Roger Donaldson Remembers New Zealand Beginnings

Before he became one of Hollywood’s most dependable big-movie helmers with hits for stars such as Eastwood, Pacino, Cruise, Costner, Hopkins, Statham, Brosnan et al, Roger Donaldson literally helped invent the film industry in New Zealand. It all started with a micro-budget smallscreen Kiwi anthology project called “Winners & Losers” in 1975.

Where did you see that first mention of your work?
I saw it in New Zealand. It was my first foray into filmmaking but I believe it was also the first project from New Zealand that sold well overseas. It got sold to 52 countries and everybody in New Zealand was very excited. It was the impetus for making feature films.

Were people in New Zealand aware of Variety’s role in the business?
Absolutely! And at the point it was a big deal to be noticed outside New Zealand.

Did you have a plan to direct feature films at that point?
I was making commercials and I’d gotten bitten by the bug to make movies. Movies were basically not being made in New Zealand, outside of a few black and white films, so I was incredibly excited about the whole idea of making movies. I had no expectation of living or working in America. But I couldn’t help myself so I invested my own money from making commercials to make “Winners & Losers.”

Outside of commercials, what were the other opportunities for aspiring filmmakers?
I got a break from a very unlikely quarter: New Zealand politics. And it wasn’t just one party, but there was a quota between the political parties to make short films and for each to state their case through storytelling. And the politicians loved to see themselves on TV!

Were there any other kindred spirits around the New Zealand film or TV scene that shared your aspirations?
Absolutely! Though it was a pretty barren landscape in New Zealand, business-wise, next door in Australia things were starting to happen and those filmmakers were proving it could be done. Guys like Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and Tim Burstall, whose “Alvin Purple” was a very early success. In New Zealand there was me and Geoff Murphy and Lee Tamahori, who started as a boom operator.

Once you’d done your features “Sleeping Dogs” and “Smash Palace,” you were on the international map. Were you eager for your “Hollywood moment?”
I remember I was in Cannes back in those days and I met the legendary agent Sue Mengers, who said, “You must come to L.A. Here’s my phone number.” And I knew who she was and I was very excited, so when I got to L.A. I immediately called her. She wouldn’t even return my phone call. I learned there’s not much point going to Hollywood unless there’s someone in Hollywood saying “please come” and by that I mean someone who actually means it.

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