PJ Hogan is one of Australia’s most successful directors both at home and in Hollywood – he’s helmed “Muriel’s Wedding”, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Peter Pan”, among several others.
Now he’s reuniting with Toni Collette who stars in “Mental” – a film about a woman who storms into a suburban family’s life when their mother is taken to a psychiatric ward. It’s at the same time outrageously funny, poignantly sad and cleverly witty – undoubtedly one of Australia’s finest comedies this year.
Hugh Humphreys sat down with PJ Hogan in Sydney, and talked about the film.
Well PJ, I loved “Mental”. It was a portrayal of mental illness as something funny and candid that I’ve never seen before. How long have you had this idea to turn it into a film?
Well, Shaz was based on a real person who I met when I was 12 years old. My mother had had a nervous breakdown. We woke up one morning and wanted breakfast, and noticed there was no mother. So we finally got up the courage to go up to dad – who was very formidable – and ask where mum was, and he said she was “on holiday”. He just said that, and that it was the official story. He was in the local government and running for re-election. And he said, “nobody will vote for someone whose wife’s bonkers”. So we toed the line, but remained ratbags. And my dad, he must’ve snapped as well because he picked up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. And when we got home from school, there was this strange woman sitting on the couch, rolling a cigarette with a hunting knife sticking out of her boot and her dog snarling beside her. And she said “Bit of a mess in here, isn’t it?” and made us clean!
Of all things…
And that was the original Shaz. And I had no idea that I could be a filmmaker back then, but when I started making movies, I began talking about the character of Shaz to Toni Collette on the set of “Muriel’s Wedding”.
That long ago?
Yep, that long ago. Because Toni would ask if my family was really like that in “Muriel’s Wedding” and I told her I’d left out the best part – which was Shaz! And I’ve been telling Shaz stories for years, because she remains the most inspiring, outrageous and craziest person I’ve ever met. And because I met her so young, she was pivotal in raising me. When my mum came home from the psych unit, Shaz still lived with us for another 6 months. My mum loved Shaz! And still to this day, I don’t think my mother was actually crazy, as Shaz says in the movie, “the only reason you’re put away and I’m out here is because I never let anyone say I’m crazy”, and I think that actually is true. Shaz was aggressive about her normality, and being seen as normal.
And she was also the first person who looked at my siblings and I and thought we were normal. Our dad thought we were all a bunch of losers, but Shaz taught us it was better to be a black sheep than a sheep. And I’ve taken that philosophy into my life.
How much of Shaz has influenced you in what you do now? The films you make, and things like that.
Shaz’s message was to live loud and proud. And as a storyteller, I keep digging into the well of my past because nothing as interesting has happened to me since. I tell people and they don’t believe the stories! And every family I’ve met, I think is a little bit crazy and not normal. I don’t think normal even exists! If you think you know what normal is, good for you – but you’re probably boring!
I noticed in the movie sitting in the audience – we’d all laugh and then catch ourselves because we were laughing at such non-politically correct things. But it was so funny and honest, and we’ve all seen people like that and can relate to it.
I think the film’s success is its authenticity. You are laughing but then you realise you’re laughing at something bad- but because the characters are so real and people know them – or are even that themselves – you go, “It’s ok, I’m going with it”. And I tried to be as politically incorrect as possible and as outrageous as I could. Political correctness to me, when it’s applied to issues of mental health, it’s such a bad thing. Because it’s just another way of saying don’t talk about it. Which is ridiculous. I’m not going to be told how to address mental illness. I have 2 autistic kids, a schizophrenic sister, and you’ve just got to laugh about it otherwise you go nuts yourself.
That’s what I thought too – the approach had so much heart. The message that Shaz brings to the 5 kids saying they aren’t losers – that’s what’s allows you to laugh as well.
Shaz’s message is to live loud and proud and fight back. Her method of fighting might be more physical and aggressive, [laughs] but the girls learn they can stand up for themselves in other ways, using wit and humour as a defence.
How much of Shaz was real? What parts were invented?
What you see is pretty much what I remember. I obviously took off with some things that she said, but she’s very real. She thought she had a psychic connection with her dog, and thought scientists were after her brain, she thought Australia was under constant observation by the psychiatrists of the world. And when I was 12 I believed that! She even said more, but I had to cherry-pick her quotes into the movie.
You’ve got such a goldmine of material!
Oh yes – she had such exaggerated claims that even me as a 12 year old I thought were far-fetched. I mean, where you really with Gough Whitlam the night he resigned? [laughs] Some things that we really thought were false ended up being true – not Gough Whitlam, but other things.
Was Toni Collette always in your mind to play Shaz?
When I wrote the script, I thought of the real Shaz. And when I read back scenes, it really seemed to be Toni’s role. I could really imagine her playing it. You know, she’s from Blacktown in Sydney’s western suburbs – she ‘s seen these tough broads who’ve lived tough lives that have made them stronger but a little bit nutty. And Toni gets that, and I knew she would be able to play Shaz without condescension. And I didn’t want it to become a parody of a bogan, and Toni would play it real.
So when did she say yes to you?
I held off sending her the script – she was always asking me about it but I said it was never quite finished – and finally when I thought I had it down, she said yes immediately. So bless her.
I think Toni really did a great job bringing that realness to life.
Absolutely. She captured the real essence of Shaz. Everything she’s doing is what I experienced. She was able to recreate a person she’s never met. And she could only know her through my impersonations – which are really bad! Toni doesn’t shy away from the dark side of any characters, she wants to go to all places. And if the character allows, she’ll not just do the funny, but the sad.
What was the environment like on set – the supporting cast was excellent! Anthony LaPaglia, Rebecca Gibney – and where did Liev Schreiber’s Australian accent come from?
He worked very hard on that. Liev is an actor first, and a movie star second. I didn’t think I was going to cast an American for that role. But he somehow got a hold of the script and his agent said Liev wanted to play Trev, the shark hunter. And I thought it was a prank! But it turned out he really did want it. And we had a few problems, one being no money, and the other that he was an American! But he said not to worry about the first thing, and that he reckoned he could do the Australian accent. And if someone likes Liev says he can do it, he probably can! I mean, he’s been listening to one for the best part of a decade [Naomi Watts]. So I rolled the dice. And you know how hard our accent is to do, it’s virtually impossible…
Well his was even more Australian than anyone else’s in “Mental” – it was so ocker and rough.
He really wanted to nail it! He knew if you were a shark hunter you didn’t go to university, you were on a boat, a fisherman. He wanted to sound like a tradie – like someone who’d fix your roof. And that’s what he did. Whenever he finished a scene he’d go right past me to the grip who pushes the camera, and ask if he got any words wrong.
Did you ever catch him out on the accent?
Well I’m terrible at accents because I’ve lived in the USA. So I’m glad he asked the crew! They always know when someone’s screwing up the accent. But they can be nervous to tell the director – but Liev wanted anyone to tell him if he was screwing up the accent, and that’s why he was so good. You know, a lot of people didn’t even know it was him! They’d come up to me and say “Who was Liev Schreiber in the movie?” – they just couldn’t tell. God knows who they thought he was.
I loved Deborah Mailman as well – she really stole it for me.
Oh she’s just so great. She just sat me down and said – tell me about Sandra. And I said she was a bipolar, lesbian Aboriginal – who was madder than Shaz! So Deb said, “That’s all I need to know…” and ran with it. I mean, how do you play someone madder than Shaz?
Deb did it!
She certainly did.
What was it like with all the kids as well – 5 youngsters running around!
I tried to keep the environment as loose and fun as I could, because with the exception of one of the girls, it was their first time in front of a camera. And I wanted to capture what we were like as kids – ratbags, rambunctious kids who would drive you crazy – but we also wanted people to like them. So the audience had to feel like they knew them, and to do that I had to make sure they could be themselves. And I wanted kids who hadn’t had much experience. Because there are a lot of child actors who are 12 going on 40 – and really act their lines perfectly. And I didn’t want that. So I thought it would be mostly non-professionals, and I made sure we had a long rehearsal period, with people watching them and a camera running, so they got used to it all going on. So when the kids came onto the set the first day, they were unphased because they had had that rehearsal period.
And now what’s next for you?
I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire – as a director you kind of have to. I used to just have only one thing that I was obsessed with, but I’ve found that means it’s a very long wait between movies for me because I get very committed to a project. But now I’ve got 3 or 4 things going, all of which I like. What happens is if I name it, it won’t happen – so I’m learning to be very cautious and not tempt the Gods!
“Mental” comes out today, October 4.
Thanks to Universal Pictures, Moviehole has 10 double in-season passes up for grabs to see “Mental”. To win, email us your name, address and the answer to this question “Name a popular Australian rock band that have the word ‘Mental’ in their name? (Entries Close October 5)