I read the book ROMULUS, MY FATHER eight years ago. I finished it in
one sitting, and decided immediately that somehow I was going to make
a film of it. I made enquiries about the rights the following day, and
set the process in train. There were many phone calls (one from a satellite
phone from the Namibian desert) to the writer, Raimond Gaita, in London.
There were transatlantic flights to tell the reluctant writer of my ideas
for the film.
The story of ROMULUS, MY FATHER appealed to me on a gut level. It centres on a battered little migrant family, and is set in the Victorian bush at the end of the second world war. The cast of characters is drawn with great philosophical detail by Gaita. But it is also a heartfelt story, a vast reservoir of pain, and at times, humour. It is the tale of a boy trying to balance a universe described by his deeply moral father, against the experience of heartbreaking absence and neglect from a depressive mother.
We follow the boys journey through seemingly insuperable tragedy, including his mothers arrivals and departures, her infidelities, her descent into madness, and her relationship with her husbands friend which spills with horrible inevitability, into death. And then perhaps most tragic of all, the fall of Romulus Gaita, the father, the rock, into his own madness, which he at last manages to pull himself out of, seemingly by his own strength of character. All of this witnessed through the eyes of a young boy.
The singular thing about this story, given its tragic dimension, its almost biblical reach, is how strangely uplifting it is. Somehow through the pain, there is not only a sense of possibility, but of promise, held in the relationship of that father and son.
The task was to find the right team, and also a worthy textual rendering of the biography to film. I hooked up with Robert Connolly and John Maynard four years ago. Their responses to the book showed that we were of like minds, and their energy and insight has been instrumental in moving the project forward.
We had an exhaustive hunt for the right person to adapt the story, and finally settled on an English poet (of Czech parentage), Nick Drake. Nick had worked as an advisor and script editor for many years and from my first meeting with him he seemed to have a deep understanding of the material. He undertook the delicate task of adapting the complex biography to cinema.
We were determined that the film must, at all costs, avoid the trap of the "period drama". There were to be as few elements as possible of the set-in-aspic-migrant-period-story from the script onwards. This would ensure that there would be no safety of distance, that somehow the story, in all of its dark and complex beauty, would be allowed to breathe with a contemporary immediacy.
From the first draft of the work, it was apparent that Nick was creating exactly this story. The unfolding of the tragic events was all the more profound from the perspective of a young Raimond, and with the occasional flourishes of wild exuberance and humour. In short: it was very much like life.
In August of 2004 we sent the script to Eric Bana, who seemed the perfect incarnation of the character of Romulus Gaita. He read the script and was deeply moved by it and agreed to do the film. We have attempted to create the spirit of a European film set in a parched Australian environment. The music is achingly redolent of the lands left behind; the cinematography and performances immediate, visceral and spontaneous.