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Monday
Aug142017

McLAREN: THE ROGER DONALDSON INTERVIEW

Bruce McLaren remains one of New Zealand’s most beloved sons. A giant in the world of sport to this day, the driver died aged 32 doing what would define him – striving to better the sport he loved, while leading those around him with a rare integrity. “Like James Dean or Buddy Holly, he’s one of those icons who were cut down in their prime and yet their work still lives on,” says McLaren director Roger Donaldson, whose latest study in speed and obsession (the last was The World’s Fastest Indian in 2005) is a thrilling and deeply moving tribute to a national hero. Ahead of the film’s home viewing launch in its homeland, the director of Kiwi classics Smash Palace and Sleeping Dogs and Hollywood blockbusters Cocktail, Species, The Getaway, Dante’s Peak and Thirteen Days sat with SCREEN-SPACE to discuss the legacy and legend that is Bruce McLaren…                         (Photo credit: Chris McKeen)

SCREEN-SPACE: Hollywood lent on you to be ‘The Starmaker’. Gibson in The Bounty; Cruise in Cocktail; Costner in No Way Out. They were all actors on the cusp that the studios needed to be big stars. Good times?

DONALDSON: The people you get to be in your movies are your movies. If you’re lucky enough to make a good movie and you’ve got the right talent, the whole lot comes together and people turn up to see them. The 80s were definitely a good place for me to be making films in America.

SCREEN-SPACE: When did the young Roger Donaldson first become aware of Bruce McLaren?

DONALDSON: As a boy, I lived in Ballarat with a dad who was very keen on car racing. His father had been a doctor out in the Linton and Skipton region, 30 miles out of Ballarat, and he would drive the ambulance flat out to and from Ballarat. That was his excuse for driving fast and having fast cars all the time, ’34 V8s and a Vauxhall 3098. I remember going to see Bruce race at Sandown Park against Jack Brabham. I kept my diary from the day, so I know that Jack won and Bruce got third.

SCREEN-SPACE: The bond that the elite drivers shared from that period was a unique type of friendship…

DONALDSON: I think Jack was the reason Bruce got to the UK. When he’d return from Europe and visit New Zealand, Jack would leave his cars in the garage owned by Bruce’s father, who’d fix them up. Jack became a close friend of the McLaren family. He was 10 years older than Bruce and he became very much a mentor, someone who recognised how talented the young Bruce was and who encouraged him to come to England. It was a much more intimate group of people. They’d drive from race meet to race meet, the wives and families always being together. Jim Clark and Jack remained close friends of Bruce.

SCREEN-SPACE: From your very first film, Burt Munro: Offerings to The Gods of Speed (1971) to The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) to McLaren, you’ve had a filmic fascination with men obsessed with speed and danger…  

DONALDSON: Only in retrospect do I ask myself why am I so interested in this subject. Truth is I’m no more interested in car racing than I am in going to an art gallery or great concert. My true passion is filmmaking, and if you can embrace the things you’re most interested in you make better films. I have subjects in the world of art that I want to make films about, for example, but the projects that have gained traction are those set in the world of speed. Perhaps what fascinates me about people who do dangerous jobs as entertainment is that their choices pose the question, “What is your life worth?” I did some work with mountaineers, with Sir Edmund Hilary, these people who know what the negative odds are that they are up against but are still prepared to do it for the exhilaration and empowerment. If people were scared of consequences, nothing would go forward. Risk-taking should be a major element of anybody’s life. The risk I took is that it might not all work and I might be a complete failure, that I make movies that nobody showed up for; if you’re a race car driver and you fuck it up, you’re in much bigger trouble.

SCREEN-SPACE: You’ve mastered the craft of capturing the essence of speed on film. What are technicalities of conveying the experience of life threatening momentum?

DONALDSON: The technical side of capturing speed on film is not that easy. One of the first things I discovered was that you have to be going three times the actual speed to make it look fast. Real-time speed, especially without sound, doesn’t look fast. It requires many filmmaking elements, including the great pulsating score that David Long did for us on McLaren, for the essence of true speed to be conveyed.

SCREEN-SPACE: Your interviewees look directly into the lens, a method which imbues the film with a profoundly affecting, first-person perspective. The moment where the ‘fourth wall’ collapses and Phil Kerr addresses you before breaking down is heartbreaking

DONALDSON: Yes, I know. Phil knew Bruce since they were teenagers; they flatted together in Europe. Iknew this story was going to be deeply personal, so I wanted those on camera to talking directly to the audience and not me or my camera. I rigged a system so that they could look directly into the lens but were actually addressing a reflected image of me.

SCREEN-SPACE: One of the themes of your film is the memory of loss, of time passing. Did Bruce’s late widow Patty ever see the film?

DONALDSON: No, she didn’t. Key people are acknowledged at the end of the film, like Phil and Patty, who never got to see it. Those that knew him and have seen the film got a charge out of how it honoured Bruce’s legacy and captured his spirit and contribution to the sport. And Bruce’s daughter Amanda was very helpful, providing access to family history and much of her Patty’s personal material. She went on film and provided some lovely thoughts on her dad, but she was so young when he died her recollections are largely those of others she’s spoken to over the years. It was hard to leave some material out of the film, that is for sure.

SCREEN-SPACE: What do you hope McLaren conveys about the legacy left by the man?

DONALDSON: I think genuinely he was quite an extraordinary person. Not many people come along like Bruce; he didn’t have a bad bone in his body. He was an inspired, motivated leader of people, filled with innovation and bravery. The tragedy of a life like that cut short and the determination of the guys around him to preserve his legacy, to continue forging the company and brand reputation, speaks volumes.

Transmission Films presents McLAREN on home entertainment platforms in Australia on August 16 and New Zealand from August 30; check local distributors in other territories for release details.

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