Saturday, March 30, 2013

MENTAL reunites P.J. Hogan & Toni Collette in another tale of a family--and the outsider who saves it; plus a Q&A with Mr. Hogan

What is MENTAL? Yes, it's the Australian manner of describing someone who needs psychological help. But in this new movie of the same name by P.J. Hogan, it is also the idea that one man's (or woman's) "mental" is another's bit of normalcy. And vice-versa, of course. Mr. Hogan is another of TrustMovies' favorite filmmakers. For this fellow's output alone -- not numerous but extremely lovable and kind-hearted without being saccharine -- Hogan is special. Beginning with Muriel's Wedding and moving on through Unconditional Love, Peter Pan and now Mental, he has given us some of the loveliest tales of "outsiders" even seen.  He wrote and directed those four films, but he has also directed two others: My Best Friend's Wedding (a classic of its kind) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (not great, but more fun than you may have heard).

Among the things that Hogan (shown at right) loves, it seems, are music and song, which he manages to incorporate into his films (which are not musicals) in the sweetest, often funniest ways. He gets quite good performan-ces from his casts (and he casts with an excellent eye for very good actors). Since first working with Toni Collette, who played Muriel in the film that brought her, Hogan and Rachel Griffiths to international attention, he has worked with some of the finest actors in the business, giving them a chance to shine in roles they would normally not play. I think my favorite of his films is Unconditional Love, which is also probably his least known and seen. Seek it out, if you have not seen it, and you'll discover something highly unusual, twice as special and maybe five times as much fun as you're expecting.

Now with Mental, he's back in Australia again with a fractured family that needs a lot of help. Dad (Anthony LaPaglia, below) is the lecherous, never-at-home mayor of a small town whose wife (Rebecca Gibney, above) is suffering from psychological problems that take the shape of her desperately wanting her family to be something like the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music. So she sings -- at the most inappropriate times -- and is soon sent away on "vacation" (read "nut-house").

Mom's and Dad's kids -- five girls -- are not much better off. Each imagines herself to be the craziest child of all, though only one of them actually inhabits a rather dire mental state. Into this house-hold comes Ms Collette as Shaz (below), a very odd woman that Dad has literally picked up off the street and deposited at home to care for those kids. She does. In her own, inimitable manner.

Shaz was once married to a shark hunter named Trevor (Liev Schreiber, below), who has a shark display at the local aquarium/theme park where the eldest of the family's daughters also works. All this -- plus some nosy, not-very-nice neighbors and Mom's older and also not-very-nice sister -- bring the movie's plot/pot to the brim/boil.

Collette is as amazing as ever -- a force of nature who literally runs away with the movie. When she's on-screen, however crazy things get, she makes them work. The males, despite Schreiber's and LaPaglia's acting skills, register as much less interesting, though the women folk (Gibney, the young girls, Caroline Goodall as the mean sis, Kerry Fox as an OCD neighbor and Deborah Mailman, below, as an Aborigine pal of Shaz) are all aces.

Newcomer Lily Sullivan (below) plays, and very well, that eldest daughter, who begins a sweet, somewhat fraught relationship with a boy (a dear doofus brought to charming life by Sam Clark) who also works at the theme park. The plot is mostly Shaz teaching life lessons to the kids, mom and dad, but with these actors in place, along with Hogan's keeping the film energized and well-paced, it's an enjoyable ride, with Shaz/Collette such a consistent cyclone that resistance would be futile. There is also, along the way, an extremely moving scene between Chaz and that eldest daughter as truths are suddenly revealed.

TM would have preferred the film to have ended just one scene before it actually does. The actual ending stuck me as too feel-good and silly. However, after speaking with Mr Hogan for a few minutes during press day this past week, and discovering that Mental is based on real life and his own family (something the filmmaker decided not to push on his audience, as most do these days), I must take it back. Given what I know now, it seems the perfect ending. And if you read the short Q&A below, you'll learn why. But maybe see the film first, since the Q&A does contains some spoilers.

Meanwhile, Mental -- via Dada Films and Required Viewing and running 116 minutes -- opened yesterday, March 29, in New York City at the Village East Cinema and Clearview Chelsea and in ten other cities around the country. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.


What a guy is P.J. Hogan (below): Easy to talk to, funny, serious, smart and totally swept up in film and life and creation. My first question is "What do those initials stand for?"

"Paul John," he explains, "so you see, with that first name, why I could not use it." Ah, yes. That Crocodile Dundee fellow....  In the short Q&A that follows, TM appears in boldface and P.J. in standard type....

I'm excited to meet you because I've loved your films from way back. My favorite, I think, is that one with Kathy Bates and Jonathan Pryce, Unconditional Love.

Ah, really! I'm so glad to hear that. You know, we had a terrible time with that film. The studio wouldn't release it.  So it went straight to Home Video
Yes, I think it was shown on a cable channel here: Maybe Showtime...?

Yes and then straight to DVD.  I don't know quite what happened because I went off and did another movie. You have to move on: There are only so many battles you can wage.

That movie seems to me to encapsulate so much that I think you believe in.

It is a special movie to me, and I loved working with Kathy and Rupert (Everett). And Julie Andrews -- as herself!

Music in that one, as in several of your films, seems to mean so much to you.  The healing power of it, the joy of it....

Well, it does mean so much to me. From my first film Muriel's Wedding, music is one of the things that is so important to that film. That was the story of my sister--

Really? I didn't know that.

Yes. Just as with Mental, the events in Muriel's Wedding actually happened. (P.J. notices my surprise). Yes. Our dad was a... well, a bully, and he was not keen on us. We were all a disappointment to him.  I remember feeling most comfortable alone in my room, listening to Abba. That was my favorite band, but back then, in the 70s, they were considered very uncool. Now, of course, they are rightly considered great musicians and composers. Back then they had only one hit here in the USA: Dancing Queen.  In Australia, they has something like 14!

So Mental is also based on fact?

Yes, Mental is almost entirely based on actual events.

Even the ending?  I mean, I thought Shaz was going to stay dead.

Well, here's the thing about that. The real Shaz was totally mad. I mean, I am in the trenches regarding mental illness. My sister is schizophrenic, my brother is bipolar, and I'm the father of two autistic kids. So this is a subject that's really important to me. That's why I made it a comedy.  If you ask any caregiver to the mentally ill, they'll tell you that if you can't find a laugh in your day, you yourself will go totally mad.

My mom, when I was twelve, had a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. And my dad, who was the mayor of our town and was running for reelection, he told all of us: "Nobody votes for a guy whose wife is crazy, so the official story is, She's gone on holiday."

So Shaz really was your caretaker?

Yes. Shaz was somebody my dad picked up on the side on the road. She was hitch-hiking. And he was completely at sea when it came to taking care of kids -- he always preferred not to be at home. Of course, he couldn't hire anybody through the official channels, so....   From Dad's point of view, he was doing a good deed for Shaz and for us kids....

And for himself. 

Yes, for himself. That goes without saying. So he was doing a good deed for her, rescuing her from hitch-hiking. And he trusted her because she had a dog.  So he was giving us a nanny. Of course, she was crazy. Yet, to this day, the original Shaz remains one of the most brilliant, inspiring and totally mad people I've ever known.

Whew. I didn't know all this was true when I watched the movie.  This does sort of change things somewhat.

Well, I was considering -- and I talked to my editor a lot about this -- putting at the beginning of the movie that notice that "this film is based on actual events."  But we decided not to.

Good. Because almost every other movie you see these days does that.

Exactly. And I think it's fine to say that, if it's Argo.

Yes but even in Argo, the whole last third was concocted!

But when it's a such a personal story like this one, what would the audience care? They either enjoy the story. Or they don't.  But because it is so personal and such a part of my life, I am more than willing to discuss it.

Do you live in Australia permanently?

Yes. That's why I am so jet-lagged just now.

Really? You look OK to me. Of course, I've never seen you before.

Yes, yes, so I could just tell you I always look like this: Smokey-eyed!

Do you choose your film projects. Or do they come to you, and then you decide?

Ah... Well, I am lucky in one way.  My first film Muriel's Wedding was a low-budget film that was hugely successful all around the world. I had all the "points" because nobody wanted to make it because nobody thought it would make any money. So, in a way, that film set me up.  And it's a great thing for anybody in this industry -- director, actor, anybody -- if you are able to say 'no.' If you have to work to pay the bills, well, then, you have to. But if you can pick and choose, how much better this is!  When I look back on things, I could say, Well, I wish I had made more movies. On the other hand, the movies I made, I really wanted to make.

(The PR person lets us know that we have time for one more question.)

OK: My Best Friend's Wedding is one of my favorite romantic comedies, even though it sort of skews to the anti-romantic comedy end.

Yes, but that's what makes people laugh.

Yes, and  that's also what distinguishes the film. 

It' s what I loved about Ron Bass' screenplay. The first time I read through a screenplay, I just enjoy it. This is as close, I believe, as I will get to the audience's response to the finished film. I remember thinking, about halfway through, I don't want Julia to get the guy. She's being just terrible!


And I thought for sure that the screenplay was have the usual happy ending. But his original screenplay did not have a happy ending. It ended like the movie now ends. But the studio was very frightened about a Julia Roberts movie not having a happy ending, so they made us shoot an alternate -- and happy ending where she gets the guy.  So we thought, well, OK: Maybe they have a point. And anyway, it's their money. So we'll do it, and do the best we can.. But that new and happy ending was summarily rejected by the preview audiences. They didn't want her to get the guy, either. But they also didn't want her to be alone. So then we got the idea to bring back Rupert Everett. And we did a reshoot. I always thought of Julia's character as Pinocchio and Rupert's character as Jiminy Cricket, her conscience.

Hmmm... Interesting.

And speaking of blogs, which I know you have and write for, it seems that the real Shaz, who is still out there --

She is still alive?

Oh, yes: still alive, and in her 60s now, I should think. And she has now taken up blogging or tweeting as they call it and has set up her own Twitter site.

Which is?


With a Or whatever the Twitter address is.

Exactly. The great thing about it is that her whole philosophy is there, in 140 characters or less, and she says what she thinks. In fact, she does not like the film at all.

She doesn't?

No. She dislikes it immensely. She says things like, "It's all lies -- except for that one bit where I pull out the knife and sort out those two bitches. I did do that!"

(And that's it. P.J. must now talk to the next journalist in line. But we've certainly enjoyed our visit. And his several films. If you've never seen Unconditional Love or his wonderful version of Peter Pan, rent them! And catch Mental, too: either now, or later on DVD....)

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