22 May 2009 - 10:13 AM  UPDATED 24 Mar 2014 - 11:15 AM

Richard Roxburgh – Romulus, My Father

RICHARD ROXBURGH has a changed perspective on life, and that includes his darkly forceful directorial debut ROMULUS, MY FATHER. BY FILMINK'S JULIAN SHAW

Richard Roxburgh just isn't picking up the phone. FILMINK has been dialing for 45-minutes-and-counting, but it appears that this particular interview might be the one that got away. Finally though, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of reverting to voice message, the phone actually rings through. And it is answered. Except instead of Roxburgh's dry Australian mid-tones, all that can be heard is the braying quall of a baby. About four seconds of crying and the line conks out.

The call is returned moments later. “I'm so sorry, baby troubles,” Richard Roxburgh laughs apologetically down the line. Enough said. Whilst a professional through-and-through, the incident is a wee hint at where Roxburgh's priorities are these days: with his family, where they should be.

The last time that FILMINK met with Roxburgh, he was crouched outside St. Stephens Church in Newtown, a silvery autumn day in 2005. It was his lunch break from rehearsing the play Ray's Tempest, and he unpicked a bright orange whilst verbally unpicking his career. Bubbling away at the back of his mind, yet plain to see for the discerning, were the anxieties and motivations coming to a head with his directorial debut, Romulus, My Father. That day he had the faint air of a man possessed, though you get the feeling that Roxburgh is loathe to affect any tone other than a laidback sang-froid that is unmistakably from our corner of the world.

The harvest of that obsession is now for audiences to see, and it's a surprisingly moody and scathing character study. A lushly lensed period piece, Romulus, My Father is headed by a bravura double-act from Eric Bana, now a seasoned veteran, and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee, all ten years of him. Put crudely, it's an immigrants-in-Australia story, with the two aforementioned actors playing a father-and-son pair who navigate the brutal mores of rural Victoria, while wife-and-mother Christina (Franka Potente) metaphorically twists the knife into both family members when fortunes start to sour.

New father Roxburgh is happy enough to indulge what will soon become a hoary cliche: having given birth twice in recent months, once to a film and once to a baby boy. “It is really quite a year so far,” he admits. “The most amazing thing is that the gestation of Romulus was so long, and directing a film is a famously intense experience… but everything pales into the background when compared to having a baby.”

From where he sits now (specifically, in his living room, fresh from nappy duty), you get the sense that Romulus might feel trivial? “Well, yeah, I've poured so much of my life into it – it's certainly not a trivial thing, but I couldn't have conceived of something that would have pushed it so far to the side, let alone a tiny individual who is 57 centimetres long!”

Yet there's no forgetting the slog it's taken to get this far. “I had to be pretty devotional to get it out there. There were definitely some 'Romulo-centric' years sandwiched in between my acting work! It's eight years since I read the book and said 'I'm going to make a film of this'.”

And in those eight intervening years, did the task ever seem insurmountable? The rakish director is surprisingly clear-cut with his response. “Do you know what? It never really did. I always thought this was going to happen. I felt particularly determined in that regard and no matter what, it was going to happen and I would make sure that it happened. Some people felt I should probably do a short film but I never really wanted to make a short film and I didn't want to direct other films either. I just wanted to tell this story.”

Obviously the vital cog in the film is the titular character, Romulus, a farmer and devoted father enduring tough times. Roxburgh surprisingly hadn't considered Eric Bana for the lead role, even after Hulk had increased the Aussie actor's profile. “Eric came in as a sort of surprise thought,” Roxburgh offers. “It was like a bolt out of the blue because we had a lot of trouble thinking about who to cast. We were frankly struggling with it until I woke up with the thought in my head of Eric Bana. That was four years ago. We sent it to him with the book. But he took a long time getting back to us, and we thought we'd lost him. But apparently he just kept reading it and reading it! He responded to it on a very, very personal level. I have to say though, at the time it wasn't his increasing exposure that was driving my interest in him for the role. It was just that it was him and in the stuff that I'd seen him do I saw glimmers of exactly what would be required in Romulus.”

As a first time director, Roxburgh broke the cardinal rule: don't work with kids and animals. “Young Kodi Smit-McPhee is a very special human being,” Roxburgh enthuses. “He can come up with surprisingly pertinent and witty remarks when dealing with adults, and in a non-precocious way. How he balanced all these plates in the air is incredible. And yet between takes of measuring up to Eric he could just be a nine-year-old wanting to have a ride on the dolly with the grips!” It was an impressive audition that led to the casting of the future star. “What struck me about him was that he had a lot of empathy as a person,” Roxburgh recalls. “He'd researched the film and researched the story and he told the story when I auditioned him. It was incredible hearing a nine-year-old deliver the essential core of this story in his way, and with a profound understanding of the pain in the story.”

Pain is definitely the word. As Romulus, My Father rolls through its bruising intergenerational story, tears should flow freely from local audiences. But can the film be accused of too much darkness? “It has been, and my response is 'Yes, it is dark.' Romulus, My Father is a journey into darkness but my hope is that the humanity of the individuals in the story is enough of a life raft to carry you along.”

As we go to sign off on the belated interview, the rising baby wail can be heard again. Any departing salvos on the year that has brought two first children? “Well, that baby you hear is my first child. I've had these couple of months off for the birth of the baby boy and I don't think there's any more important time than this. So I've wanted to be here more than anything. At the moment it's all about him.” But soon there comes a line that subtly mixes weariness and enthusiasm, a mixture of “bring it on” and “oh dear, here we go again.” “I can assure you,” Roxburgh half-sighs, half-smiles, “I'll be back on the horse shortly…”