Raimond Gaita on his one regret in allowing ‘Romulus’ to be adapted to the big screen and the wine, (prescription) drugs and friendships which made him do it.
Related: Gaita’s literary prize not Jack
RAIMOND Gaita never wanted his award-winning memoir ‘Romulus my Father’ made into a movie.
When he appears at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival this weekend he will have just one hour to describe how he was convinced to hand over the intimate story of his childhood – which includes his mother’s suicide and his father’s descent into madness – to a cast of strangers.
Yet the whole story, as he explained to the Bendigo Advertiser from his home in Baringhup, would be a lengthy affair.
“It took more than six years,” Mr Gaita said of the process.
Convincing Mr Gaita to overcome this unease took an international flight, a poet, a handful of pills and and a few bottles of very good quality red.
The end result, according to Mr Gaita, was a feature film which sacrificed key themes in his book and yet explored parts of his life which were untouched even in his own version of events.
In the title role of the 2007 movie, Eric Bana played a sterner and far more taciturn man than the real Romulus, who saw conversation as the essence of being human. The movie altered scenes to make sex and violence more explicit – Raimond’s father would never strike his boy in the head as he does in the film, in reality Hora killed some chickens to save the rest of the flock from disease, not all from pent-up frustration.
But the film also picked up some threads left unexplored in the memoir.
Both are an ode to the unshakable bond between Romulus and his friend Hora. Yet it is left to the film to explore the sexual tension between Hora and Raimond’s mother, Christine.
IT WAS largely because of Christine that Mr Gaita refused movie rights to’ ‘Romulus’ for years after it was released to critical acclaim in 1998.
“I was reluctant, partly because it’s very hard to portray madness on the one hand in a way which is sympathetic, but also without sentimentality,” he said.
The young Raimond Gaita grew up in intimate proximity to mental illness. It afflicted both his parents and several of their friends, including Vacek, who lived among boulders in the Moolort Plains and cooked food in urine.
“To [portray mental illness] with just one person would be hard enough... but to pull it off with three I thought would be enormously difficult,” Mr Gaita said.
Vacek ended up an “amiable” side character in the film but was crucial to the book’s portrayal of the virtues of Hora and Romulus.
“They treated Vacek without a trace of condescension, Mr Gaita said.
“I’m now 69 and I could count on the fingers of one hand people who are capable of that kind of behaviour.”
“I thought, if people can’t do this in real life, how on Earth are actors going to respond adequately in the film?”
Many thought they could – so many in fact that Mr Gaita’s manager began to reject movie offers out of hand, telling her then London-based client about it afterwards.
So Mr Gaita was impressed when Australian actor Richard Roxburgh made it past the gatekeeper.
“Richard phoned and asked ‘can I come over to London to talk about the film rights?’” Mr Gaita recalled.
“I said ‘no’... if you come all this way I’ll really feel I’m indebted to you.”
But the would-be director was undeterred. He booked his flight regardless and did so with two things in his favour – a reputation for his role in the acclaimed Company B production of Hamlet and two “really good” bottles of wine. Still it wasn’t enough.
“[So] he said, ‘well what if I just write a screenplay?’ and I thought, ‘gosh you’ve got to be really mean to say no to such a modest request after he’d come with such good wine from the other side of the world.”
It was, however, by no means a free licence.
“I wrote a most ruthless contract… I was worried that I might have a gut feel that it was wrong and not be able to articulate it.”
ARTICULATION also proved a stumbling block for Mr Roxburgh. Despite winning the trust of Mr Gaita, the screenplay didn’t meet their expectations.
Mr Roxburgh moved back to the director’s role and the pair tried a succession of talented Australian screenwriters, all without success.
“I [then asked] that the screenwriter be a poet and someone with a European sensibility, who would understand the immigrant characters,” Mr Gaita said.
Mr Gaita recalled being bed-ridden and hallucinatory due to bad back and painkillers when Nick Drake first gave him a copy of his work.
“I read it and I was moved to tears by it... then I thought, ‘oh maybe it’s just the tablets and I have tears in my eyes anyway!”
By then it was too late – the English-Czech poet was drafted for the job.
HE SPOKE with admiration for the screenwriter and director’s adaptation of his book, but in the end it was a scene involving mental illness which Mr Gaita now identifies as his one regret of the movie.
“There was scene in the book and in every draft of the screen play until a couple of weeks before shooting,” he said.
“I suspect the cut was kept from me because I would have objected to it.”
The scene depicts Christine asking Raimond if he too could hear voices, and Mr Gaita said if kept would have explained the extent of his mother’s psychosis.
“I called Richard immediately after I saw the film and I said, ‘why did you cut that scene?,” Mr Gaita said.
The director said it would have been seen as melodramatic. Mr Gaita lamented that his mother would be regarded by viewers as a “bitch”.
“He said they shouldn’t to which I replied, well whether they should or they shouldn't is neither here nor there, they will… and they did.”
MR GAITA will join the author of ‘Tracks,’ Robyn Davidson, in a discussion on turning cherished books into films from 12:30pm at The Capital Theatre.
Both films will be screened at The Capital, with ‘Tracks’ on Saturday at 10am and 2pm and ‘Romulus’ on Saturday at 12pm and Sunday 10am.