ABSTRACT

I was sent Romulus, My Father by the film’s producer, Robert Connolly. He told me Richard Roxburgh, he and John Maynard (of Arena Films) were looking for a screenwriter and I read it with that in mind. But I fell in love with the book in its own right. I read it cover to cover in one sitting, unwilling and unable to put it down; I was utterly transfixed by it. The profound relationship between father and son, the tragic events that overwhelmed them, the luminous landscapes, and the remembrance of lost things of such beauty and grief, were all the more moving for the lyrical power, elegiac compassion and calm wisdom – the gravity and the grace – of the voice of the writer. As has happened with many other readers, and for many different reasons,

the book resonated powerfully with aspects of my own life. I had a strong, no doubt subjective, feeling of recognition: Romulus and Christina, Hora and Mitru seemed familiars, if at several removes, of my own family. My father – Czech, proud, unaccountable, in many ways unknowable, a career soldier who had settled for the disappointing English suburbia of the 1960s and after – had recently died. I had witnessed all my life my Czech grandmother’s often-desperate failure to adapt to London; the way her sense of herself gradually frayed into madness was in part, at least, a consequence of exile from her own language and place. I didn’t know, back then, that Rai had specifically asked Robert to find a

European poet, preferably with some eastern or central European heritage, to adapt his memoir to the screen. Lucky me; although I had worked in the film business as a commissioning editor, I was a first-time screenwriter; my published works at the time amounted to no more than a book of poems (The Man in the White Suit) and a short play (Mr Sweet Talk). When Rai later told me this, I laughed in amazement, and then pondered my amazing fortune; it must be the first time a screenwriter had ever been commissioned to write a film on such an unlikely set of criteria. To me, however, it felt like destiny. I knew I had to write this screenplay, and somehow I had to persuade the producers that I was the one for the task. I met Robert and discussed my ideas with him; and then I met the director,

Richard Roxburgh, and we spent some time talking to make sure the film I

had begun to imagine in my head was also the one he saw in his mind’s eye. We both agreed, crucially, that it would be Rai’s story, and that this young boy must be the emotional centre of the whole film. And then I had a very memorable, important dinner – the first of many – with Rai and Yael. I gave him a copy of my book of poems, and said: ‘If you don’t like this, I don’t know what we’re going to do.’ Fortunately he did like them. I felt we were good friends from the start. For a while I really didn’t know what I was doing, or how to begin. I had a

strong instinct about what sort of film I could write from the book; what it might look like, what might be surprising and moving about it, and what, among all the rich aspects and elements of the book, might make a drama which would engage a cinema audience. I read the book over and over, just letting it all simmer at the back of my head, and made doodles of ideas and thoughts in my notebook, hoping this was not time wasting of a grand order. And then one morning I quickly wrote the opening scene, in which Rai watches Romulus use a large, old-fashioned light bulb to bring some bees, frozen by the winter frost, back to life. Richard had pointed out the potential of this image in the book, and once I realized the film could begin here – father and son engaged in a small, strangely practical ritual of resurrection, together, in the shed – I felt very excited. It seemed to set the tone of the film that I was beginning to imagine in detail. I think of it as a little film-poem, a prelude to the world of the story, and I hope it contains, in miniature, much of the heart of the story. And in the finished film it remains more or less as I wrote it (although the flashbacks intercut into it, sketching the story of the family arriving at Frogmore, were cut and used later in the film). So I felt I had a beginning that told me something about the tone and feel

of the whole film. But the real work still confronted me; by this I mean the challenge of solving the whole complex emotional, dramatic and cinematic equation Richard and I had set ourselves. For how were we going to adapt a memoir that moves fluidly backwards and forwards over entire lifetimes, with a beautiful dimension of profound emotional and philosophical reflection, into an intensely emotional drama, with a tragic evolution, set against an epic landscape, that takes place over three summers, with the young Rai at the heart of the story? And how were we going to do this, while remaining – as we wished to be – ‘truthful’ to the book? At the start Richard and I made some key decisions that shaped the

whole film. Richard, Robert and I had always felt strongly that we wanted the film to tell the story from the point of view, more or less, of the young Rai. Richard felt too that we should cast only one actor to play Rai – not a Shine-like, three-actor, whole-lifetime arc. (In the first draft I did dramatize the very end of Romulus’ life, because I found those scenes so intensely moving. But Richard was right to say they didn’t ultimately work for the film as a whole.) We imagined how one young actor could carry the story’s emotional tensions in himself; we imagined a young face so remarkable that the audience could read in it the effect of everything that happened in the story.

(And so it proved, for, miraculously, Kodi Smit-McPhee did all of this and more.) This meant that the timescale for the drama could only be a plausible

number of years for that one young actor to play. And there had to be something emotionally essential about that particular passage of time. So we decided to start the story when Rai was aged eight or so, and follow him through until about eleven; because that made sense in terms of shaping the key plot and emotional elements of the book, and because through those years there is often a quantum leap of change and self-awareness – although of course, the events in Rai’s young life that precipitated this were exceptionally tragic. So, motivated by our love of the book, and our belief in the film we were

imagining, we were already shaping the material to our own dramatic purpose. I had to simplify and reduce all the toings and froings that happened over many years in the book, between several different locations (Frogmore, St Kilda, Castlemaine), to a much more condensed sequence of journeys for Rai between the cardinal points of his emotional world: his father and his mother. Gradually it became clear we could recompose the time structure so that all the main emotional events that overwhelmed the adults could happen, plausibly and powerfully, over three summers. We were adapting historical time to dramatic time; this concentration of

events was necessary for the tragic drama to have its most powerful effects. But this was inevitably also a creative tension; we were answerable to the dramatic (and tragic) imperative, but we struggled – tried – never to neglect the biographical source. In doing so we were trying to grasp something elusive but essential at the heart of the story, with the available vocabulary of the form of cinema. This was not just about making dramatic and aesthetic choices (although it was those things too), but something more fundamental to do with the nature of the process; the screenplay had to find answers and solutions to those things the form of cinematic drama requires, while also carrying forward the essential truths of the book – and of Rai’s memory of his life and his people. Adaptation is the commonly used word for this process, but it does not seem to me the best word to describe its complex reality. I prefer ‘transposition’; as in music you might transpose something from the violin to the piano – entirely different expressive possibilities to do with the different natures and qualities of the instruments – so here we were transposing between forms, from the fluid, reflective prose of the book into the three-act drama of a film. As I worked, I kept Rai in my mind as the ideal reader over my shoulder,

reminding me this was not a ‘story’, this was ‘life’. Many films include a frame after the opening credits which says ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events’ or some other variant of the formula. Now I began to understand just how complex and ambiguous the relationship could really be in the strange, potentially wonderful, and endlessly variable symbiosis of ‘life’ and ‘story’. Rai was especially (and naturally) interested in the philosophical issues of truth and truthfulness that arise from a film adaptation of a book

which is itself a memoir that began life as a funeral oration for his father – a rather wonderful evolution through different forms from life itself, into memory (personal history), then memoir, and then film. He has written very eloquently about this in his marvellous, generous introduction to the published screenplay. I hesitate to set foot in this complex philosophical territory, other than through describing my personal experience of the process of writing. From the start Rai was generously encouraging in his understanding of the complexity and the paradoxes of the task, and my need to discover a resolution between fidelity to the book (and the lives it describes) and the imperative to write a film that fulfilled itself in its own terms – and for cinema audiences who might not have read the book. I wrote the first draft without ever having set foot in Australia. But before I

started the second, I flew from London to Melbourne and went to stay with Rai in the Central Victorian countryside. We drove up together, both of us with jet lag (we had arrived on the same morning, on different planes), and moved into his beautiful, just-finished straw-bale house built on a rise of land with open panoramas in every direction. I found this new landscape entrancingly powerful. During the next few days he took me to all the locations in the book. The places that had existed in my imagination suddenly became vividly, sometimes disconcertingly, real. It was the end of the summer. We went to the Maryborough graveyard twice, on baking hot afternoons, and I stood in the company of my shadow, at the graves of Romulus, Mitru, Christina and Hora. This was a very confronting experience. It gave me an acute sense of their reality as people, and of the value of their memory, to which (as someone who knew them only through the mediation of the memoir, and other photographs and letters Rai kindly shared with me), I was going to try to do justice – to pay my respects, if you like. Perhaps that sounds a bit pious, but I really mean it. Rai also took me several times to Frogmore. As we drove up the track I felt

I was arriving in a mythical land – a place that up until this moment had existed for me only as writing. I felt I was approaching a shrine, as we walked towards the clump of peppercorn trees that hid the derelict ruins of the farmhouse. But I must admit – perhaps because of the shock of the heat, and the buzzing flies in the corrugated air, and the sad dereliction (I have a photo of Rai holding up the front door handle, which he found among the towers of nettles) – I didn’t immediately like the place. It felt alien, remote, harsh and sad. Rai saw this, and took me back later in the day when the early evening light transformed the great passages of space and grass and sky into the transcendently beautiful countryside he describes so movingly in the book. In that light, I realized I could fall in love with the place too. Nevertheless, that first tough perception helped me enormously to understand how extraordinarily hard it must have been for Christina, a sophisticated city girl, to adapt to such isolating, alien territory. All of these things, clarifying and enforcing my grasp of the reality, and the detail of the reality of the book, fed into the writing.