While an unhappy childhood isn’t an ideal foundation for building a successful life, Brisbane-born, Sydney-based filmmaker P.J. Hogan hasn’t let a dismal upbringing curtail his career. During 30 years of filmmaking, P.J. has learnt that his best stories are his own. Like his first international smash-hit Muriel’s Wedding, P.J.’s newly released film, Mental, is largely autobiographical. P.J. wrote the film primarily for entertainment’s sake, but says its life message, to just be who you are, comes from Toni Collette’s loud-and-proud character, Shaz.
P.J. Hogan’s latest film, Mental, is an unpredictable ride, swinging from funny to dark, from sad to profound. Asked how much of the film is autobiographical, P.J. admits: “Pretty much all of it. Actually, a better question is how much of it didn’t happen. It’s based on something that happened when I was young – my mother had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalised. One day we got home from school and she was gone. My dad was running for re-election in local government at the time and said: ‘No-one votes for a bloke whose wife is crazy. You’ve got to keep this quiet. She’s on holiday.’ So that was the official story.”
“But then he was stuck with the five of us kids and we were – to be fair to my dad – a bunch of ratbags. We just went to town and ordered pizzas every night and didn’t clean up after ourselves. It was mayhem. So my dad stopped for a hitchhiker on his way to work, and he trusted her to be our nanny because she had a dog …”
P.J.’s new comedy follows a similar sequence of events. In Mental, the five siblings are rambunctious girls who are certain they all suffer from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness – they worry that, if they’re not crazy, then they’re just unpopular. Toni Collette plays the nanny, Shaz, who transforms the five girls’ lives by encouraging them to shun conformity and embrace individuality.
P.J. explains that the real Shaz – whose character is charismatic, hot-tempered, inspiring and unpredictable in the movie – remains the most inspiring, outrageous and crazy person he has ever met.
“A lot of the things that Shaz the character says in the movie came from the real Shaz. We were something of outcasts in our neighbourhood and at school, and she was the first person who said: ‘You may be a bunch of nonconformists, but that’s great. Who wants to be a sheep?’ She was the first person I’d ever heard say something like that – that you should embrace what is eccentric and different about you.”
P.J. knows he makes his best films when drawing from his life experiences. It’s the same approach he took when writing Muriel’s Wedding, after struggling for ten years to make films that stuck.
“When I sat down to do the screenplay for Muriel’s Wedding, it was the most honest thing I’d ever written because I’d decided that my previous scripts weren’t responding for a reason. So I thought, okay, I’m going to write something that’s personal – that really comes from the heart,” he explains.
“So I wrote what I knew about, and that was failure. I wrote a character who was a total failure – Muriel – but who dreamed of fame and celebrity … and that was my lesson I took as a filmmaker. I’d found my voice on that film, which had eluded me before.”
Muriel’s Wedding debuted in 1994 at Cannes Film Festival and was a success in cinemas across the globe. It scooped many awards, including four Australian Film Institute awards (most notably, Best Film), and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in both the BAFTA Awards and the Writers Guild of America Awards.
P.J. didn’t expect Muriel’s Wedding to be so well received. “Its success left me reeling, to be honest. I couldn’t quite believe it. I thought I was the victim of a very cruel cosmic joke,” he explains.
It’s astounding that P.J. failed to muster support for the film. “We made Muriel’s on a shoestring budget,” he recalls. “Nobody wanted to make it. We’d scraped the finance together and it took five years to get it made. So I went into it thinking I was just lucky to be making it at all.”
Asked how he remained motivated despite the lack of support, P.J. shares: “Throughout my life I’d always been told I was no good. My dad was very good at that. So if I get a kick or a shove I can get back up. That’s one of the pluses of not being praised – you don’t look to other people to validate you. Because if you’re looking for that, well, it’s not enough fuel to sustain a career.”
After his Muriel’s Wedding triumph, P.J. was approached to direct My Best Friend’s Weddingin 1997. He accepted the role after his wife and business partner Jocelyn
Moorhouse convinced him it had merit. Jocelyn was right. The film become one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time and was nominated for three Golden Globe awards, including Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
P.J.’s transition into filmmaking was a natural one because he loved films as a young boy. Movies provided an escape from his unhappy home and school life. He didn’t realise film school existed until he stumbled across a handbook for the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in his final year of school.
“And that for me was like finding the Dead Sea Scrolls,” P.J. recalls. “I had no idea that such a place existed. I thought it was too good to be true.” P.J. applied to the AFTRS and was asked to submit a screenplay. He didn’t know what one looked like, but knew he could write. He tracked down a screenplay of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at his local secondhand store and pored over the pages.
He submitted a short comedy script to AFTRS and was accepted in 1981 at age 17. He recalls that he was young and naive about the world of film, unlike his classmates Jane Campion, Alex Proyas and wife Jocelyn, who “went there knowing what they wanted”.
Upon graduating, P.J. struggled to find his place in the industry. “The film school was just an extraordinary time for me, but after that I graduated into immediate unemployment and had to scrounge for a living and basically live that life for ten years before I came to Muriel’s Wedding.”
Asked his greatest achievement, P.J. doesn’t name his films, but rather his children. “I have four children and two of my kids are special needs – they have autism. And I think what I’m most proud of is that a series of doctors told us our daughter would never speak, but Joc and I refused to believe it. And she speaks. She doesn’t have the greatest vocabulary. But she speaks.”
P.J. says making films is his passion. “If you talk to any film director, they will say to you that it’s the best job in the world, and they’re right. I love being on a set. I love to work with actors … But the main thing is I’m a storyteller. I have always told stories to others and now I just get to do it on a grander scale. That’s what I do, I tell stories.”