Roger Donaldson is a secret directing weapon. You may not be overtly familiar with his name, but you’ve surely seen and enjoyed at least one of his films. He’s able to flit from one genre to the next, navigating his way around film like Howard Hawks and Richard Donner. Throughout his 40-year career Donaldson helped Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins set sail in The Bounty, he put Kevin Costner in the Pentagon in No Way Out and then into the White House in Thirteen Days. He enabled Tom Cruise to shake his stuff in Cocktail, put Pierce Brosnan through his paces in Dante’s Peak and The November Man – and I haven’t even mentioned how he’s worked with Al Pacino, Colin Farrell, Alec Baldwin, Mickey Rourke, Willem Dafoe, Kim Basinger, Nicolas Cage, Sam Neill, Robin Williams or Jason Statham.
Movies in Focus chatted to him about his latest film, McLaren, a documentary of racing star Bruce McLaren as well as his illustrious career as one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors.
Going into the film, I didn’t know very much about Bruce McLaren – how much did you know about him before making the film?
Well, not as much as I know now. What I knew was… as a boy I had seen him drive in Australia. He was coming out from the UK to race for Cooper, so I’d seen him drive in the early ‘60s. Then when I was making my film Smash Palace, Bruce McLaren’s father had leant me one of Bruce’s cars – the M8 GT – the first road car he’d built. So I had a connection. My path had sort of crossed his path. But part of the reason I felt there was a film to be made was because a lot of people don’t have a clue why McLaren is called McLaren and that the logo is a kiwi – all those things. There was a story to be told and I was approached by these young producers to do it and I was looking for an opportunity to spend some time in New Zealand – and this was a good one.
Were you ever tempted to turn the film into a narrative feature film?
No – it was always going to be a documentary. I think it would have been a harder story to tell as a feature because you’d need enormous resources and Rush (the Ron Howard film) had sort of covered that – a scripted film about motor-racing. At the time I was making the film there were enough people still alive worthy to interview. There was also the chance to embrace something different from what I had been doing for many years.
How is the challenge of making a documentary different from making a feature?
The challenge with something like this is you are locked into the existing footage you can find. The footage shot in the’60s is very different from the footage shot in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Television wasn’t part of motor-racing then. The footage shot was either for personal home movies or shot for news reel. Everything was short bursts of film, so finding real interviews and that was hard. There was one key BBC interview that we found that was very important for the film. We found some home movies that had him in them – so we built it up like we were building a jigsaw puzzle.
You filmed little inserts – what made you do these and why were they important to the story?
In lots of cases Bruce would make these tapes when he was in England and send them home. This was very much an important part of the movie. There were no visuals to go with these. There was also his 21st birthday party where he was racing and his parents were home. I wanted to use that and give a visual sense as well rather than just having the audio – which was real.
Another really interesting bit of the film was the use of clips from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid…
That was the last movie he ever saw. But I can’t take credit for that – the editor gets the credit for that.
He didn’t seem to have a rule book that he played by.
One of my favourite stories is about the artist who designed his logo – he also designed one of his first cars. I don’t think it’s in the film – he did a sketch of what a great car would look like – and that’s the first one he built.
Even today the McLaren is unmistakable.
One fascinating thing, which is rare for this type of story, was that although he was a very driven man, he seemed like a nice guy.
In some ways that was the biggest obstacle. Nobody said anything negative about him. I said, ‘Gosh, is this guy too good to be true?’ I think the truth is that he had a bunch of dedicated followers around him – very talented people – they were a tight-knit group of men. They were under 30 – he was only 32 when he died. They were doing some amazing stuff considering how youthful the group was. They were a tight bunch of people.
That came across at the end when you dealt with the accident. Everyone seemed so emotional, even 50 years after the fact.
I knew that was really for me…the challenge was to make the connection between the present and the past. The people who were in the film at the end still miss him.
There really is the sense that he died too young.
It’s like James Dean or Buddy Holly of Marilyn Monroe – those characters – their star burned bright and they were snuffed out and everybody missed them enormously and they still talk about them. I think Bruce is one of those characters. In some ways the most gut-wrenching part of the story is his young daughter and wife (they were a close-knit family) and how much they were devastated by what happened.
McLaren hits Blu-Ray, DVD and digital platforms on Monday 29 May 2017.