He looks as if he should be spiking at the volleyball net or sailing the Hobie into the Tasman Sea. Instead the lanky, tanned Australian is sticking his thumbs together in front of his face and framing imaginary camera shots as he lopes around the Old Post Office.

It's a location shoot for "Deceit." The $12 1/2 million thriller is Roger Donaldson's third Hollywood film, his third attempt at a decisive Hollywood hit. And on this weekday morning he's just shot the umpteenth take of two blokes running up the steps in hot pursuit of another who's obviously got something they want.

The plot is simple, the director says between camera setups. "A guy's involved in a search for someone, and he's the character they're looking for."

"They" is the Pentagon, and "he" is actor Kevin Costner. Also in the picture are Gene Hackman, Will Patton and Sean Young. The location work winds up tomorrow.

In the film-to-be, "the pressure builds more and more," Donaldson says in a light Australian patter. "And the audience sits more and more on the edge of their seat."

This, at any rate, is what is hoped for. "My attitude to making movies," he says, "is to make a movie I'd pay to see." This from a man who used to stand on intellectuals' toes back in New Zealand to get into repertory Bergman films, and who made an art house name for himself with "Sleeping Dogs" and, in 1981, "Smash Palace."

A violent saga of an extramarital love affair, "Smash Palace" was a commercial hit in New Zealand and a critical hit around the world, earning accolades from Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby -- and a call from Dino De Laurentiis. Donaldson, who had made "Smash Palace" for $250,000, signed up with the producer to remake "Mutiny on the Bounty." It starred Mel Gibson and Trevor Howard, and cost $20 million.

"I was very keen to do something on an epic scale," Donaldson says. "I think the English were a little appalled that an Australian was going to play a British aristocrat," he says of Gibson's role as Fletcher Christian, "but it didn't bother me."

Reception for "Bounty" was less than spectacular. De Laurentiis nevertheless signed Donaldson for last year's "Marie: A True Story," starring Sissy Spacek as Marie Ragghianti, the head of the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles who took on Gov. Ray Blanton and won. The film didn't.

"You have to get very philosophical about making films," Donaldson says. "You do everything you think that's right, but most of the time it's luck that comes into it. Actually, I think 'Marie' is a good movie. It might find its audience in cable and television."

But the past is the past. It's time to forget the epic and the statement film, to move on to cops and robbers. And the next scene.

In the sweltering Old Post Office Building, the extras take their positions at points on and around the stairwell. At the signal -- "Action!" -- they begin walking assigned routes up and down the stairs, past the flower stand and the fudge slabs. Suddenly two men in sweat-pasted suits thunder up the stairs.

*"There he is!" says one, his makeup smearing in the heat. The two race toward the camera -- and it's a cut. The extras return to their starting points.

They do it again.

And again.

Through it all Donaldson watches the video monitor with a quiet attention, and with little of the neurotic intensity one might expect. At 41 he's right where he wants to be.

His Hollywood ambition was nurtured in Australia and New Zealand, both of which are "dominated by American culture," he says. "There was also a contact with Europe. So I feel I've got the best of both worlds."

He avoided a military draft in Australia by becoming a geology student in New Zealand. Discovering he couldn't make a living at it, he ditched geology for still photography. There was a photographic expedition to Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary on the 21st anniversary of his ascent. From there Donaldson moved on to directing TV commercials and documentary films. "But then I grew frustrated by that. They weren't the movies I wanted to make."

Before "Smash Palace" and 1983's "Bounty," he shot some dramatic specials for television, and his "Winners and Losers," a series of seven short stories adapted for television, was broadcast here recently on public television stations.

"To make this film is a real freedom," Donaldson says. "When you're making a film in New Zealand you're always thinking, what can I do to this film that'll make it" -- he pauses -- "travel?"

So far Donaldson and his family have done all the traveling. "It's been tough going on my wife in the past four years," says the husband and father of six (four remain in New Zealand). "But we had a daughter born here. So her being born in North Carolina has given us a lot more contact with America."

There are some things about Hollywood he has had to get used to. "I produced, wrote and directed 'Smash Palace,' " he says. "I was a law unto myself." But this is the country of piecemeal specialization, of countless producers and associate producers.

"I do get paid a lot better," he says.

Another problem is the buffeting Hollywood commerce will give a ruminative soul. "There's no shortage of movies to make. Every day something comes up -- someone's got some bright idea for a film. But it can be very distracting. There are so many options, it's hard to keep focused. You can be led off to things that perhaps aren't right for you, but you do it because the deal's so good."

And after you've done it, Donaldson says, you're still dependent on "luck. Luck."

Later in the afternoon, Washington is bestowing on its visitors the usual endearing mugginess. To make matters worse, they have to film in an unventilated corridor on the sixth floor of the Old Post Office.

But Donaldson says he likes the city. "I was initially attracted to the film because of the Pentagon aspect . . . My one regret is that there's a whole other side to Washington" that won't figure in the film, due for release next spring. "There are actually people on the outside of the government."

The city has been hospitable, he reports. "People were telling me horror stories. They said Washington's all divvied up because of the officialdom being all over the town. But everyone's been extremely helpful."

He has not been allowed to film in the Pentagon, however. (He had to build a replica on an MGM sound stage -- half a million right there.) "We will be shooting on public property around the Pentagon ," he says. "I wanted some comings and goings at the door."

There are some comings and goings now in the corridor. Sean Young is escaping from one of the two previous stair rushers. She reaches the top of the stone steps and runs into a men's room. Her pursuer follows. Cut.

Donaldson won't say what happens next.

"You'll have to see the film."