Troubled Mothers, Gold Coast Garishness and The Sound of Music: P.J. Hogan on the making of MENTAL

Writer-director P.J. Hogan (centre) with cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine on the set of MENTAL.

By Rochelle Siemienowicz |

When writer-director P.J. Hogan burst into public consciousness in 1994 with his first feature film, Muriel’s Wedding, he not only launched two newly minted Australian stars (Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths) but, along with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, helped to fuel a fervent ABBA revival.

With an unflinching eye and keen ear for the Australian grotesque, Hogan managed to blend garish colours, iconic music and hilarious black humour with genuine pathos and moral complexity. It was a successful recipe that took the film to Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, and won Muriel’s Wedding four AFI Awards, a BAFTA nomination and an American Writers’ Guild nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Proving that his talents could travel outside a Gold Coast location, Hogan’s first American film, the zany and unconventional My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), starring Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Rupert Everett, went on to become one of the highest grossing romantic comedies of all time and was nominated for three Golden Globes. His other American films have included Peter Pan (2003) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) and telemovies Dark Shadows (2005 ) and Nurses (2007 ). But now Hogan returns to his roots with an Australian film that looks like the Muriel’s cousin, complete with Toni Collette in a starring role.

Set in the Gold Coast town of Dolphin Heads this time (rather than ‘Porpoise Spit’!) Mental tells the story of the Moochmore family which consists of five loopy teenage girls, their depressed and ‘mental’ mother Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), and their shady local politician father Barry (Anthony LaPaglia). Into their rather sad and frazzled lives comes Shaz (Collette), the demented babysitter, picked up from the side of the road as a hitchhiker, she’s both brilliant and terrifying. The soundtrack this time is laden with tunes from the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein score for The Sound of Music.

Muriel’s Cousin?

Hogan is matter of fact about the similarities between this latest film and his breakout hit all those years ago. “Like Muriel’s Wedding, Mental is based on events from my past,” he says. “It’s not surprising that they seem related. I always say that they share DNA. While not being the same story, they’re definitely from the same person.”

As far as the lurid Gold Coast location goes, this is where Hogan grew up. “We used a lot of the places that I remembered from my childhood that were still there. And if they weren’t still there, they were replaced by edifices even more garish, so there you go!” he enthuses.

Hogan, who turns 50 this year, is wiry and intense with bright brown eyes. He’s likable and funny and he laughs a lot, often at his own expense. But it’s clear he’s driven by his own demons and visions, many of them stemming from his personal family-of-origin story. He’s the first to admit he comes from a dysfunctional family, and that Mental is based on his own tragedies.

“The beginning of the film is almost as it happened,” he explains. When I was 12, my mother had a nervous breakdown. My dad, who was a local politician and running for re-election at the time, just said, ‘Nobody is going to vote for a bloke whose wife has gone crazy,’ so we had to keep it quiet. And he picked up a hitchhiker off the side of the road. He trusted her because she had a dog. And I remember we returned from school one day and there was this strange woman on the couch rolling a cigarette, with her dog by her side and a knife sticking out of her boot. She said, ‘Bit of a mess in here innit?’ As a writer, I didn’t feel the need to improve on that!”

Vulgar, fearless and unconventional, Collette’s Shaz is the twisted heroine of the film. Did her real life counterpart turn out to be such a positive influence on Hogan and his siblings? “She really did sort us out,” he answers. “We were a bunch of ratbags. My mother really did have a nervous breakdown for a reason, and we were a part of that! Shaz was very inspiring. To this day she remains one of the most original and inspiring people of my life. But she was crazy. And I mean, certifiably crazy, and we discovered that later. Like a lot of people who are crazy, she walked that line between crazy and genius. She thought about things in an original way. She’s probably still out there, living with another family, changing their lives right now!”

It’s hard to find a completely ‘normal’ person in Mental. There’s depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders, obsessive compulsion and a plethora of other unlabeled dysfunctions. In fact, one of the film’s themes is the idea that nobody is perfectly normal. Hogan agrees. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ means. My mother tried to be normal all her life and went mad in the process. Because what’s normal? It changes all the time. Normal is having a clean house. Normal is getting your kids into the right school, or even having a vegan diet. It’s a big issue for me because not only my mother had issues with depression, but my sister is schizophrenic, my brother is bipolar, so my family bats in the big leagues! It was very important for me that it not only be funny, but that it be compassionate.”

Troubled Mothers: from Betty Heslop to Shirley Moochmore

Certainly one of the most memorable characters in Muriel’s Wedding turned out to be the long-suffering people-pleasing mother of Muriel, Betty Heslop, played so beautifully by Jeanie Drynan. Despite having only a few scenes in the film, she was the tragic heart of the story, and in Mental, the troubled mother figure, played by Rebecca Gibney has echoes of Betty, but with a happier story arc, and a singing role.

The hills are alive, with the sound of…madness! Shirley Moochmore celebrates a manic shopping spree in MENTAL.

“I traveled the world with Muriel’s Wedding and the character that affected people most profoundly was Jeanie Drynan’s,” says Hogan. So many people asked me ‘Why did you have to make her die? Why did her ending have to be so sad?’ They all told me she reminded them of their own mother. I even met with people in India whose own mothers reminded them of Jeanie Drynan! Jeanie Drynan’s character was based on my own mother – and she didn’t have a very happy ending. So when I came to do Mental I decided to give my mother a happy ending.  I thought: ‘what if this time the Shirley character wins?’. And that’s what happens. She comes out on top and she gets some brass and I think Rebecca Gibney is marvelous in the role.”

The casting of the central roles is certainly notable. Toni Collette seems a natural fit for Shaz, especially with her history in Hogan’s first hit, and he admits that “this is one of the few times that I’ve written a role with an actor in mind because when I was working on the story I started to hear Toni’s voice saying Shaz’s lines.”

‘I couldn’t give that role away with a toaster! But Liev Schreiber saw what it could be.’

P.J. Hogan on set of MENTAL with actor Liev Schreiber.

But what about the casting of respected heavyweight American actor Liev Schreiber as the comedically menacing Trevor the shark hunter? It must be admitted that Schreiber’s pitch perfect Australian accent and macho presence in the film almost steal the show, but what led Hogan to think of him as a possibility? “I couldn’t give that role away with a free toaster! Nobody wanted to do it,” says Hogan, “because on the page Trev does not have much screen time. And actors, I don’t care who they are, they’re page-counters. They’ll finish reading the script and ask, ‘am I furniture, or am I a part?’ And often that becomes mathematical – if I’m not in it for more than 10 pages, then I’m furniture.’  But somehow the screenplay ended up in the hands of Liev and he saw what the role could be. I had never thought of going offshore for that role but Liev understood this guy. He contacted me through friends, and he wanted the part. And I said, ‘we have no money’, and he said, ‘I’ll do it for whatever you’ve got’. Of course we discussed the accent. I’m not a big believer in Americans coming in and trying to do the Australian accent, because it doesn’t usually work. It’s a very difficult accent to do. But I knew that Liev – having seen him on stage – is a master of accents. And of course he’s married to an Australian, and he felt that he could do it. I don’t think he would’ve done the part if he wasn’t convinced he could pull it off, and he did spectacularly.”

The Don behind the camera

MENTAL is cinematographer Don McAlpine’s first foray into digital cinematography – and he’s not turning back.

Mental is shot by legendary (and Raymond Longford Award-winning) cinematographer Don McAlpine, who also shot Peter Pan for Hogan nearly a decade ago. This new film boasts the honour of being McAlpine’s first experience with digital cinematography. “I didn’t want to do it digital,” admits Hogan, “because I’m a film guy, which makes me spiritually older than Don is. I’ve never really liked the look of digital film. But I left it to Don, and I thought after so many decades of shooting film, if Don wants to go digital, then he knows how to do it! And if you talk to Don, then you’ll know that he will never go back. He has now become digital’s biggest champion. He loves it. And this is the guy who did My Brilliant Career and Moulin Rouge – one of the greatest Australian DPs – and he’s not going to go back to film.”

A Mental nod to the Von Trapp Family

Asked what the most difficult aspect of making the film was, Hogan answers, “just making the thing, and making it on a low budget. I never really like talking about budgets because whether it’s low or high, I don’t like that to be the focal point – but I will say that Mental cost more than Muriel’s Wedding but only because with that film (Muriel) ABBA gave us the rights for free to use their music. A lot of the money here went towards getting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music. Luckily as a filmmaker I’m known for having a very good reason for using particular music in my films. Rodgers and Hammerstein are understandably very protective of what they own. They read the script and I had a talk to them and they agreed to allow me to use it. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a charity, so we did have to pay.”

Still, it was essential to Hogan that this particular music formed the backdrop to the film – and the scene involving Anthony LaPaglia’s rendition of ‘Eidelweiss’ has to be seen to be believed. “I just love the movie The Sound of Music,” says Hogan. I was introduced to it in re-release by my mother, who adored it. I couldn’t understand why she always cried when the father sang ‘Eidelweiss’ – it wasn’t until later that I realised why, and that to me was very important realisation: the sound of music is a very entertaining movie but it is a burden as well, to try to compare your family to the Von Trapps!”

Filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse (centre), one of the producers of MENTAL, on set with husband and long time collaborator P.J. Hogan.

Mental  is now in general release in Australia.

Mental – Key Cast & Crew

Writer/Director: P.J. Hogan
Producers: Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Todd Fellman and Jocelyn Moorhouse
Executive Producers: Gary Hamilton, Bryce Menzies and Lee Soon Kie
Key Cast: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Rebecca Gibney, Kerry Fox, Caroline Goodall, Deborah Mailman, Sam Clark, Lily Sullivan, Malorie O’Neill, Nicole Freeman, Chelsea Bennett, Bethany Whitmore.
Director of Photography: Don McAlpine, ASC
Production Designer: Graham Walker
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Music: Michael Yezerski
Visual Effects Supervisor: Ben West
Costume Designer: Tim Chappel
Casting: Christine King

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2 thoughts on “Troubled Mothers, Gold Coast Garishness and The Sound of Music: P.J. Hogan on the making of MENTAL

  1. Pingback: ‘We’re all a little bit mental’ – Rebecca Gibney and Anthony LaPaglia | AFI blog

  2. Pingback: ‘We’re all a little bit mental’ – Rebecca Gibney and Anthony LaPaglia | AFI blog

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