World’s Fastest Indian: Roger Donaldson’s Adventure

For Roger Donaldson, “The World’s Fastest Indian” is the culmination of a dream he has held for 30 years. As a young filmmaker working on the documentary, “Offerings to the God of Speed,” he met a local Invercargill man with a remarkable story.

The script is based on Burt Munro’s journeys to Bonneville during the 1960s. The film follows the road to fulfilling a dream and the magic in the true story of a man who believed, “If it’s hard, work harder; if it’s impossible, work harder still. Give it whatever it takes, but do it.”

“The World’s Fastest Indian” captures Munro with all his power, his determination, his creativity, his charm, his eccentricity, told through the eyes of a director who knew the man personally, and has never wavered from his own dream of making Munro’s story.

On Burt Munro

He was a character and I think that if we can capture that great quality that he had about what he was doing with his life, we will have a great film. He was really, really happy although there were things that happened in his life that Im sure had an impact on him, like when he was 14 his twin brother was killed. Im sure that must have had an impact on him. Not that he ever admitted it but this was a guy who, as his grandson said, wanted to die with his boots on

This was a guy who really loved motorcycles and was obviously very talented in riding them and was also very talented in making them go fast. He also had an interesting philosophy on his life. And it is that philosophy about growing old and having dreams and ambition that’s what I think that this movie is about, it’s less about his motorbike in a way, it’s less about motorcycles, it’s more about just the philosophy of life and what weve tried to do is build an entertaining, amusing, hopefully touching, script.

Meeting Munro

I first met him late one winter’s night in Invercargill in 1971. Burt was excited that some young filmmakers had come all the way down from Auckland to meet this old man and discuss the possibility of a documentary about his exploits. In his enthusiasm he wheeled an old 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle out of the cinder-block shed where he lived and jumped on the kick- starter. The engine roared to life; a sound to split your eardrums. Lights started coming on in the neighbors’ houses. When Burt finally stopped revving the engine and you could once again hear, the night was filled with the yells of his disapproving neighbors suggesting that 11 p.m. was an inappropriate time to start “demonstrating” his un-muffled motorcycle.

Docu about Munro

I was hooked, and so I set about with my hand-wind Bolex making my short film about Burt Munro’s life, shooting him in the South Island and accompanying him to the Bonneville Salt Flats as he attempted to set a land speed record on his ancient bike. After the documentary was shown to a favourable reception on New Zealand television, I couldn’t get Burt out of my mind. I felt that my film really didn’t do this eccentric and talented New Zealander justice and so after Burt died in 1978, I decided to try and make a feature film based on his exploits.

Vision for the Film

I have been intrigued by Burt’s story for many, many years; some would say my obsession with this film matches Burt’s obsession with his bike. I had a particular vision for this project: the story of a man of extraordinary belief in himself and his dream. Several times over the past two decades I had offers to fund this film if I re- wrote the script to tell what others considered to be a more marketable’ story. I was determined not to compromise my vision of the story in this way and was prepared to wait until I could make this film as I intended.

Right Timing

Two years ago, after I completed production on The Recruit, I decided that rather than sign up for another Hollywood movie I would return to Burt’s story. It was now or never. I believed this could be an uplifting and inspirational story in the spirit of such films as Rocky, Billy Elliot and Chariots of Fire. I re-wrote the script until I felt I had finally cracked it. I had what I believed to be the basis for an entertaining film without any compromises; a story that really captured the spirit of Burt Munro.

Attraction to Munro’s story

One thing about New Zealand is that if you are determined to do something, this is a country where things can happen. You don’t get held back by bureaucracy or people having a preconceived idea of what a filmmaker is or what sort of training you should have or if youve got the wherewithal to go out and do it. This is a country that’s always been very sympathetic to the go, do it’ mentality and Burt Munro really did have that mentality.

He really did decide that he was going to make this old 1920 Indian motorcycle into the world’s fastest motorcycle, and he set about it in a way only New Zealanders really know how to do. We call it a number eight wire mentality: take what you have around you and make the most of it and don’t bitch and moan about what you don’t have.

I came to meet Burt Munro because my partner in my photographic business, Mike Smith and I were both crazy about motorbikes. We heard about this old boy Burt Munro, down in Invercargill, who had a motorcycle that was supposedly a land speed record holder. We made contact with Burt and he invited us down here to Invercargill; he said, “Come down here and see my bike”.

I still remember when we turned up on Bainfield road where Burt lived. It was about ten oclock at night by the time we got down there and Burt was so pleased to see us that he had to demonstrate his bike to us immediately. So he wheels his motorcycle outside to the back yard and gets it cranked up. Then there’s screaming, the noise, you can’t hear yourself talk let alone think, the lights are coming on at the neighbors’ houses, people are screaming and yelling “Burt you old bastard turn that motorbike off”. That was Burt Munro.

And from that first meeting with Burt I wanted to make a film about him. So we persuaded Burt, who didn’t plan on going back to America – this was in 1971 – but we said we’d pay your fare one more time. So Mike and I went with Burt to America. I remember we had rented a Mustang car and Burt had bought himself an old Chev and the Chev was about as fast as the old Mustang. We were trying to do traveling shots of him making his way from Los Angeles to Bonneville; wed race ahead of him at a hundred miles an hour and just get the camera nearly set up and Burt would stream past.

We went with Burt to Bonneville and there we shot some film about him which became the documentary that was screened on Television New Zealand, in 1973, called “Offerings to the God of Speed”, which were words that he had written in chalk in his old shed that he lived in.

Background for the Film

Such humble beginnings, the documentary on Burt was made with no money and I was at the beginning of my filmmaking career. Ive learned a lot and I always thought that I never really did justice to the subject; I guess that’s why I became obsessed with making this movie about Burt.

It started out in 1979 before I even made my second feature film (Smash Palace, 1981) I think weve nearly had this movie financed several times already. After I finished my last feature film in the States, I just thought, Ive been talking about this movie for so darned long and if I don’t make it I might as well admit that Im never going to make it. So for the last 2 years I rewrote the script and then set about trying to raise the money for it. Gary Hannam, who’s been in there from the beginning, and I set out to track down money around the world, and one of the things that really happened and got it off the ground was a Japanese investor, in fact, a woman who I had met through doing publicity for movies in Japan. My wife, Marliese, kept in contact with her over the years and Megumi asked if I had any scripts that may be suitable for investing in and I said I just happened to have one here in my back pocket, The World’s Fastest Indian.

Megumi took the script back to Japan and they said were going to invest in this; they loved it, they really were just knocked out by it. So once I had their commitment, I had something that I could hang trying to raise the rest of the money on. But it’s been a torturous, torturous trip to get there.

Next I got Anthony Hopkins to commit to making the movie. So once I had some real serious casting in place for Burt then I knew I had a movie, if I could get the finance together. And then I also realized that I had the problem that the Bonneville Salt Flats are only available and suitable at a certain time of the year so unless I did it this year (2004) Id have to wait at least a year. The chances (in a year’s time) of it happening really were pretty slim as Tony has many offers. Gary and I realized we would have to start spending our own money.

It was a go movie 3 weeks before production started, having built the bikes, having got a film crew working in Utah, with Gary and I paying the bills. A situation that everybody tells you is not really the greatest place for a filmmaker to be but in a way I think that I was, and Gary too, were so determined that we were going make this movie. And I think that the fact that we were prepared to spend our own money, and a lot of it, to make it come this far, gave other people a confidence to maybe get involved as well and they saw the passion that we had for it

Roger Donaldson’s Career

In 1971, Donaldson and his collaborator Mike Smith filmed Offerings to the God of Speed, a documentary about the life of New Zealander Burt Munro, one of the oldest people ever to set a land speed record at the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This became the inspiration for a script to be written by Donaldson entitled The Worlds Fastest Indian.

In 1977, Donaldson directed his first movie Sleeping Dogs, starring Sam Neill in his feature film debut. In 1982, after completing his hit film Smash Palace, Donaldson moved to the United States and was signed to direct The Bounty. The epic retelling of the famous mutiny on the Bounty starred Anthony Hopkins, Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Daniel Day Lewis, and Lawrence Olivier.

Roger Donaldson’s films include:

SLEEPING DOGS starring Sam Neill
SMASH PALACE starring Bruno Lawrence
THE BOUNTY starring Anthony Hopkins & Mel Gibson
NO WAY OUT starring Gene Hackman & Kevin Costner
COCKTAIL starring Tom Cruise
WHITE SANDS starring Willem Dafoe & Samuel L. Jackson
THE GETAWAY starring Alec Baldwin & Kim Basinger
SPECIES starring Natasha Henstridge & Ben Kingsley
CADILLAC MAN starring Robin Williams & Tim Robbins
DANTES PEAK starring Pierce Brosnan
THIRTEEN DAYS starring Kevin Costner
THE RECRUIT starring Al Pacino & Colin Farrell