This second part of Movies In Focus‘ interview with director Roger Donaldson to talk about his documentary McLaren, looks at his impressive career behind the camera (read part one). We discuss such diverse films as The Bounty, No Way Out, The November Man, Dante’s Peak and Cocktail. Donaldson also talks about replacing David Lean as director on The Bounty and what it’s like working with actors like Laurence Olivier, Gene Hackman, Tom Cruise and Anthony Hopkins – and he even touches on films he never managed to direct like James Bond and a sequel to Conan The Barbarian. It’s really good stuff!
Let’s talk about the Bounty – you replaced David Lean on that…
That’s true! David Lean had fallen out with Dino De Laurentiis…I was actually writing a sequel to Conan The Barbarian. I’d gone to Hollywood to work on a project that went into turnaround and there I was without a job, so I was going to write and direct Conan – the sequel to Conan
I never knew that.
Conan The Librarian! Anyway, the guy that was doing that movie, Ed Pressman, who was a film producer who did lots of interesting movies – the Oliver Stone movies. He hired me and then sold the rights to Dino De Laurentiis and I met Dino and he said, ‘Hey, you don’t want to do this movie, I’ve got a better one for you. Do you want to do The Bounty?’ and I said, ‘What’s The Bounty?’. I knew he’d built this ship down in New Zealand, the replica of The Bounty there and David Lean had actually come into my studio for my first feature, Sleeping Dogs, looking for actors. So I’d met David Lean in New Zealand – this was three or four years earlier, but anyway Lean couldn’t come to an agreement with Dino about what the budget was going to be and they went their separate ways. So this project was siting without a director and Dino said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ To cut a long story short, I said ‘Yes’.
Were you nervous stepping into David Lean’s shoes?
David Lean’s shoes – that never worried me because the script we did was very different from the script that Lean had put together. It wasn’t really Lean’s project when I took it on. But the day I was nervous was when I had to direct Sir Laurence Olivier – and Laurence Olivier couldn’t remember his lines. That was a stressful day.
Speaking of big actors – you seem to have directed more movie stars than anyone in recent times. Are you attracted to working with them, or are they attracted to working with you?
Well, movie stars are usually good actors and I’m always trying to find good actors. I’ve been lucky that people like Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise and even people like Daniel Day Lewis and Liam Neeson – the film’s they did with me were the beginnings of their careers. So maybe I got lucky or maybe I’ve got a good eye for people who do a good job. Who knows?
Some of them keep coming back…
Once you make a connection with somebody and it works out and you enjoy working together. The most unlikely reunion that I’ve had was with Sir Anthony Hopkins. Tony and I were ready to kill each other after The Bounty– we vowed we would never even talk to each other again basically. There we were, we got together again and we’re good friends. I had breakfast with him the other morning. We did The World’s Fastest Indian together. It was one of the most enjoyable films I’ve been involved in and I think he would say the same.
I imagine shooting on a ship for The Bounty…
It was stressful! No digital work. If a motorboat sailed into shot you just had to change direction. There was no way to get rid of the boat out of a background. People got sick – there were many good stories to come out of that movie.
I’ve heard a few of them – you had young cast and they seemed to enjoy themselves…
Yeah – they did enjoy themselves out there. They turned out to be a second Bounty crew! You’d have to go find them some mornings. Lots of dramas on that movie.
Another great movie No Way Out. What was it like working with Gene Hackman?
I’ve always been a great fan of Gene Hackman and he’s one of the most talented actors I can say I’ve worked with and I loved his no-nonsense behaviour. He was ‘lets just get on with it and say the lines and show me where to stand’. He was always so entertaining and down to earth. One of the great disappoints was to never work with him again. He sort of went into retirement and moved to Santa Fe and doesn’t act anymore.
I miss him on screen.
Yeah – he was so hypnotic, isn’t he?
Another one of my favourites is Dante’s Peak – I love that movie!
That was one of the most fun ones to make. That’s epic filmmaking that you don’t often get to do in your life.
It was just on the cusp before they went digital…
I know. In fact there’s only a tiny bit of digital – and it drove me crazy. It was some of the very first digital work being done and there’s lava that comes through a wall of a building. All the other effects…we did these amazing models of bridges being swept away. They were so much fun to construct and do. It was some of the biggest real special effects ever done.
Of course, you then worked with Pierce Brosnan again a couple pf years ago on The November Man.
Pierce and I are good friends.
Did he ever try to rope you into a Bond film? It seems right up your street.
Oh, there was a brief romance. He would have been happy to have done it. I think it was…they didn’t like my price
I imagine you would have had a lot of creative control – which the Broccolis aren’t big fans of.
That’s what I hear (laughs). I do love those movies though.
Would you ever be tempted by the November Man sequel. There is talk of that…
Contractually I’m supposed to have first dibbs at it. But I don’t know. I enjoyed doing that movie by the way. Me and my family moved to Serbia for duration of the shoot and had a great time down on Montenegro as well as Belgrade.
Next up for you – is it the Guinea Pig Club?
There’s a few things in the works, as there always is. It’s who gets together the money to make the film. The Guinea Pig Club is one of them, set here in the UK about a New Zealand plastic surgeon who pioneered burn recovery for victims, mostly fighter pilots who had terrible burns in the Second World War. That’s an important, feel good story.
I’ve got a civil rights movie set in Louisiana, another one about the space program and a few scripts of my own that I’ve been trying to get funding for. I never know what’s going to be next really until the money’s in the bank, it’s green-lit and you’ve got the camera rolling.
Hollywood has changed in recent times and they’ve stopped making mid-range thrillers – is it difficult getting funding?
I think one of the big things is television is so different now with streaming TV and there’s really great thrillers being done in long form television. While I think some some really good films can be in the cinema, there’s great stuff on TV. The business just keeps changing.
Do you see yourself migrating to TV or maybe doing one of those big superhero films?
Do you know what – I’ll tackle anything. Whatever comes my way, I’m up for.
You’re very much of the Howard Hawks school of filmmaking – you seem to have touched on every genre…
And deliberately so. I’ve enjoyed not repeating myself.
Have you any genres left?
I’ve always wanted to do a big science fiction movie.
Do you have one in development?
Another film you did – Cocktail is often seen as a light and fluffy ‘80s film, but it has this really great dark turn when Bryan Brown dies. That’s a great moment.
Well, thank you. I loved making that film. I was good friends with Tom and Bryan. We had a lot of fun making that. I like the dark under-current of that story. There was the bubble and fluff of these guys getting drunk and having a good time chasing girls. It’s a movie very much of the ‘80s. I think the music, the sentiment of the film – young people trying to find their way in life – what do you do? I think it was the beginnings of how things got tougher for young people and that film resonates with people who were young at the time and saw it.
Tom Cruise at that point was huge. It was just after Top Gun. What was it like working with him?
The only thing I remember is that we were on location and Tom walks through a door and a girl was sort of on the other side and she saw Tom Cruise and she literally fainted at his feet. Tom lifts here up and she comes to in Tom Cruise’s arms and faints again. Literally fainted!
He really does have the reputation of being the nicest man in Hollywood. Is that true – presumably it is?
I thought Tom was one of the most hard-working, dedicated people I’ve ever worked with. Probably now he’s had a bad rap through his Scientology – but he never brought that into anything when I was with him.
McLaren is out now on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital platforms.