The Romper Stomper Series : an interview with Peter Leiss  

In the shadow of Romper Stomper

Excerpts from Jeremy Vincent's interview with Peter Leiss from the June 1993 edition of the Victorian Arts Centre magazine, Stages.

As on the big screen, the still photographs from the film Romper Stomper are just as confronting. Jeremy Vincent interviews Peter Leiss, the man behind the camera. The controversial Australian film Romper Stomper comes to the Victorian Arts Centre this month. But it's not in moving picture form, rather in vivid black and white still photography by Peter Leiss, a former Melbourne resident now living in the U.S.A. His stark photographic images capture the violence and the passion of the film with remarkable results. Leiss chose 21 images for the exhibition at the Performing Arts Museum (1 May-11 July). They are his personal choice from the many he took during the film's eight week shooting schedule. "The images are intended to represent my interpretation of the urban gang," says Leiss. "In many respects the nature of an exhibition where the artist embarks on a project that is not their own concept, but a defined brief, has ironically given me the chance to free myself of the cerebral approach and explore the instinctive.“

Leiss, who was born in London but spent much of his early life first in Japan, then later in Melbourne, has his own thoughts about the film's subject matter. "I found it an interesting challenge to be allowed to explore the theme of racism and prejudice," he says, speaking from his home in Los Angeles, the city whose glamour and beauty was itself tarnished with the brutality of the Rodney King black versus white riots. "I don't particularly see 'Romper Stomper' as a racist film as some have made out. Making your characters afflicted with this form of identification does not make it the ideals of the film maker. Over all, I thought its narrative structure was objective, at least as far as you can be since film in general is an exploitative medium. it was sensitively handled and that it had a sensitive storyline. I didn't see it as promoting neo-Nazism as such. Sure, it has caused a bit of controversy. But by feeling so strongly that it's a negative film, you create that controversy and you are actually playing into the film's wide viewing element. You are making a lot of people see it." Leiss first made contact with the 'Romper Stomper' project through one of the film's co-producers, Ian Pringle, a long-time friend. The pair went to state school together and later collaborated on several small projects in film and theater in the early '70s and again after Leiss returned from a stint in Europe.

A former assistant film editor for the ABC and HSV7 in Melbourne, as well as a teacher of photography and filmmaking at RMIT, Leiss spent much of the '8Os in America, first in New York where he continued to study acting, and latterly in Los Angeles. These days he alternates between acting and still photographic work. "As far as any photographic commercial work is concerned, still photography is definitely the most interesting for me. I do enjoy its certain challenge. 'Romper Stomper' was a good one because it lent itself to the side-line exhibition which is something I always wanted to do and I knew this one would have all those attributes. Out of all the films I've done, this one allowed the film to have an exhibition quality to it without making it look like stills from a film.“

The challenge of a still photographer on a film is to capture images that are able to serve many purposes. "Experience has shown me that the heart and essence of the film only begins to emerge once filming commences, and each film presents a different challenge. Romper Stomper was no exception.

Primarily, the still photographer's images are to be used for publicity, but with this particular film I really had to think in a duality: what the production office wanted in the way of promotional material, the look that the film makers wanted; and at the same time working on the look and the feel that I wanted for my exhibition." He approached the daily shooting for his exhibition with more of a theatrical element in mind, more of what he calls a "photoistic reportage" of a skinhead gang.

His images do not look like stills from a film. The subject matter could be straight out of the news pages of a metropolitan daily. In fact Romper Stomper allowed itself to be different, to the point that when he showed the photographs to a New York gallery, keeping their connections to the film a secret, no one even considered that they were generated from the celluloid project. "The exhibition project was extremely rushed," he admits. "I only had a certain amount of time during filming to get the shots and when the film finished there was just a couple of weeks before I had to get back to New York." Working around the clock he put together the 24 images for his exhibition. "I felt there could have been a couple more, and there were. But I really had to edit the collection to get the feel of the show. I preferred less to make it a tighter show."

The images are a mixture of shots taken during filming (some 45 per cent) and others "set-up" hastily when time allowed before the actors had to move on to their next scheduled scene, "A stills photographer must always linger in the wings of the set like a shadow and not disrupt the work of the crew," he says. "Generally you are only allowed one or two minutes. You see what you want, you get your exposure, the type of lens that you want and you just go in and say, 'Can you recreate this or we can just alter this a little bit so that it works better for a still image.' Of course, some things may not work as well or at all for a still image. But you always have to fight for the time." Keen to completely oversee the photography project and to give himself the greatest control over the processed film, Leiss insisted on doing all the developing. Processing the week's film on a Friday evening, letting it dry overnight, contact-proofing on Saturday morning and printing immediately. Ironically, after all his care to supervise the processing of the film to his exact specifications, he lost control of the situation in the final instance when the negatives, on their way to America for promotional purposes, were lost in the mail.

Exhibitions of the Romper Stomper Series
The Photographers' Gallery Melbourne Nov 21 - Dec 19, 1992
Performing Arts Museum Melbourne May 1 – July 11, 1993
FAD Gallery Melbourne October 1 – 29, 1997