A lot has changed for P.J. Hogan and Toni Collette since their oddball Aussie comedy Muriel’s Wedding hit cinemas back in 1994. That picture’s international success paved the way for Collette’s astounding career and numerous accolades, while Hogan has passed the time by helming high-profile American flicks such as My Best Friend’s Wedding, Peter Pan, and Confessions of a Shopaholic. Hogan recalls having to beg people to interview them at the time of Muriel’s release, but it’s a different story on the press tour for their first collaboration in nearly twenty years, Mental. In it, Collette stars as Shaz, a deranged hitchhiker recruited by deadbeat dad Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia) to look after his five rowdy teenage girls while their mother Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) is shipped off to an institution to deal with her depression.
We spoke to P.J. Hogan about the personal inspirations for the plot of Mental, how his life has transformed since the release of Muriel’s Wedding, and why the release of Shopaholic amidst the Global Financial Crisis was the “worst time” in his career.
SM: This is based on your personal experience with mental illness in your family. Did you feel, when you finished writing the script, that you had to run it past them for their nod of approval?
PJH: No, because my parents are no longer alive, and my brothers and sisters don’t really appear in it, with the exception of my sister, who does have schizophrenia and has always said to me, “You should put me in a movie. I want people to know what it’s like.” So, I knew that one of the characters was going to be schizophrenic. My sister’s story was pretty much as it was in the movie. The person who diagnosed it was not my dad – who refused to acknowledge the problem – it was this hitchhiker he had picked up when I was 12 years old. My mother had had a breakdown. This hitchhiker, who we call Shaz in the movie and is played by Toni Collette, diagnosed my sister, which should have been a tipoff for me that she knew a lot more about psychiatry than your regular woman on the street knows. She said, “There’s something wrong with that girl. It wouldn’t surprise me if she needs to be medicated.” And she was right. Dad finally took my sister to a doctor, and it became very apparent that she was suffering schizophrenia, and he waited way too long. She should have been on medication from the outset; the moment her symptoms appeared, which was when she was 14. She’d have terrible nights, hearing voices from the radio and seeing things, which is all in the film. But it was the original Shaz who spotted her.
When I was 12, my mother had – the only thing you can call it – a complete nervous breakdown. We got up one morning and mum was gone. We said to dad – who was very formidable and silent about it, pretending nothing was wrong – “Where’s mum? Who’s going to make us breakfast?” Dad said, “She’s on holiday,” and that’s the story. We knew this was ridiculous because mum hadn’t had a holiday in years. Our family didn’t do holidays. Later, dad said because he was a local politician running for re-election, “No one votes for a man whose wife is bonkers. That’s why I have to keep this quiet.” But we were just as the kids were in the film, except I made them five girls. We were total ratbags; we would send anyone around the bend. To be fair to my dad, I think we pushed him around the bend. He stopped for a hitchhiker: Shaz. He trusted her because she had a dog, and we came from school and this strange woman was sitting on the couch, rolling a cigarette – I suspect now that it was a spliff – hunting knife sticking out of her leather boot. She looked around and said, “Bit of a mess in here, isn’t it?” And she set us to cleaning. “Where is the vacuum in this place?” We didn’t know. She found it and we started vacuuming, washing, cleaning the dishes, cleaning up the pizza boxes. She put the place in order.
SM: It’s sounds like Shaz in the film is actually a facsimile of this Shaz in your life.
PJH: She’s absolutely a facsimile. When I was shooting Muriel’s Wedding, Toni and I would talk about Shaz. “You think Muriel is a case? Wait until you hear about Shaz.” And I would tell Toni ‘Shaz stories,’ and my wife would do Shaz impersonations, because Jocelyn [Moorhouse] met Shaz when I was in my twenties. Toni just said, “You’ve got to make a film about this woman, and if you do, I’m playing her.” It took me a while to write, because, look, it’s a tricky proposition to choose to make a film where you approach a subject like mental illness but approach it as a comedy. Since I lived in the trenches with it, I know there’s really no other way. That’s why Dr. Strangelove - which is about the end of the world – is a comedy, because some things are so hard to comprehend you have to laugh, or you go mad.
SM: Like you said, you’ve been living in the trenches with it, and you knew that you had the approval of your family and your sister had been urging you to make the film. But did you have the apprehension knowing that it is a hot button topic and you are pushing buttons? Were you apprehensive about how it was going to be taken?
PJH: No, not at all. I absolutely meant to push buttons, and I wanted to be as politically incorrect as possible. One, the real Shaz was far more politically incorrect than she was depicted in the movie. Two, I loathe political correctness with a passion, because I think it’s just another way of shutting down conversation. And the problem with any kind of mental illness is nobody likes to talk about it; it is stigmatised in today’s society, in this country, and in other countries. In Australia, we have a culture of toughing it out. My dad, one of the reasons he wouldn’t get my sister to a doctor was that he used to say, “There’s nothing wrong with this family that you can’t tough out. You pull yourself together.” You just can’t do it on your own. Schizophrenia is real. Depression is real. It’s not just a case of cheering up or drinking. You talk about it. The more you keep it hidden, the more shameful it becomes, and it isn’t a shameful thing at all. I don’t know any family that is entirely normal. My family on a scale of crazy was an eight. I met very few normal families. You dig a little deeper and you find Uncle Phil who loves to dress as a woman. Or, there’s Aunt Jane who has invisible friends. There’s always somebody that they don’t talk about.
SM: The unspoken family member.
PJH: The unspoken family embarrassment. The skeleton rattling around in their closet.
SM: Anthony LaPaglia has a great line in the film about Aussie boys not having problems; they’re too busy playing Aussie rules.
PJH: Well, that’s his dream. “If only I had boys. Boys don’t have mental breakdowns at all.”
SM: I do want to ask you about that character. I found him to be one of the more interesting characters in the film, in that he does so many of these horrible things to the family – both explicitly and subtly – by ignoring them, not knowing their names, cheating on Rebecca Gibney’s character, and it’s even revealed that he had date-raped her. He’s not entirely made out to be this villainous character. I’m curious to know if there was an earlier iteration of the script where he was punished more?
PJH: No, because I think that’s Hollywood. Hollywood loves to do ‘moral book-keeping,’ I call it. The stuff you’ve described happens regularly. There are guys who are cold to their children; are cold to their families; who don’t love their wives anymore; who cheat. The date rape speech that Rebecca delivers, I didn’t write. I got it from a friend of mine who’s still married to this guy. When I heard it, I wrote it down. She did it the same way Rebecca did it. Rebecca asked me, “How do I do this?” I said, “The original way I heard it, it wasn’t said with any self pity at all. It was said with humour. ‘I now have three kids with this man.’ You make the best with what you’ve got.” We all think that when we live in a city like Perth, or in my case Sydney, or Brisbane – cultural centres where we can go see a show and there are bookstores – we forget there are people who don’t live in these cities, or who live on the outskirts of these cities, and they make do with half a loaf. What’s that old saying? “Leading lives of quiet desperation.” That was really my point. I wanted uneasy laughter there, not laugh-out-loud [makes laughing noise]. That’s because Rebecca does it with such simple beauty, you’re laughing with her, but then you find that you shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t.
It’s not so much that life’s getting crazier, it’s that movies are getting dumber. The history of the world for the last 100 years has been unbelievably nutty, but films don’t seem to reflect what people are capable of. The madness of anybody who’s been desperate in love; the things that you’re capable when you’re in love. We all go crazy. That’s something I think everyone can identify with. What we do when we’re in the grip of love. Back to the character of Barry, I didn’t want to sit in judgment of him the way that we all do; that I do in my Hollywood movies. In Hollywood there’s moral bookkeeping; you punish the bad. I don’t think life works that way. Movies do, but life doesn’t. I thought, for me, what Barry cares about more than anything else is his public identity, and to earn his family back. Rebecca’s character says, “It’s gone; you’ve lost it. You’re a man alone now. You’re going to have to deal with that. To get me back, you have to do the unthinkable.” And the unthinkable for Barry Moochmore is to humiliate himself publicly. My father would never do it. He’d say, “Goodbye! I’m going off with my mistress.” But Barry does it, and I’m glad that he does it. And she takes him back. Whether or not you think she should, she does. That’s because that’s sometimes what happens. Sometimes, guys who should be dumped aren’t dumped.
SM: You mentioned a dullness in Hollywood movies.
PJH: Not all of them.
SM: Is Mental a reaction to that?
PJH: No, because I’m a big believer in the three-act structure. And everything set up in Act One pays off in Act Three. Actually, it’s structured really carefully.
SM: More ‘tonally.’ Was it liberating to throw off the shackles of what is expected in a mental-illness movie?
PJH: I don’t think there is such a thing as a mental illness movie. Name more than one? And I’m not letting you say One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
SM: The Other Sister comes to mind.
PJH: That hardly makes a genre.
SM: I mean in terms of expectations, kind of like you’ve been saying, of what people will allow you to make. “If you’re going to make a movie about mental illness, you have to make it within this box.”
PJH: Well, since they know very little about this subject, they don’t get to tell me how to make a movie on mental illness. I would actually feel in this case I am actually the best qualified to make my story; a story involving characters based on my sister, my dad, the experiences of both mental and so called mental people that I’ve know in my life. This is how it happened. I pretty much told it as it happened. Shaz is there walking that fine line between genius and madness; sometimes she was brilliant, sometimes she fell into madness. Sometimes she took us with her, and we went there willingly, because Shaz is our champion. Our dad wasn’t. He let us know at all times that we were immense disappointments to him. I look back on it, and that fateful day he stopped for that hitchhiker was the day that changed my life. I didn’t realise it at the time, but when he brought the original Shaz into our life, he brought someone to be our champion; who taught us to live loud and proud. She was the one who said to me, “Better to be a black sheep than a sheep.”
SM: Is Shaz still around? Has she seen the movie?
PJH: I don’t know what happened to her. I do know she has a Twitter feed…
SM: …OK, alright. Gee, I wonder where we can find out?
PJH: Shall I tell you? @Shazismental. She has her own Twitter feed. She doesn’t like the movie. She doesn’t think much of me. She routinely calls me a hack, which she may or may not be right about . She is right about that. She’s gonna give her side of the story.
SM: Speaking of Shaz, Toni Collette’s in the film and she’s great in it. A lot has changed for both you and her since Muriel’s Wedding.
PJH: Only everything. We were nobody. You wouldn’t remember, you’re too young. We were zero before then. She wasn’t Toni Collette, and I wasn’t me. It was so funny when we wanted to promote Muriel’s Wedding. Nobody wanted to talk to us. Nobody. We couldn’t get an interview with anyone. “Who?” They all wanted to interview somebody else. We had to beg people to interview us.
SM: That’s certainly changed, but on set, your working relationship, did you find you slipped back into your regular roles? Was it different?
PJH: No, it was exactly the same. We picked up exactly where we left off. We travelled the world with Muriel. It was both our first films. We were very green. We owe our careers to it. We always talked about working together again, on this project, because I would do Shaz impersonations for her. For me, she was the only person who could play Shaz. She would always say to me, “Where is the script?” I got very nervous, because as the years went by and Toni became more and more famous, particularly after the Oscar nomination and the Emmy wins and the Tony nominations and oh my God. “She won’t play this; won’t come back to Australia to play this crazy role.” But she did. I think because she knew the character so well. The thing about Toni is I knew she’d get the part; she always got the part because she’s from Blacktown, in Sydney’s western suburbs. She’s known those tough broads who’ve had really tumultuous lives but come out stronger, but a little vulnerable. That was the essence of Shaz. Seemingly strong, but a little weak. Past the knife, and past the “I’ll take you on,” there’s vulnerability there; a need. And a madness. It was a very difficult role for Toni. She makes things look easy though. You look at that role on paper, it’s a tough, tough role, and Toni just absolutely nails it. And you never catch her acting, which I love about Toni’s work.
SM: A lot has changed for the both of you. Not just Toni. You’ve had fantastic success internationally. I assume you pretty much had free reign on Mental.
PJH: Yes, I was one of the producers, I directed it, I wrote it. What you see is , for better or worse, what I want.
SM: Sure. I assume that experience is not always the same in the studio world.
PJH: I’ve been lucky in my career; it’s been more lucky for me than not.
SM: Has it been a positive experience?
PJH: My Best Friend’s Wedding: I pretty much had final cut on that. Peter Pan: the same. Confessions of a Shopaholic, I guess, was the one where I was most held in, because I was working with Jerry Bruckheimer. When you’re working with Jerry, there’s nobody bigger. And Jerry lets you know right up front, “I’m very hands on.” But you actually know that upfront, so I knew going into it that Jerry and I were going to be working together. I kind of enjoyed the experience, but I though afterwards, if I made the film just myself, it would have been a little bit edgier. It would have been closer to the edginess to the books. Believe it or not. I know you haven’t read them. No man has. I sort of enjoyed the movie, but it came just as the bottom fell out.
SM: The financial crisis.
PJH: It was the worst time in my career. It previewed great; everyone loved it. Then two weeks before it was released, Fanny and Freddie collapsed. The market dropped, and no one was shopping anymore. Shopping was seen as the most politically incorrect act.
SM: And you had Isla Fisher running around with her credit card.
PJH: The problem was we were making a film about credit card debt. I said, “It’s perfect! It’s about being in debt! Everyone’s in debt now; everyone’s being pursued by debt collectors.” That was the main thrust of the story. She couldn’t pay off her debt, and she was a shopping addict. Unfortunately, the title seemed to have done us in. Confessions of a Shopaholic. Everyone said, “It is not the right time for you to make a film about shopaholics,” as if we made it two weeks ago.
SM: Of course. That’s how movies work.
PJH: It takes a year to make a movie. We didn’t know there was going to be a financial crisis. I don’t think anybody did. The signs, when you look back, were all there, but we didn’t know. The film made money anyway, and had a huge life afterwards, and people still watch it. I remember an article in the New York Times about people in debt. And the picture they used – they could have used any picture – was Isla Fisher surrounded by shoes, looking terrified. I thought, “Oh well, at least now, two years later, they’ve got the message.”
SM: When aliens in the future find the box of films from the era of the financial collapse…
PJH: I’m sure Shopaholic will be in a time capsule next to Citizen Kane, and 8 ½.
SM: I know that Mental’s not even out yet, but have you set up another project?
PJH: I’ve always got something going. With Peter Pan, I said no to everything for three straight years so I could be available to do that movie. I had such a desire for that project so much, I wanted to make sure no other director got it. I said no to a lot of good things to make Peter Pan. I don’t regret doing it because I love Peter Pan and think it’s one of my best films. I’ve learnt from that to have more than one thing going, because I could have made two movies in the period of time to get that film together. You don’t know these things, but everyone says a movie is just about to happen. They’re never just about to happen. Right now I’m a developing three things. I like all of them, and I’ll do whichever comes first. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get to do all three.
Mental arrives in Australian cinemas October 4, 2012.