Ultimate Motorcycling Exclusive: Interview with Roger Donaldson
In 2005, Roger Donaldson’s feature film “The World’s Fastest Indian” introduced the world to the remarkable story of New Zealand’s Burt Munro. In 1967, Munro set a motorcycle world land speed record aboard a streamlined, normally aspirated Indian V-twin that started out as a 1920 Scout. That record still stands, and 2017 marks its 50th anniversary.
Donaldson’s film, one of about two dozen he has directed, arose out his 1971 television documentary about Munro, “Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed.” It has also spawned a book by Donaldson published in 2009, “The World’s Fastest Indian—Burt Munro-a Scrapbook of his Life.” (Read our book review).
Some of the noted films he has directed include Sleeping Dogs (1977), The Bounty (1984, which was his first work with Anthony Hopkins who later portrayed Burt Munro in The World’s Fastest Indian), Cocktail (1988), The Getaway (1994), Species (1995), Dante’s Peak (1997), The Recruit (2003), The Bank Job (2008), Seeking Justice (2011), The November Man (2014) and others.
In addition to directing, Donaldson has been a producer for 7 films, written 3 and been credited in camera and cinematography, as well. His current film in release is McLaren (2017), a documentary about the remarkable life of auto racing legend, Bruce McLaren. See the official trailer for McLaren here.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to Roger Donaldson about his varied interests, projects and his remarkable career.
Naturally, one of the questions at the top of our list was about whether he had a motorcycle these days and, if so, what it was. His answer wouldn’t come as a big surprise, all things considered.
Ultimate Motorcycling: In your book about Burt Munro, there is an image of you aboard an Army Indian Scout with a sidecar that you had in 1969. Is there still a motorcycle or two in your life?
Roger Donaldson: I am about to get an Indian—a 2018—a Roadmaster, I believe it is.
UM: What brought you to focus on Burt Munro in the first place?
Roger Donaldson: Back in the 1960s, I was into motorbikes in a big way and me and my then partner had a small film company and we heard about this character that lived in New Zealand in Invercargill and we had never heard of him but we heard he had set a land speed record so we tracked him down and wrote to him and he invited us to come down and see him. We did that and we made a documentary about him. That documentary gave me the idea of one day making a feature film about his life.
UM: Burt Munro’s story was beautifully told in the film and it shows he had plenty of challenges, not only financial challenges but how he managed to build the bikes and the motors that he did using the tools that he had.
Roger Donaldson: That was what was sort of extraordinary about him; it was that he did it by the seat of his pants in what I wouldn’t say was an unscientific way but there was a lot of inspiration and ideas from what he managed to get out of that bike—it was pretty extraordinary.
UM: You’ve done films on some great motorsports competitors (Bruce Mclaren in addition to Burt Munro)—have you had any motorcycle competition in your past?
Roger Donaldson: Never, no. The closest I came was when I was making a documentary about another New Zealand motorcycle racer named Jim Perry who was a Suzuki works rider who was incredibly talented. I was working on the documentary when he was competing in the Daytona 200, I guess it was 1974, and we went back to New Zealand and then were going to go back to Laguna Seca where he was going to compete in another race. At the last minute I didn’t go because the finances of the film were shaky but he went off to the race and was killed in a Pan-Am Airline crash out of Tahiti.
UM: So often, it seems a film is based on a book that preceded it, but in the case of your book about Burt Munro, the documentary and feature film came first.
Roger Donaldson: The book about Burt Munro came out because there was so much information I had collected over the years about Burt and there were so many stories about which bike was which [Munro competed on both the Indian Scout and a Velocette] and what he really did. I just felt compelled to put it all together into a compendium so that one can follow his story in a much more accurate, unbiased account.
UMC: Looking at the film, which was shot on multiple locations, the logistics seem pretty remarkable. How does that all work—how long did it take to pull it all together?
Roger Donaldson: Years! The World’s Fastest Indian—the movie, I started writing the script in 1979. It was 2005 before it got released. There were many different versions of the script and then many different configurations of the funding to pull it together. It was a big undertaking and required my patience and the patience of my co-producer, Gary Hannum who was also a big believer in the story. It was a challenge, but one of those things when you’re sort of obsessed by something the challenge seems a lot less and a lot more possible.
There are many challenges to making a movie, from finding the right actor to be in the film to raising the finances to do it to getting a script that works and getting it released properly—there are so many elements in pulling a movie together.
UMC: How were you able to get those famous salt racers of the sixties like the Redhead, the Flying Caduceus and the Pumpkin Seed together again on the salt for the first time in so many years?
Roger Donaldson: Once we were making the film, it’s a small community, really that participates out there at Bonneville and they are all great mates with each other and we basically went to them and said we were making this film about Burt and Burt really was a legend at Bonneville when he was competing there. So, we got to know those people and when we got out there, they got the opportunity to be a part of our film and since then, attendance at Bonneville during Speed Week has doubled.
UMC: For the film, you had four replica bikes built altogether and two of them were built to do the actual reenactment of the high-speed runs. Talk a little about the machines and getting them built.
Roger Donaldson: Yes, two were basically exact replicas and then we had two other bikes that had Ducati engines in them. Those were used when we needed something that was more reliable and went faster and wouldn’t cost a fortune to fix if something went wrong. Some of the guys who worked on John Britten’s bikes were involved in helping build the replica bikes, Wayne Alexander in particular. New Zealand’s got some amazingly talented engineers and designers and people who are capable of making stuff like this.
UM: Thinking about John Britten and what an amazing engineer he was and the spectacular bikes he built, have you ever thought of giving his story a look?
Roger Donaldson: I have—it’s another fabulous but tragic story about a young guy whose dream was cut short—but you can only make so many movies in a life, so probably that one’s not going to happen.
UM: You had worked with Anthony Hopkins prior to the World’s Fastest Indian in a movie called The Bounty, I believe that was released in 1984 and Hopkins had made a lot of films by the time World’s Fastest Indian came out. I recall seeing him give an interview, I believe it was a few years after World’s Fastest Indian was released and he said one of his favorite roles was portraying Burt Munro.
Roger Donaldson: Yes—I know he did enjoy that; he had great time doing it. When I first worked with him on The Bounty, that was a great experience but it was a very stressful movie to make. Often, it’s what the subject matter of the movie depicts. It’s easier to make a comedy than it is to make a serious drama.
UM: Of all your projects—and it is a quite impressive list—do you have a personal favorite that you look back on?
Roger Donaldson: No, because they all have some big stories that go with them. No, I don’t—it’s a bit like saying which is your favorite kid, you know. Like your children, they’re all different and you’ve just got to take them one at a time and they’re all part of your life—every one represents a year and a half of your life so it’s hard to have favorites. Some are received better, but the early movies are obviously important to me because that was the very beginning of everything and then the last things you do, they are more in your mind. It’s really hard to be specific on a question like that.