Director Roger Donaldson has been making Hollywood thrillers for the better part of three decades. From the political machinations of No Way Out and Thirteen Days, to more character-driven fare such as The Getaway remake, The Recruit and The Bank Job, Donaldson seems comfortable in creating tales that ratchet up the onscreen tension. His newest, Seeking Justice, forges ahead in similar territory, one that the Australian sees as a fresh attempt each time out. “I think the challenge of making a thriller is that you know instinctively that the story can play out by the characters in front of you,” he said. “You don’t know which way it’s going to go.”
The Nicolas Cage-starring film concerns an intricate revenge fantasy, one that Cage’s teacher character becomes swept up in and soon finds the character in over his head while Guy Pearce co-stars as a mysterious figure leading an unnamed vigilante group. “The challenge is to keep surprising the audience if you can,” said Donaldson. “The more you can surprise them, the more the audience can enjoy it. You present them with options that you make — you lead them down a dark path a little bit. The jeopardy can pop up where you least expect it.”
Cage is not presented as any manner of action hero in this new project; if anything, he’s positioned as an everyman, which the director noted was intentional. “You want to create a character who you do feel on one level isn’t necessarily going to be able to handle the threat, but by the end you feel that they can do it,” he said.
Donaldson noted that with such powerhouse performers as Cage and Pearce, rehearsal is preferred but ultimately unnecessary. “You try to get as much opportunity to do some rehearsals before you shoot, but the way that movies are scheduled these days, it’s hard to get much of a chance to talk to Nic.” he explained. “By signing on for the movie, he is saying that he understands what he can do with the character: a teacher turned into a tough ruthless killer.”
In traveling down a path of vigilante-driven revenge, Cage stands in for any average person who might want swift justice in a bogged-down legal system. But Cage is quickly in too deep and fails to understand how he got there. “He goes down the road of revenge and realizes the nightmare that it’s turned into.” elaborated Donaldson about his 17th feature. “Revenge is one of those responses that one is appalled by. It’s not the human spirit at its best. But we all know that burning desire to even the score.”
As Donaldson noted, Seeking Justice revisits themes that have been prevalent in much of his other work. “I love stories that are about moral dilemmas,” he said. “The same things about The Bounty attracted me to this movie: characters under pressure. Every story has an element of suspense in it. That’s what drives it ultimately.”
Like many productions of late, Donaldson shot this new film in New Orleans, a relocation from the original script’s setting which mandated a rewrite. But Donaldson was positive about the overall experience. “I was in New Orleans for three months.” he said. “The city was amazingly cooperative. It’s small enough to get around easily and quickly.”
Certainly, Donaldson has ventured beyond the thriller — cases in point are the Anthony Hopkins-starring mesmerizing character study, The World’s Fastest Indian, (“If it were in the hands of a mainstream distributor, it could have been one of my most commercially successful films,“ said Donaldson), and the sci-fi send-up Species, (“I was always fascinated by the Carl Sagan SETI project and the telescope in Puerto Rico,” he noted). Indeed, he stated “my interests aren’t in one particular direction,” even though he continually makes thrillers. “The key is to find something that you are really connected to,” he said of his tenure in Hollywood. “You never know what’s going to find traction.”
Born in Australia but making his earliest films in New Zealand, Donaldson made an early living in commercials and “blew my money doing short films and documentaries. It gave me the credentials to make Smash Palace and bring me over here.” He has been in Los Angeles ever since. He made Seeking Justice in New Orleans over 44 shooting days and is already planning the next one. “Every film is different and they have high points and low points,” he said. “Making them is a very different experience to releasing them.”
Donaldson’s next film, early in pre-production, he described as “like Traffic but about money,” and will be filmed in multiple countries. The working title is Cities.