DONALDSON, ROGER – THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN
WORLD’S SLOWEST PROJECT
The World’s Fastest Indian is one of the world’s slowest films to get made, as
its long-suffering maker, Roger Donaldson, explains to Andrew L. Urban. The
spirit was willing but the cash was weak.
As Roger Donaldson sat in the mixing studio for the final cut of his film, The
World’s Fastest Indian, the music played out as the end credits rolled
signalling the end of the creative process. It was then that a tear of
satisfaction rolled down Donaldson’s cheek. “Yes, that was the payoff. It was a
very satisfying moment,” he says now, “and even as I think of it I can feel my
eyes moisten…” The fact that Donaldson is not usually prone to tears only adds
to the drama of his feelings after finishing the film he had wanted to make for
more than 25 years.
And there was so much more that propelled his tears, besides the sheer
achievement of finishing. Sitting in Peter Jackson’s post production facility in
Wellington, Donaldson was at once home in his native New Zealand, the setting of
his story, and enjoying the sort of satisfaction that his subject Burt Munro
must have felt when he arrived at Bonneville Flats in Utah with his Indian
“motor-sickle” as he called it, to try for the world land speed record in the
mid 60s. Munro, too, had nourished his dream for decades, and he too achieved it
with considerable difficulties.
"self-taught indie filmmaking"
In Munro’s case, he had to overcome lack of funds, lack of faith by others
and the low-tech engineering of his own, self-taught mechanical skills,
impressive as they were. In Donaldson’s case, he had to overcome lack of funds,
lack of faith by others and the low-tech filmmaking of self-taught indie
filmmaking. But at least Donaldson doesn’t have the troubling heart disease that
gave Munro such trouble.
The story that drove Donaldson was a real good yarn: In the mid 60s (and in his
own late 60s), having spent decades streamlining and re-engineering his 1920s
Indian motorcycle, Munro scrapes up the money to take his beloved No 35 from
Invercargill at the bottom end of the world to Bonneville Flats in Utah for
Speed Week. Desperate to officially test the Indian on the world’s fastest salt
flats, Munro defies his failing heart, his rough and ready mechanical solutions
and his amateur status to talk his way into the biggest, most acclaimed test of
land speed – and his own biggest dream. His world land speed record in his
category (streamlined motorbikes under 1000 cc) still stands today.
Donaldson met Munro through a shared passion for motorbikes, back in 1971. He
and Gary Hannam, his partner in photography (then and now another passion, along
with painting) persuaded Munro to go back once more to Bonneville Flats so they
could make a documentary about Munro’s achievements. The doco, Offerings to the
God of Speed, aired on New Zealand television in 1973, and Donaldson has been
chasing a feature film of Munro’s story more or less ever since, through a
career that relied on films very different to Munro’s biopic, films like
Cocktail (1988), Cadillac Man (1990), Species (1995) and Thirteen Days (2000).
In 2003, after finishing his latest Hollywood movie (The Recruit, with Al Pacino
and Colin Farrell) Donaldson really got serious about the Munro story, telling
himself that if he didn’t do something about it now, it would never happen. He
got stuck into the script and got onto Gary Hannam. They started looking for
finance all over the world, and a Japanese woman Donaldson had met during
promotional tours in Japan, was the fist to respond. “My wife Marliese had kept
in touch with her over the years and when Megumi asked if I had any scripts that
may be suitable for her to invest, I told her I just happened to have one in my
back pocket - The World’s Fastest Indian.”
Megumi and her ‘people’ loved it and offered to put up a third of the budget,
which encouraged Donaldson enough to approach Anthony Hopkins. Now, he and
Hopkins had worked together on The Bounty, back in 1984 – and it had been a
tough, long shoot that was often acrimonious. Donaldson says he was young and
arrogant, and Hopkins says he was young and arrogant, too. “I was very impatient
with people,” says Hopkins, “and especially directors, and if they wanted too
many takes I’d question [them]. And Roger used to do a lot of takes; he’s a
Today, that’s a compliment. Then, it was an irritant. But as Donaldson says,
they’ve got over that episode and “time has mended the broken bridges. We’d
occasionally see each other and say ‘we must do something together’ but nothing
ever turned up. Then along came the role of Burt Munro, and Donaldson sent
Hopkins the script and his doco of Munro. Within a day, Hopkins agreed to do it.
“I wanted Hopkins because he was just the right age, and I wanted the film to be
about the spirit of Munro ... and my favourite moments in the film now are
indeed those where Anthony conveys the man’s inner feelings. Like that scene
when he arrives at Bonneville Flats and you can see in his face he feels that
overwhelming ‘I made it’ feeling …”
That’s the feeling Donaldson replicated for himself in Wellington on that
memorable day he finished the mix of the film. But like Munro’s Indian, there
were moments when it looked like the project would stall.
With the Japanese money had come confidence and an American company got very
enthusiastic. “They said they’d put up a third, but unfortunately they were
being sued for a massive amount of money, and once it looked like they were
going to lose, I knew they’d have to fall by the wayside.” The New Zealand Film
Commission was another source of finance, but it still wasn’t enough.
Donaldson and Hannam had already sunk a good deal of their own cash into the
project over the years in development – a no-no in the industry. “We had to
build the bikes and had to work towards a deadline once we had Anthony Hopkins
on board and we had to give it a start date. So finally we got down to the wire
and we realised this picture is dead.”
Then, out of the woodwork came an investor who’d heard the project was looking
for finance. But by now Donaldson had more or less committed himself to another
film – one that had secure finance and would pay him. He was on the verge of
knocking back the new offer for his pet project when his wife prodded him on.
“She said, god bless her soul, this is what you really want to do; you’ve got so
much of yourself invested in this picture you should follow through and do it.”
But fate hadn’t finished with Donaldson yet. Production had gone a week when the
new investor got cold feet “and that was the end of him. So I’d just blown off
the other movie and here I was – stranded and stunned; oh my gawd! Where are we
now? So Gary and I stepped into the giant abyss, the hole they left behind, and
we took it over and made the movie.”
"enough to make a grown man cry"
It’s enough to make a grown man cry.
Published April 6, 2006
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The World's Fastest Indian