PJ Hogan burst on the scene with 1994’s Muriel’s Wedding, which broke from the period dramas that had dominated Australian cinema up until that time. He soon brought his comedic sensibilities to Hollywood, with mixed results. His updated version of Peter Pan drew strong reviews, but no audience members. My Best Friend’s Wedding scored big, but 2009’s Confessions of a Shopaholic had the misfortunate of critiquing consumer culture at a period where people were struggling to hold onto their homes. He returns to Australia – and his topmost form – with Mental, a semi-autobiographical tale of a rambunctious family who welcomes a wandering drifter (Toni Collette) into their home. In an exclusive interview, Hogan talked about the project and the challenges of bringing his uniquely Australian point of view to an international audience.
Question: It feels like you’re going back home to a certain extent with this, back to the tone you found with Muriel’s Wedding.
PJ Hogan: You know, Mental is actually a true story. It’s all true. We actually thought about including a “this story is based on true events” card at the beginning, but that felt like gilding the lily a bit. But it’s all true. When I was twelve, my mum had a complete nervous breakdown, and was institutionalized. My dad didn’t tell us because he was a local politician running for reelection. When we got the truth out of him, he said, “You’ve got to keep this quiet, because nobody votes for a guy whose wife is crazy.” She was gone for two months; we had to tell everybody that she was on holiday.
And my dad didn’t have anything in common with us. We were terrible, terrible kids. Little criminals disguised as twelve-year-olds. And he must have cracked, because he stopped and picked up a hitchhiker. He said he trusted her because she had a dog. A great judge of character, my dad. So when we got home, we saw this strange woman sitting on the couch with a hunting knife sticking out of her boot, and her crazy Italian dog growling at us. Her first words in the movie were her first words in life: “Bit of a mess around here, isn’t it?” I came to love her all the same. This woman was in my life for 20 years. And it wasn’t that I was sitting on the story for a long time, I just didn’t know quite how to tell it. I couldn’t figure out which part of those 20 years was right for a movie.
The irony is, my mother wasn’t really crazy. She’d just reached the end of her tether and wasn’t getting any help. This other woman was crazy – certifiable – but she was aggressively crazy. I think if you’re aggressively crazy, no one ever calls you crazy. It’s when you’re soft and sensitive that you get that label. Hollywood’s full of people who really belong in an asylum. Seriously. But they’re aggressively crazy, so no one calls them on it.
Q: What made you decide that Toni Collette would be the right person to play that character?
PJH: Toni and I go way back. Muriel’s Wedding was our first film together. Toni was 20 when we started shooting. I was 28. Neither of us knew what we were doing. And it was a big hit. I wanted Toni for the part, but she’s become very well-known and can pick her projects. I shouldn’t have worried. She really got Mental and she really got Shaz.
Q: You also had the challenge of working with both kids and dogs.
PJH: Yeah, I’ve worked with them before. We had a dog on Peter Pan. But W.C. Fields was right. They’re definitely a challenge. You want to have real kids, is the key. You don’t want movie kids, who are too cute and too pithy and too polished. Kids with too much experience tend to act more like 40-year-olds than kids. They hit their marks and they know their lines, but you’ve lost something. You want kids who are wild and enthusiastic and just kids. I like to work with non-professionals, with kids who remind me of who I was when I was growing up. Kids who will drive you crazy.
Q: There’s also a specific subculture here that non-Australians might not be familiar with. I guess it’s a Gold Coast culture.
PJH: Yeah, I grew up on the Gold Coast. Young Australians are very familiar with it, the same way young Americans are familiar with Florida. It’s where the spring breakers go. It exists as a tourist town. It comes alive when the tourists come, but if you live there full-time, it’s a bit of a wasteland. You’re never going to see a bookstore. You’re never going to see an arthouse film. The Avengers is playing all year. I think people tend to get those towns regardless of where they are. Australia is made up of small towns, like the USA. It’s different. It’s a little more gossip-y, everyone knows your business. And if you’re an eccentric or a little nuts, you’re disenfranchised.
Q: Some of the characters actually fall back on perceived insanity as a way of standing apart from the crowd.
PJH: I call that Sylvia Plath Syndrome. It’s the glamour of being crazy. We all know there is no glamour in it, but when you’re a kid, it seems different. As they say in the movie, if you’re not crazy you’re just unpopular. I was that way as a kid. There had to be a reason that nobody liked me, and I thought, “it must be because I’m crazy.” I was so convinced that I was mental. In fact, I just marched to the beat of a different drummer. Once I got out of my small town, I didn’t feel crazy any more. And in fact, one of the key points of the film is “what is normal?” I don’t think normal exists. It’s like perfection, there’s no such thing. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and that changes from person to person.