Having proved himself to be a capable craftsman of several compelling political thrillers, director Roger Donaldson hit a downward spiral in his career after emerging from his native New Zealand as its cinematic savior, only to reestablish himself in the new millennium. With "Sleeping Dogs" (1977), Donaldson singlehandedly put New Zealand on the map as the next filmmaking capital of the world, while also getting himself noticed in Hollywood. He failed to disappoint with his political thriller "No Way Out" (1987), which effectively tapped into the paranoia surrounding the rejuvenated Cold War. But Donaldson's goodwill was in jeopardy after directing the much-maligned "Cocktail" (1988), even though it proved to be one of the most financially successful movies of his career, thanks in large part to star Tom Cruise. After a rough patch that included the likes of "White Sands" (1992), "The Getaway" (1994) and "Dante's Peak" (1997), Donaldson pulled himself out of his career morass with "Thirteen Days" (2000), a taut and suspenseful look at the behind-the-scenes action inside the Kennedy White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis. By the time he helmed the excellent heist thriller "The Bank Job" (2008), Donaldson had reestablished himself as one of cinema's most compelling filmmakers.
Born on Nov. 15, 1945 in Ballarat, Australia, Donaldson spent his formative years in his native land before heading to New Zealand at 19 as a geology student, where he eventually began a career as a photographer. Gradually moving into filmmaking with documentaries, he first earned notice helming "Winners and Losers," a series of seven short films for New Zealand television. By the time he was in his early thirties, Donaldson had shifted to feature films with "Sleeping Dogs" (1977), the first feature film made in New Zealand in over 11 years. Made after a trip to the Cannes Film Festival, where he saw a bunch of movies he considered to be "a load of crap," Donaldson directed his futuristic political thriller about a reluctant man (Sam Neill) struggling between a fascist police state and a growing resistance movement. The film made its way across the Pacific Ocean to open in the United States, where it not only introduced then-unknown actor Sam Neill to Hollywood, but also kick-started a filmmaking boom in New Zealand, where the industry had previously laid dormant.
Because of the success of "Sleeping Dogs," New Zealand formed its own film commission to promote and solicit additional motion picture and television projects. Meanwhile, Donaldson explored the disastrous effects of divorce to great effect in "Smash Palace" (1981), a compelling drama about a disgruntled husband and father (Bruno Lawrence), who kidnaps his own daughter after his wife (Anna Jemison) leaves him with her for another man (Keith Aberdein). His second film earned Donaldson a berth at the New Directors/New Movies Festival held annually at the Museum of Modern Art in New York while bringing him to the attention of American and British producers. Moving up the ladder, he was tapped to helm the revisionist take of the famed mutiny on "The Bounty" (1984), a big-budgeted period drama that teamed Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson on screen as Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, respectively. Though the director's approach was somewhat uneven, his thoughtful focus on those who rebel against the norm fit thematically into his oeuvre. He also earned praise for his historical accuracy.
Donaldson more overtly explored the idea of rebelliousness with his first U.S. film, "Marie: A True Story" (1985), with Sissy Spacek as a real-life whistle-blower exposing corruption in the Tennessee parole system. He followed with the popular romance-cum-political thriller "No Way Out" (1987), which starred Kevin Costner as a Navy commander trying to undercover the truth behind the murder of his secret lover (Sean Young) - also the mistress of the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) - while becoming deeply involved to the point of becoming an unwitting fall guy. An update of the film noir "The Big Clock" (1948), the movie was a suspenseful yarn that unfortunately was hampered in later years by its obvious 1980s production values, but it did cement Costner as a viable leading man. While Donaldson had enjoyed both modest critical and box office success with his earlier work, "Cocktail" (1988), a rather lame and absurd Tom Cruise vehicle about a bartender, was derided by critics even though it ultimately proved successful at the box office. He hit the skids further with "Cadillac Man" (1990), a comedy/drama about a cuckold (Tim Robbins) who takes his wife's lover (Robin Williams) and a group of his co-workers hostage.
Donaldson's downward creative spiral continued with "White Sands" (1992), an occasionally stylish, but ultimately confusing crime noir about a small town sheriff (Willem Dafoe), who takes on the identity of a dead man in order to solve a murder, only to stumble upon a plot involving the FBI and CIA. The director perhaps reached a nadir when he was tapped to steer Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger through a totally unnecessary remake of "The Getaway" (1994), which starred the real-life married couple as a married pair of thieves at odds with each other following the discovery of infidelity. Though he offered a decidedly silly attempt at overt titillation with "Species" (1995), the sci-fi horror flick proved popular enough with audiences to somewhat reestablish his reputation. Meanwhile, Donaldson had the advantage of being the first out of the gate in a year that saw two movies about erupting volcanoes. His "Dante's Peak" (1997) arrived in theaters in February and was a bit more coherent and entertaining than the generically titled "Volcano" (1997).Starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton, "Dante's Peak" again pitted outsiders against those in power, but the director's touch proved to be uneven at best.
Returning to the arena of politics and reuniting with star Kevin Costner, Donaldson made one of his best American films, "Thirteen Days" (2000). Adapted from The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, Donaldson focused on the day-to-day affairs of the behind-the-scenes activities during the tense two-week period in October 1961 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Though criticized by some key players like Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger for centering the film around Special Assistant Kenny O'Donnell (Costner), Donaldson nonetheless crafted a tense and personal portrayal of the events. Costner's Elmer Fudd-like Boston accent notwithstanding, "Thirteen Days" also boasted exquisite performances, including Bruce Greenwood as President John F. Kennedy and Steven Culp as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Despite glowing reviews, the movie was financially unsuccessful at the box office.
Donaldson once again tackled politics and duplicity from within with "The Recruit" (2003), a drama about a rookie CIA agent (Colin Farrell) who comes to suspect his mentor (Al Pacino) may be a double agent. Though possessing two quality performances from Farrell and Pacino, the narrowly focused thriller suffered from an underdeveloped plot that failed to satisfy. He next directed Anthony Hopkins in "The World's Fastest Indian" (2005), a lighthearted adventure based on a true story about an infectiously determined New Zealand man (Hopkins) who stops at nothing to test drive his supped-up Indian motorcycle at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, only to emerge an unlikely hero of the motorcycle world. Turning back to crime, Donaldson directed "The Bank Job" (2008), a quality thriller about a true-life bank heist in 1970s London involving a small-time car dealer (Jason Statham) who leads a crew on a job, only to stumble into a political problem when accidentally robbing photos of various politicians in compromising situations, including Princess Margaret.
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Immigrated to New Zealand aged 19
Feature directing and producing debut, "Sleeping Dogs"; first film produced in New Zealand in 15 years
His "Smash Palace" was shown at New Directors/New Films Festival at New York's Museum of Modern Art
First non-Australian film as director, "The Bounty" starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson
American film debut, "Marie: A True Story" starring Sissy Spacek
Enjoyed a critical hit with "No Way Out" starring Kevin Costner; a remake of "The Big Clock" (1946)
Had box-office success with the Tom Cruise vehicle "Cocktail"
Co-produced (with Charles Roven) and directed the comedy "Cadillac Man" featuring Robin Williams and Tim Robbins
Helmed the murky murder mystery "White Sands"
Directed Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in an ill-advised and unnecessary remake of "The Getaway"
Returned to form with the sci-fi thriller "Species" starring Natasha Henstridge
Directed the formulaic "Dante's Peak" starring Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton
Reteamed with Kevin Costner on the taut and well-made "Thirteen Days" about the 1961 Cuban missile crisis
Directed Al Pacino and Colin Farrell in the CIA spy thriller "The Recruit"
Directed (also wrote) Anthony Hopkins in "The World's Fastest Indian"
Helmed "The Bank Job" based on a 1971 true life robbery of a bank in Baker Street, London