Interview with ‘Mental’ director P.J. Hogan

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There are two ways you could read that headline, and we’re pretty sure director P.J. Hogan doesn’t mind the ‘mad’ connotation. In 25 minutes of chat with the man who directed Muriel’s Wedding, and the freshly-released Mental, and diagnosis is plain to see: he’s an utter nutter.

On a serious note though, P.J. Hogan as helped redefine Australian cinema, first by introducing the wedding genre into the mainstream with his first big films (Muriel’s and My Best Friend’s Wedding), and secondly by taking a definitive Australian colloquialism our nation’s various levels of madness and presenting these in lighter, laughable guises. Here he speaks with Cream about his genuine affiliation with sufferers of mental illness, about working again with the brilliant Toni Collette, and about his hilarious new movie.

Interview by Antonino Tati.

 

Mental is an hilarious film from start to finish, but then there are sentimental bits in the middle of it. What made you put the sadder parts into the film?

When you’re making a film called Mental you have to live up to its title, and the title has two meanings. One is about the world being completely mental. And ‘mental’ as it affects a person who suffers some form of mental illness. So I thought there had to be a dark side to the comedy. It couldn’t just be a laugh riot. But I think over the years, comedy has become dumber – really brainless. You used to get what I call the ‘full meal’ – you used to get laughter, and tears, and something to think about. But now you’re lucky if you can remember it more than the popcorn you ate. I just felt the audience deserve a filmmaker that takes full emotional advantage of the story they’re telling.

 

The irony is that your characters speak in a colloquial manner but the intelligence is still there in the script.

I always wanted to keep the language truthful but to make the most entertaining story I possibly could. And it’s a subject I’ve had a lot of experience with. The story is based on fact. When I was 12, my Mum really did crack up. We woke up one morning and she was gone. And when we asked Dad where she’d gone he did say she’s gone “on a holiday”. He was running for election at the time and said, “She’s on holiday, that’s the official story, so stick to it.” Then he was stuck with us five kids whom he couldn’t communicate with. But to be fair to my Dad, we really were a bunch of ratbags, much like the kids depicted in the movie. And he must have snapped because he did the craziest thing and stopped for a hitch-hiker who ended up becoming our baby-sitter. When we got home from school, there was this woman sitting on our couch, rolling a cigarette, hunting knife in her boot, and she looked around at our messy house and started to make us clean. And that was the basis for this story.

Goodness. A lot of the audience would think it was an unbelievable story.

If people think it’s unbelievable, they’re probably not thinking of the craziest things members of their family have done. And you’ve also just got to think of the crazy things people do when they’re in love. People do really nutty things when they’re in love.

 

You just happen to condense it into two or so hours and so it all appears more intense, yes?

Well yeah. But there’s nothing madder than a person’s life. I don’t know anybody that has had a truly boring life – unless they work for the tax department.

 

It seems you’ve taken the subject of madness and turned it into a positive thing.

Yes, and it goes back to that babysitter we had. The first thing she said to us was that we weren’t mad; we were just different and suggested that we embrace our difference.

 

Do you think films like yours, as pop culture snowballs, shift the threshold of madness and see eccentricity as quite normal in modern society?

Well I think that Australia is pretty mad. We accept a lot of really whacky people as completely normal. And I like that about Australia because we’re very inclusive. We’ve all got mad old Jim down the road. We’ve all got the crazy relative that we accept; the one whose bored with us at Christmas and so gets up and starts doing calastetics at the table.

 

There’s a line that Toni Collette’s character Shaz says in the film – that Australia has a heritage of madness; that the convicts who graced our shores with Captain Cook were insane and that’s why they were sent here to start with. Do you think madness could be hereditary?

Do you mean do I think if Shaz’s theory is right. The original Shaz said something similar to us that made a lot of sense. We wondered where exactly would you send the loonies and she said, “Well you can’t get any further than Australia.” She thought the entire penal colony thing was a total front. And I remember as a kid thinking, as mad as that sounds itself, it’s got a ring of truth, especially when I looked around at the people that made up the small town I lived in.

 

You do touch on various mental illnesses in the film. Did you find yourself doing serious research on each one?

I do know the background of some disorders. My sister is schizophrenic, and my brother suffers from bipolar. They’ve spent time in psyche units, and I’d visit them often. So they’re actually subjects I’ve had a lot of experience with.

 

So no-one could criticise you for having a lack of empathy or for treating the subjects lightly, because you’ve experienced them first-hand?

Everyone thinks that it’s a bit odd when I’m discussing a schizophrenic person that’s close to me, but that doesn’t mean my sister sits around depressed. She’s hilarious. She’s funny when she’s on her medication, and funny in a different way when she’s off it. When she’s off her medication, she thinks she owns Qantas. And this is just who she is. And anyone who cares and loves a person who has a mental illness will tell you that you’ve gotta laugh or you go mad yourself because the challenges you face and they face every day are pretty big. But it can be really funny, too, particularly when someone like my sister encounters someone else who is really boring and really straight-laced. She’ll go up to them and offer them a jet to cheer them up. That Qantas thing again…

 

Unfortunately the sane ones are usually boring…

I think that anybody who’s normal in the neurotypical sense in the word turns out to be dull. Give me the mental cases any time. I have much more fun with them.

 

Mental brings you together with Toni Collette for the first time since Muriel’s Wedding. Did you experience déja vu on the set?

Not really because Toni and I have known each other for years. We’ve been talking about working together again since Muriel’s. In fact, I was talking to Toni on the set of Muriel’s Wedding about this mad woman in my childhood named Shaz, and she said, “Well why are we making this film about a girl called Muriel? We should be making a movie about this girl named Shaz! And if you make this film, I wanna play Shaz.” So she was always prodding me, “How’s the Mental script going?”

 

Well in between Toni’s done The United States Of Tara, the TV series that delved into many sides of one’s personality so things were meant to be by the looks of it.

Toni always says that she doesn’t seek out the mental roles; they find her. But I think she has an affinity for the unhinged. She’s definitely got a gift for [playing] people who just see life a little differently.

 

Your next film My Best Friend’s Wedding, along with first success Muriel’s Wedding opened up a whole new genre in modern cinema. Are you surprised to see the wedding genre so popular nowadays?

Kind of, but who doesn’t love a wedding? I mean, talk about mental. I’ve seen people do the most embarrassing things at weddings. For some reason they unleash the best and the worst of people. One thing we discovered – while making My Best Friend’s Wedding – was because it’s such a concentrated period of time, it can send people absolutely nuts. So that’s why it makes a good theme for film.

 

On a semantic level, what would you say is the signature trademark to P.J. Hogan films?

I like a very strong look. Not over-the-top, but something that has a very strong visual style. Unlike Kurosawa, I didn’t have the colour red to splatter around everywhere, so I shoot in locations that have their own strong colour scheme. With Mental, for example, you just had to put a camera on the Gold Coast and you get a really strong and wild look. The Gold Coast has its own colour scheme and that colour scheme is as mismatched as they can possibly come. And that in itself was mental. Oh, and if there’s one thing all my films have, they’re totally mental.

 

Mental currently screens nationally.

To view the official trailer for the movie, click on the film poster below.