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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.”

"a perfectionist"

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 perfectionist.”

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.” Donaldson agreed.

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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Roger Donaldson


The World's Fastest Indian

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