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

‘The chance to work on a broad canvas’ – Kriv Stenders on directing Red Dog

There’s no doubt that Kriv Stenders is a multi-talented writer, director and cinematographer. His films include Lucky Country, Boxing Day, BlacktownThe Illustrated Family Doctor and award winning short film Two/Out.  What these films have in common is a certain bleak intensity, a combination of powerhouse performances, tight scripting and the inventive use of micro-budgets. So how did Kriv Stenders come to direct Red Dog, a sunny upbeat crowd-pleaser with a cute doggie, an energetic soundtrack and heartwarming plot? “It’s very, very different from anything I’ve done before,” agrees Stenders, on the phone from Jakarta, where he’s shooting a television commercial, “but I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while. You come to a certain point as a filmmaker, where you want to reach as large an audience as you can, and this was a chance to work on a really broad canvas, and I took it on as a challenge.”

Kriv Stenders on the set of Red Dog

Director Kriv Stenders on the set of Red Dog.

Based on the 2002 short novel by UK author Louis de Bernières (Captain Correlli’s Mandolin), Red Dog  is based on the true story of a famous wandering kelpie, who was adopted by the new mining community established by Hamersley Iron in West Australia’s Dampier in the 1960s. The cast of Red Dog is headed up by a pair of bright and sparkly stars – US leading man Josh Lucas, and our own Rachael Taylor as his love interest. A supporting cast of Australian talent includes Noah Taylor, Loene Carmen, John Batchelor, Luke Ford, Arthur Angel and Rohan Nichol. Produced by Nelson Woss (Ned Kelly) and Julie Ryan (Ten Canoes) and written by US screenwriter Dan Taplitz (Breakin’ all the Rules), Red Dog also boasts Geoffrey Hall as director of photography, Jill Bilcock as editor, and Ian Gracie as production designer.

In the interview below, we chat to Stenders about making his first ‘family film’, about collaborating with a giant mining company, shooting on the Red camera, and learning to trust his filmmaking team.

AFI: Congratulations on Red Dog. This is the first film you’ve made that you could take your kids to see. Would you call it a children’s film?

Kriv Stenders: I wouldn’t say it’s a children’s film at all. I’d really say it’s more of a family film. So it’s for everyone – children, parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, everyone! We wanted to make a film that was as broad in its audience appeal as possible. You can do that with a central character who is a dog, because people’s relationships with dogs are very special.

Rachael Taylor and Josh Lucas in Red Dog

Rachael Taylor and Josh Lucas as young lovers in Red Dog.

AFI: Are you a dog lover?

Kriv Stenders: I’m a cat and a dog lover. I’m AC/DC!

AFI: You talk about wanting to reach a broad audience. That’s not something that’s evident with your previous films, so why this change in approach?

Kriv Stenders: The whole industry, the whole market has changed so radically over the last ten years. Now you really have to know why you’re making your film and who it’s for, and you have to realise that audiences are finite.

AFI: Do you feel like you weren’t making a film for audiences with your previous films?

Kriv Stenders: I was making films for a niche audience. But niche audiences used to be a lot healthier than they are now. When you make edgy material these days, it’s just harder for it to get seen. It’s harder to find that audience, especially in Australia, because there are so many more films out there competing for attention. DVDs and Internet – all of that has spread people’s interest now, whereas before, niche films found it easier, I think, to gain an audience. So it’s just the basic mathematics and the basic hard realities of the film market.

Rachael Taylor and Koko in Red Dog

Koko charms leading lady, Rachael Taylor.

AFI: This is certainly a larger budget than you’re used to working with isn’t it? [Widely reported to be around $8 million]

Kriv Stenders: Sure, yeah. But I think you never ever have enough money! For the scale of the film we were making it was really tight, and we really pushed the envelope a lot on what we could achieve with the money that we had. But again, we had a great crew, an amazing team who just pulled off miracles. In a way, every film should be like that. You should always be working hard to put every dollar on screen. And that focus is what you’ve got to maintain throughout.

Working hard to put every dollar on screen.

AFI: This film has close ties to the mining industry in Dampier, where it is set and partly shot. Rio Tinto is one of the investors?

Kriv Stenders: They basically gave facilities investment. They gave us incredible, extraordinary access to the sites and also provided us with things like accommodation. With that accommodation came food. So it was a substantial fiscal investment – not a monetary one but a fiscal one.

AFI: What would you say to critics who might argue that this film is a massive public relations exercise for mining in Australia?

Kriv Stenders: [Rio Tinto] really are Dampier. Hamersley Iron set up the town and was bought out by Rio, but historically they were the company we were making a film about. So it just makes sense that we were able to connect to their systems, their infrastructure and their history. What we tried to do with the film is actually make Australians aware of the history of the place and of the industry. And people can criticise it all they want. I mean the film isn’t really about that. It’s about the formation of a community, and an incredible part of our history. It’s an extraordinary part of the world and it’s not going to go away. The more knowledge we have about it, the better. We’re simply providing people with more of a context.

Red Dog on train

'Koko is the star. He's the actor,' says Stenders about his lead performer.

AFI: Working with animals is notoriously tricky, You used a number of dogs, with the now famous ‘Koko’ as the main player?

Kriv Stenders: Koko is the star, he’s the actor. He did all the close-ups, he did the hard work. We had to have some other dogs for things like long shots and for other pragmatic reasons, but Koko is really the dog. We spent about six months casting the film, and we looked all over Australia. We found him at a breeder’s place in Bendigo. You cast dogs exactly like you do actors. They’ve got to have that fire going on behind their eyes. They’ve got to have that ‘X factor’, and they’ve got to know what they’re doing.

AFI: You’ve talked about using editing to craft the dog’s performance, and using very limited CGI to do things like erase the dog trainer from the frame. Can you talk a little about working with editor Jill Billcock? Was it a new experience for her to be working with an animal performance?

Kriv Stenders: Yes, it was. And she did an extraordinary job. It was such an honour to work with her, she’s an extraordinary filmmaker in her own rights, a really amazing and creative person. Although Koko certainly had a personality and was delivering something, Jill was really able to sculpt it, refine it and focus it in a way that I could never have imagined. I think that a lot of the emotional impact and emotional power of the film is basically the result of Jill’s incredible work.

Koko in Red Dog

Editor Jill Bilcock was able to sculpt and refine Koko's performance.

AFI: You have a background as a cinematographer and a reputation for working well in intimate spaces on low budgets. Yet this film is very big and open, showcasing the wide landscape. Can you talk about working with your DP (director of photography) Geoffrey Hall?

Kriv Stenders: I’ve known Geoff for about 30 years and we’ve worked together on commercials, so we have a lot of history, which helps. This is the first film that we’ve made together. Geoff is one of this country’s finest DPs. He’s incredibly experienced and talented. We wanted to really create something classical, like a lot of those great Australian Outback films before, like Wake in Fright and the Mad Max movies. We wanted to acknowledge those, but at the same time make something that was unique to the world and unique to the story. We shot on the Red [digital] cameras, but Geoff made the Red look extraordinary. In fact, people who’ve seen the film couldn’t believe we shot it on Red and said they’ve never seen Red look so good. It looks as if we shot on 70mm.

AFI: Was it always the intention to shoot it on Red?

Kriv Stenders: Yes, because we couldn’t have shot it any other way. I mean with the dog as the central performer, and needing to have extra coverage, shooting in digital obviously gives you so much more freedom and liberty to shoot without having worry about film stock. And it allowed us to shoot with more than one camera. With our budget, if we shot it on film we wouldn’t have been able to do that. So the Red was the perfect system for us. With the Red, the 4K resolution that you get is actually still better than even the Alexa camera, despite what people say. Technically the Red is probably still the best digital camera around in the marketplace.

Josh Lucas and Koko in Red Dog

Shot with the Red camera, Stenders and DOP Geoffrey Hall wanted to create a look that paid homage to Australia's other great Outback films.

AFI: As a filmmaker, what is the biggest thing you learnt on this project?

Kriv Stenders: I think the biggest thing I learnt was to really, really trust my team and be open to as much collaboration as possible because every day, everyone has a good idea. That includes the cast and everyone. It was just great fun relaxing a little bit and finally being just in the director’s chair! On my other films, I’ve always been standing up or operating the camera or trying to do lots of other things as well. I really learnt to trust my team here, which is really a major part of the filmmaking process.

AFI: One last question. While you were shooting in Dampier, did you encounter real life stories about this famous dog?

Kriv Stenders: Funnily enough a lot of people we bumped into hated the dog! There were people who would say to us, ‘I can’t believe you’re making a film about that mongrel! He was a nasty, horrible dog.’ But he was also loved. The film is about storytelling and it’s as much about the myth as it is about the real. Thirty years later people still talk about this dog. He’s still bringing people together. And that’s extraordinary.

AFI: Thanks for talking with us, and best wishes with the film.

Red Dog releases nationally 4 August. Watch the trailer below.