THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN
STARRING ANTHONY HOPKINS
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ROGER DONALDSON
Anthony Hopkins stars as Burt Munro, a man who never let the dreams of youth fade.
In the late 1960s, after a lifetime of perfecting his classic Indian motorcycle, Burt sets off from the bottom of the world, Invercargill, New Zealand, to clock his bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. With all odds against him, Burt puts his irrepressible kiwi spirit to the test, braving the new world on a shoestring budget. He makes fast friends of many he encounters along the way who find themselves swept up in his energy and singular determination. Burt’s quest culminates in an unlikely conclusion and remains legendary within the motorcycle community to this day.
THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN is a script based on Burt Munro’s journeys to Bonneville during the 1960s. It 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.”
Playing this eccentric and lovable character is Academy Award Winner? Anthony Hopkins. 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.
This project has been a passion of mine since I completed a documentary about Burt Munro back in 1972, Offerings to the God of Speed.
Burt Munro was a most extraordinary New Zealander . . . a “one-off” original.
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.
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 favorable 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. So after Burt died in 1978, I decided to try and make a feature film based on his exploits.
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 rewrote 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.
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.
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.
Anthony Hopkins – Burt Munro
Jessica Cauffiel – Wendy
Saginaw Grant – Jake
Diane Ladd – Ada
Chris Lawford – Jim
Aaron Murphy – Sam
Paul Rodriguez – Fernando
Annie Whittle – Fran
Chris Williams – Tina Washington
Roger Donaldson – Writer/Director/Producer
What attracted you to Burt 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 you’ve 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 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 o’clock 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’ll 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; we’d 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.
On the background to making the film
Such humble beginnings; the documentary on Burt was made with no money and I was at the beginning of my film-making career. I’ve 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 we’ve nearly had this movie financed several times already. After I finished my last feature film in the States, I just thought, I’ve been talking about this movie for so darned long and if I don’t make it I might as well admit that I’m 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, a woman who I had met 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, “We’re 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 finances 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 that year (2004) I’d 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 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 get involved as well, once they saw the passion that we had for it.
On Burt Munro
He was a character and I think that if we captured that great quality that he had about what he was doing with his life, we will have made a great film. He was really, really happy although there were things that happened in his life that I’m sure had an impact on him, like when he was 14, his twin brother was killed. I’m 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. What we’ve tried to do is build an entertaining, amusing, and hopefully touching script.
On getting involved with the project
Well I worked with Roger Donaldson back 20 years ago on The Bounty, 1983, in Tahiti and New Zealand. Then years passed by and I hadn’t seen Roger for a longtime, and then we were going to do a movie called Papa, about Ernest Hemingway, and that didn’t work out. And Roger was kind of disappointed and so was I; but that’s the way life is sometimes in movies.
And then he phoned – a strange coincidence – a few months ago. I just thought I would give him a call and see how he was. I wanted to know how he was after the disappointment of Hemingway, and he asked, “Tony did you get my message?” I said, “No.” He said, “I just left you a message.” “What?” He said, “I’ve got a script … you’re not phoning me to answer my message?” I said, “No. I haven’t even picked up my messages this morning.” He said, “Oh, well this is propitious or fortuitous. I’ve got the script here called THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN. A beautiful story; I don’t know if you would be interested in playing a racing driver, a racing bloke.”
So I got the script that afternoon and I thought it was just terrific. It is a unique script, I don’t know what it is about it; it is just well written, very very well written, beautifully written, and so refreshing. It’s not the bang bang, of big Hollywood movies. It’s got much more variety and for me it’s a big change because it’s a real winner of a guy. I’ve had a good career playing psychopaths or uptight people, and I’m fed up with those, I don’t want to play any more of them. This is my life now, I’m a very happy guy and Burt Munro’s philosophy and character suits my temperament.
Comments on ‘The Bounty’ (1983), and Roger as director
Roger and I had our moments of animosity. Roger had his methods of dealing with people. He’s a New Zealander, and he had that, as we say in England, a kind of an antipodean chip on his shoulder. He was different, and I was younger and arrogant and all the rest of it. I was very impatient with people and especially directors, and if they wanted too many takes I would question … and he used to do a lot of takes, he’s a perfectionist.
Now 20 years have passed and I’m not only tolerant but I am respectful of what he does, and what directors do. He does it for a reason. I know that he knows that he wants a good movie and I don’t care if he does 50 takes. I hope he doesn’t have to do 50 takes because it’s a lot of time, but I respect him as a director and I like him as a guy, I think he’s a terrific fellow. You know the first few days I was wondering if he thought I would go berserk any moment. But those days are over you know—I was temperamental, I would get impatient with things. Now I think, oh it’s only a
Movie. … But I don’t mean that in a cynical way. It is finally [that] nothing is that important to get upset about, and I just roll with the punches and roll with the conditions now.
And he’s a great director to work with, one of the best I have worked with. I’ve worked with Spielberg and Oliver Stone and he’s there with that lot you know. He really is, in his films like No Way Out and Thirteen Days and, a wonderful director.
On Burt Munro
Well I’m no speed freak myself, but Burt Munro, in the documentary that Roger filmed, Burt loved speed. He was, I don’t know if he was obsessed with it, but he loved the thrill of speed, he said that you can live more in 5 minutes on a motorbike going high speed than you can in your whole lifetime. That was the challenge. I suppose there are obviously people who flirt with mortality. I mean, you’re taking a huge challenge, a courageous challenge to risk your life … Donald Campbell was the same, to break the world speed water record. And he was killed in the process, breaking the actual record, and he said he was scared every time he got into Bluebird.
But that was it – to overcome fear is the greatest virtuous courage and I think Burt is one of those characters, one of those guys. That’s his whole philosophy of life, to live life to the full, because “When you’re dead you’re a longtime dead” he says, and “Once you’re dead you never come back.” I’m not a speed thrill freak though – I’m a careful driver, so I don’t like speed. I used to when I was younger but now, I like to live
On establishing the character, Burt Munro
Well, I’m kind of mellowing into the part; getting the New Zealand accent. … And this is where Roger Donaldson is so easy. “Listen, it doesn’t matter, down in New Zealand they will probably criticize you for your accent” he said “but worldwide you’ll probably get away with it.” He said “It doesn’t matter anyway, do it your way make him yours, you’re Burt Munro.” But he checks me. He says “Flatten the vowels sounds out a bit and watch the R sounds.” And when I hear Burt Munro he sounds almost Cornish to me, or almost Irish, Devonshire or Cornish. He’s got those very beautiful round R sounds and it really sounds like Cornish to me.
On the script
It is such a good script, Roger wrote it and I’ll add little things here and there; it’s not written in stone. But it is such a good script you don’t need to change the structure of it, and I don’t want to replace lines. But I sometimes make a line sound more natural because I may have difficulty with the consonant sound which is too New Zealand for me and I’ll say well can I … ? For example, I’ve got one coming which is “No harm in asking.” Well I don’t know if I can handle that, so I’ll say “Well I thought I would ask.” I don’t know, maybe I will just put it that way and say “I thought I’d ask,” which is easier. Little things like that, anything to make it simpler.
On working with Roger
If you have a director who has an equanimity in his temperament, that’s good. If you get someone shouting and screaming – and that can come from an actor as well and I’ve done that in my past and I admit it; that doesn’t help anyone. If you can express irritability take it aside instead of being public about it. … Some directors are vociferous and noisy and scream and shout and you can’t work like that.
With this crew, which is the best crew I have worked with in many years, why create trouble? Just get on with your job, learn your lines, as the guy’s preparing his lighting and the sound guys are doing their stuff, and the props and wardrobe people, everyone’s doing a job and that’s what it is. … That’s what it is, it’s a job and I’ve taken some years to learn how to settle into this kind of respect for people for what they’re doing. And maybe Burt’s spirit is around us, because he seemed to be such a decent fun man and I liked his wonderful sense of humor, when he only loved the ladies and says, “Well I think a nice couple of ladies around can help a party go.” You know, I love that bloke Burt, he was – he’s a great, great personality, probably a very generous man as well.