‘We’re all a little bit mental’ – Rebecca Gibney and Anthony LaPaglia

Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney play an unhappily married couple, Barry and Shirley Moochmore, in P.J. Hogan’s MENTAL.

Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney seem relaxed and happy sitting on the couch together talking about their roles in P.J. Hogan’s latest film Mental, in which they play a Gold Coast husband and wife, Barry and Shirley Moochmore, parents of five rambunctious teenage daughters. Well, LaPaglia and Gibney seem as relaxed and happy as you can be, in a high rise hotel room with different journalists coming in precisely every eight minutes to ask you roughly the same questions.

Still, the roles they play in the film are interesting departures for both of them. LaPaglia is an Emmy and AFI Award-winning actor more used to playing heroes and strong men in TV shows like Without a Trace, and films such as Balibo, Lantana and Looking for Alibrandi. In contrast, he’s more of a cowardly lion in Mental, playing a philandering local politician who’s a clueless father (echoes of Bill Hunter’s monstrous turn in Muriel’s Wedding), completely unable to cope with his brood when their mother, played by Gibney, has a nervous breakdown.

Gibney is known and loved for her AFI and Logie award-winning performances on television in shows like Come in SpinnerHalifax F.P, Packed to the Rafters and Stingers, where she’s played a string of predominantly likable but strong women. Having appeared in a few small film roles, Mental is by far her most significant big screen role to date. She’s quite transformed in it, having famously gained weight to play the frumpy and downtrodden mother and wife, who escapes her miserable existence by pretending she’s living in The Sound of Music and going on manic shopping sprees.

Not quite the Von Trapp family – Rebecca Gibney and Anthony LaPaglia (centre) in MENTAL.

Both LaPaglia and Gibney agree that the film is a refreshing departure in numerous ways, especially from any idea of what’s ‘normal’.

“I don’t believe it’s a film about mental illness,” says Gibney. “It’s about dysfunction – it’s about a family in dysfunction. And it’s about the fact that we’re all a little bit mental! And that’s normal, and we can live with it and laugh at ourselves. It’s a liberating film.”

LaPaglia chimes in with that gravelly voice that always commands attention. “I guarantee that if you show me any person and I look at them hard enough and long enough, I will find some form of behaviour that if I single it out, looks mental. Once you accept that, it’s actually quite liberating. It’s like when you turn 90 and you can say whatever you want because suddenly you’re liberated from being polite. ‘I hate you. I always hated you!’”

Rebecca Gibney as the jam donut-addicted Shirley Moochmore in MENTAL.

Gibney is open about the fact that she fought for the role in Mental, and had to convince the director that she was right for it. “I did go all out to get it in the audition process,” she says. “I’ve said it before and P.J. knows it, that when I read the script I just knew the character. It’s one of those classic moments where I said ‘this is my mum’ – and other people that I know. Obviously my mum is not Shirley Moochmore, but she’s raised four daughters and two sons, and we have a slightly dysfunctional family, and she’s the ultimate people-pleaser. So I knew that I could bring something to the table. So I went out and got the fat-suit and put the muumuu on, and sang my guts out when I auditioned. I told P.J. that I’d do anything – put the weight on, do anything. Thankfully he gave me the gig!”

“That’s great – you do have to fight for the roles you love!” answers LaPaglia, encouragingly. Which begs the question, did he have to audition or fight for his part in Mental?

“No, I didn’t audition, but I wasn’t handed it on a plate either. I sat down with P.J. and had a very long discussion about it. At the end of that discussion, had we not seen the same thing on the page, I don’t think he would have hired me, but based on the discussion that we had, I think he felt that I understood the character, and could do it justice. I think he had a specific vision in his head about the character and I don’t think he would have compromised that for a minute by hiring someone who couldn’t commit or give the performance he wanted.”

One of the aspects of the role which appealed to LaPaglia was not just the chance to sing a rather atrocious version of ‘Eidelweiss’, but to depict something of the struggles of fatherhood.

Not running for Father of the Year – Anthony LaPaglia as Barry Moochmore.

“I love the scene in the film where I finally admit that I’m just like my father,” he says. Looking over at Gibney, he says to her: “We’re both parents now and how many times, as your kid gets older, do you find they ask perfectly logical questions but they’re difficult to answer? And you say ‘Because I said so!’ And suddenly you’re like  your own father. I promised myself I would not be like my father with my kids, and suddenly I find myself saying the same crap he did, and now you realise why. Because you don’t have time to explain everything!”

Asked how they think viewers will respond to Mental, Gibney and LaPaglia are aware there will be criticisms from some sectors, but agree that what they most love about the film is the fact that it’s the product of one single authorial voice and vision. “It may not appeal to everyone and there will be scenes that some people might find confronting or uncomfortable,” says Gibney, “and I’m sure P.J. got asked to remove some scenes to make it a bit more palatable for some people, or to make it easier for an American audience, and he would have said ‘no, I’m not going to. I wrote it this way, and that’s how it’s going to be.’ He’s a very passionate man and knew exactly what he wanted right from the outset. It’s his script, his baby, and he’s been working on it for over ten years, so everyone that came on board knew exactly what they were going into, and the fact that he was going to stretch all of us and challenge all of us. And he did.”

LaPaglia agrees. “On a lot of films that you work on these days, there’s always outside pressures to change your film once it’s been done – based on audience screenings, studio notes, what will ‘play’ overseas, and blah, blah, blah. And P.J. – and for this I have a huge amount of respect – has just said, I don’t care. This is the movie I want to make and I’m not changing any of it. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but it’s MY film. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s rare that you find people who won’t fold under pressure. The pressure is enormous! But with Mental, you can tell it’s the vision of one person, unlike so many movies now, which have no direction. They float because there’s the voice of 15 people in there, and so the films lack that definitive quality. And to me, the difference between a really good film and mere entertainment is that somebody has had a really strong vision of what they want to do, and they’ve followed through on it. I would rather watch that film – whether it works or not. If it’s a success, that’s great. But if it’s a failure, it’s a grand failure, an honest failure. It’s not a compromised failure that everyone runs away from, saying ‘oh that’s his fault, no it’s his fault’. I want a film where someone’s going to stick up their hand and say this is mine, and no matter what happens, it’s mine.”

Mental is screening in national release and is one of the Feature Films in Competition for the 2nd AACTA Awards.

To read an interview with writer-director P.J. Hogan, click here.

Australian films at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Sapphires

The Melbourne International Film Festival has a long history of supporting Australian film, and in 2012 the festival again screens a wide variety of local fare in its Australian Showcase stream, from internationally-lauded blockbusters to low budget indies.

And in addition to offering local filmmakers a chance to have their film screened to supportive Australian audiences, MIFF supports the Australian film industry further through its MIFF Premiere Fund, which has financed a diverse range of feature films and documentaries since its inception in 2007.

Australian films will both open and close the festival in 2012, with Wayne Blair’s 1960s-era musical drama/comedy The Sapphires adding a touch of glitz, glamour and soul to the opening night gala last week. A joyous crowd-pleaser all but guaranteed success (after being picked up for international distribution by the Weinstein Company at Cannes), The Sapphires celebrates Aboriginal culture, family bonds and the irrepressible power of soul music with a delightfully sassy script and extravagant production and costume design.

There are dozens of Australian feature films playing at MIFF this year, from introspective dramas to psychotic horror-comedies to Bollywood musicals. Some of these titles are sure to appear in upcoming AACTA Awards seasons. Join us as we profile the Australian features on offer to thousands of eager cinephiles during the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 2 to 17 at various locations throughout the Melbourne city centre.

Features

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres

Reg and Lindsay are having trouble sourcing the “secret ingredient” for their organic fertiliser – human remains sourced from car crash victims. When a trio of young music festival-goers find themselves stranded at their front door, the two businessmen have a devious idea – but struggle to bring themselves to go through with it.

One for the schlock fans, 100 Bloody Acres is produced by Julie Ryan (RED DOG) and Kate Croser, with Damon Herriman, Anna McGahan, John Jarratt and Angus Sampson adding a touch of crackle to the cast of this grisly, comedic horror flick. They’re not psycho killers… they’re just small business owners.

Being Venice

Being Venice

The first feature-length film by New Zealand-born filmmaker Miro Bilbrough follows the eponymous Venice (Alice McConnell) as one man leaves her life and another re-enters it. The former – her boyfriend – announces that he needs some space and promptly leaves the house they share, while the latter – her estranged ex-hippie father Arthur (veteran comic actor Garry McDonald) – worms his way into staying on Alice’s couch while visiting from New Zealand.

Being Venice was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, described by Frank Hatherly of Screen Daily as “thoughtful” and possessing “something of a European sensibility” in presenting Venice’s struggle to make sense of the male relationships in her life.

Dead Europe

Dead Europe

The first announced of MIFF’s “surprise screenings” on the last day of the festival, Dead Europe is the latest in a string of adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas novels, directed by director Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man), adapted for the screen by veteran television writer Louise Fox, and starring acclaimed young actor Ewen Leslie in the lead.

Described by Gary Maddox in the Sydney Morning Herald as “a bruising blast of intense drama”, the film is a deep, densely wrought examination of Europe, “the continent of lost souls”, and the burden that children of “cursed” peoples must bear.

Errors of the Human Body

Errors of the Human Body

Described as a “psycho-scientific thriller” developed while director Eron Sheean was artist-in-resident at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, early reviews of Errors of the Human Body have noted the scientific authenticity with which the film’s plot is realised.

A German-Australian co-production directed by an Australian based in Europe, with a cast including Karoline Herfurth (Germany), Tomas Lemarquis (Iceland), Rik Mayall (United Kingdom) and Michael Eklund (Canada), it’s a horror film set on the cutting edge of science and technology, dealing with the ethics of biological and genetic science.

Hail

Hail

Melbourne local Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work straddles both art cinema and mainstream filmmaking, with over a dozen short fiction films to his credit as well as three highly-acclaimed documentary features.

Hail shapes the extraordinary life experience of artist and ex-convict Daniel P. Jones into an experimental, autobiographical dramatic tapestry. Jones’s own words – transcribed and edited from interviews with the director – form the basis for the film’s dialogue, which is spoken by “characters” being played by their real-life counterparts. The resulting film is not strictly a drama and not strictly a documentary, but an exploration of hope in the face of oppressive adversity.

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

MIFFsters will be treated to the first of two Jack Irish tele-features scheduled to air on ABC TV in late 2012, boasting a stellar cast including Guy Pearce, Aaron Pedersen, Colin Friels, Shane Jacobson, Marta Dusseldorp, Steve Bisley and Roy Billing.

Guy Pearce is Jack, an old-school former criminal lawyer turned part-time private detective and debt collector, whose line of work has won him some rather colourful friends and acquaintences over the years. When one former client turns up dead, Jack burrows deep into Melbourne’s seedy underside to get to the bottom of it all.

Based on the eponymous series of crime novels by Miles Franklin Award winner Peter Temple, Jack Irish: Bad Debts will be followed by Jack Irish: Black Tide.

Last Dance

Last Dance

David Pulbrook (a veteran, AFI Award-winning editor) makes his directorial debut in this tightly-wound drama, set in the immediate aftermath of a synogogue bombing perpetrated by the Muslim Sadiq Mohammed (Underbelly‘s Firass Dirani). Seeking shelter, he forces his way into a flat occupied by a Holocaust survivor Ulah (Julia Blake), and thus begins a hostage drama which forces both Sadiq and Ulah to confront their own pasts.

Mental

Closing out the festival is Mental, a so-called suburban dramedy which reunites director P.J. Hogan with Toni Collette for the first time since Muriel’s Wedding was released in 1994.

Anthony LaPaglia is a philandering small-town politician shocked to discover that his wife has been institutionalised and has left him to take care of five children – none of which he has any particular interest in getting to know. By serendipity, a “charismatic, crazy hothead” (Collette) finds herself thrust into the household as the girls’ nanny, and slowly but surely transforms their home into something resembling normality.

Save Your Legs!

Save Your Legs!

A new addition to the MIFF calendar this year is the mid-festival gala event, turning the middle weekend of the festival into yet another party – if the opening and closing nights weren’t enough. A decidedly more relaxed affair than the glitzy opening night, the mid-festival gala will see the upbeat Bollywood-influenced musical comedy Save Your Legs! screened.

The Abbotsford Anglers, a D-grade local cricket team more interested in the shots on offer at the bar than those being made on the cricket field, make one last thrust for glory by going on an ill-conceived cricketing tour of India which ends in disastrous on-field results but more than a few laughs.

Starring Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell, Damon Gameau and many more (plus a cameo by cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee), Save Your Legs! is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Documentaries

Coniston

Coniston

In late 1928 upwards of 100 innocent indigenous men, women and children were brutally murdered to avenge the death of a white dingo trapper named Fred Brooks, who was killed by Aborigines after “taking liberties” with the wife of a Warlpiri tribesman.

One of many films presented in partnership with Blackfella Films, Coniston is a combination documentary-dramatisation of the Contiston massacre as told by Warlpiri, Waramunga, Anmatyerr and Kaytetje people. Based on a shameful episode of Australian history – the last large-scale massacre of Aborigines by whites – is an important exercise in educating modern audiences.

Croker Island Exodus

Croker Island Exodus

Also blending the documentary and dramatic forms is Croker Island Exodus, based on the true story of a Methodist mission on Croker Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.

After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Australian government evacuated all white women and children from the far north of the Northern Territory, including Croker Island. The (white) missionaries refused evacuation, not wanting to abandon the 95 aboriginal children in their care, and instead embarked on an epic 44-day, 5,000-kilometre journey to Sydney by boat, truck, canoe and even by foot.

First-time feature director Steven McGregor combines dramatic reconstructions with interviews of three of the children who made the journey, now in their 80s, who reflect on their childhood as part of the Stolen Generation and their remarkable journey to sanctuary.

The First Fagin

The First Fagin

Is Fagin – the grotesque thief/landlord in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and one of literature’s most enduring characters – based on Ikey Solomon, a real-life 19th century English criminal and escape artist? That’s what The First Fagin, directed by the trans-continental team of Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor and narrated by the great Miriam Margolyes, sets out to discover.

Exploring the expulsion-happy criminal justice system of the 19th century as well as the life and reputation of Solomon, who was sentenced to be deported to Australia but for reasons unknown never made it to his down under prison, The First Fagin is one of many docu-drama features playing at MIFF this year. Tracing Solomon’s movements from England, through continental Europe, the United States and finally to Australia – where his wife had been deported – the film is a fantastical portrait of a man whose influence on culture is still being felt.

Lasseter’s Bones

Lasseter’s Bones

Beyond Our Ken, Luke Walker’s exploration into Kenja Communications – the “self-empowerment” group and alleged cult run by Ken Dyers and his wife Jan Hamilton – stirred up significant controversy when it screened at MIFF in 2007, and was nominated for an AFI Award in 2008.

His follow-up, Lasseter’s Bones, trades quasi-religious fanatics for an outback legend stretching back over 100 years, based around the existence (or non-existence) of Lasseter’s Reef, an enourmous gold deposit reportedly discovered and subsequently lost by Harold Lasseter in 1897.

With the help of Lasseter’s eccentric elderly son Bob, who continues to search for the fabled river of gold to vindicate his father, Walker attempts to get to the bottom of a legend which has taken on a life of its own – and taken one over, too.

Make Hummus Not War

Make Hummus Not War

A documentary about a different kind of war in the Middle East, Make Hummus Not War is about, well, hummus. Specifically, which culture can lay claim to ownership of the chickpea dish, which is steeped in thousands of years of contentious history and is one of the oldest prepared foods in human history.

Veteran filmmaker Trevor Graham, who won an AFI Award in 1997 for his documentary about the life of Eddie Mabo (Mabo: Life of an Island Man), traces the history of this unlikely dish and its symbolic importance to the Arab people of the Middle East. A lawsuit brought against Israel by Lebanon in 2008 about the heritage of hummus inspired Graham to delve a little deeper into what place hummus holds in Middle Eastern culture, and maybe, its role in Middle East reconciliation.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Australia’s unofficial troubador laureate Paul Kelly has been capturing the Australian condition through his folk/rock/country music for decades, and has been called “one of the greatest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise” by Rolling Stone editor David Fricke.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me charts Kelly’s life, loves and losses, painting an intimate picture of a private man living in the public eye. The film, directed by Ian Darling, offers an exclusive insight into the man behind the fame, his creative processes and his remarkable catalogue of music.

Stay tuned to the AFI | AACTA blog as we post further updates throughout the festival.