Thirty years ago this month, Smash Palace screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The first local feature to be sold in the US, it made Bruno Lawrence an almost-movie star and gave director, Roger Donaldson, a shot at a Hollywood career. Greg Dixon looks back at one of our most memorable films.

Every great film has them. It may be as little as a look - Claude Rains in the final, haunting scene of Casablanca - or as much as an armageddon - the pyrotechnic boom announcing Apocalypse Now.

They are moments or scenes, little spells cast by acting, script and direction that imprint themselves on the mind. They are the things which make a film unforgettable long after you've forgotten where or when you saw it, who directed it or even if the bad guy gets it in the end.

It had been more than a decade since I'd seen 1981's Smash Palace, an intimate, melancholic, often funny as hell portrait of a father, Al Shaw, driven, as his marriage fails, to wildness and the wilderness by the thought of losing his young daughter Georgie, played by Greer Robson.

It's a New Zealand classic, and it still moves me. There was plenty I had forgotten, though: the car accident that opens the film, the sheer size of Al's central North Island car-wrecking yard, the scene where he, a retired race driver, drives his racing car at high speed on an empty highway. There was so much more. Yet before I rewatched it, there were scenes I could recall so clearly that they might have happened to me: Georgie's birthday party in the caravan; Al, played by the late Bruno Lawrence, taking off his clothes and posting them through his estranged wife's letterbox and then standing there stark naked; the final scene where, as a freight train rolls towards him, Al stops his car on the railway tracks.

"They are the moments in any movie that are hard to come up with," says Palace's writer, director and producer, Roger Donaldson.

"They are the ones that rock the boat a bit, push the story forward, catch you off guard and make you reassess what the whole piece is about.

"I guess that's always been my theory with any movie I've ever liked, there's always stuff in it that you feel you'd love to tell someone else, but you think if 'I tell them that, I'll wreck the movie for them'. In great movies, there are always hooks that take it to another place and I think Smash Palace had some real hooks. That's why we're talking about it 30 years later."

It began with a headline. After the local success of his first major feature, a political thriller called Sleeping Dogs, which he took to Cannes, Donaldson was holidaying in England and working up a script for another film, a road movie called Killer Curry. He was in a village he can't remember, at coffee bar he can't recall, when he noticed a newspaper's newsstand screamer reading "Boy, 5, in gun seige. Cop father held".

"That's where the idea came from. The father was a cop and he'd taken his son hostage. I've still got the newspaper heading."

Unsurprisingly, the script's working title became "Raving Mad". The final title - which reflected the film's transition from an idea in England to a wrecking yard near Taihape - came from a mate, Peter Hansard, with whom Donaldson had worked on television commercials.

"Peter had also told me about this car-wrecking yard in the middle of the North Island. The yard became a metaphor. In the original idea, it wasn't set in a car yard. But when you're running the whole thing you can go 'well, I'll change it all and set it in that great location and now I'll build it around this place'. And that's what happened.

It grew from itself. It started with a newspaper headline in England and grew into something that could only be where it was. The locations dictated what the movie could be."

And so did the casting. In Smash Palace, the late musician, actor and mad bugger Bruno Lawrence delivered, arguably, his best performance in a career truncated by cancer in 1995. It is easy to think, now, that he was the only man for the job. But in 1981 it wasn't so obvious. He had some feature film experience - which included a cameo in Goodbye Pork Pie - but had never been a leading man.

Donaldson, 65, now can't remember how Bruno became involved, but "he was always part of it in my mind". However, Lawrence told the Listener in 1987, he had been in a TV show called All Things Being Equal. Donaldson had seen it and thought "bloody Bruno, I'd forgotten about him. He might be what I want for Smash Palace."

However it happened, it was inspired casting.

Palace's cinematographer Graeme Cowley - who would work with Lawrence again on 1984's Utu - says the actor was an inspiration on set.

"You never knew quite what was going to happen with the performance, but it was always magic. He was a strong person who was at the core of it ... very quickly he defined the film."

Writer, former journalist and sometime actor Keith Aberdein - who Donaldson cast as Al's cop mate Ray, the bloke who steals his wife Jacqui - says there were definite risks in casting Lawrence.

"I knew Bruno well enough to tell him this: that I thought when he tried to act, he wasn't very good. But his instincts were superb. You kind of worked on the edge with Bruno and that was a very good place. The acting establishment hated him, of course, because he wasn't one of them ... he was a larrikin drummer for f***'s sake. He made people nervous - and quite rightly so - because he had an instinct for starting trouble.

"You'd be in a pub with him somewhere, Rotorua say, and he'd play a game of pool and suddenly half the people in the room wanted to kill him, there was just something about him. Of course, the other half loved him. There was something about being around Bruno that made life interesting at all times."

So, with a complicated but obviously talented mad bastard as his leading man, with a compelling story and location lined up - not to mention the mana the success of Sleeping Dogs had bestowed - Donaldson had a movie. Well not, quite.

Inevitably, it almost wasn't made. Inevitably, the bureaucrats at the New Zealand Film Commission couldn't see it, didn't want it, and New Zealand film history almost wasn't created either.

But both were made. It's three decades this month since Palace was screened at Cannes' famous film festival and received some of the first of the acclaim it earned in Europe and America. Yet Donaldson hasn't forgotten how close his seminal film came to being just another idea that never made it to the big screen.

Donaldson now can't remember how many times the commission said no. He does remember they did seem to forget - all except the great film-maker, John O'Shea, who championed Palace - that Donaldson and Sleeping Dogs were two of the main reasons the Muldoon Government had created the state film funder in the first place.

This he recalls too: the commission didn't like the script, and they didn't think Lawrence had what it took - they wanted a known and international actor to play Al Shaw.

"There wasn't a lot of enthusiasm for the movie at the commission," says Donaldson. "That said, they were [eventually] generous enough to recognise that I'd already made a contribution and I think I eventually got supported more out of the status I had as a film-maker rather than their enthusiasm for the script for Smash Palace.

"Even the people who worked on it were surprised by the movie that came out of it. I don't think they or the commission saw the emotional potential of the piece and how much Bruno would capture that quality of this sort of bad-arsed Kiwi who you couldn't help but side with, even though he's his own worst enemy."

Advice from Lawrence's mate, Aberdein, hadn't helped either. A year before, the commission had given him two scripts to assess in one night. One was Geoff Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie, the other Smash Palace.

"Geoff had rung up and said that '[the commission's] Lindsay Shelton is trying to stop this movie being made, so we need a really good assessment'. So I duly gave him a really good assessment. I had Smash Palace to assess the same night and I looked at it, went 'nah, this is a load of rubbish, this should never be made'," says Aberdein, then laughs.

The commission eventually changed its mind, and Donaldson eventually rang Aberdein.

"Roger said 'I'm going to get my own back on you because of that assessment. I'm going to put you in this'. Things were simpler in those days. It was still sort of a cottage industry."

But still Smash Palace might not have been made. Even with the commission finally behind the film, Donaldson didn't have the money to do it. Though the budget was much less than the $1 million he later told international buyers it had cost to make (he feared they wouldn't take it seriously if it hadn't cost a million) he was, as filming loomed in early 1981, a long way shy of his budget.

"I knew I had enough of my own money for about a week of shooting. I had the other people who were going to come into the financial package. At the very last minute, I rang around them all with a little bit of fib, saying, 'you're the last person to put your money in, everyone else has and if you don't put your money we ain't going to be able to make this movie'. Luckily, everybody coughed up their money. But right to the very end, literally a week before starting shooting, the only money in the bank was mine."

They lived like bloody hippies. They also had a bloody good time, based for six or seven weeks at camping grounds near Ohakune, close to Mt Ruapehu.

The film's greenhorn gaffer, Stuart Dryburgh - who would go on to be the cinematographer on The Piano, Once Were Warriors and In My Father's Den - reckons it was boozy, too. "There were definitely some great parties, even some cross-dressing, from what I remember.

"It was almost like a mining camp. You're in the middle of nowhere and the social life is the people you are there with. We definitely partied a lot and had a good time, ate communally. There was dinner at the Ohakune Lodge every night. And often the night would wind down with people standing in the hotel kitchen having a whiskey or a glass of wine.

"I climbed Mt Ngauruhoe one Sunday afternoon. That was what you did with your day off."

Aberdein, who arrived a week after shooting began, is even more effusive. "It was a very, very happy shoot. Disturbingly so, because the happy shoot often produces a dreadful film because it's too lax. It was among the best six weeks of my life up until then. A year later I was in another movie and that was the worst experience of my life. But I'd thought if they're all like Smash Palace, give me another one."

Greer Robson, then 9, 40 this year, recalls that she was chaperoned by her mother Lynne and was supposed to be home-schooled, but got just two lessons during the entire shoot. Her strongest memory is of her closeness to Lawrence.

"Roger did a lot to build the relationship between Bruno, myself and Anna [Jemison, who played Al's wife, Jacqui], but particularly Bruno and I. And Bruno was very effective at creating that as well. I was ripe for that too, because my own father was in Australia at the time. My parents had split up; it wasn't unfamiliar territory for me."

Donaldson calls the shoot hard work and intense. However, there were, in hindsight, some hilariously hairy moments, including the shooting of the first scene where a car flips on a highway.

"We had one guy who said he was crazy enough to do the stunt ... and [he] convinced me to let him bring his wife out to watch him do the stunt. She turned up at the side of the road with her young baby. The car comes barrelling down the road and gets completely airborne, flips and crushes to the roof line. There was supposed to be some code.

"If he was okay, he was supposed to do something, but he was trapped inside the vehicle and couldn't do anything. And his wife was screaming 'he's dead, he's dead, you've killed him'. The trouble was I wanted the car to sit there, and didn't want to cut the moment it crashed. And everyone's screaming at her 'you can't go in, you can't go in' and grabbing her and stopping her rushing up to the car. It was pretty dramatic." But funny now. The unknown stuntman, you'll be happy to know, survived.

Bad boy Bruno did too - despite getting himself into a car accident and taking to the dance floor with a dictator's wife. According to his biography, Bruno, he had quite a night at the Manila Film Festival the following January.

First he was in a car accident which left him bloody for the ceremony where he was awarded - ahead of Jeremy Irons - the best actor gong. Then he danced with Imelda Marcos. According to Bruno's biographer Roger Booth, she had been dancing with actor George Hamilton, but it wasn't long before Lawrence had a crack as well. "He displayed his dancing 'routine'," reports Booth in Bruno, "which Imelda enjoyed."

The same week Lawrence hoofed it with Imelda, the film finally opened in New Zealand cinemas. However, months before that Smash Palace - which was finished fast - Aberdein remembers seeing a rough cut within days of the movie wrapping - was already New Zealand film's first international smash.

Donaldson and Larry Parr, the film's associate producer, took it to Cannes in May 1981. In his book The Selling of New Zealand Movies, commission film marketer Shelton records that Palace had soon become the first Kiwi film to be sold in the United States and, within six months, had been sold to 50 countries. It would also receive screenings in London and Hollywood before 1981 was over. Soon enough, too, critics, including those for Variety and The New Yorker, were raving.

Around this time Jack Nicholson is said to have called Lawrence his favourite actor. In 1982, the film played for months in New York, where passers-by would stop and congratulate Lawrence in the street.

Can Donaldson remember his excitement? "Oh, I was more than excited. I guess I'd never realised what happens if you make a film that people all over the world are saying is a great movie. Statistically, I was more prepared for it to die on its arse than expecting it to be a success."

Smash Palace would go on to make a respectable, if not spectacular, $616,000 at the New Zealand box office (the runaway hit of the time was Goodbye Pork Pie, which took $1.6 million). When Palace finally screened on New Zealand television in 1985 it drew more than a quarter of the population.

However, its significance went beyond bucks or bums on seats. For Donaldson, it gave him - though he could still have stuffed it up - a Hollywood career.

In the 30 years since, he has made 14 Hollywood features and worked with Tom Cruise, Al Pacino and Ben Kingsley among others. It also allowed him to finally make the hit movie The World's Fastest Indian, a pet project since the early 1970s (though Donaldson reckons his favourite film remains Palace, well probably).

After years of living precariously, Smash Palace gave Lawrence a viable acting career until his death, but he never made it to Hollywood.

Aberdein is blunt on the reason why: "He didn't have any hair. I know that sounds superficial but that's Hollywood and there aren't very many leading men [without hair], certainly then."

And the New Zealand film industry? It did okay too. Following Smash Palace into the world's cinemas during the next three decades were The Piano, Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider and the works of one Peter Jackson. That's some legacy.

"Smash Palace was a film that could have been made in any country, a film about a man and woman, a love interest and a child and an obsession with speed," Dryburgh says.

"You could have made that scenario in any country. But we didn't. We made it in New Zealand and it is unashamedly a New Zealand film, it's very much got a New Zealand sensibility about it. I think Once Were Warriors has that same quality.

"That's a lesson, I think, that New Zealand film-makers should take onboard and pay attention to. When you try too hard to be Kiwi or try too hard to be universal, you will fail. But if you can tell a universal story with a New Zealand voice, you stand a chance of making a great movie. And Smash Palace, to me, is that."

*Smash Palace excerpt courtesy of NZ On Screen and the New Zealand Film Commission.
Click here for the Bruno Lawrence Collection at NZ On Screen.