14 May 2009 - 12:00 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM


Romper Stomper director GEOFFREY WRIGHT took more than a few risks in transplanting Shakespeare's MACBETH to modern Melbourne's criminal underworld, but that's all in a day's work for this outspoken Aussie iconoclast. BY FILMINK'S ERIN FREE

Filmmaker Geoffrey Wright is close to being the perfect interview subject: he's articulate, intelligent and expansive in his answers. But most importantly, he's got opinions, and he isn't scared to express them. Whereas most directors dance around the edges of controversy, Wright wades in, delivering razored statements without fear or favour. He's weathered the storms of controversy before, firstly with his explosive feature debut Romper Stomper – which made Russell Crowe a star but rode claims of racism and rampant insensitivity – and then with the disappointment of the much dimmer cinematic fires that would follow: the little seen local street racing drama Metal Skin and Cherry Falls, his barely released foray into American slasher territory. “When you're a little fish in a big pond, the big fish push you around – if it doesn't happen to one aspect of production, it happens to another,” says Wright of his Hollywood experience, sipping on his first coffee of the morning. “You can't complain about it; you just have to grin and bear it.”

With Macbeth – the modern Melbourne gangland reinterpretation of Shakespeare's classic play – starring Sam Worthington in the title role, along with Victoria Hill, Lachy Hulme, Gary Sweet, Mick Molloy and a host of other big names – Geoffrey Wright has again put noses out of joint. For every critic who praised the film's bravery and wildness of spirit, another would condemn it as an exercise in stupidity. Like everything he's ever done, Macbeth – with its Australian accented Shakespearean dialogue, masses of blood spray and kinky sex – put people on either side of the fence, with absolutely nobody getting splinters in their arse sitting in the middle.

“Everybody on the film was aware that they were dealing with a sacred cow,” says Wright. “We knew the response would be, in some areas, stupefied. I thought Sam Worthington took extraordinary risks. Macbeth is not Henry V; he is not a valiant prince, he is a very flawed human being. People forgot that when they evaluated the film. Sam had to interpret it in a way that was somehow modern, and that wasn't just about the guns and the costumes. Plus, we'd seen versions of Shakespeare done with a Cockney accent, and we were certain that Shakespeare wouldn't object to an Aussie accent.”

Though Shakespeare – who in his day was the most populist and accessible of writers – may not have objected to an Aussie putting a new spin on his words, many of this country's critics did object, and hurled more than a few slings and arrows in Wright's direction. “Despite the protests of a lot of the more stuffy figures of the film reviewing department, we proceeded alone those lines,” Wright says. “Otherwise we'd be a bunch of Aussie actors pretending to be Kenneth Branagh and that'd be ridiculous. Everybody came with the accents they had, and I didn't ask them to be anything they weren't. We got a lot of emails from kids telling us how much they enjoyed the film, telling us, 'Don't worry about [critics] Jim Schembri and Peter Craven. These guys don't know anything – they're holding up a memory of Shakespeare from their high school days'.”

Despite finding favour and the beginnings of what may grow into a cult audience, Macbeth, like so many Australian films of the period, died a quick death at the local box office. Wright tries to put his finger on the reasons. “The really popular films get a lot of attention – and rightfully so – but the more complex and difficult films – and Macbeth is one of the more difficult films released in a long, long time – can struggle domestically, and we did. Add to that bad timing with the release date, and one problem compounds the other – all of a sudden, the film becomes an obscurity. A lot of people said to me, 'Oh, we wanted to see your movie, but it just came and went.' You can't wait four weeks to see an Australian film. If you want to see an Australian film, you have to get out there straight away. It's a ruthless jungle out there and we don't have enough players. There are a lot of titles coming through very few distributors. It's just a lemming jump off a cliff now and it's tragic to watch, because no one film gets the attention it deserves.”

Though Wright says that he's more than happy to take it on the chin when it comes to insults hurled his way, he responds like a lion protecting his cubs when discussion turns to the critics who attacked his young actors, particularly Sam Worthington as Macbeth. “Sam Worthington should go and start his career in Hollywood and tell them all to get fucked,” Wright sneers. “Especially At The Movies! That hag gave us zero and attacked him and I thought, 'You stupid, miserable old bag!' This is a kid that went out on a limb and gave a really stunning, unusual performance on a sacred cow text and this is the way you react? This is what you do to the young, emerging talent of this country? No wonder they can't wait to get to Hollywood where they are appreciated! And they get snapped up in a heartbeat. It doesn't matter because Sam's future is now assured, and it's worth more than any attention he might have gotten from any critic or any accolade that might have been handed out.”

Sam Worthington's future is indeed assured, with him being tapped by Hollywood heavyweight James Cameron (Titanic) to star in his mega-budget sci-fi epic Avatar. The director allegedly cast the young actor in large part because of his work in Macbeth, and that's just one of the positives to come out of the film, despite its critical excoriation.

Macbeth allowed Wright to further experiment with emerging digital technologies, which paid off enormous dividends. “It wouldn't be possible to shoot Macbeth on anything but high-def,” he says. “It had two great advantages: with sprockets you have to preserve stock, while with high-def you can preserve shots and the cost will be negligible, so stock is no longer an issue. The other advantage is that the cost you save in stock you can put into design. We got the AFI award for costume design and the money we saved went right into the costume department. I was wondering if they would notice, and they did. High-def makes ordinary fabrics and textures much more than they actually are.”

Despite a perceived bitterness, Wright is keen to assure FILMINK that it's not all doom and gloom in his corner of the filmmaking world. “I love working here,” he says emphatically before signing off. “I love it. Obviously I get financial security out of working in the States, but I get a big buzz out of working in Australia. So it's one kind of ice cream or the other, you know? Look, I hope I didn't sound too negative in this talk. The reviews that were nasty didn't even watch the movie; it was just the idea of Aussies doing Shakespeare. We've got junk TV, an economy that rides on the back of commodity prices – when are we going to start to feel that we can do all sorts of different things? There's no reason why we can't tackle everything and it doesn't have to be kitchen sink drama, it just doesn't. We have to learn that there is an intellectual life to this country; it's not just about sporting events.”