There are two reasons you could never call New Zealand-born Roger Donaldson an auteur. First, he’s perfectly at home in the Hollywood system, having worked with most of the big studios and with a list of leading men that reads like a who’s who of the world’s biggest actors.
Second, most of his films are unashamedly commercial, straight arrow, good-time romps free of navel-gazing subtext which deliver high concept thrills and consistently make money (see point number one).
Following 1981’s Smash Palace, Donaldson moved straight to the helm of one of the definitive star vehicles of the 1980s, The Bounty. He wouldn’t revisit the small, personal arthouse style until The World’s Fastest Indian in 2005, reuniting him with Bounty star Anthony Hopkins just over 20 years later.
It seems Donaldson’s always been interested in wielding a camera simply to tell a cracking story rather than indulge his inner film aesthete. But there’s something different about The Bank Job (opening July 31). Based on the amazing story of London’s 1971 Baker St bank robbery, Donaldson brings a perfectly pitched style to the screen. It’s funny, thrilling, multi-faceted and contains design, dialogue and a shooting style we’re more used to from Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) or Quentin Tarantino.
It turns out the frenetic, zippy pace of The Bank Job was inherent in the shoot because of technology. “One of the things that was unique about this film was I shot it on digital,” the 62-year-old director says from the California location of his next film, “and that in itself led to a different way of doing things, one being that you could just do numerous takes without stopping the camera so there was a certain energy. The whole movie was shot basically hand-held and I don’t think I’ve ever done one quite like that before.”
“Plus we developed a style where scenes almost looked like they weren’t going to finish properly — as if they were interrupted by the next scene — that also gives it all a sense of urgency.”
With such a style all its own, The Bank Job is one of Donaldson’s first films where you can see the distinctive mark of a director. With a script by Dick Clement (Across the Universe, Flushed Away) already in place, it’s one of Donaldson’s many films where he isn’t a credited writer, although he says he gets to flex his scripting muscles as part of the collaboration of making a movie. “As a director I take the credit for being the director and part of it is to make sure scenes work, and that involves often writing stuff,” he says. “But I’m not going to take credit for the script.
Such collaborative technique in his films usually gels with audiences, and The Bank Job is no exception, getting mostly rave reviews and doing very healthy business. Plus — as reported recently in The West Australian — star Jason Statham is picking up the mantle left behind by former hard men like Arnie, Sly and Bruce as they head for pension age.
“He’s not so keen on doing publicity,” Donaldson admits when The West repeats gossip about the new crown prince of action being difficult to work with, “but he just comes so well prepared he really is a joy to work with. I hope I make another movie with him and I think we both came out of it feeling like we’d done a really great job. He brings a degree of authenticity to the part and not a lot of actors have that same presence. Jason’s sort of a Steve McQueen character — he does a lot with a little.”
So with another enjoyable, profitable film behind him and with a resume most directors spend their careers dreaming about (having directed Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, Robin Williams and Pierce Brosnan), after making of one the most expensive adventure film in history at the time of its release (1997’s Dante’s Peak) and consistently blitzing the box office in drama, thriller, sci-fi and noir, are there any ambitions left?
“Unfortunately, the list is a long one,” he says. “Everything from big ambitious movies to small intimate movies. If I could only do one more movie I’d want to do a great movie in Australia.”