4 Jun 2017

Roger Donaldson: telling Bruce McLaren's story

From Sunday Morning, 11:05 am on 4 June 2017

Bruce McLaren was a legendary NZ Formula 1 driver whose eponymous McLaren brand lives on 47 years after his death at just 32. The new documentary McLaren tells his story.

McLaren is directed by Roger Donaldson, a pioneer of the NZ film industry whose films include Smash Palace, Sleeping Dogs, Cocktail (with Tom Cruise) and The World's Fastest Indian (with Sir Anthony Hopkins).

"Not many people know that the name 'McLaren' started out as Bruce McLaren here in New Zealand," he tells Wallace Chapman.

Donaldson says he's always loved things that go fast himself.

As a boy in Melbourne in the mid-60s, he saw McLaren race against the Australian racing driver Jack Brabham.

Years later when he was making Smash Palace, Bruno Lawrence's character was an international race driver so Donaldson needed an exotic car.

He was put in touch with Bruce McLaren's father Les, who lent him the first road car Bruce had ever built – a connection he was only reminded of when he turned his attention to McLaren for the film.

At this height in the 1960s – when McLaren in his mid-20s – he was racing every week in America and flying back to the UK every other weekend to do Formula One races, says Donaldson.

And not only was he driving the cars, he was building them.

"Here he was designing the cars, building the cars and racing the cars and he was doing it alternate weekends between going to America and Europe … This guy must have been up 24 hours a day."

The '70s was a very different time in racing, says Donaldson.

"The crews were smaller, there was a lot less money involved in the prize money, the danger was just out of proportion to what it is now."

Many drivers didn't even wear seatbelts then.

"Basically, the body of the car was a fuel tank and if you hit something it exploded and you got burnt alive. So they would sooner be thrown out of the car than trapped in it."

McLaren's story had a human element which Donaldson was compelled by.

"It's about a boy who spends two weeks on his back with Legg-Perthes disease who discovers himself in his passion. He goes off with a bunch of buddies to the UK. He's writing passionate letters home to his father about what he's doing and sending taped recordings of him and his mates talking about what their plans are. It felt a very personal story about a father-son relationship, about what it's like to go overseas and find yourself."

Roger Donaldson on Tom Cruise:

"He's incredibly hardworking, he's incredibly ambitious, he's incredibly charming. It's not easy to say something bad about Tom … You can't ask for more than a guy who wants to be there, does his job as well as he can do it, isn't an asshole with the fans, treats the crew with respect."

Roger Donaldson on Anthony Hopkins:

"By the end of [making 1984's The Bounty], Tony and I were ready to kill each other. We said we would never work together again to each other … Then many years later we were both at this function. On the other side of the room there's Tony. My wife says 'There's Tony over there, go over and say hi to him'. I said 'I'm not going to go over and say hi to that prick'. She says 'Go on, it's a long time ago'. I walk across the room and he starts walking towards me and halfway across the room we meet and we give each other this big bear hug. We've been friends ever since."