You may not know his name, but you know his films. With hits including Dante’s Peak, The Recruit, and No Way Out, there’s no denying that Roger Donaldson is one of the most underrated directors currently working. In out sit down with him for his latest film, the action/espionage thriller The November Man starring Pierce Brosnan, the director got into the world of espionage, making a ’70s-style thriller and what’d he’d like to do for a sequel.
Nerdist: I was going to tell you I’m a huge fan of The Recruit. I love it.
Roger Donaldson: Oh, I love that movie, too. I had so much fun making it. Al Pacino is like one of my all-time greatest actors I’ve ever worked with. Colin Farrell was fantastic. And I just loved… that movie was sort of created out of some people that worked in the farm. So it had a sort of underlying reality that appealed to me.
N: Now the whole concept of the farm is kind of lifted into a lot of spy shows now. USA’s Covert Affairs, all that first season is all about the farm. So everyone loves that. I remember, “Everything is a test!” That line just sticks with me. But in this one, ’70 style thrillers are huge right now. This movie definitely has that tone. Was that always going to be there?
R: Well, I think by the very nature of the script that it’s a sort of reality based…
N: Because the book comes out of the Cold War…
R: Yeah. That said, the world of espionage and spying continues to be the same—try and bullshit your mates, try and widdle your way in where no one thinks you are going to go. There’s so much happening in the world right now in the world of politics and geopolitical turmoil that it feels like the right time to make this sort of a movie. Even since we’ve made this movie, that part of the world, Chechnya, and the Ukraine, and Azerbaijan, all the trouble that is happening in all that part of the world, this movie feels like it sort of echoes that.
N: I can definitely see that. How long was it in development before you came on? It was on the burner for a while.
R: I don’t really know how long they put into developing the script, but it came to me a couple years ago.
N: And what changed between where it was when you came on versus now?
R: Well, the biggest thing that happened was, originally, when I got it, it was set in Berlin. When the idea of Serbia came up, we re-wrote it for Serbia. I was very enthusiastic about that because I hadn’t seen anything set in Serbia. My grandfather was in Serbia during the First World War. The history of Serbia, with the war that was there 15 years ago, there was so much that was of personal interest to me that I just said, “Well, this is a really unique place to set a film like this.”
N: It has a very classic vibe. It has that romantic feel, but it’s not one of those romantic cities that we’ve seen tackled yet.
R: Yeah. It just seemed like the right place to make this movie.
N: Totally. Did you notice anything in your working relationship with Pierce versus Dante’s Peak, which is a very different type of movie?
R: Very different sort of movie. I mean no. Pierce comes well prepared and he gives it everything. And the character he played in this character, because he had done Bond, there was an audience out there that sort of accepted him as a spy. Then along came the Bourne movies and even Bond took a step toward sort of the darker side. Maybe that appealed to him that this movie could go where Bond never went. But I also don’t think… for me, this movie has no connection to Bond, other than it’s Pierce.
N: Well, that was my next question, too: where you guys actively trying to make sure that when people watch this, their first thought wasn’t, “Well, it’s a Bond knockoff”?
R: No. I never thought of it as a Bond knockoff. I saw it as a movie that was in the same spirit of No Way Out and The Recruit—those CIA-inspired movies that I have done. That was the connection for me—it’s an extension of those sort of movies. And yet, here was one for me set in Europe in a part of the world that felt like it was interesting. Nothing to do with Bond.
And I see his character more like the character that he plays, say, in The Matador or The Tailor of Panama…
N: Oh yeah. It’s more in line with his post-Bond career overall. He’s going for a lot less popcorn entertainment, trying to get deeper with the roles. But in regards to that, were you always trying to make sure, “Well, I have to keep this movie somewhat entertaining”?
R: Oh, yeah. No, no, no. I mean, God, you gotta be entertaining or otherwise no one is going to show up. Then you’ve got to put some action in these movies. If there’s no action, everyone’s going to get a bit bored with them. So you need the suspense, but you also need the action.
N: There were some action scenes that were rather inventive. The one that stuck out to me is the one that’s in the trailer. It’s the slow motion shot from the side. How much of that was you? How much of that was Romain Lacourbas, the cinematographer, going, “Dude. You gotta see this thing we just came up with.” How much of that was, “I need a really cool shot here”?
R: I think it’s a collaborative effort between the DP and the director. I used to be a DP, so I’m very interested in the visuals of any movie I’ve done, because that’s what I used to do. That’s how I came to be a filmmaker. So I had strong opinions about what I’m trying to do. But Romain was a great person to be making films with, because he sort of pushed me and was coming up with ideas, and angles, and colors. We had a lot of fun making this film.
N: Did you find anything about the film that was out of your wheelhouse? Was anything really a challenge for you? Or were you really just like, “I can do this. I can do the spy action thing.”
R: I think some directors are notoriously… the last thing they underestimate is their own abilities. [laughs] I don’t suffer from that. The challenge about making these films is releasing them, because you never know what’s going to happen. What’s coming out the same week that you come out? What’s the weather?
N: Or you don’t know the geopolitical situations…
R: There’s so much that’s out of your control. This is the really stressful part about making a film, selling them.
N: There’s news of a sequel happening right now, because they do want to turn this into a franchise. If you are offered, would you come back?
R: Contractually, I can come back, because I sort of felt like this had the potential for being a series. I think we’ve had great audience response to this film. It’s no secret. I’m sure if you were there. We have these preview screenings. We’ve had five or six screenings for recruited audiences. You can’t fool yourselves. The audience gets to fill in the paper and you get the numbers. So you know very clearly if you’ve got a movie that’s a crowd-pleaser or not. And this picture rates high.
N: Have you thought about what you want to do if you return for another one? Have you thought about where you want to take Devereaux?
R: Well, what I’m attracted to is the sort of dark, gritty sort of, go to an exotic location, somewhere we haven’t been before, somewhere where there’s subterfuge, intrigue, and stuff going on…
N: Just keep exploring the world through his eyes?
R: Yeah. There’s lots of places you could go. You could make a sequel to this film in Australia, which we haven’t really seen a movie set in Sydney or Melbourne. I would pay to see that movie.
N: Free trip to Australia! [laughs]
R: Yeah! I’d love to go home for a bit of a holiday.
The November Man hits theaters August 27th.