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Romper Stomper: the Wright time to revisit history

Geoffrey-Wright-on-the-set-of-Romper-StomperGeoffrey Wright’s earth-shaking 1992 movie Romper Stomper redefined representations of violence on the big screen, and now the Australian director is bringing the title to TV sets as a drama series for SVOD service Stan. Jesse Whittock meets him to find out why.

There’s so much crazy shit going on these days you really can’t go wrong.”

Geoffrey Wright, sat in the lobby of the Pullman hotel near King’s Cross in London, is telling TBI how the current political climate means it is the perfect time to revisit his seminal, violence-fuelled movie Romper Stomper.

“At no time since the old movie have the circumstances been as conducive to material as now – the advent of Donald Trump and Brexit,” continues the Australian film director. “This means there’s been a shift in sentiment over dissatisfaction about the mainstream parties, and the things that had lingered began to become more visible at the edges of the mainstream.

“All sorts of animals from the forest that we hadn’t seen for some time – in some cases, ever – began popping their heads up. It occurred to me that Hando [the main character in the movie] would find the situation more than interesting. He would not be displeased with the turning of events – there are extremists everywhere.”

The original Romper Stomper followed a group of Australian skinhead neo-Nazis intent on terrorising the immigrant Vietnamese population of early 1990s suburban Melbourne. Ranked up there with Clockwork Orange in terms of shock-factor, the film also acted as breakout role for Russell Crowe, who played Hando.

A number of the original actors reprise their roles in the reboot, which launched on Australian SVOD service Stan on January 1 and has DCD Rights attached to distribute internationally, with Sundance Channel Global already a buyer for various territories. Reviews have called the series “equal parts riveting and disturbing”.

Spoiler for those who haven’t seen the film – Crowe is not among those returning – but the show will revisit similar themes of mindless aggression, anarchy, alienation and racism.

Instead of the Vietnamese, a new batch of far-right thugs led by Lachy Hulme (Gallipoli) target Muslim Australians and anti-fascism groups in modern day Melbourne.

Romper-Stomper

The TV switch

Wright had rarely considered a sequel or TV format of the film that launched his career, but recent events changed his mind. “It became obvious to almost everyone that it was time to look at this material again,” he says.

The series came about when Dan Edwards, son and producing partner of prolific Australian television drama producer John Edwards – known for shows such as Gallipoli and Puberty Blues – contacted Wright’s creative partner, Dan Scharf.

The Edwards’ Roadshow Rough Diamond, which is a joint venture with Roadshow Films, became the producer and sold the idea to Nine Network- and Fairfax Media-backed Stan, which had form in rebooting cult movies with its version of horror Wolf Creek.

“A lot of memories of the old film came flooding back, not so much from a story, but a stylistic point of view,” says Wright of the production process. He adds that due to numerous action scenes, some involving people on fire and graphic fighting, meant the rough ‘n’ ready principles of the original movie were revisited: “I didn’t sit there and think we would go hand-held and dirty, but the subject matter and constraints of TV made that approach not only satisfying, but also essential.”

Shooting was completed very quickly, which Wright found an unusual experience; different from the slow, methodical approach to feature film production. He quips that the energy he had as a 33-year-old in 1992 was leveled off by a breadth of knowledge and experienced acquired since then, meaning, “You can offset the slight paunch and moving slower with that”.

However, the biggest shock was in pre-production. “I barely had time to meet the cast, and in some cases I met them for the first time on set,” he says. “I’d seen them in the testing process, but not in person.”

Meanwhile, the philosophy of television production required new approaches. “Being in a situation where producers are more powerful means there is a different culture in TV, and that is something entirely new to think about,” says Wright. “Once we were on set rocking and rolling I felt we managed it fine, and I really enjoyed the process.”

The director is 58 and appears calmer in person than you might expect given the subject matter of Romper Stomper and the subsequent controversy it caused (Wright received death threats and was dubbed an enfant terrible of Australian cinema by some after its release). However, a trace of the old fire appears when talking  about “frustrating” production processes.

“Aesthetically, people can play faster and looser games than they do,” he says. “Sometimes some people are thinking about TV the way it was 20 years ago, and it is hard to get out of that mentality. Some people need to make an effort because it is different and it is not being fully exploited.”

Wright believes effort to change can and should be made. “I’m seeing a different way of producing,” he says. “I would like to bring department heads in much sooner than they come in, but the way we go about production hasn’t changed much in 70 or 80 years.”

He believes “shrinking shooting times are offsetting the advantages of the current technology”, but that pre-production, in particular, can be much more efficient with a few simple changes.

“I wrote episode six of the series, which was ambitious from a logistical point of view, and I just wish the first AD [assistant director] was at my elbow as I was writing,” he adds. “It would have solved a lot of problems and we could have spent more times on other things.

“The technology we use has changed enormously, but the way we prepare ourselves should be looked at. To me, people are stuck in a rut and there are more creative and interesting ways you can go about it that will save time and money.”

He is also critical of that many Australian creatives are not getting work in cinema “so they are migrating to TV”, adding the latter medium is “a good way to get them started” and that “long-form has enormous potential, and it is exciting”.

However, Wright has no time for series that pad in order to make up the scheduled minutes at the expense of proper plotting. “Momemtum is important to me, and it’s about not shirking the stakes: I hate anti-climaxes,” he says.

“That is one problem I have with long-form as a consumer. Come on, man, gimme a break – I know you’re stringing this out. You can feel the filler being pushed from a tube.”

For Wright, today’s climate means there’s no excuse for such dodges when it comes to drama television – the election Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, terror cells and Brexit are providing daily plot lines.

“You’ve only got to digest what you see in the news for this type of story,” he says. Sounds like you really can’t go wrong.