DIRECTOR Roger Donaldson admits that last time he and Anthony Hopkins worked together on a movie they fought like cat and dog. "He was difficult, I was difficult. I was young and very demanding. Neither of us was going to give any quarter to the other," recalls the Australian director.

"We didn't exactly get along, but it's one of those films where we met many years later and remember fondly. So there's a camaraderie, we got through it and this is a movie we're proud of."

"This" is The World's Fastest Indian. Having almost come to blows 20 years ago while making The Bounty - in which Hopkins played Captain Bligh opposite Mel Gibson's Fletcher Christian - director and actor have made up and reunited for this true life story about an elderly New Zealander determined to break a land speed record.

It's a movie that Donaldson has been wanting to make for three decades, ever since filming a documentary, Offerings To The God Of Speed, about Burt Munro early in his career more than 30 years ago. He took his self-modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcyle to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats where, against the odds, he set a land speed world record in 1967 that remains unbroken.

Donaldson was so intent on making the movie that when financing collapsed, he used his own money to keep the project afloat. He'd been obsessed with Munro since filming the documentary. "He was a character I found really fascinating. He was more than just a guy who rode a motorbike. I couldn't get him out of my mind," he says. "Once I met the guy, who was in his 70s, there was so much that interested me, more on a philosophical level than just the motorbike. Apart from the wisdom one gets when one gets older, he was very different to many older people that I'd met. He reminded me of my grandmother, who was a similar sort of character. So much of the movie is about my observation of old people I've seen in my life."

Donaldson wrote a screenplay, but pulled back twice from opportunities to make the film because he wasn't satisfied "in his heart" with the script. "It was a personal movie and if I was going to make it, I wanted it to be something I was 100 per cent confident in," he says.

After completing his last studio picture - The Recruit with Colin Farrell - he decided to buckle down and make the Munro movie work. "It felt like his story and not my life. It's very easy to put your own ego into a movie. I wanted to let this guy's story sit out there and hopefully for the audience to get involved in that story," he says.

"I wasn't even making movies when he was alive. A lot is my invention. The sort of stuff he would have done. It's like a road movie with the people he met along the way. I wanted to make the characters memorable."

Hopkins came in at a late stage in the project. He and Donaldson had put their previous differences aside after meeting at a movie function. "It was good to see him after such a long period of time and we were genuinely pleased to see each other. We started talking about movies and what we were up to. We were a lot happier now than when we were working together on The Bounty," says the director.

They were discussing a movie about Ernest Hemingway. When that picture collapsed, Donaldson mentioned his script for The World's Fastest Indian and Hopkins came aboard.

The film almost didn't happen when one investor pulled out at the last minute. Donaldson and another producer had to come up with "a large amount of cash ourselves or the movie would have stopped". So the film became more personal than he'd imagined as he has his own cash tied up in the venture.

Besides Hopkins, the other star of the film is the bike, the 1920 Indian Twin Scout. Donaldson had five built, including two that were replicas down to the last nut and bolt. "They were more than movie props to me. I was out to record a piece of history. They were museum pieces, they were so accurate. Both are in museums in New Zealand now," says Donaldson.

Munro's original bike was split into pieces, although the props seen in his shed in the movie all belonged to him. "The only thing that's not his is the teapot," adds the director.

Hopkins wasn't allowed, for insurance purposes, to ride the motorcycle for real. He had to ride one mounted on another vehicle, leaving a stuntman to ride in the long shots.

Star and director enjoyed a much better relationship than on The Bounty. "It was so different it was hard to think it was the same people. We got on very well, to the point where we became good friends. We'd like to do another movie together," says Donaldson.

The World's Fastest Indian has proved, perhaps predictably, a big hit in New Zealand and Donaldson is hopeful it will find an audience worldwide because of the inspirational story. "It's not a movie for cynics. I'm a bit of a cynic myself so definitely didn't want to play for the obvious emotion," he says. "This is a story about a guy who succeeds. They are hard to make, they dip into the Disney basket of tricks."

l The World's Fastest Indian (12A) opens in cinemas on Friday.