Looking back at when Romper Stomper shocked Australia and the world
In 1992, Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper brought a gang of Footscray skinheads to cinema screens – and controversy soon followed. Critic David Stratton said it should never have been made; there were protests at its London premiere. Watching it again 20 years later, one thing’s certain: hearing Russell Crowe’s Hando spit out the words “This is not your country” still hits like a fist. We talked to Wright to celebrate Romper Stomper’s newly remastered anniversary edition.
Has it really been 20 years since Romper Stomper?
It’s shocking, isn’t it?
How does it feel to look back at it now?
It feels good! It’s interesting to look at things when so much time’s elapsed. The only good thing about getting older is that it gives you perspective. You can see patterns in history that you just can’t see as a young person. You see things reoccurring and realise what’s important, what’s enduring, and what isn’t. You can’t buy that. You’ve got to live through it.
Obviously this question is madness for an artist – but is there a particular thing you wish you could change about the movie?
Inevitably, I can see the mistakes we made. It was only my second film, so I was still learning about technique. I’ve done a lot of work since then, and I can see better ways to shoot something or more I could’ve gotten out of a situation. But by and large I think we did all right. When I look back at myself, I’m pleased with the way I stood up to the pressure, got through it, and discovered some really fantastic relationships.
So you’re a young filmmaker who wants to make his first full-length feature – why choose this material? Why not a teen comedy or a horror movie or whatever?
When I talk to young filmmakers and they want to do something that’s been done a million times before, I think it’s a trap. You’re never going to have more freedom than you have for the first couple of films you make. They’re probably not going to be expensive, so you don’t have the pressure of meeting expectations on a 20 or 40 million dollar budget. They’re films that people tend not to interfere with, you know? It’s always a missed opportunity if you don’t take your first or second feature into the realm of unique, challenging, confronting subject matter.
So take those risks while you can?
You’re much better able to take those risks when you’re young. At the age I’m at now, I’ve got a child, I’ve got to keep money coming into the house, and I’ve got to take on jobs that distract me from what I really want to do. But when I was young – in my 20s – I could do whatever I liked! You won’t get that time in your life later on, so I say make the most of it. It doesn’t last.
Were you thinking about the reception Romper Stomper would get while you were shooting it?
I had my face right up against the challenge of making it, so I didn’t give it too much thought. I didn’t think it’d be received with the intensity that it was! Once I realised what it would be, I embraced that, and faced that, and kind of enjoyed myself.
A review in The New York Times said the movie’s “perspective is disturbingly ambivalent”...
That was always the intention. I thought, at the time – and I wasn’t a thoughtless kid – that we should put the audience inside the gang. The point was that politics, especially the radical politics embraced by Hando, was as much about catharsis as about any attempt at change. If you look at the riot in Sydney the other day, to me that’s about catharsis, too. It’s not going to change anything, but people get satisfied for half an hour. They get their rocks off. That was the point we were making. These kind of gangs were about embracing this exotic political form and using it as a ticket for a ride. And we thought: why not make the audience feel guilty about taking that ride too? Not sympathising with the gang so much as being immersed in their world.
We didn’t editorialise in the film. We didn’t preach. We didn’t have someone say: “Gee, Hando, we did the wrong thing...” And this drove some people absolutely crazy! To me, if you look at what happens to the characters it tells you all you need to know about the morality of the story. But because we didn’t take that liberal, leftwing point of view, we were exposed to a kneejerk reaction from idiots like David Stratton. I mean, Stratton has a problem with Gone With the Wind because it doesn’t come out against slavery in the Old South!
Some of the most viscerally confronting things in the film are the skinhead anthems on the soundtrack. Did you think including material like that was a risk?
No, it’s no risk at all. What’s the point of putting music there that wouldn’t create a reaction? If you get a reaction from people, they know they’re alive. They know they’re with the movie. They may not like it, but they’re with it. They’re in it. If you’re not doing that with filmmaking, what are you doing? Over the years, there’ve been idiots who stood up in court saying they watched a movie and then went out and committed a crime – all that kind of nonsense – but I don’t think anybody really believes it. So from a creative point of view? No risk whatsoever. The risk would have been in not doing it.
Were you ever uncomfortable with someone adopting Romper Stomper in a way you didn’t intend?
Not really. I mean, if a paedophile walks into a Bill Henson exhibition and enjoys it for reasons which Bill Henson wouldn’t approve of... what do we do? Close it down? Where does this kind of crap stop? I hasten to add that I don’t think there’s anything sexual in Henson’s stuff. But if some radical rightwing maniacs saw Romper Stomper and found something in it that was useful to them, I’d say they’d find something useful in any one of a thousand other things.
People would say to me: “We worry about Romper Stomper encouraging radical rightwing attitudes.” And I’d always say to them, “Does it encourage right wing attitudes in you?” They’d go, “No, but there are other people...” It’s never them. It’s always some other blathering moron out there who’ll be hypnotised. I remember when the film was released in London, and leftwing protestors formed a barricade to stop people from seeing the movie! Physically stopping people from participating in a bit of culture? A creative work? That’s got to be wrong. That’s Orwellian.
You cannot fine tune everything creative to cope with the lowest common denominator. Otherwise, you live in a repressive society. The kind of thing the Spartans were trying to create in ancient Greece, or perhaps the Nazis themselves. They didn’t like modern art because of the ideas it would provoke. You can’t win with that sort of stuff. What you can do is talk about things, get a flow of ideas out there – but you come up against groupthink and political correctness, which I really hate.
Since Romper Stomper, you’ve made such an odd collection of films: the nihilistic Metal Skin, subversive slasher Cherry Falls, and a low-budget adaptation of Macbeth. What ties those film together?
Impulse, I suppose. I’m attracted to characters that are driven by impulse. I think in every life, at some point, you get into a primordial situation – a black-and-white situation that no amount of reason will solve. It comes down to this law of the jungle. That’s the common thread with everything I’ve done. We talk about all these hifalutin things, but we’re still animals. We’re still confronted by nature. You can have all the trappings of civilisation but sooner or later, in every life, you bump into that person in a dark alley and it’s them or it’s you. That may only be an allegory, but sometimes it’s literal, and in those primordial moments nothing can help you except the raw will to overcome.
It’s got nothing to do with civilisation. In fact if you’re over-civilised, you’re not going to survive. That’s the kind of thing that really interests me. Have you ever seen Deliverance? It’s a fantastic movie. It sums up what I’m trying to say. I wish I’d made it.
The remastered Romper Stomper is available on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct 3.