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Interview with Nick Drake

Nick Drake is a poet, playwright and novelist. His collection of poetry The Man in the White Suit won the Waterstone’s/Forward Prize Best First Collection Award. His work also includes the collection From the Word Go, the plays Mr Sweet Talk and To Reach the Clouds and the novel Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead, the first of a trilogy of historical novels set in 18th century Egypt.

Romulus, My Father is Nick’s first screenplay. During his visit to Australia for the opening of the movie, he talked to us about the adaptation process, his time in Australia and his future projects.

Do you remember when you read Raimond Gaita’s memoir for the first time?

I do remember very well. I was on a train coming back from Scotland when I began to read it – and from the first page, I felt that I was in the presence of a really wonderful book. And more than that I felt a personal connection with it: partly because my family are immigrants as Rai’s family were, partly because his father in some ways reminded me of my own – that very principled way of a person who had come from another country and established himself in a new place. I was very moved by it and I knew straight away that there was a film in it, because the characters were so strong and the way they struggle with each other and relate to each other is fundamentally dramatic – even though the book isn’t a drama.

Had you read the book before you were asked to write the screenplay for it?

I was sent the book by the producer Robert Connolly, so I knew they were looking for a screenwriter and I read it with that in mind, I suppose. But I didn’t have the job at that point. I had to meet Robert and talk to him and I met the director Richard Roxburgh and we spent some time together to make sure that we understood each other and we talked eye to eye about what sort of film we were going to make. And then I had to meet Rai who understandably was concerned about who was going to be adapting his life and his people, but fortunately we got on extremely well.

Did you know that Raimond Gaita wanted a European poet to adapt his memoir to the screen?

No, he told me later which I found very funny, because nobody has ever been hired on that basis in the history of screenwriting.

Why do you think he was looking for that?

Well, his horror would have been to lose the integrity and truthfulness of what he had written to a movie – and that happens all the time – so I think he felt that if he got someone with a sensibility a bit like his, someone who had an interest in language and an interest in people rather than an interest in being a screenwriter as such, he would be on a better bet and hopefully that’s true.

Did your father’s experience as an immigrant in the UK give you a better understanding of the story?

Yes, it really made a huge difference. I felt there was a real parallel between myself and Rai and my father and Rai’s father. And both of those men suffered a great deal in their lives and lived life with a kind of stoic bravery. So there was something I really knew there. I couldn’t say that any particular detail of my life has gotten into the screenplay, but I emotionally connected with it and it allowed me to start and write the scenes.

Romulus, My Father is your first screenplay – was it hard to adapt from writing poetry and novels to writing for the screen?

It was hard in some ways – except that I had worked in the movies before, on the other side of the fence and commissioned and developed films as an editor, so I knew something about it. But then of course there is a huge difference from what you know as an editor and what you have to do as a writer. So for a while I didn’t really know what I was doing. And then one day I just had to start and write the first draft. Once I had the opening image of the bees I felt I knew what the film was going to feel like and what kind of film it was going to be. The main technical problem was to get from something that moves fluidly backwards and forwards over lifetimes, to something that takes place over three years, with the boy as the central character.

How d id you decide which parts of the book you wanted to focus on and which parts to leave out?

The first thing that really helped me to decide that was talking to Richard Roxburgh who decided we were only going to have one actor playing the young Rai which meant that the period of time for the drama could only be a plausible amount of time for that boy to play. So it was going to be three years and we were going to start him off at nine, partly because that made sense in terms of the book, partly because that’s a certain kind of age – to go from nine to eleven – there is a fundamental shift of personality at that age. If we had started him off at thirteen he would already have lost some of his innocence. And it is so important that he starts at a place of innocence before he goes on that rather terrifying journey. So once we decided that, I knew I had to structure all the events within three summers.

In his introduction to the screenplay Raimond Gaita mentions that there are scenes in the film that weren’t in the book. When and how did you decide to bring these scenes in?

They came about on their own accord really, because after a while the screenplay becomes its own thing and detaches from the book. What Rai says is that there are many things in the screenplay that didn’t happen as they happened, but he says the spirit of truth is in every scene, which is very important to me. On the one hand we needed the independence to create the film, it couldn’t just be a reflection of the book, but on the other hand it had to be truthful to the spirit of the book. Most of it comes from a line or a little scene or a reflection which I have then borrowed and turned into what I needed it to be.

How much influence did Raimond Gaita have on the screenplay?

He saw all the major drafts, and we talked through most of them – he commented on all of them. Sometimes he was commenting on points of fact, sometimes he was commenting on areas of a character that I hadn’t got right. For example Hora took me a long time to get right, but Christina I found easier to get right. And sometimes we would talk about – or debate, really – about scenes that he thought were crucial to the themes of the story, that had to be in there and yet I was struggling to find a place for them in the drama.

Had you been in Australia before you started working on the screenplay?

No. Funnily enough I hadn’t.

What was it like to see the actual landscape Raimond Gaita’s memoir is set in?

It changed everything, really. I wrote a first draft of the screenplay before I came here and once I had done that the producers flew me over and I spent time with Rai in the countryside, going to all the places that I mentioned in the screenplay and that was very important. Partly because I had a direct experience of the landscape that these characters were trying to live in – it made me understand how difficult it was for Christina as a sophisticated German city woman to arrive at a place like this and make sense of herself. In a sense she was doomed from the moment she got off the ship. So it was a very important thing. The landscape itself I thought was beautiful, wonderful. But I think a lot of European immigrants found it unbearable. I think they missed the greenery, the deciduous forests of Europe which is what they were growing up with.

Rai also took me to the graveyard where his family is buried, so I stood on the graves of these people and I realised that I was writing them back into life. And once you have done that you have a huge sense of responsibility to the truth of their story.

What are you planning to do next?

I am going to adapt Stasiland by Anna Funder as a play for the National Theatre which is also quite brilliant. And I am going to write a new project for Richard Roxburgh to direct. We are calling it our revenge comedy – not revenge tragedy. It is about bad people doing very bad things, so it is going to be a very different moral universe to Romulus, My Father. It is based on a story a friend told me about his own family who come from a place near Dubbo, and once he told it to me I couldn’t get it out of my head, it seemed so terrifying and so hilarious at the same time. So that’s my next big project.

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