Roxburgh on Romulus

Exclusive interview with actor Richard about his directorial debut.

by Amber Wilkinson

Richard Roxburgh

Richard Roxburgh

With a career stretching back two decades Richard Roxburgh has become a well-known name for his work in front of the camera. He has created a memorable series of larger-than-life characters, from the wimpy, simpering Duke in Moulin Rouge to the East European tones of Dracula in Van Helsing.

For Romulus, My Father, however, he stepped behind the camera and, despite having directed several plays in his native Australia, he wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that awaits on a film set.

“It was such a different process, really,” says the 45-year-old, “I suppose I was expecting it to be more akin to directing theatre and, actually, it was very different. The way that you have to attack it is a different thing and the way it attacks you is different, too. It seems like it’s almost a different part of the brain to directing theatre. It’s more like being a military commander or something, It’s more like going to war.”

The spoils of the war have certainly been good, with Roxburgh’s drama about the childhood of philosopher Raimond Gaita – based on his memoirs – notching up a record-breaking 16 nominations at the Australian Film Institute Awards. It seems that, on balance, the battle to bring the film to the screen was worth it.

romulus, my father
Eric Bana and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the film
“It’s thrilling in retrospective,” he admits. “The process in itself of directing the film is pretty much something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Only because it is a very painful thing, because you love it so much and you’ve nurtured it so much and you don’t want to expose it to the wrong things, you don’t want it to slide in the wrong direction. So you’re steering it through what, at times, are really perilous waters and hoping to get it to the other side. So I found that really very painful, I suppose in the same way that one finds parenting painful. Because you love something too much, in a way.

“But, of course, once it comes out and people see it and you see that it does move people and people understand what it is about then that’s the most fantastic feeling in the world. And I’ve found that really wonderful, not only in Australia but when we screened it in Toronto, the audience response of just meeting people in the street afterwards was wonderful.”

Romulus is certainly a crowd-pleaser, with fantastic performances from Eric Bana, Franke Potente and, in particular, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays young Raimond. He conveys a quiet intensity as a boy at the heart of a fractured immigrant family who have moved from Eastern Europe to Australia in post-war Australia.

“He’s extraordinary,” says Richard. “Kodi’s got a skyrocketing career now. He’s filming at the moment, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.”

And it was easier to find the young star for the role than he had initially imagined.

“I always thought we were going to have to look high and low. One of our producers was a producer on Jane Campion’s The Piano and I’d always listened to his horror stories about trying to find this beautiful, vulnerable, wonderful child actor for The Piano. They looked everywhere in New Zealand – massive trawling – and I thought we were going to have to do the same.

romulus, my father
Roxburgh says they were 'amazingly lucky' to find actor Kodi
“In fact, we got lucky, amazingly lucky, Kodi, out of hundreds of kids that we looked at, was probably about number 50 - and I just thought it was too good to be true. I asked the casting people to talk to the kids, just talk to them on camera and ask them about themselves and stuff before they did their audition. And Kodi stood there on his little spindly legs – he was eight years old at the time, it was a few months before we shot the film – he said, ‘Well, I looked the story up on the internet and it’s a really sad story. It’s about a boy who lives with his dad and his mum’s really unfaithful. And it’s really sad for the father and he can’t do anything about it.’ And he was espousing all these kinds of adult concepts, with a sort of precocious level of understanding, but without being precocious at all – he was just so delightful and he had an impish charm to him as well, quite apart from that beautiful angelic face.

“And he could just do that thing that we were all thinking all along was the very thing that we needed to find in the child.”

And it wasn’t just Kodi that tapped in to the emotions of the characters. Eric Bana is the son of a Croatian and a German – his birth name is Eric Banadinovich - which surely gave him a deeper level of understanding of the character’s backgrounds.

“It was very helpful for Eric,” says Richard. “I think it was in large part why he was attracted to the project, and fell completely in love with it from the very beginning and attached his name to it. He was going off to do a film with Curtis Hanson and then Steven Spielberg and then he was coming back to work with me in central Victoria.

“I thought, ‘Oh, he’ll say he’ll do that but then something really spectacular in Hollywood and fabulous will come along. But he said from the beginning, ‘you can put my name to it and set a time and I will absolutely be there’.

“I really think he was channelling his old family stories in a way. So you always sensed something deeply rooted in him.”

The family story aspect of the film could certainly have proven tricky, since the tale is based on real people and touches on mental illness and infidelity.

romulus, my father
Franke Potente and Kodi
“You do feel a sense of responsibility to those souls,” says Richard. “Not to try to attempt to tell ‘the truth’, because the truth, seen through the prism of history, is a malleable thing, its not something that exists as such. But to be true to the essential characters of those people was very important to me and to not present something that would be any sort of moral affront of Ray Gaita and to the memories of those people involved.

“Ray, who wrote the book, was very concerned that a film would demonise, in some ways, his parents. I was very concerned to not do that. They’re certainly not demonised in the book. I don’t think we did demonise them, we showed them in darkness and in light.

“Ray has been a fantastic and advocate and ambassador for the film all along, which has been great. We had difficult times when we were preparing the script and, as a sort of measure of respect we would send him a draft. Every new draft we made we would forward to him because I was very solicitous of his opinions.

“Not that he had any rights, as such, but it was important to me that we didn’t make a film that he wasn’t happy with because that would be emblematic in some ways of the fact that I’d fucked up, I think. I love the book, I loved the complexity in the story, I loved so many things about it and that’s what I wanted to put on the cinematic record. And if, as far as Ray was concerned, I didn’t get that right and there were things missing, or things that were misrepresentative, I would have felt I was making a mistake.”

Capturing the feel of the book also depended on the cinematography and the end result looks all the more impressive when you consider the whole thing was shot for “around 3.5 million quid”.

romulus, my father
The cinematography belies the tight budget
“I think the real trick is to surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing,” says Richard. “I felt like I was confident with the story I wanted to tell and certainly very comfortable with the actors. It was a really steep learning curve for me early on, about all of the technical matters of the making of the film. But I was keen to learn and I luckily had people who didn’t look at me like a total idiot when I would ask them idiotic questions. So I was very appreciative of that fact.

“We had a very gifted cinematographer [Geoffrey Simpson], who had done so much stuff, and I thought he was going to be critical to it along the way. There’s something in the cinematography because, you know, it was very important to me that the cinematography and the dialogue have an austerity to it, in the same way as the lives of the characters had an austerity to it. It’s really brittle and flinty, it’s quite harsh in a way, so those elements were crystal to me.”

Despite being well received back in Australia and getting a release in several countries, there’s still no date for release in the UK – although Richard remains optimistic.

“I just hope so. The curious thing is we sold the film to everywhere on God’s planet earth except the UK at this stage. It’s still a project we’re working on.”

Given the gruelling nature of directing, would he put himself through it again?

“If you had asked me that two days after we’d finished the final mix of the film, I would have said absolutely never again in my life but, in fact, the pain does subside and, as I said, just people’s responses from having seen the film makes it worth going through.”

But he doesn’t fancy the idea of acting and directing simultaneously.

“There’s a series in Australia that I acted in. They are doing the second instalment this year and they asked me if I wanted to direct some of it as well, and I was tempted for a while. But the whole idea of running behind the camera and then running in front of the camera – a constant sense of ‘who’s going to tell me what I’m doing wrong?’, also this really weird idea that you would be acting in things but also having to judge how the other actors are doing. It’s too weird.”

He adds: “I’m working with Nick Drake – who did the Romulus adaptation for us – who is UK-based. We’re working on a project and there are other things that I’m looking at. Things that are very stylistically different from Romulus, My Father, because I think that’s the important thing as well, to shake myself completely free from Romulus. Having devoted so many years to it. I feel I need a completely different investment of energy. Nick and I are working on a black comedy.”

If he can capture humour as well as he captures heart, the result will be well worth looking out for.

Romulus, My Father is screening as the closing gala at the Australian Film Festival at London’s Barbican on March 16 and is, sadly, now sold out. Read more of our coverage here.

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