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

Bill Hunter, the big Australian

Vale William John “Bill” Hunter,  1940 – 2011

Bill Hunter, Mel Gibson & William Anderson at the AFI Awards in 1981

Bill Hunter, Mel Gibson and William Anderson at the AFI Awards in 1981, where Hunter won Best Actor in a Supporting Role for 'Gallipoli'.

“(Acting) is a job. It is a craft, but there’s no art involved. Anyone who says there’s any more to it than that, is full of bullshit. That upsets the purists but never mind, they don’t work as much as I do.” – Bill Hunter

The Australian Film Institute mourns the loss of AFI Award winning actor Bill Hunter on Saturday 21 May 2011. He was aged 71. AFI Chair Alan Finney says: “It was my honour to work with Bill Hunter on many films and whether big or modest productions, he was always a professional.  His passion for our Industry and his strong personality has made him a powerful influence on us all. He played a most significant part in the success and credibility of our films over many years.”

Here Sarah Finney remembers and celebrates a great actor and a mate to many.

A stalwart of the Australian screen, Bill Hunter appeared in over 100 film and television productions over the past fifty years.

One of Australia’s greatest actors, Bill Hunter personified the Australian character. In a prolific career he starred in some of Australia’s most celebrated films and television series, creating some of the Australian screen’s most enduring and iconic characters.

While younger audiences will be most familiar with Bill Hunter from his roles in Strictly Ballroom, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, Hunter got his start in 1959 with a small role in Stanley Kramer’s adaptation of Nevil Shute’s classic novel On the Beach which starred Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner.

Hunter then appeared in a number of TV series in the 1960s and early 1970s, most notably Spyforce, Division 4, Homicide and later Prisoner (1979).

At the forefront of the Renaissance

Hunter was at the forefront of the Australian cinema renaissance, appearing in Esben Storm’s 27A (one of his first leading roles), The Man from Hong Kong, Eliza Fraser, Mad Dog Morgan (his first AFI Award nominated performance), Backroads and In Search of Anna before taking on the role that would make him a star.

In 1978, Hunter played the starring role of Len Maguire in Philip Noyce’s Newsfront. Newsfront is set in the late 1940s and follows Cinetone newsreel cameraman Len and his colleagues during a time of great political and social change in Australia. Considered by many to be Australia’s finest film, Newsfront won 8 AFI Awards that year including Best Film. Hunter received his second AFI Award nomination and first win for Best Actor in a Lead Role.

Hunter went straight back to work, appearing in Hard Knocks (1980) and …Maybe This Time (1981).

Hunter soon followed up Newsfront with a pivotal role in another iconic Australian film Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981). Hunter played Major Barton, appearing in perhaps the most memorable final scene in Australian film history, for which he won his third AFI Award nomination and second win for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

Gallipoli was followed by a string of film and television roles including Far East and he teamed up again with director Philip Noyce on Heatwave and The Dismissal. The Dismissal heralded the era of the great Australian mini-series and Hunter went onto appear in many of them including Scales of Justice, The Last Bastion, Eureka Stockade and A Fortunate Life. (Indeed it was this flourishing of television production in the early 1980s that led to the establishment of the AFI Awards for Television in 1986. In 1989 Hunter starred in the telemovie Police State, receiving his fourth AFI nomination and third win, for Best Lead Actor in a Telefeature that same year. Around this time Hunter was also in Rikky & Pete and Mull. Next came Esben Storm’s Deadly, mini-series The Leaving of Liverpool, Phoenix and Police Rescue.

A beloved fixture in the 1990s

In 1992 Hunter appeared in two of the most high profile Australian films that year, Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous (for which he was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role) and Baz Lurhmann’s Strictly Ballroom.

Hunter was next seen in Broken Highway, Shotgun Wedding, The Custodian and mini-series Stark. Hunter then shot two films back-to-back, Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding. For some it’s the ABBA songs and similar ‘grotesque’ style that links these two films. For me it is Bill Hunter. In Priscilla, he played mechanic Bob, a fair dinkum Aussie bloke eking out an existence in the Outback. In Muriel’s Wedding, Bill played Bill Heslop, the big man in a small town who has little time for his wife and children.

Not surprisingly, Bill Hunter was again nominated for an AFI Award for his performance in Muriel’s Wedding. (The 1994 AFI Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role went to Hunter’s contemporary Max Cullen for Spider & Rose.)

As always, Hunter continued to work in film and television. He appeared in Blue Murder, Everynight… Everynight, River Street, Frontier, Road to Nhill, SeaChange and The Violent Earth to name a few.

Fittingly Hunter appeared in Russell Mulcahy’s television remake of On the Beach, in the small role of Prime Minister Smeaton.

The voice behind the face

In 2003 Hunter starred in Crackerjack, Bad Eggs and Horseplay and was one of the few Australian actors to ‘be heard’ in Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

Indeed, if Hunter is one of the most recognisable faces of the Australian screen, he is also without a doubt one of Australia’s most recognisable voices. Over the years Hunter has lent himself to many an advertising campaign, most famously as the face of BHP ‘the Big Australian’, the Keating Government’s Working Nation campaign, ALP campaigns and most recently for the AFL.

More film and television roles followed throughout the 2000s notably Tom White, The Square, Australia, The Pacific and most recently he lent his voice to the animated feature Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.

And we haven’t seen the last of his roles…

Hunter will be next seen in the soon to be released Kriv Stenders’ Red Dog, Simon Wincer’s The Cup (playing another legend, trainer Bart Cummings) and Amanda Jane’s The Wedding Party.

Hunter’s contribution to the Australian film and television industry was immeasurable. Constantly working, Hunter was one of the country’s most in demand  actors. A big man with a big heart, he will be greatly missed.

Bill was a big man with a big heart and he was a natural storyteller. I grew up watching him on screen, where he embodied the Australian character. I was privileged to know him a little. Under that gruff, sometimes intimidating exterior, he was warm, funny and kind. Hooroo Mate.

Sarah Finney

AFI Awards Note: To date, Hunter has won 3 AFI Awards and been nominated 6 times.

To see clips of Bill Hunter’s work on screen, visit this excellent collection on Australia Screen, the NFSA’s online resource.

A full list of Bill Hunter’s credits can be found here on IMDB

A memorial service for Bill Hunter will be held at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre on Thursday 26 May at 2pm.

Do you remember Bill Hunter, personally, professionally or just as a film and television watcher? The AFI welcomes your anecdotes, comments and thoughts below this post.

Why I Adore: Muriel’s Wedding

By Annie Stevens

“You’re terrible Muriel.” I’m quite certain that my family is not the only Australian family to appropriate this line from PJ Hogan’s 1994 film, Muriel’s Wedding when one of us did something remotely scandalous. It’s up there with “Tell him he’s dreamin” (The Castle) in the Highly Quotable Lines from Australian Films stakes. Muriel’s Wedding is an overwhelmingly Australian film. Not just because it is set here and people say “G’day” on a regular basis. But that the characters, stereotypes, vocabulary, scenery and mannerisms are distinctly, true bluely, Australian. It could be embarrassing, but it isn’t in Muriel’s Wedding. Without the stereotypes, the dagginess, the Australian Ugliness as scathing architect Robin Boyd said of Australian design, the film wouldn’t be the same, and frankly, I don’t think I would like it nearly as much.

Muriel Heslop (the incomparable Toni Collette) lives in the small (fictional) hometown of Porpoise Spit. This isn’t just a place that I recognise; it’s a way of thinking too. There are plenty of cultural studies references and themes of identity that you can hang off it. But it’s more than that. Muriel’s Wedding is an ugly duckling story that most of us can relate to. I know I do. Like Muriel Heslop I have been shy and awkward. I’ve punched myself in the guts with self-loathing and left a bruise. I’ve wanted, desperately, to be liked. And like Muriel I wanted to escape, she from Porpoise Spit and me from my small town in Tasmania. We both wanted to be a success and to prove everybody, well, something. In the film Muriel wants to get married. Marriage is winning in a small town. I get that. As Muriel says in big hacking snotty sobs in the bridal shop, where Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths) catches her trying on wedding dresses, if someone wants to marry her she won’t be Muriel Heslop any more. “Because who’d want to marry me?” she asks, sneering angrily at herself; the recognition of that feeling is like being thumped in the chest.

In many ways Muriel’s Wedding is about winning, losing and the real price, and worth, of both. Muriel did get what she wanted. She got married (to the bodacious swimming champion who needed a visa). She’d made it. But then marriage turned out to not be the ultimate prize after all. Getting what you want isn’t guaranteed to make you happy. Happiness isn’t something that you can buy. Love comes with consequences.

There’s also something in the film about salvation, and starting a new life. Not in a happy-clappy kind of way, but in a way that feels real and recognisable. Muriel lies and she steals, and while I have not stolen anything of consequence (though I am chronically guilty of borrowing colleagues’ pens and never returning them) I’ve certainly fibbed – to make myself sound better, to get out of trouble, harmless “white lies” that just about always end up catching you out. Muriel decides that she has to stop lying in order to be happy. Proof really, that you can better yourself and it’s almost never too late to make a new start.

Muriel's Wedding

Rachel Griffiths, Daniel Lapaine, Toni Collette and Bill Hunter at the altar in Muriel's Wedding

At the beginning of the film Muriel Heslop is incredibly far from being happy “in her own skin.” She listens to Abba music as an alternative to her dull existence and an antidote to her self-loathing. The entrance of the blunt, confident and sexy Rhonda Epinstalk (the similarly incomparable Rachel Griffiths) into her life, Muriel’s name change to “Mariel” and Mariel and Rhonda’s subsequent adventure to Sydney makes her life, as she tells Rhonda, “as good as an Abba song.”

I really love the female friendship that is at the focus of the film. Whether or not you are a loner, or have noisily slurped the last of your orgasm cocktail while you wait for the it girls to tell you if you’ve made it in or not, the friendship between misfits Muriel and Rhonda is a really great example of friendship on screen. Finding a friend who knows everything about you, one that you can go through bad stuff with, and who loves you even when you’ve let them down, is something that can’t be over valued Plus, as the film attests, you can choose your friends but you certainly can’t choose your family. So it’s worth picking good ones.

“I’m not alone. I’m with Muriel,” says Rhonda after telling mean girl Tanya (incidentally, Sophie Lee as Tanya screeching, “I’m a bride!” on the Hibiscus Island trip is another of my favourite moments in the film) all about her husband – Chook – and his lipstick ringed indiscretions. From then on we’re all with Muriel.

Muriel’s Wedding is a sad film, spiked with moments of unfettered joy. Betty (Jeanie Drynan), Muriel’s mother, is treated terribly by her husband, taken advantage of by her children and is slipping away quietly without anybody bothering to take notice until it’s too late. Muriel and her siblings are told constantly by their self-aggrandising father (Bill Hunter) that they’re useless. Small, but deadly, humiliations – many of them inflicted by that ghastly horn- rimmed glasses wearing shop assistant/spy – are common. But then there’s Muriel, her thighs straining against her white sateen pantsuit singing Waterloo with Rhonda in the talent competition on Hibiscus Island. There’s Rhonda and Muriel drinking their prize-winning magnum of champagne, and talking about being famous and seeing the world. There’s Muriel screaming with laughter when the two naked but gentlemanly American sailors appear in her lounge room the night that she brings home a boy that likes her, a raucous moment shattered when Rhonda can no longer feel her legs. For all its sadness and its disappointments and its missed moments and punctured dreams, I don’t find it a depressing film. It never fails to make me cry. But I’m not sure whether I’m crying because I’m happy or because I’m sad or because I’m both. Mostly, I think, because I can relate. In the scene where Rhonda and Muriel are hanging out of their taxi yelling goodbye to the streets, shopping centres and tourists of their hometown I can just about taste their freedom and their feckless exuberance for life.

AFI Awards note: Muriel’s Wedding won four AFI Awards in 1994: Best Achievement in Sound (David Lee, Glenn Newnham, Livia Ruzic, Roger Savage); Best Actress in a Lead Role (Toni Collette); Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Rachel Griffiths); and Best Film (producers Lynda House and Jocelyn Moorhouse).

Annie Stevens is a journalist. She has written for The Age, The Vine, The Guardian Comment is Free, Kill Your Darlings literary magazine and OK! magazine among others. Until recently she wrote the arts and events listings for The Age. She just moved to Sydney, “City of Brides” from Melbourne. She doesn’t think the coffee in Sydney is nearly as bad as Melbourne people say.

Much of Annie’s freelance work can be found here.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon, Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood watching the television show Round the Twist, and Anthony Morris flirts with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper.