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DONALDSON, ROGER

TAKING A PEAK AT ROGER

New Zealand director Roger Donaldson has come a long way since helping to start a fledgling New Zealand film industry with low-budget successes such as the ground-breaking Sleeping Dogs( made for a pittance), and his shattering marital drama Smash Palace. Now a Hollywood director, his latest film, Danteís Peak, cost around $100 million: it was physically gruelling to make, but he wouldnít have it any other way, he told Paul Fischer.

Roger Donaldsonís mega budget Danteís Peak is what Hollywood does best and biggest, except in this case, all the money ended up on the screen, rather than in the pockets of its stars, explains a relaxed Donaldson at his Sydney hotel. "It was a very expensive film from the beginning: it came in on budget, and the intention was to put as much on the screen as possible."

The title refers to a sleepy American town in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, surrounded by mountains and a dormant volcano. Pierce Brosnan plays a volcanologist sent to investigate some rumblings, realises that the dormant volcano could go, and has to persuade the town mayor to evacuate Danteís Peak before itís too late. Ultimately, the volcano DOES erupt, spewing a ton of ash and destroying everything in its wake.

"As soon as I knew it revolved around a volcanologist, I was in." director Roger Donaldson

Donaldson was very keen to direct Danteís Peak not because it was a major Hollywood project, but of his own fascination with the subject. "As soon as I knew it revolved around a volcanologist, I was in. Years ago I was a geology student and was fascinated with volcanos, so this story coming to me as it did, struck a chord."

Despite the fact that this was going to be a huge undertaking, Donaldson was never threatened by the scale of the project. On the contrary, "that was another of the reasons I took it. I mean making movies is a giant gamble, anyway, no matter what level youíre working on, so for me, this kind of a venture was all or nothing. I guess I was looking to push myself, in terms of the scales of the movies Iíd made. If you want to make little movies I should be back in New Zealand or Australia; if I want to make something on a very grand scale, which is popular cinema for the world, then Hollywoodís the place to be. So if you find a subject like this that I was really excited about, and then theyíre going to give you the resources to do it [in this case $100m], then youíre only happy to jump in, despite the risks both to me and to them."

"Itís a rollercoaster ride of a movie, and thatís what we wanted to do." Roger Donaldson

While critics may not have been enthused by Danteís Peak ["this is the kind of movie that critics love to hate"], audiences have certainly been enthralled by its sense of spectacle. "Itís a rollercoaster ride of a movie, and thatís what we wanted to do." At the same time he dismisses claims that itís another disaster film. "I donít think it follows that kind of formula. I think we worked very hard to do something different and take these characters and give them these extraordinary experiences to go through." Donaldson and his team had to work hard against the clock to get out there before another volcano movie [called Volcano, funnily enough] hit the screens, thus creating more pressure. "Look, that was tough and it was gruelling to get everything we wanted on time, but we did it and not at the expense of the film."

Donaldsonís career has had mixed fortunes since his acclaimed feature debut, Sleeping Dogs (1977), New Zealand's first homegrown feature in 15 years, which helped the country to form a film commission to promote other feature work. Donaldson's second film, Smash Palace (1981), about a middle-aged New Zealander racing driver who gets into trouble with the law, garnered enough international attention to get the director a shot at a big-budget US-British co-production, The Bounty (1984).

As with Donaldson's first two films, the result, an uneven but interesting retelling of the classic story of the Mutiny on the Bounty, took an interest in those who rebel against authority and find themselves at odds against the law or, more generally, "the system".

"I have absolutely no idea what Iím doing next." director Roger Donaldson

Then came his first American film, Marie: A True Story (1985), as Sissy Spacek challenged Tennessee's parole board system. He made one of his most popular films No Way Out (1987), an absorbing update of the 1940s film noir The Big Clock, set amid contemporary Washington DC corruption. Cocktail (1988), with Tom Cruise celebrated the noble profession of the bartender, but was critically maligned. It was, however, an unqualified hit, unlike Donaldson's subsequent ventures including the Robin Williams vehicle Cadillac Man (1990) and the stylish White Sands (1992). He then made The Getaway (1994), an interesting remake of Sam Peckinpah's violent 1968 saga about a criminal couple on the run, and Species (1995), a popular but silly "monster on the loose" sci-fi thriller that struck a chord with movie goers.

Danteís Peak is Donaldson at his most assured, and may go down as one of his most popular films. He says as he passes through Sydney, "I have absolutely no idea what Iím doing next. At the moment, Iím forced to fly around the world talking about this film." Ah, itís a dogís life!

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