Culture

Thirty years after Romper Stomper was released, key cast and crew reflect on the cult film. By Jenny Valentish.

Romper Stomper at 30

The cast of 1992’s Romper Stomper, (from left) Daniel Pollock, Frank Magree, Russell Crowe, Dan Wyllie, Chris McLean and Eric Mueck.
The cast of 1992’s Romper Stomper, (from left) Daniel Pollock, Frank Magree, Russell Crowe, Dan Wyllie, Chris McLean and Eric Mueck.
Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

Geoffrey Wright (writer and director)

In the screen tests we encouraged professional wrestling style threats and posturing among the prospective cast. We wanted to see who could comfortably improv that stuff. James McKenna, who played Bubs, got wind of the approach and, when it was his turn, he grabbed the bar and beat me with it. I told him he got the job but changed the testing process after that.

James McKenna (Bubs; now lives and acts in Norway) I was 16, the youngest. I was going through a divorce with my parents and I’d left school because I was performing poorly academically and wasn’t getting on socially. I carried a lot of Bubs within me because there was a lot of anger inside. Geoffrey and Daniel [Scharf, the film’s producer] invited me to a car park. They had some rubber hose and I disarmed Geoff and slammed him against the wall.

Chris McLean (Luke; now a television producer and director in California) The audition was me and some other guy, while Geoffrey and [casting director] Greg Apps were playing police detectives. I’d been interviewed by the police before. My dad was a police officer and I went in the exact opposite direction. My mum died when I was 18 and I basically punched anyone in the face who stepped on my toes in the bar. I was working as a bouncer and punching people on the weekends. That’s just what guys and girls did in my world.

Wright There was pressure to cast Ben [Mendelsohn] as Hando because of his justifiably high standing. However, after seeing Proof, I knew Russell [Crowe]’s vibe would put the movie into overdrive.

John Brumpton (Magoo; also appeared in the 2018 television series sequel) When we put that uniform on we became a team, and hence we became hard to wrangle. I’ve just written a film [about a boxer] called Kid Snow and it didn’t click for me until they started shooting that, wow, it’s really hard to wrangle all these young men. It must have been the same with Romper Stomper.

Wright Dealing with a young cast is like dealing with young players on a football team. You let the older cast, like older players, share what they’ve learnt, and you keep an eye on the kids so they don’t get overwhelmed. You give them space for decision-making but you’re always there for them.

McLean I remember Geoffrey patting me on the back a lot. I think he identified I didn’t know what a mark was. I didn’t know the basic terminology. I don’t think there was a lot he needed to direct my character to do apart from punch people in the face, but I remember him being really loving and kind.

Tony Le-Nguyen (Tiger; now runs The Drama Lab in Vietnam) They asked me to audition with these inexperienced Vietnamese people who were going to be my gang members. They were students and everybody and anybody. I told Geoffrey off. I said, “Why are you auditioning me with these amateurs? I’m a professional.”

While many of the young cast had experienced violence, none had witnessed the kind of racist gang warfare of the film. Nevertheless, the idea of a gang without the rhetoric was appealing for some.

Le-Nguyen I grew up in Broadmeadows. I had experienced gang violence but mainly just with the Vietnamese gangs – Vietnamese versus Vietnamese.

McLean I’d never seen any real skinheads around. Geoffrey injected that.

Wright Skinheads most certainly were still around in the early 1990s … In fact, the Melbourne skinhead murderer, Dane Sweetman, who triggered the finalised version of Romper, committed his worst crimes in 1990, only two years before the film was released.

McKenna We met a skinhead who was rehabilitated and spoke to him for hours. I could see quite easily how someone could be sucked into that environment because I was disenfranchised and in search of a family.

Dan Wyllie (Cackles; also appeared in the sequel) There was an adherence to Taxi Driver method-style acting … a lot of chaotic male energy and people unified by having their head shaved. It’s such an interesting parallel between the acting and us as a group of kids being emboldened by the process. Russell was already on the rise – he’d done Proof and Spotswood – so he was wrangling everyone together as an alpha dog. I guess nowadays everyone would go to the gym together and get buff, but we’d go to pubs or Russell’s place, and he organised a boxing coach, at odds to the producers’ best wishes.

Daniel Scharf (producer; now a talent director) I went to a rehearsal one day and Russell was leading the guys around in a circle, all going “Sieg Heil!” I thought, “Er, I’m a nice Jewish boy and I think I’ll leave now.” I found that a little bit disconcerting, but I thought, “They’re going to act absolutely fine. I trust them implicitly.” The irony of it is, for some years I had people, even journos, coming up to me and saying, “Gee, how did you get those skinheads to act?” I’d say, “What are you talking about? They’re ac-tors!”

Frank Magree (Brent, now an actor and filmmaker) Russell put in so much preparation and he strongly encouraged us to stay in character and in our gang. We had fake tattoos and it was easier to keep them on. I had an SS insignia on my hand and the make-up artist had written her name on my neck. One night I went to the MCC [Melbourne Cricket Club] members bar and got some strange looks from the blue-suited set.

McLean Russell had baseball caps made up for us, each with T.B.T.U. embroidered, along with a rank insignia. Mine was Sergeant at Arms. The anagram came from a Cabaret song he had me sing, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, but he changed it to “Tomorrow Belongs To Us”.

Magree Russell had the words printed out so we could learn the choruses. We were about to do the first scene in Richmond railway station, which was being passed off as Footscray, and he gave some signal. Nobody knew on set we were going to do it; I think he wanted to set us apart from the crew. It was really eerie because Chris has this beautiful voice and there was fog everywhere, and then we all joined in on the chorus. My recollection is that the crew just went, “Are you fucking kidding me?” I seem to remember some of them rolling their eyes.

Brumpton One night we had some drinks with the cast and crew. It was a bit boring so some of us went to the Maori Chief, a pub down the road, to get pissed.

Wyllie The bar staff got antsy about us and called the cops. Johnny Brumpton copped a punch to the head getting into the paddy wagon and everyone else scurried away. I think some cop asked me what I was looking at. I said “Nothing” and then I was also in the paddy wagon.

Brumpton I’m looking through the grille of the paddy wagon and I see Russell running down the road and start arguing with the cops. Three or four of them grabbed him in a headlock.

Wyllie “Drunk in public” was the charge. Russell was trying to explain that we were just actors, but they wouldn’t have it. He was attempting to call Daniel Scharf, who I think was in bed watching reruns of A Country Practice. They chucked Russell in as well and he was fucking fuming. It was great.

Scharf I said to the police, “Can you make sure they have their taxi money?” Because unfortunately they had to stay there for a few hours.

Back on set, there was a sprawling fight scene to film: one that starts at a pub, spills into the streets and winds up at a warehouse, running to 13 minutes on screen. The late cinematographer Ron Hagen bombed it down the alleyways with his 16mm camera hoisted on his shoulder.

Wright The stunts in Romper might have looked reckless but they were all very calculated. Ron Hagen had a history of stunning handheld camera work and his style made the stunts look extra wild. Nobody got even a scratch.

Wyllie I remember the van rocking up and so many kids coming out of it; it was fucking terrifying. We were pumped up and they were pumped up, and they had quite a few incredible martial artists who I’m assuming could have decimated us … There were so many more of them, but we had the lead guy from Proof.

McLean The extras came barrelling out, all laughing for the first few takes, so it was “Cut!” “Cut!” Eventually, I think it was Russell [who] went up to Tony and said, “What’s something we can say to these guys so they stop laughing?” There was this suspension of disbelief for only so long – the minute someone who looks like a racist starts saying racist things to you, it fired most of them up.

Magree They’d padded this guy up but he said, “You’re kicking too hard!” I said, “Come on, mate, just take it.” In my next scene, some of the Vietnamese gang came around the corner on a scooter. They smacked me with a fake iron bar and I spilled into the bins, then they all started stamping on me. I didn’t have any pads on and because that guy had obviously given them the word, I had bruises on my arms and down my legs. I thought, “Good for you.”

Le-Nguyen I mean, you put a bunch of boys together and you ask them to be in character. Sometimes boys would have just a bit too much fun and an accident could happen. Look – no one died.

Wyllie I remember there were crash mats on concrete slabs – those thin gym mats, not the big pole-vaulting ones – and people falling off balconies and Chris McLean swinging nunchakus in a confined space. But the fight scenes were better for not having polish or cutaways. I’ve never experienced anything like it on set since. Think about having intimacy co-ordinators on set nowadays, let alone how you’d manage the fight sequences for OH&S insurance purposes.

If the fight scenes had elements of improvisation, then the party scene back at the warehouse went the whole hog. Wright had commissioned a skinhead soundtrack from composer John Clifford White – “We sure weren’t going to pay far-right bands for the use of their music” – which set the mood.

Scharf It was basically a free-for-all. I remember standing there with the stunt co-ordinator, who was one of the safety officers, and he looked at me and said, “Gee, this is going to be a really energetic and truthful scene.”

Brumpton There might have been a few drugs and drink going around.

Magree Daniel [Pollock, who played Davey] was one of these young prodigies from St Martins Youth Arts [Centre] who got into heroin. He didn’t hang out with us so much off set. When he showed up for the party scene, we were all really flying on speed and amped up from boxing training. He went to Geoffrey and said, “I think the boys should chill out a bit and maybe have a drink so they can relax.”

[Pollock, battling severe depression, took his own life prior to the film’s release.]

McKenna I had a sex scene that was flung on me the night before. I was a 16-year-old boy, so it was no problem, but similar to most of my sex life, it didn’t go as smoothly as it could have. I had to stay in position with skin-coloured underwear on, but they’d cut the back off, bless them. They used tape to hold the underwear together but because of the heat from the lamps, the glue started to melt and my testicles fell out. The wardrobe lady kept having to come up and tuck them back in, until someone came up with the fucking brilliant idea of using gaffer tape.

The final scene is Hando’s death, captured by a busload of Japanese tourists with cameras – which Wright says drew the most criticism. The most overt criticism came from The Movie Show’s David Stratton, who refused to rate the film. (His co-host, Margaret Pomeranz, gave it 4.5 stars.) In response, Geoffrey Wright threw a glass of wine at Stratton at the 1994 Venice International Film Festival.

Wright A wine chaser is a good cure for hangovers caused by drinking too much Kool-Aid.

Wyllie I saw David two years ago at Venice and I asked him, “What happened with that?” He said the after-parties were in Venice and it happened right here in this bar. I said, “Can we redo it?” So I took some photos of me chucking wine in his face.

Le-Nguyen It’s kind of fun as an actor, watching all that happen. The media was looking for “victims” to say things against the film, saying it shouldn’t glorify skinheads. Geoffrey and Daniel asked me to come in and have a chat … They needed someone from the Vietnamese side saying the film wasn’t exploiting anybody or creating stereotyped characters … For any artist, if you can make work that provokes questions so people can have a conversation, that’s a great start. So I didn’t really see what was the problem with the film, I only saw the positives.

McLean I don’t think I really thought about this at the time, but Geoffrey did a wonderful job in that he tells the story that these [Vietnamese–Australian youth] are normal family people working their fucking arses off. The people who attack them are jealous of people who come from nothing and create a financially sound life for themselves, while John Smith, whose dad works in the local fucking whatever, is on the dole. Geoffrey made great inroads to show all of that. Like the former gang member Flea, who joined the navy and is making a living – and they’re so disdainful to him.

Scharf The amount of material that was written up about it in the press is astonishing. Alan Finney at Roadshow did the most brilliant campaign – he rang me five minutes after seeing a screening and said, “We have to release this film.” Thirty years on, how many Australian films can you remember? Probably Romper Stomper and Strictly Ballroom.

Le-Nguyen During the opening week we were up against Basic Instinct. They were the only R-rated films on at the time and I think Basic Instinct lasted four weeks at the cinema and Romper lasted seven weeks. You feel proud of that for an Australian film. From a commercial angle, it started out as an arthouse film and got a mainstream release. It got federal and state government investment – about $1.6 million from the AFC [Australian Film Commission, now Screen Australia] and from Film Victoria [now VicScreen]. It was a risk – they cannot be perceived to be investing in a safe film, but also they cannot be perceived to be investing in a dangerous film. Romper being funded opened up a lot of opportunities for risk-taking films like [The Adventures of] Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Wyllie I didn’t realise how unique it was. It was two years before Once Were Warriors, and that was a similar confronting ilk. They’re very individual, indie-style guerilla films. It’s good that we can look at things in this way, from racism to gang violence and domestic violence and that ingrained cultural stuff.

Magree Before Romper Stomper I played guys next door, but I’ve mainly played bad guys and crims since.

McKenna Romper Stomper was very powerful to me, because it was cathartic. I was going through so many traumas, so I took a lot of it with me for a very long time – not politically, of course. The last day was memorable, because when I got shot in the head I was lost in the world and then I heard them say, “That’s a wrap for James McKenna”, and I realised it was over. I’d had a fractured family but I found a family within the group, so it was tough to let it go. If I had to warn any actors getting into the industry, that’s something you should be very aware of – there will be a big comedown. You get close to people and then you go your own ways. It’s the nature of the job.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Stomping ground".

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