Roger Donaldson’s Take On Reality – An Interview About Truth-Based Narratives

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Narrative features about true events always raise questions about authenticity in film.

With many truth based narratives, available news stories and other documents about the actual events may help audiences to separate the film’s fiction from fact, and to know where characters have been added or axed to enhance the story, the caper, the thrill – the entertainment value.

However, documents pertaining to some significant events – crimes, capers and court cases in particular – may be classified for reasons of security or privacy, or may have their records sealed for a specified period of time.

When records are not available, the best guesstimates of narrative script writers and researchers stand a good chance of becoming the public perception – the ‘of record’ — of an event until such time as the relevant records are released for public scrutiny.

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Filmmaker Roger Donaldson — who’s made documentaries and truth-based narratives, as well as films of pure fiction – takes the ‘of record’ aspect of his work seriously.

Donaldson’s approach to filmmaking, his terse storytelling style and attention to detail give his work a compelling sense of authenticity, even when the film’s story is pure fiction – as is the case with the currently released November Man, a spy thriller that’s laced with innuendo about the CIA’s dirty doings.

If the The November Man is taken by audiences to be ‘of record,’ it will only be for the authenticity of its entertainment value, and that is much deserved.

But where Donaldson best works the magic of authenticity in narrative cinema is in his telling of truth-based stories – more specifically in The Bank Job (2008), which is about “The Walkie Talkie Robbery,” a high profile London heist that brought the government of England to its knees. Because the heist unleashed scandals about royalty, prominent members of Parliament and other public figures, records about the incident were sealed and will remain so for another 50 years. By the time they’re released, much of The Bank Job’s mythology may have settled in.

Events Behind The Story

roger donaldson the bank job poster

It was 1971. The robbery took place over an otherwise quiet weekend. Police were clued into the happening heist by a ham radio operator who overheard the robbers’ conversations – hence the heist’s ‘Walkie Talkie Robbery’ nickname – and they used various ploys to trick the thieves to reveal their whereabouts. Clever as they were, the police failed to locate and interrupt the crime. On Monday, when the bank opened its vault, the location of the heist was discovered. The daring caper was front page news for four days. Then all mention of it abruptly ceased. If we’re to believe the film, that was because the British government stifled coverage–because the secret service had actually engineered the heist to recover some sexually explicit photographs of Princess Margaret, snaps that Michael X, a political activist (and drug dealer), was safeguarding in his deposit box as blackmail to protect himself from prosecution. The robbers, a local gang of petty thieves, targeted Michael X’s deposit box, but also opened others containing lots of stuff their keyholders didn’t want anyone to see–a ledger listing payoffs to bent cops, compromising photos of peers and parliamentarians, and huge fortunes in ill-gained cash and jewels. More than 100 keyholders never claimed their belongings.

No spoilers here, but it’s no surprise the “Walkie Talkie Robbery” precipitated scandals and shakeups stretching from Parliament to Scotland Yard. The real story is fascinating, and the film does an excellent job of presenting caper, causes and consequences in a smart, thoroughly entertaining way.
The film’s so smart, in fact, that it may be taken as fact and may become, at least in the publics’ mind, public record.

Roger Donaldson’s Take on Reality

My interview with Donaldson focused on how he developed The Bank Job, how the story was researched and interpreted.

JENNIFER MERIN: The Bank Job is based on a true story about people who remain still shadowy figures. How much of the film’s plot is conjecture and how much is true?

ROGER DONALDSON: That would be difficult to answer. I mean I’d be lying if I were to say I’m certain anything is true–other than what I read in the newspapers, and even that I would question.

I think one of the interesting questions the film raises is “what is a true story?“ Because in the cinema we often say “based on a true story” and “inspired by true events“–but how much of it is actually real?

I think it’s almost impossible to make a film that you could stand there and say with conviction that this is as it was–because writing the story and putting dialogue into people’s mouths makes it different. Everything changes as soon as people say what they didn’t really say, and we don’t know what people say.
Just look at what’s been happening in the British royal family. I mean, if you take Diana’s demise, there’s such controversy, complete 180 degree interpretations about what happened to her. And, with Prince Harry, the fact that they managed to keep his serving in Afghanistan out of the press–that’s a conspiracy. Well, maybe that’s too strong a word–but an agreement among news organizations to not mention it, when it is real.
So, it’s hard to say anything about The Bank Job is the true story, other than that there really was a robbery, and these guys burrowed all the way from the handbag shop, under the Chicken Inn, and came up into the bank vault, and that we’ve done a very accurate portrayal of what these buildings looked like.

We used the actual transcripts we got from newspapers of their walkie talkie dialogue during the robbery, and I’ve since heard the actual tapes that were made of their discussions, and our script is accurate to what was said.

But, if you take the Michael X character–I mean, he was definitely under British secret service surveillance. He was challenging the status quo and had made a lot of enemies, and was being feted by people like John Lennon and Vanessa Redgrave, and he had international impact.

Those elements in our story were supported by documents that weren’t under embargo. It is fact that Michael X’s files are embargoed until 2054–and what they contain is essential to knowing what really happened. The seal is obviously intended to keep the information from the public until everybody’s dead.

MERIN: With the increased interest in documentary film and ever increasing numbers of truth-based films, do you think that film as a medium plays into or quells paranoia the populous feels–based on the premise that we’re not being told the truth about events that shape our lives.

DONALDSON: Well, I was in Yosemite when the earthquake hit Los Angeles. I turned on the TV and it looked like LA was flattened. Then, when I returned to LA, I saw the reality–there was damage, but you were hard pressed to find it. I think that’s often the way with media, or movies about news events.

Years ago, I was in Chile making a documentary about a boy’s adventure going around Cape Horn–it was at the time the coup that overthrew Allende took place. And, in my film, I completely ignored what was a much more important and interesting event that what was shooting. The crew and I started discussing what was happening and we had strong disagreements–but that never got into my film. And I think it was at that point in time, that I became more interested in making scripted movies where I could control what was being said and could stop pretending to the audience that this was what was really happening when in fact it was not what was happening.

MERIN: The Bank Job’s plot hangs on the photos of Princess Margaret. Were those real? Has Buckingham Palace seen the film? Commented?

DONALDSON: I don’t know whether they’ve seen it, but they’ve not commented. I think they’d prefer to forget about it.

Princess Margaret had a troubled life. She wanted to marry Peter Townsend, a divorced man, and the palace wouldn’t allow it. It was a bit tragic, really. It is fact that she moved in rough circles and had a place in Mustique where she threw legendary parties. But I don’t know the details regarding the photos. When the movie came to me, they’d already written the script. The project had belonged to other people before it came to the producers who actually made it. I’ve been told the photos are real, but I’ve never seen them.

MERIN: The Martine Love character is integral to the film’s plot. Is she invented?

DONANDSON: On the walkie talkie tapes, there’s a woman’s voice in the bank. That’s the basis for the character.

MERIN: Do you know who any of the actual robbers are? Did you meet or interview any of them?

DONALDSON: Yes, although one of them declined to acknowledge he was who he was. One robber visited the set and spoke with Jason (Stratham) about the way the robbery was conducted, and the clever things they did, like carry an umbrella with them when they went to see the vault, and used it to measure how far they’d have to dig to come up under the vault.

MERIN: I know you said the script had already been written when you attached to the project, but do you know who developed it? Who had that kind of access to the story?

DONALDSON: The story was developed by a guy, and it’s very hard to pin down just who he is. He may have been somebody who was involved–and that’s my opinion, but I cannot prove it. But he knew a hell of a lot about things he shouldn’t have known about.

MERIN: Concerning the tight lid that was put on news coverage of this story so quickly and effectively, do you think film–documentary and truth-based narrative–is gaining influence in how people form their impressions about what has and is happening in the world?

DONALDSON: Yes, I think that’s very true. In my mind, it’s my obligation when telling a story like this–there‘s no way I can know what really happened, but I feel an obligation to be honest to what I understand to be the thrust of the story. I wouldn’t want to make villains of those who weren’t, nor to make a hero of someone who wasn’t or who was cowardly or betrayed people.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to destroy someone’s life if they…I mean, there was one character whose name I was more than happy to change because the things he got up to were–well, they weren’t hurting anybody and his own family were going to be dragged into the press and asked questions if I used his name. And, I thought, why do that? It doesn’t affect my story and using his name will only make someone feel uncomfortable. And the person is no longer alive.

MERIN: I won’t ask who it is. But how much influence did you have in the structuring of the script, which begins with lots of disjointed bit of information up front–in a way many documentaries start out…

DONALDSON: Well, I tried to take everything that was happening–all the different story lines–and weave them together so that they came out connected with each other. That’s what appealed to me–the story’s many dimensions. Michael X never met the bank robbers, but their stories crossed paths. I wanted to get Michael X, the Porn King, the bent cops and bank robbers in the same location–not meeting, but close to each other. So we came up ways to pull them together.

MERIN: You did that quite successfully. The bank itself had a number of, to use your term for them, reprobates using its vault as a repository…

DONALDSON: Well, it’s fact that well over 100 people who had safe deposit boxes in that bank would never identify what they’d had in them–which would indicate they had ill-gotten money or other stuff they didn’t want to reveal to anybody else.

MERIN: Right. But why would they all have chosen that particular bank?

DONALDSON: That’s a good question. There were theories that the bank might have been sympathetic, or the location was good, or people knew people who recommended that bank…

MERIN: As did the Porn King to Michael X in your film?

DONALDSON: Yes.

MERIN: The film accurately establishes the aura of that era. You’ve got the trappings of period cars and costumes and all–but there are other details that nail the time frame in an almost subliminal way for audiences who might remember those times–as a specific example is the Free Angela Davis poster. Were those details in the script you received or did you introduce them?

DONALDSON: That wasn’t in the script. The poster was real. I’d seen those posters in photos of London at the time. Angela Davis was big news there at the time, so I wasn’t just inserting her into the script.

MERIN: What other elements did you introduce?

DONALDSON: Well, the story wasn’t written by me, but I’d say the visualization of it was mine–like the place where the stiff upper lip major worked. He was originally written to be selling legal costumes–robes, wigs and the like. But we looked at a military tailor shop as a possible location, and I thought why couldn’t we just do it in this place as this place. The guy who ran the shop showed me receipt books going back 200 years, with signatures of prince regents and others historic figures who’d signed for their military uniforms. And the bit the major says about “we make uniforms tight under the arms so people can’t raise them to surrender” was–well, the guy who ran the place actually said that to me. And I cracked up and thought that dialogue’s too good, I’ve got to use that. So I did. There was no fact to tie it to the story, but it was the reality of what happened when we went to scout the location. The tailor shop wasn’t part of what actually happened, but I felt it didn’t really matter whether the major was selling legal costumes or military uniforms, and this worked better for our story–and it also gave him that sort of military bearing that was more interesting than his being tied into the legal world.

MERIN: It becomes another piece in the mosaic of this story. Do you think mosaic storytelling–compared to use of a narrative through line–seems more truthful and convincing to audiences?

DONALDSON: I like the mosaic approach. It‘s in vogue of late. Movies like Traffic helped educate audiences to the idea of a multistory movie. They‘re not confused and can keep multiple stories straight in their heads. I think the mosaic gives stories depth and creates impressions that stick with audiences and make them think–and that’s a good thing.

Copyright Jennifer Merin
All rights reserved

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