For Roger Donaldson, 1970's London is Money in the Film "Bank"

Director Roger Donaldson, seated here next to the poster of his latest film, which opens in the United States and Canada tomorrow (March 7).  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

March 6, 2008


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"The best things in life are free . . . I want money/That's what I want," intones a citizens band radio-like voice of a woman on the song "Money" by the pop group The Flying Lizards.

In 1971, the Baker Street Bank Robbery in London was almost as easy as what the green gekko character on those insurance television commercials would say: pie (and chips.)  In a matter of a day or so, amateur thieves executing an elaborate plan stole more than $5 million worth of jewels, cash and other valuable items from the safe deposit boxes in the vault of Lloyds Bank -- a dollar (or rather, pounds) amount greater than even fellow British compatriot Ronald Biggs' Great Train Robbery sum during the decade prior.

The term robbery is what some detractors might call Roger Donaldson's new film "The Bank Job", based on true story of that infamous Lloyds Bank robbery -- detractors who say that the script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais unfairly commingles the saucy, raunchy s-exploits of Princess Margaret with the heist itself.  Despite some of the controversy that has arisen in England in relation to the crime and corruption drama, the film was assembled relatively quickly and quietly, making things for cast and crew remarkably easy. 

["The Bank Job", which is distributed in the U.S. and Canada by Lionsgate, opens in both countries tomorrow (March 7).  The film, which stars action star Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows and an unrecognizable David Suchet, opened in the U.K. on February 29.]

"The easiest thing was in fact one of the most challenging parts of ["The Bank Job"] -- I think casting the picture.  In the long run it was a real pleasure and was pretty straightforward and easy, because there is such a depth of really talented people in the U.K.  I loved their acting and was able to put together a cast . . . there's over 70 speaking parts in this movie . . .  and at first I thought it would be very hard," Mr. Donaldson said of the large cast and the vast differentiation in English accents that the characters in the film required. 

But once he got started, things came together very readily.  "It turned out to be just a matter of doing the work," he said.

Roger Donaldson, an easygoing persona who looked relaxed and well-rested at a local hotel suite here in town, typically fills his films with energy, passion, sexiness and charm -- take "No Way Out" (1987) for example -- which he said he saw on cable television on a recent late night.  He confessed to taping it and then watching it early the following morning.  "Once I started watching it, I couldn't stop watching it!  I suddenly saw it for what it was . . . I see why it succeeded as it did.  The movie has got a great sort of cynical quality to it.  It's sexy and it's funny and it's a good thriller.  You're not sure how it's gonna turn out.  And I think I saw in "The Bank Job" a movie with a similar sort of appeal to me."  While the stories in both films are completely different, the director said that in tone the two films probably shared quite a lot in common.

Mr. Donaldson, an Australian who moved to New Zealand in the 1960's but has been residing in the United States for a number of years now, said that part of his research for "The Bank Job" found him speaking to people close to the Black Power movement in Britain during the late 1960's and early 1970's.  Michael X, a Trinidad-born man living in London and modeling himself after the American activist leader Malcolm X, and the leader of the Black Power Movement in England, had friends and associates whom the director consulted, gaining interesting information in the process.  Gale Benson, a British woman who had a sexual relationship with one of the members of the Black Power movement, was also the daughter of a Conservative Member of the British Parliament.  "I talked to a guy who knew Michael X personally and knew Gale Benson, and he told me pretty much the story that's in the movie," said Mr. Donaldson.  "Gale Benson's involvement I think, is more conjecture: was she really a spy working for (British Secret Service Ministry of Intelligence agency) MI5 or 6, or not?  But I think the fact that Michael X's records in the British archives have got an embargo on them until 2054 -- you know that MI5 and MI6 were interested in this Black Power movement at the time as they were here (in the U.S.)  The FBI were tracking every one of those guys.  And I'm sure it was no different in the U.K."

The director himself tracked down a couple of the actual Baker Street bank robbers.  "One of them denied he was who he was, and another one was sort of begrudgingly admitting who he was but didn't want to talk too much about it.  I got to speak to the guy who recorded the walkie-talkie radio communications -- he actually had a copy of the tape and let me hear it," Mr. Donaldson commented. 

"All that said, I never personally saw the pictures of Princess Margaret," said Mr. Donaldson, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  He added that "it is no secret that she liked to hang out . . . there's a lot of urban legend about Princess Margaret and the goings-on and who she hung out with, and I'm sure some of it's based on fact."

The setting of the early 1970's in London, where the scorching racist 1968 speech of Conservative MP Enoch Powell was still reverberating around the city and country, and the storm over the Profumo scandal which wrecked Harold Macmillan's British Conservative government just five years before that and was still permeating the air in England, provided flavor and fascination for Mr. Donaldson and the film's production, as the more tried and true factions of 1970's London emerged, perhaps as a subconscious response to all the high-class mucking about that was proliferating the air and making the refrain "no sex please, we're British!" a sheer mockery.  "In London -- around this time was the first time I personally went to the U.K.  You know, it was an exciting time.  Carnaby Street and the wave of British music.  The working class were making a name for themselves.  They were becoming the artistic and musical talent of the U.K. and you know, you had the rise of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones . . . The Animals and all those great English bands that sort of spread around the world, the artists and photographers -- people like David Bailey," the director said.

As in the U.S. during the seventies, when the likes of Marlon Brando and Leonard Bernstein were supporters or honorary members of the American Black Panther Party, the U.K. also had the merging of the art and political worlds.  "There were interesting sort of crossovers between this world, like John Lennon was a personal friend of Michael X's, you know, basically supporting the cause, you know, a little bit of -- whether it was guilt, whether it was social consciousness or whatever you would call it, there were a lot of famous people who Michael X and his guys . . . there was a lot of crossing over.  So when this guy was ultimately convicted for murdering this daughter of this white politician, it was big news in the U.K.," said Mr. Donaldson, who has also directed such diverse films as "The Bounty", "Cocktail", "Species", "Thirteen Days" and "The World's Fastest Indian" among others.

Through it all, Mr. Donaldson said that he was never pressured into not making "The Bank Job", a film on such a sensitive subject regarding the politics of the day and the juiciness of Royal scandal.  "The thing is, I think time heals all wounds in a way," he remarked.  "I think a lot of people either were dead who were part of this story, or some of those who were still alive were keen to tell their story."

Roger Donaldson smiled as he said that the pile of future film projects "is pretty high actually."  He said that he's looking for films "that I personally feel connected to."  He went through his mental Rolodex, mentioning a story he hopes to get off the ground that he described as "Traffic meets Wall Street", with three intersecting stories set in Mumbai, London and New York, with a common thread of money holding all three together.  "It will be a big, difficult thing to pull off, but that fascinates me," he said. 

"There's another project that's about the beginning of the space program," he added, citing that the film would depict the demise of Gus Grissom and other early U.S. astronauts and the rise of American ingenuity, with a focus on Harrison Storms, who devised American space rockets.  Mr. Donaldson also spoke of "love, betrayal, self-sacrifice and death and destruction" figuring prominently in a European film he plans to do about the dangers of high-speed auto racing set in "pre-war" times, with the inevitable mix of sex and violence.  He accompanied this litany of future films with a caveat about the business of Hollywood, saying that "you try and keep your options open and find something ultimately, you know, that's got enough resources behind it to be done with people you know will deliver and that you're not getting yourself into something that you go, like, 'I wish I hadn't made that movie.'"

The 62-year-old director hastened to add that he was fortunate enough to avoid such regrets.  "You know, the truth is, I've never had one of those where I go like, 'God, I wish I hadn't gone there.'"  In a tough film business where demands and expectations are higher than sky high and the unexpected is constant, one could characterize Roger Donaldson's film directing career as a case of being in the right place at the right time.

"I enjoy my job a lot," he said.

And beginning tomorrow, the director hopes that film audiences in North America will this "Job" to the bank.

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