Learning to embrace who you truly are, and not feeling as though you always have to conform to society’s standard of what’s considered normal, is a major theme that’s explored in the new comedy-drama, ‘Mental.’ From the five Moochmore teenage daughters, who care more about what makes them happy than the fact they’re considered different from their neighbors, to the free-spirited hitchhiker Shaz who shows them they don’t have to prove anything to those who look down on them, writer-director P.J. Hogan’s latest film showcases the characters’ differing qualities. Driven by the filmmaker’s similar experiences as a young teenager, ‘Mental’ looks into what happens when people truly learn to accept their true personalities.
‘Mental’ follows the five Moochmore sisters as they come to believe they’re suffering from an undiagnosed neurotic mental illness, because if they’re not, that means they’re just unpopular. Unable to cope with her wild daughters, their mother, Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), and her unsupportive and philandering political husband, Barry (Anthony LaPaglia), lives in the fantasy world of the Von Trapp family and the songs from ‘The Sound of Music.’ When her delusions become too much too much to bear, Barry commits Shirley to a mental hospital, only to find himself unsure of how to relate to, and raise, his five teenage daughters alone. Desperate to avoid dealing with his family, he impulsively picks up a hitchhiker, Shaz (Toni Collette), who becomes the girls’ nanny and transforms their lives with her unconventional beliefs. While she appears to be charismatic and hot tempered herself, Shaz gives the girls the inspiration to stand up for themselves against those who try to bring them down, including Shirley’s sister (Caroline Goodall), who cares more about her doll collection than her family.
While Shaz initially appears to be helping the Moochmore girls, her irrational side is accentuated by the appearance of Trevor Blundell (Liev Schreiber), a shark hunter who runs the exhibit at the local amusement park where Shirley and Barry’s oldest daughter, Coral (Lily Sullivan), works. Barry originally seems to be a father-figure, and interested in protecting Coral’s best interest, particularly against the sexual advances of one of the park’s teenage lifeguards, Trout (Sam Clark). However, Trevor’s vengeful side surfaces when his surprising connection to, and past with, Shaz is revealed.
Hogan generously took the time recently to sit down in New York City to talk about shooting ‘Mental.’ Among other things, the writer-director discussed how having several family members struggling with mental illness, and wanting to tell a truthful, politically incorrect story that isn’t afraid to fully explore the disease, prompted him to write the script. He also spoke about how Collette, LaPaglia and Schreiber’s talent for delivering comedic and dramatic moments, and their natural ability to connect with their respective characters, convinced him to cast them in the film, and how audiences around the world have embraced the comedy-drama’s story, as everyone is essentially looking for understanding and love, just like the film’s characters.
Question (Q): You wrote the script for ‘Mental,’ basing it on your own similar experiences when you were a teenager, and your father hired a hitchhiker to take care of you and your four siblings. Why did you decide to write a screenplay that was based on that time period in your life?
J.P. Hogan (JPH): Well, I thought it was a really great story. As a director, I really believe in something William Faulkner, one of my favorite writers, said. He said, “Blessed is the writer who has an unhappy childhood.” I also think that applies to actors and screenwriters, as well.
My sister suffers from schizophrenia and my brother is bipolar. Two of my children are autistic. Mental illness a subject that has a great deal of meaning, and it’s very important to me.
It’s also a comedy, because to me, that was the most truthful way to tell the story. I think anybody who cares for someone who’s mentally challenged will tell you, if you don’t find something funny, you yourself will go mad.
I wanted to write this because it’s a good story. I wanted to write something about mental illness that wasn’t done in serious, dark colors. That should be part of it, but it shouldn’t be all of it. I wanted it to be as politically incorrect as I could make it. With mental illness, you shouldn’t be politically correct. It’s just another way of people saying, if you can’t find the right words, don’t talk about it.
Anybody who suffers from mental illness is disenfranchised, and is probably embarrassed by it and feels stigmatized. Not talking about it is probably the worst thing you could do. I mean from anxiety issues to depression to big ticket items, like my sister’s schizophrenia, people should talk about them.
I’m comfortable with telling personal stories, because my first film, ‘Muriel’s Wedding,’ was also autobiographical. That was the story of my sister, and by extension, the story of my family. It was my first time delving into my past and upbringing, which was so unconventional.
When I made a film about it, there were people from all over the world who came up to me and said, my mother was just like the mother in the film, and Muriel is me. I’ve had guys come up to me and say, I am Muriel, even though I am a guy. It was a personal story that was very universal. Shaz’s story is also based on something that happened. That, too, has resonated with people all over the world.
Q: ‘Mental’ has played at several film festivals around the world, including the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia and the Rome Film Festival. How have audiences been reacting to the movie around the world?
JPH: Well, it’s already been released in Australia, and people there get it because it’s about Australia. They get all the colloquial humor.
But the last film festival I went to was the Rome Film Festival, and they were laughing, even though it was subtitled in Italian. The laughs seem to be in the same place, and it does seem to work in different countries and languages and cultures.
We really are all human beings. We may have cultural differences, but we’re all people essentially looking for understanding and love. We’re all getting ourselves into problems.
Q: You specifically wrote the role of Shaz for Toni Collette, who you previously worked with on ‘Muriel’s Wedding.’ Why did you think Toni would be right for the role, and what was your working relationship with her like on the set?
JPH: I think she’s brilliant. We wanted to work together again since ‘Muriel’s Wedding,’ but the timing was never right, and Toni was busy and I was free, or I was doing something and she wasn’t.
But really in the back of my mind, because Shaz was someone I knew when I was 12-years-old, I was talking to Toni about Shaz on the set of ‘Muriel’s Wedding.’ She’d say, “Why are we making a film about your sister, when it sounds like Shaz is extraordinary?” She’d keep saying, “How’s that script about Shaz going?” But it wasn’t going at all. I didn’t know how to tell the story, because Shaz was in my life for so long, spanning 20 years, and not just for the events you see in the film. That was just the beginning of the story.
I think when my children were diagnosed with autism, I finally felt the need to make the movie, and I knew how to do it. It’s not enough to just have a good story; you also have to have a personal reason to make it.
How closely did you work with Toni to develop the character of Shaz, since the character is based on someone you knew?
JPH: I didn’t really work with Toni to develop the character, because she knew so much about Shaz from the set of ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ and my impersonations of Shaz. We had a rehearsal period, but Toni had a lot of preparation. Toni, I think, has a great affinity for, and really gets, outsiders who have reached their limit and who don’t belong. So I pretty much let Toni go with it.
Q: Besides Toni, you also cast Australian actor Anthony LaPaglia as Barry Moochmore in the film. What was the casting process like for Anthony for the father in the comedy-drama?
JPH: I’ve always been a fan of Anthony’s work, ever since I saw a film that many people probably don’t remember, because it came out some years ago. It was ‘Betsy’s Wedding,’ which not many people saw, but that was the first time I became aware of Anthony. It was a comedy, and Anthony was hilarious in it. Every time he was on screen, I was laughing.
I thought he was an American because he had an impeccable American accent. But he was actually an Australian, born and raised in Melbourne. So I’ve always been a fan of his work.
To play these characters, you had to be not only dramatically gifted, but you also had to know your way around comedy. Sometimes there are actors who are great at drama, but just don’t have the time for comedy. But Anthony is a very funny guy.
Barry is a flawed man, but Anthony makes you like him. You at least understand where he’s coming from. Anthony makes you realize that whatever Barry’s flaws, you can overcome them, even as misguided as they are.
Q: One of the other well-known stars in the cast is American actor Liev Schreiber, who portrayed Trevor Blundell. Why did you ultimately decide to cast him as the shark hunter?
JPH: I didn’t think I was going to cast an American in the movie, especially not in that role. Trevor is the shark hunter who has a bit of Steve Urwin in him, so I didn’t think of Liev Schrieber at all. But Liev got the script, and the producers said we got a call from his agent, and he’d like to play the part.
I think Liev’s a wonderful actor, but we had two problems: we couldn’t afford him, and he was American. When I spoke to Liev, he said “Don’t worry about the first problem-I’ll do it for whatever you’ve got.” Then as we talked, I thought, this guy’s such a good actor that he wouldn’t take the part if he didn’t think he could. He’s an actor first and a star second; he wants to get it right.
So I rolled the dice, because I knew he’d really be the Trojan. Do you have that saying here? Well, you do now. (laughs) Basically, he worked like a Trojan warrior to vanquish his accent. There were a lot of Australians who were unfamiliar with his work, who didn’t know he wasn’t Australian, which was great. They’d say, who’s this Australian actor we’ve never heard of? He’s so good. I’d say, oh, he’s Liev Schrieber, and he’s American.