Russell Crowe burst into public consciousness playing neo-Nazi skinhead Hando in “Romper Stomper” – way back in 1992. The film was huge success, making more than 3 million at the Australian box offices – impressive for such a gruesome and aggressive tale of violence and racism in contemporary Australia.
What made it more frightening was that the film was based on the true story of Dane Sweetman, a Nazi who was in jail in Melbourne for murder.
“Romper Stomper” is being re-released on Blu-ray for its 20 year anniversary – and Moviehole’s Hugh Humphreys had a chat with the film’s director and writer Geoffrey Wright.
20 years on from “Romper Stomper”; I can’t believe it’s been so long. Is that what it feels like for you?
Oh, I’m amazed as well. Everyone I’ve spoken to says it doesn’t feel like 20 years and I agree.
What goes through your mind when you watch it again?
Well I’m very proud of the way that we talked it as audaciously as we did, we were very bold and I’m glad we were. We didn’t pull too many punches, and we showed a lot of good sense with the casting. So I’m proud of it. I realised at the time that we had a strong film and I knew we would get some reaction, but I didn’t anticipate how much or that it would last as long as it has.
I feel it still holds up just as much as ever. Some of the films in that genre can date a lot but it still feels so relevant today.
Yes. Well, the issues that it deals with haven’t changed a whole lot. Like, the facade of it changes but the gist of it doesn’t. And the mood of people across the world and the reactions of people in different countries is an ongoing thing. It’s the big story of “the west” from the last couple of decades and most likely the next couple as well – it’s an ongoing story.
Exactly – I mean, recently we’ve had all these protests worldwide of an anti-Islamic film made in the United States.
That’s right! The west has undertaken to expand its populations with people from other countries, but when you do that two things happen: you are forced to confront the things that a paramount to some of those people coming to the country, and also to ask questions about one’s own reaction. It’s kind of fascinating.
Absolutely. When you think how much “Romper Stomper” shocked audiences at the time, it also struck such a chord which is why it was so popular. Do you think films like “Romper Stomper” still have that effect today?
I think political correctness is a lot more now than what it was 20 years ago. And the film can still confront people because it’s unbridled by any of that stuff that’s around now. We’re at a climate where political correctness has risen so much that it’s prevented people from talking about things in an honest way. Political parties very much so; everything is calculated beforehand. People don’t speak off the cuff anymore, they’re too afraid to. And that’s unfortunate.
But at the same time, I guess, people are also more programmed to be shocked. You know, films are made specifically for that shock value. But there are some things that remain unspoken that still can shock.
Exactly. For me the question is to what extent are you going to placate people and to what extent are you going to stand up for certain principles? It’s not about material gain, surely – and that value we’re fighting for has to be freedom of speech. Even idiotic speech! Who knows where this political correctness is going to end?
Now onto the casting of “Romper Stomper” – it’s well known for being the film that launched Russell Crowe’s career – what were you looking for in the cast, and how did you find it?
Well I wanted a charismatic leader. We weren’t doing a film about the past background of Hando. We looked at the background of Gabe and to some extent with Davey; but we didn’t have very much about Hando and we wanted to keep him a bit mysterious. So anything brought to that role had to be in the moment. Not in that neo-realistic “this happened to him as a kid so now he’s like this” kind of thing. We wanted someone to bring something to the table in the moment. And when I saw Russell in “Proof”, I saw there was a lot of brooding energy there that they weren’t using, but I thought we could exploit. So as soon as I saw him, I knew we had to have him.
Do you keep in touch?
We used to briefly live in the same street in LA. So I bumped into him from time to time socially or at Warner Bros, but we’ve drifted apart. I think the last time he contacted me was to give me a rap over the knuckles because I think I said something about him in the Sydney Morning Herald! They asked what he was like to work with, and I said he was demanding a lot of the people around him. And I meant it in a positive way, that he expected people to give as much as him – but I think he thought it was negative. And he called me to give me his thoughts and I gave him mine – but that was the last time we had any direct contact. But that’s not to say I haven’t followed his career, like everybody else. He’s had his ups and downs but he’s made his mark and is a towering figure in Hollywood.
Did you always expect his career to soar this much?
As soon as I met him I knew he had everything he needed to go as far as he wanted to go, it was just a question of self-preservation and good judgement. And he definitely had that! I mean, there have been a lot of great actors coming out of Australia who have had their careers ruined, or even lost their lives because of excessive behaviour. And Russell, as he was building his career, he definitely had a good head on his shoulders and knew what move to make next.
Now are you making any films at the moment?
Yes. I’m attached to something in London, which we’ve had a hell of a time trying to finance because of the GFC, and I’m developing something with Film Victoria. I’ve been away from filmmaking too long and I’m desperate to make a movie.
Can you tell me anything about them?
Both of them have a fantasy element to them – the one I feel more comfortable talking about (the Australian one) is about revenge and justice. About whether in our society we’ve got to a point where there are diminished consequences for what we do, that we’re a blameless society and you can always fins an excuse, and what to do if you’re a victim.
Would you consider writing or directing any more films about true crime?
Absolutely I would. Australia is such a fertile territory for that. We’ve always had a great history of true crime, which has been dug up with “Underbelly” over the last 10 years, but there’s a lot more out there. I’m surprised it took the country to discover its criminal history, but we’ve got some great stories to tell. Per head of population, we’re as strong as anyone for intriguing character histories!
And what’s new about this being re-released on Blu-Ray?
There’s lot of things on it that I haven’t seen in 20 years – things like textures, costumes, backdrops and locations coming up loud and clear for the first time in 20 years. This will be the clearest the film has ever been.
“Romper Stomper” is out on blu-ray from October 3.