When Roger Donaldson's first film Sleeping Dogs wrapped in 1977, it was the first film to be made in New Zealand for 15 years and the first to be shown in American theatres. But it was Smash Palace (1981) that enabled him to come to Hollywood where he subsequently directed a string of hits including The Bounty (1984), No Way Out (1987), Cocktail (1988) and The Recruit (2003). Having fallen out with Anthony Hopkins on the set of The Bounty, he has now reunited with him for The World's Fastest Indian, a charming biopic about New Zealander Burt Munro, who set the land-speed world record at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967 on his 1920 Indian motorcycle.
Here he discusses the possibility of re-inventing Robert De Niro and his disgust of gratuitous violence...
Why did you become a director?
Why? It happened by a gradual transformation from being a stills cameraman, to a movie cameraman, to being a director of the films I was shooting, to realising that they were two separate jobs and that I'd better choose one. I was keen to be the top dog I guess.
But what inspired you to first go into filmmaking?
Once again it was a gradual transition. It wasn't like I had a burning ambition to be a movie director. I was always interested in the visual arts and storytelling. If I go back to when I was a kid, I took photographs as a teenager and turned my mum's laundry into a darkroom. I used to write stories, I kept a diary and I was a geology student. And I loved Bergman's early films, A Taste Of Honey and those sort of kitchen sink English movies. I also liked those American films that came along that were more glitzy. You put all that together and that's me.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?
If I could be a painter I'd be pretty happy too. I have a few friends who are painters and I've seen what it's like to be able to do something that's so expressive and yet so solitary. You only have to find one person that's passionate about your work, who is prepared to pay for it and then you're in business. With movies, you're trying to satisfy half the planet.
Do you paint at all?
Not recently but I used to. I still do photographs for fun.
What other director would you like to see at work?
Boy that's putting me on the spot. Probably Jim Cameron. There's a guy who has done some interesting work where he's brought the future into the present. People like George Lucas too. He's another one of those guys who had a vision of where he wanted the film business to go and actually did it. Peter Jackson is doing that right now. Then there are great filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg or Ridley Scott. I loved the first Alien - it redefines what tension is in a film. It would be good to look over Ridley's shoulder.
What was the last movie that you paid to see?
Probably The Interpreter. But it had a problem in that when you deal with something as reverent as the UN and you have to be so politically correct, you wished it was about a real place. It might have been better if it wasn't filmed in the UN so that it could have been more gutsy and more offensive.
What was the last movie you walked out of?
I've only ever walked out of one movie and I actually stood up and abused the audience for sitting through such crap [laughs]. It was called My Dinner With André. It's a movie that a lot of people actually love. But it seemed to be such a wonderful concept that got squandered. I actually got a few people to come with me.
Do you believe in God?
Well I sure as hell don't believe in the God that everybody seems to be inspired by to commit atrocities in the name of. The idea that there is potentially something bigger and better than we are is fair enough. But I'm up for evidence. I'm not going to believe it just because other people tell me it's out there. I want to see it for myself. I think when people have had real tragedy in their lives they look for something that comforts them and I think God and those sort of concepts - that you're not here just once - makes sense. But when you see the pain and suffering that some people are subjected to you have to ask why is it so bad for so many people? The idea that there are other dimensions out there is of more interest to me.
Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?
That would be unfair. One of the people that I cherish their friendship and had an extraordinary time with is Ed Hillary [who became the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay].
What's your favourite movie quote?
There's a few that stick in your mind, although not all are lines you'd like to admit you remember. But I think I'll go with "Make my day". That's hard to beat.
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
Oh, there's a lot of people who have done great work like Lasse Hallström, for instance. My Life Is A Dog is one of my favourite movies. Volker Schlöndorff is another great German director who did Tin Drum.
And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?
\[Laughs nervously] You know what, I'm the last person to ever criticise anybody else's work. Anybody who's made a name for themselves as a director, I know how tough it is to do their job. Take someone like Michael Cimino who has done stuff that's won him an Oscar and then done stuff that he's been completely run out of town over.
Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?
Anthony Hopkins! [On The Bounty]. And I was the biggest pain in the arse he ever worked with.
What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
I don't know. I haven't got an answer for that one.
Do you believe in test screenings?
Well I do and I don't. I believe in them for myself. I don't necessarily believe in them for a way of opening up the discussion about how a movie should end. Just because there's someone in a movie theatre who happens to be eloquent and doesn't like the movie, why is his opinion of any more value than somebody else's? I've seen that happen to my advantage and to my disadvantage.
And what were the advantages and disadvantages?
One particular one I remember was that I had certain details that I felt were important that should stay in the film and there was pressure from the studio to change them. But there was a test screening where someone stood up and it was as though I was speaking. They said everything I thought so there was never another discussion about it. But there have been other times when I've thought everything was looking great and then someone came along and opened up another point of view and everyone suddenly lost confidence in it.
But test screenings can be valuable for several reasons - no one wants to have a joke that you think is funny but nobody laughs at, I never want my movie to be too long and I never want the audience to be confused. I want them to understand what the plot is. I also want to know what they think is important or irrelevant. I've never had a test screening where I didn't make changes that I wanted to make. You can't see it through other people's eyes when you've been so close to it.
Did you test screen The World's Fastest Indian?
Yeah. It was good but I did actually make a few small changes to it. I took some stuff out, including a little sequence that I was very fond of. But I couldn't deny that the movie, at that point, needed to move on to another stage. It will be on the DVD, though.
How seriously do you take reviews?
Everybody loves to be reviewed well because they do have an enormous impact on what happens to your film. I would never have got going in the film business without reviews. Some very important reviewers in America discovered Smash Palace and told the world about it. Without those people on board, there would have been no career for me.
Now cut to making Cocktail which the critics hated but the audience loved. Along comes that movie and you go, "Well you're not seeing it through the eyes of the audience that it was made for." Then it's hard, so what you're effectively saying is that you can't please everybody. But the one thing that really upsets me with reviews is if they tell the plot. It downgrades the art of criticism. I think critics who have actually been involved in filmmaking are the best, such as Roger Ebert. He's been in the trenches, he knows how it works and he makes the distinction between genres instead of rating everything under the same roof. Bad critics let their own prejudices overwhelm what they're writing about and I think there are a lot of prejudiced reviewers out there, as there have always been. I mean Vincent Van Gogh couldn't find anyone to find anything positive about his work and now he's a celebrated genius.
What are the things you wish you'd done differently?
I don't have too many regrets about the way things worked out for me. I know when one leaves where you come from and go somewhere else at the time it always looks great to be changing location to live somewhere else. But as you get older it leads to confusion about where you really do fit in the world. People who stay home know much more clearly where they fit than people who are ex-patriots, like myself, who pine for where they came from but also have changed because they've experienced another reality. Maybe I'm just going through it now because my parents are getting old and I wish I was closer to them.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
Don't work for anybody. I remember getting fired as a paper boy when I was a teenager. I was determined I would never put myself in that position again. I just think not becoming dependent on other people for their approval, or their employment is important. It's a hard, tough world out there and the more independent and more self-reliant you can be, the better you can cope with the shit that comes along.
And the worst advice you've been given?
Join the Army. Luckily I didn't take that advice.
There are five minutes left till the end of the world. What do you do?
Oh well that's a good one. I think the thing that is most important to me and to most people is family. I have eight kids. I always remember Sissy Spacek telling me that her mum was dying and how she hopped into bed and hugged her. I'll never forget that. That to me seems like where you'd want to be.
Which performer would you love to work with?
Well there's a lot of great actors out there. I've never done a film with people like David Strathairn or Robert De Niro. And there's a whole lot of young, new people on the block as well. If anything, I'd love to do something with guys like De Niro or Jack Nicholson that would re-invent them so you went back and said: "Shit, you remember when Jack did that stuff in Easy Rider? Well, he's done something that's as memorable as that again!" Likewise De Niro in Taxi Driver, when he created this character that will live forever in the world of cinema. It's a hard-pressed act to follow but you know he's got it in him if you could just find the right piece.
What film makes you want to spit?
The movies that I really hate involve gratuitous violence that feels like it's got no redeeming stuff. It's the stuff that makes me feel uncomfortable to be a human being and then makes me very conscious of what censorship is. The world seems more prepared to censor sex than it is violence. Yet to me, the two are so far apart in terms of what's good and bad. I don't know why people are so scared of sex and willing to censor it when they're willing to have extreme violence portrayed as being entertainment. I remember being in a bar once and some guy was talking about what he was going to do come the revolution, and another guy just punched him in the face. When he asked why he had done that, the other guy said, "Well that's what violence is, that's what it really feels like. It hurts." You forget it hurts and with so much insensitivity to violence that's why the world is getting more and more violent. The lessons of the Second World War, the Vietnam War and Korea are all being forgotten and there's a whole new generation of young kids who have no idea what they're being sucked into.
What are your three favourite films and why?
It's hard to put them into order because every day is different and it depends on what sort of mood I'm in. But I do remember really fondly My Life Is A Dog.
Easy Rider, I was there on the Friday of its release and I happened to be in New York. I'll never forget the audiences' reaction at the end of it. One guy ran up onto the stage and started screaming "F*** America, f*** America" and the whole crowd started chanting the same. Here I was in America and I'd never seen a movie have that much impact on an audience. I never have since. And the Cronenberg version of The Fly, I'll never forget my horror and disgust as she gave birth to that giant maggot. I was like "Oh my God". I was so appalled and yet so entertained. The whole audience was on its feet gasping.
What do you think of Norman Wisdom?
Jesus Christ! I'm not an Englishman. I have no answer for that one [laughs].
The World's Fastest Indian is released in UK cinemas on Friday 10th March 2006.