The Wright Stuff
Saturday Extra; DIRECT ACTION
22 January 1994
Film-maker Geoffrey Wright talks to SUZY FREEMAN-GREENE about video violence, Charger cars and life after `Romper Stomper’. Photograph by Cathryn Tremain.
YOU PROBABLY know the name, even if the face is a mystery. Geoffrey Wright is the man who made that film about skinheads in the west. The film that sparked a furore in Footscray, inspired an `Age’ editorial and was attacked by the director Paul Cox for its portrayal of violence. Its title even crept into our vocabulary as a term of abuse.
The Prime Minister, Mr Keating, was heard to speak of “the Romper Stompers of the far right”.
Made for just $1.5 million, `Romper Stomper’ grossed around $4 million at the box office in Australia and New Zealand. It was banned in Finland and the city of Glasgow, honored at the Stockholm International Film Festival and sits in the New York Museum of Modern Art. More than a year after its release, some people are still talking about it. Last month, the youth worker Les Twentyman claimed that violence in the west had risen since the film, which depicts an epic street battle between Nazi skinheads and Vietnamese men. But police rejected the claim.
Right from the beginning, writer-director Geoffrey Wright gave as good as he got in the debate, trading insults with Paul Cox (“he’s just jealous of my success”) among others. There was a hint of a generational conflict: the young, talented upstart sparring with those who might claim to be older and wiser. But surprisingly little is known about the man who gave us `Romper Stomper’. Is Geoffrey Wright a stirrer, or one of Melbourne’s best cinematic assets _ or a combination of both? What does he believe in? And what is his follow- up act? Wright, 34, is a short man with a slightly chubby face and a thatch of long, layered hair. Dressed in jeans, runners and a T-shirt, he could pass as a guitarist in a heavy-metal band. At least, until he opens his mouth.
Heavy-metal guitarists are generally not renowned for their dialectical skills. But Wright’s conversation is loud, fast, funny and often angry. Perched on the veranda at his editing suite in Albert Park, he talks urgently, waves his hands a lot and peppers his sentences with “and that’s another thing …” The man has more energy than a nuclear reactor.
He spoke for more than 15 minutes before a question was asked. It was on a subject close to his heart _ the relationship between cinema and violence. Critics of violent videos, Wright says, argue that they overstimulate certain individuals, leading them to commit violent crimes. But he believes these crimes are caused by a lack of stimulation. Watching violent videos is a symptom of the problem, not the cause.
“It’s fashionable for our society to fear overstimulation,” he says.
“We feel it’s a threat to the social order and we look around for simple solutions like videos. A lot of videos are crass, ugly, grotesque and stupid, but I just don’t think they’re dangerous. If people go out and commit appalling crimes, it’s because they have lost the ability to feel that they are alive. The community is no longer providing them with that feeling.”
Wright believes there is a profound misunderstanding of the causes of violent crime. He recommends two books for a better understanding: `A Criminal History of Mankind’ by Colin Wilson and Robert M.Pirsig’s ’70s classic, `Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’.
In their own ways, both books examine what happens when people lose their connection to the outside world. “People who are bored out of their minds seek adrenalin and they will go to any means to do that,” he says.
Those who attacked `Romper Stomper’ might have trouble picturing Wright pondering the nature of existence with a Robert Pirsig book.
But contrary to the opinion of some of his critics (one of whom asked whether he had a sense of social responsibility), he thinks a lot about what he does. He likes to read history, Australian crime writers and science fiction. In `Romper’, he set out to explore a violence born of empty lives.
“I have always taken complete responsibility for everything I’ve done in a film,” he shouts above the rattle of a tram. “I’ve gone out there and said if anyone has been bashed as a result of my film, write to me and give me the details. It’s never happened. A woman by the name of Mrs Hando wrote to me and claimed that I used her name for the gang. To Mrs Hando, my regrets and remorse.”
WRIGHT has 15 scripts lying on his desk, mostly from the United States, and says he could go there tomorrow to make a horror film.
`Romper Stomper’s in-your-face, doomed exuberance grabbed the attention of directors such as Fred Schepisi and Joel Schumacher (`Falling Down’). It also brought film offers from the US and Canada.
But Wright wants to tread the mysterious path of the independent film- maker. His role model is Jane Campion. At the same time, he is after mass audiences. “I’m not interested in slaving my guts out and showing my film in one art-house cinema in Paris.”
Right now, Wright is doing post-production work on a new film, tentatively called `Speed’ _ the final part of a trilogy set in Melbourne’s west that began with `Lover Boy’ in 1989. Starring Aden Young, Tara Morice (of `Strictly Ballroom’ fame), Ben Mendelsohn and Nadine Garner, the film is an ensemble piece about two young couples, set against the drag-racing subculture. A less global, more personal film than `Romper Stomper’, it is about “the difficulty of people who don’t like themselves having relationships”.
Wright researched `Romper Stomper’ by hanging out with skinhead gangs.
(The title referred to a young skinhead’s description of his Doc Marten boots). For `Speed’, he has spent time at Calder racetrack with a Melbourne drag-racing identity, Jimmy the Greek, who is a technical adviser on the film. But the real star may be an underrated car.
“Chargers were the fastest accelerating cars this country has ever produced,” he says with glee. “We want to put Chargers up where they belong.”
Wright grew up in the west and writes about “what I know”. His father was a meter reader with the Board of Works, his mother mostly a housewife. The family lived in Pascoe Vale and Geoffrey was educated at Strathmore High, where his favorite subject was an Australian history unit called Marvellous Melbourne. His older sister works at Kmart in Geelong.
There were no signs that the family would produce either a film-maker or a phenomenal talker. “My mother likes a good yarn on the phone but there was no great tradition of talking in our family. It was like, sitting around the table saying: `OK, pass the butter. The Bombers are doing well’.”
But by the age of 14, Wright was watching old films with the volume turned down so he could study the technique without being distracted by the plot. At school, he made a Super Eight documentary on pollution in Pascoe Vale and a drama about relationships between students and teachers. The latter offered his first taste of controversy when it was banned by the headmaster.
He remembers Strathmore High as a “run-of-the-mill, government-issue high school that had a certain sad, quaint, grandiosity”. It had expectations and took pride in itself, unlike some other schools farther along the Broadmeadows train line.
Wright was accepted into Swinburne Film and Television School and describes its founder, Brian Robinson, as his mentor. He deferred for a year and worked as a proofreader for Hill of Content publishing before returning to film.
Appropriately, the man making a film about “muscle cars” drives a bright purple HQ Holden. Since he bought the car, Wright has been pulled over eight times by police. “They talk to me as if I am this 18-year-old punk,” he marvels. “Before this car, I had nothing to do with cops. Now it’s `What are you doing here at 11pm?’ `Er, I’m cutting my film, officer’.”
IT IS ironic that Wright, a working-class boy from the other side of the Yarra, was savaged for giving Footscray a bad name. One Footscray councillor even claimed `Romper Stomper’ defamed his suburb and threatened to sue. Interestingly, Wright says the council was quite happy for him to film again in Footscray for `Speed’.
He seems to enjoy a good feud and rattles off the names of his newspaper critics. He is fuelled, perhaps, by a frustration with the mediocre, the dull, the middling in our society. He says he couldn’t care about the opinions of simple-minded people who do not understand the complexity of violent crime. But the `Romper’ hysteria left him wondering whether the print media can handle complex debates. “I don’t think anyone does news any more; they’re interested in gossip.”
A few good citizens of Melbourne might be shocked to hear Geoffrey Wright declare: “What I am, the films I make, are a product of this city.” He thinks our Victorian forebears left us the best-planned city in the world but we too readily value appearances over action.
“We’re a town of manners.”
So why does Wright have a Camberwell address? He says he had no “burning desire” to live there, he simply found a fabulous flat to rent at the end of a cul-de-sac. It was a quiet place to write and he couldn’t afford a house in the country.
After the publicity generated by `Romper Stomper’, Wright appears to be in an enviable position as a film-maker. But he warns: “If `Speed’ isn’t good, I’ll be back to square one.” He hopes to make an international co-production next with a partly overseas cast, if he can get past the strict controls preventing overseas actors from working here.
He thinks more grants should go to young scriptwriters rather than older established film-makers, who, “like mangy old foxes”, produce films at such a low cost that no one will ever question their quality.
“We don’t respect narrative drive _ simple cause and effect in scripts _ characters that want something. Too often, we try to make films about ideas that can’t be photographed and they fail.”
Geoffrey Wright admires America’s dynamic culture, its ability to constantly absorb new elements, but he is holding out for an overseas deal that gives him artistic control. “I don’t want to be a hack,” he yells down the phone a couple of weeks later. It hardly seems likely. Like Robert Pirsig in his book about motorcycles, Wright is chasing an indefinable thing called Quality.