It’s been 25 years since Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper stormed its way across n cinema screens, but it takes just minutes for the miniseries it has spawned to drop us back into the same frenetic, violent and unmistakably blue-toned world, as rival gangs clash wildly in St Kilda.
“It’s not like I sat down and thought, ‘Gee we have to duplicate the old movie’,” Wright says of that distinctive colour palette. “But we shot fast, in winter in Melbourne, and it just turned out that way. It’s ‘The Son of …’ “
Well, it is and it isn’t. Whereas the film was set squarely within the world of a group of neo-Nazi skinheads, the six-part miniseries opens things up. There’s a far-right nationalist group called Patriot Blue; there’s a far-left anti-fascist group; and there’s a bunch of Muslim ns just trying to get on with life but repeatedly finding themselves caught in the crosshairs of the running battle between the two.
Opening up the perspective on the story was important to David Wenham, who, like many others, initially greeted the idea of revisiting one of ‘s most controversial films with a degree of scepticism.
“I needed a little bit of convincing, to be fair,” he says. “I had a few concerns about it.” To address them, he spoke to three people, “two within the industry and one, a religious leader and philosopher, outside. And at the end of those lengthy conversations I got myself over the line.”
So what clinched it? “The nub of the argument in favour was that it ain’t so bad to hold a mirror up to society at times, whether you like it or not.”
Wenham plays Jago Zoric, a TV talkshow host who sees himself as a righteous provocateur poking a stick at political correctness, though others might label him less charitably. “Those sorts of individuals completely fascinate me,” he says, adding that his Jago is inspired by three real-life presenters (he won’t say who). “But it’s not a pleasant exercise playing him.”
That’s a view Lachy Hulme can more than sympathise with. He plays Blake Farron, leader of the right-wing group Patriot Blue (a purely fictitious organisation that bizarrely inspired a copycat outfit, until the threat of legal action from the show’s producers convinced them to back down).
“He fancies himself as a true n,” Hulme tells me in a break between filming late one cold, cold night on the campus of Deakin University, where Wright is directing scenes in the show’s second episode. “He can quote Henry Lawson by heart, fancies himself as an expert, but if you stand back from the guy, like all these characters, he’s just a tin-pot piece of shit.”
Most actors will tell you that no matter how vile the character, it’s important for them to find something in them with which they can identify. Not Hulme, not this character.
“Why waste your time on a guy with the depth of a bottle cap,” he asks rhetorically, but with no shortage of disgust. “The question you have to ask yourself for sanity’s sake is, ‘Do I want to lock myself into the mindset of somebody for whom I have no empathy?’
“You’re not trying to be Method about it, really just trying to make the end product as good as possible,” he adds. “That’s not normally how I approach work, but with a piece of shit like this it just seems more convenient.”
Lily Sullivan had few such issues in approaching the role of Petra, one of the leaders of the antifa (anti-fascist) group. She had come straight off Picnic at Hanging Rock – all crinoline and lace – and found the stark change to an all-action, black-clad warrior “so much fun”.
But it might have been very different if she’d landed the part she initially auditioned for – Patriot Blue leader Blake Farron’s twisted, manipulative, vindictive young wife Zoe, a role that eventually went to Sophie Lowe.
“I was so glad I didn’t have to tap into that psyche, that head space, to play a character on the far right,” says Sullivan.
She too had her concerns when first offered the show. “Because you’re taking on controversial, confrontational content – but also it’s frightening how close it is to the truth.
“Romper’s exploring the vicious and isolating cycles people get caught up in when they’re dictated by fear of the unknown or hate, and how extremism leaves absolutely no room for connection – everyone with their own opinion, pushing their own ideas.”
However difficult it was for most of them, few of the participants can have experienced quite the swirl of emotions as did Jacqueline McKenzie, who made her screen debut in the 1992 movie as Gabe, the young woman caught in a vicious and ultimately deadly tug-of-love between skinhead leader Hando (Russell Crowe) and his best mate Davey (Daniel Pollock).
“The first day on set was really unsettling for me, because I was revisiting that time,” she says. “Characters died on screen and actors died off screen.” (Crowe’s Hando dies at the end of the movie; Pollock died soon after the film wrapped, and Leigh Russell, who was a good friend of McKenzie, died in 2004.) “There’s a lot of sadness associated with it.”
On the upside, “what’s great is to see Geoffrey Wright’s voice back on screen. When you see it, you think, ‘OK, where has that voice been, because we want that voice.’ There’s a surety to the storytelling, an edge to it, and he’s never afraid to ask those questions that a lot of people are afraid to ask.”
It’s not all Wright, though. Veteran producer John Edwards and his son Dan have produced the series through their new production house Rough Diamond, and Daina Reid, a frequent collaborator with Edwards, has directed two of the episodes, with New Zealander James Napier Robertson helming another two. Wright wrote the first and last episodes, but the writers’ room on the series also included Napier Robertson (who wrote two episodes), Malcolm Knox and Omar Musa.
“It’s a team effort,” says Wright. “It’s a TV series, not a movie, but there is a substantial genetic crossover. And I guess I’m the guardian, or the steward, of the old brand.”
The series came together unbelievably quickly, with Stan commissioning it in January, announcing it in July, the shoot commencing in August, and the series set to drop all at once on January 1.
“It’s been shockingly quick, compared to the time you take on a film,” observes Napier Robertson. A two-hour film might take a year to edit, he says; the six-hour series has been assembled in a quarter of that time.
“The guys were really putting their foot on the gas right from the beginning,” he says, noting that from story meeting to first draft was maybe 10 days. “There was something refreshing about that, though it was hard to stay on top of it.”
Difficult subject matter; the likelihood of controversy; shooting at night in a Melbourne winter; a hell-for-leather production schedule: it’s clear that Romper Stomper wasn’t an easy project. But everyone involved in it seems to share the view that it was an important one.
“We can’t pretend this sort of stuff isn’t happening,” says Wenham. “It is very real, and it is happening, not just here but all around the world. And in provoking discussion, this can maybe lead to recognition of the problem and the possibility of change.”
“Romper is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, to reflect on what it means to be n today,” adds Sullivan. “We need to face the ugly in order to heal.”
All six episodes of Romper Stomper will be available to stream on Stan from New Year’s Day