First published on 19 Aug 2012. Updated on 21 Sep 2012.
After years in Hollywood, PJ Hogan wanted to make a personal, quintessentially Australian film again: Mental. It’s is the story of the dysfunctional Moochmore family and the foul-mouthed Mary Poppins who changes their lives.
Mental was far stranger than we were expecting.
Well, thank you! I take that as a compliment. When you make a film and your subject is mental illness, strange comes with the territory. Hopefully people, while being surprised, won’t feel that it’s inappropriate – because I think it would’ve been inappropriate not to have a strange side to it. A wilder side.
Mental illness is obviously a real, difficult thing, and your movie is often a comedy. Did you ever feel caught in that dissonance?
Not at all. I live in the trenches. I come from a family that bat in the big leagues of mental illness. My sister is schizophrenic and my brother suffers bipolar. I have four children, two of whom are autistic. I deal with this every day, and if you don’t laugh, you yourself will go mad. It’s that simple. I look around me and I don’t know what normal is. To me it doesn’t exist. I just discovered Harold Holt drowned and somebody named a swimming pool after him. A totally mental act, sanctioned by the Victorian Government.
The movie can be excessive and over the top –
Not to disagree with you – actually, I am disagreeing with you – but it’s neither. I think Australians, by their very nature, are over the top. Name one moment you think is excessive, and I’m pretty sure I’d tell you: “That really happened. And I toned it down.” A lot of people said Muriel’s Wedding was over the top, especially its look. But we had no money. It was all real locations. Point a camera at anything on the Gold Coast and you are excessive! The same is true of Mental.
It was very important that it at all times be truthful. I don’t mean truthful in terms of how the story unfolds, because as a filmmaker you have to cut out the boring bits, or make what could be boring entertaining. But the characters have to always feel real. If your film is called Mental, you must pay due respect to people who live with it – either a loved one who lives with it, or someone living with it themselves.
Do you have a hypothetical ideal audience for your work?
I do have an ideal audience, and they’re a marvellous, accepting, humorous, discerning, and raucous bunch. That’s who I make my films for. And then I often meet an audience who doesn’t live up to my ideal – and I’m very forgiving.
When you’re making a film that moves quickly between comedy and drama, do you have to be calculated about that rollercoaster works?
I’m glad you said ‘rollercoaster’, because that’s what living with mental illness is like. When I sat down to write Mental, I instinctively went with the shifts that you deal with every day when you live in a crazy environment. As far as mixing comedy with drama... a lot of people act as if that’s a shocking thing. They’ve been doing it since The Rules of the Game back in 1939! I don’t know when movies became so formalised. They seem to have a schoolmarmish quality now. But my favourite comedies, the ones that influenced me most, are films like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. It’s a very funny film, but what you remember about it is its emotional punch.
Is it more difficult to pitch movies when they’re not so easy to categorise?
This would have been impossible to make anywhere else. How do you pitch a comedy about how mental Australians are? But I think anything you can pitch is usually terrible, because if you can sum a story up in a sentence it’s probably not worth telling.
Music is incredibly important in your films. Even My Best Friend’s Wedding is sort of a ‘stealth musical’...
Stealth musical. I like that.
What’s your philosophy of music in your movies?
Strangely enough, I don’t set out to make stealth musicals. It began with Muriel’s Wedding, the story of my sister, and she loved ABBA. It was that simple. When I sat down to write the script, ABBA became an integral part of Muriel’s story. And music is such a big part of our lives! It always surprises me when people say “I don’t like musicals” – because I don’t know anybody who gets through the day without listening to a song, singing along with it, or talking about music. Things that we can’t express in words are often expressed for us by singers. That’s why we love them.
In Mental, I use The Sound of Music because it represents the ideal family that none of us can live up to. It’s Shirley Moochmore’s favourite film because they are a ‘normal family’. They eat dinner together. They’re happy, joyous. They’re so perfect that their cold father sits down and plays ‘Edelweiss’... and then they beat the Nazis. It’s very difficult to live up to the example set for us by The Sound of Music. That road leads to madness.
Mental screens from Thu Oct 4.