“It was a film that you'd be hard-pressed to make anywhere else...” hmv.com talks to Roger Donaldson
Over the last couple of decades, New Zealand has gradually become something of a hotbed for filmmaking; that's down in large part, of course, to the success of Peter Jackson's epic pair of trilogies based on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, but the country has not only been the location for other blockbusters such as James Cameron's Avatar, it's also producing some of the hottest on-screen and off-screen talent, from the likes of Flight of the Conchords stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie to Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi.
But it wasn't always that way. When director Roger Donaldson set out to make his debut feature film Sleeping Dogs in the mid-1970s, there wasn't much in the way of an example to follow. Sleeping Dogs almost single-handedly kickstarted the 'new wave' of films produced in a country that, before 1977, barely even had a film industry to speak of, launching the career of its director and its leading man, Sam Neill, in the process.
In the years since, Roger Donaldson has amassed a list of directing credits that includes films such as Cocktail, Species and The World's Fastest Indian, to name a few, but this week sees his debut feature given the remaster treatment by the folks at Arrow Video, who are set to release a newly remastered and repackaged version of Sleeping Dogs on Blu-ray, over four decades on from its initial release.
With Sleeping Dogs arriving in stores on Monday (April 16th) we caught up with Roger to talk about his work on the film, its impact on the New Zealand film industry, and persuading the Air Force to lend him a couple of jets...
So if you could take us right back to the beginning – how did you first come across C.K. Stead's novel Smith's Dream, on which Sleeping Dogs is based?
“My memory of what happened is that Bob Harvey, who had been a great supporter of my work and ran an advertising agency called MacHarmon, had suggested that this book Smith's Dream would make a good movie and I was looking for something to do that was going to be a little bit different. I read the book, liked the book and, yeah, I thought it would make a great movie.”
What was it about that story that captured your imagination?
“I think at its core it was about the complexities of the relationships between the characters, set against this kind of violent, revolutionary story. I thought it could play out in New Zealand, and I imagined New Zealand, which is such a benign place, but you could, in fact, imagine something like this really happening and so I thought it would capture the public's imagination.”
Some reviews at the time described its central concept of fascists taking over a western government as a bit 'far-fetched', but it seems almost prescient now, given the rise of right-wing governments in some countries - what was the political climate like in New Zealand at the time?
“The thing about New Zealand is at that stage it had a population of somewhere between three or four million, so it was a very small, everybody-knows-everybody sort of country, it still is, and the idea that something could happen there didn't seem that far-fetched in that, if somebody had the intention, then it would be possible in New Zealand to do something like this, even though it was total fiction.”
It's a film that's credited with kick-starting New Zealand's 'new wave' of filmmaking in the 1970s, what was it like trying to get a feature film made in New Zealand at that time?
“Well, you know, this was the first colour feature film made in New Zealand. Up until then, there had been a couple of black and white ones, but it really was the very beginnings of New Zealand cinema on a big scale, and I think that's one of the reasons that this film has been remembered because at the time it was a very ambitious film. It was done with the cooperation of lots of people, with the support of organisations that you perhaps wouldn't expect to be supportive of a film like this, like the New Zealand armed services, who lent us helicopters and jets and stuff like that.”
“It was a film that you'd be hard-pressed to make anywhere else without a massive budget, so the whole country was surprised that something like this could be done internally. Mike Seresin, the cinematographer, was an enormous help to us because he had international experience, I had none at the time. So he brought his talents and expertise as a cinematographer to the movie and gave me as a director the confidence to do what I was trying to do.”
Having started out as a stills photographer, how did you make the jump to making feature films?
“I had been involved with my friend Ian Mune and we had made a series of television short stories called Winners and Losers that we had taken a couple of years before to MIPTV in Cannes, and had been very successful in selling them internationally. So we were fired up with enthusiasm, me in particular, with the idea of making a feature film, and only in the ignorance of youth did I fail to see how difficult it would ultimately be, but it was one of those labours of love and passion, and the people around me were equally passionate, and out of that came this movie that is still referenced today.”
“If you've happened to see Hunt for the Wilderpeople, there are elements in that movie that hint towards it. So it's a movie that anybody who knows anything about the history of New Zealand cinema, even with its flaws, understands that it's a very important film in that history.”
You mentioned persuading the New Zealand Air Force to help out by lending you aircraft, how exactly did you manage that?
“We had a very determined production manager, his nickname was Superfly. Superfly went down to Wellington from Auckland and basically said 'I'm not leaving until you say you'll cooperate'. I think there were people in the government who were very sympathetic to the arts, and who were ultimately helpful in setting up the New Zealand Film Commission, which was announced at the premiere for Sleeping Dogs. They spoke into the right ears and said 'Hey, come on, let's support these guys, let's do it'.
“New Zealand has always been a very independent country anyway, some of the things to come out of New Zealand have often been a big surprise, even going back to the country being declared a nuclear-free zone, it has always been an independent-thinking country and so the powers that be sometimes don't act as you would expect them to.”
Were you surprised when they agreed?
“I was. In fact, I remember I got this phone call, Ian Mune was always pretending to be other people on the phone and putting on silly voices, so I get this call from someone with this very posh accent going 'Hello, Wing Commander Spiffington here, I hear you want to use some of our aircraft'. And I'm going 'Come on, Ian, give me a break' and they're saying 'No, no, this is the Air Force here'. It took me a little while to realise that it really was them, I thought it was a wind-up!”
Just now you mentioned Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a marvellous film which of course also stars Sam Neill. As well as being a debut feature for yourself as a director, Sleeping Dogs also represented a breakout role for Sam as an actor too – how did you come across him in the first place?
“It is a wonderful film. Well, I had seen Sam in a short film that a guy called Barry Barclay had made, where Sam played a priest. I didn't know Sam at this stage and I thought he really was a priest, the way his performance was it just about seemed like a documentary. That's' really where I first became aware of Sam's talents, so I hunted him down and he was perfect for the part.”
Was it Sleeping Dogs that brought you to the attention of Hollywood?
“Well, I took the film off to Cannes, where there was some notice taken of it, but it didn't set Cannes on fire or anything. I had a few people who wanted to talk to me in Los Angeles, so I went there and they seemed a bit reticent about returning my phone calls and stuff like that, so I went back to New Zealand thinking 'Well, I'm not moving from New Zealand anytime in the near future', not that I was trying to. But then I made Smash Palace and that movie really did cause a ripple in the water at the time, it got the support of some of the key American critics who spread the word about the film, and that really was the beginning of me becoming a filmmaker rather than a commercials maker, which is how I was making a living at the time.”
How did you find the move to Hollywood? Was it a bit of a culture shock?
“Well, maybe 'move' is the wrong word because I didn't really ever think I was moving here, I thought I was coming on a working holiday, you know? I thought I was going to go to the United States and make a movie, then go back home to New Zealand. I had a guy called Harry Ufland who wanted to represent me as an agent, he represented Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro at the time so I thought he'd be a good bet to go with. Richard Zanuck and David Brown were major Hollywood producers at the time, they rang me at two in the morning and got me out of bed saying 'Hey, come to Hollywood and make a movie for us', so I came across here to Hollywood to make a film that never happened. It was a film that went into turnaround and suddenly I was just sort of here sitting in Hollywood, having made the effort to get there and found someone to run my company and all of these things."
So how did you end up staying?
“Ed Pressman, who was a well-known producer, approached me about doing a sequel to Conan the Barbarian and I was thinking 'Well, this isn't exactly what I came to Hollywood to do', but it was a well-funded movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role so I thought I'd get involved in that. So myself and Ian Mune wrote a script, and near the end of the process of writing it Dino De Laurentiis bought the rights and said 'Hey, you don't want to do Conan, I want you to come and do The Bounty', so that was the first film that I did over here.”
Didn't you step into David Lean's shoes for that too?
“David Lean and Dino, in fact, had parted company over I don't know what, budget and seeing the movie differently I guess. David had actually come to New Zealand a few years before looking for a cast for The Bounty and came to my studio looking for actors from the south pacific that he could potentially get into version he was making, so it was a rather strange coincidence.”
It must have been quite daunting taking over from him though?
“Well, I mean I was involved from the ground up, we rewrote the script and so it was a very different movie from the one he was making.”
What's the biggest difference between making films when you started out and making them now?
“The technology is the biggest change, I mean I'm a great believer in the new technology, it really has liberated filmmaking from the size of the cameras and the quality of what can be done, to the special effects, the quality of the visual effects that can be achieved, and the quality of the sound mixing and editing. It's still in the hands of the people doing it, but the technology now is so much more precise, small and easy to handle.
“In some ways, the job has gotten bigger because you can shoot a lot more. When we shot Sleeping Dogs I think we shot it with a 3:1 cutting ratio, meaning we only kept 1ft out of every 3ft of film we shot, so as you can imagine it's very different today in terms of what you can be doing. But you've still got to tell a story, so what you're trying to achieve hasn't really changed.”
Sleeping Dogs is available in hmv stores from Monday April 16th, you can also find it here in our online store.