they were so ambitious.

You’ve worked with Kevin Costner on No Way Out and Thirteen Days. He’s got a reputation for being difficult. Was he ever difficult with you?

Difficult is the wrong word. Kevin is passionate. It’s not difficult in the world where I come from. That’s just someone that wants to do his job well and I love working with those sort of people because it’s very easy to. That’s good enough when the stakes are high and you really​ want it to be great.

1997 was the year of the volcano movie with Dante’s Peak and Volcano starring Tommy Lee Jones. Did the latter film affect Dante’s Peak’s box office?

It sure affected me. The film I was making was for Universal. It was already in production when 20th Century Fox announced that they were going to make their “volcano movie” and I had already started. Universal Pictures tried to persuade Fox to come in and join them make my film jointly they said ‘no we are going to push ahead’.

So then I wasn’t really affected by how I shot the film, but when it came to editing it was clear that they were going to try and beat us out at the box office; I was absolutely determined that there was no way that they going to beat us. I was shooting 24 hours a day. I would literally sleep in the car going from set to set as we kept shooting the special effects and some of the model work. We did get the film out ahead of Volcano. My film should have been released in the summer and it got released in late winter which definitely did have an impact. I started out as a geologist so I was more interested in that than the story, whereas I think Volcano was more interested in the disaster movie, so mine was more interesting in fact. I tried to make it what really could happen – everything from the acid lakes to the lava rivers and stuff like that turned out to be what drove the movie.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in filmmaking in the time you’ve worked on them?

The one giant change is the advent of digital. I personally have embraced it from the very beginning. I think the digital world​ is so clearly the right direction. The cameras, editing, the projection and distribution – it’s affected every aspect of film-making from my perspective, and only for the better.

Were you ever offered a film that you regret not taking up?

There were a few that turned into big hits that would have been nice to have done; Robocop was one of them. The movie that came out was a hell of a lot better than the script I was given so Paul Verhoeven did a damn good job. But no, there weren’t a lot of movies that I regret not doing.

What are your next projects that are currently working on?

I’ve got a few things in the works; a film about a civil rights case in Louisiana based on a real life story that happened in 2006, another one is about the building of the Saturn Rockets that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon – it’s about what it takes to make big things happen.

Then I’ve written a road movie with my daughter inspired by me driving her to college many years ago. It’s a story of a father and daughter relationship as they drive across America and the things that transpire that makes them realise they don’t really know each other, and by the end of the trip they do. I also have a thriller that’s set in London in the art world and a couple of TV shows. But I won’t tell you what they are because I don’t want anyone else to steal them… but they are interesting.

McLaren is in cinemas today and out on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Download Monday.