My chat with Mental director and writer PJ Hogan first turned to Twitter. Namely, Shaz's Twitter. Do you follow her? If so, you'll understand her a whole lot better before seeing the film. Shaz (Toni Collette) toes the line between madness and genius on screen, taking the cast of Mental on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and self-discovery with more than a few expletives and acts of property destruction thrown in for good measure. Luckily her social media self, helmed by PJ Hogan, is just as spirited. Based on a true story and a very real person in his life as a young boy, keeping the character of Shaz as true to form as possible in Mental was a no-brainer for Hogan.
“I wasn’t careful at all,” says Hogan. “I was just very honest to the real Shaz.”
“Because the subject was mental illness, people’s perceptions of it and something so autobiographical, I knew I had to tell the real story because it really did happen, and it was important to let people know that it was real. I mean, who would believe that my father, the sanest person on the planet would pick up a hitchhiker when his wife is institutionalized and he can’t cope with his kids?”
“I got home from school to find her there with a knife in her boot and a joint in her hand [laughs]. And this is the mad Mary Poppins my dad, upstanding mayor of Coolangatta, brought to look after his kids?”
And there you have Mental. And Shaz. PJ’s father, aka Barry Moochmore (Anthony LaPaglia) is left on his own when wife Shirley (Rebecca Gibney) is sent to a mental asylum (after thinking she’d won Wheel of Fortune, no less). He finds hotheaded Shaz walking the street and casually appoints her as his five daughter’s own fairy godmother.
Eldest daughter Coral (Lily Sullivan) earns the title of ‘most mental’ in the Moochmore family after a (rather comical) failed suicide attempt, with Adelaide’s own Sam Clark also starring as Trout – a carefree music-loving surfer who falls in love with Coral. Clark’s own original songs, written especially for Mental, feature heavily in the film.
“Music is my other job so I was lucky enough to incorporate that into this,” says Clark.
“To be given the opportunity to write music for my first feature film, to have it directed by PJ Hogan and star alongside such huge names is a real blessing for me. Hopefully it opens some doors for me to continue doing acting as well as my music”
“Writing songs as a character is a completely different ballgame; completely different to writing for yourself. In a way it’s like writing for another artist, except here, it had to be strictly comedy. The lyrics had to be shocking… bad, horrible lyrics! [laughs] But at the same time I was told to try and make them hits. It’s a delicate balance to be writing hit songs in character, with horrible words… although there are a lot of songs on the radio that have horrible lyrics and not much substance [laughs]”
Like the Heslop family in Muriel’s Wedding, the Moochmores are, for the most part, completely real.
“It’s not the first time I’ve told an autobiographical story,” says Hogan.
“Muriel’s Wedding was completely autobiographical. I was much more careful with that because it was the story of my sister. I said to her ‘What happened to you, to us, to our family was a great story, may I tell it?’ and she said yes, thankfully! But she told me her character had to be a hero and that I couldn’t tell anyone it was her. When the film finished, and of course Muriel was my hero, I never told anyone it was based on fact! But then my sister started talking to the press saying ‘It’s me! I’m Muriel!’ [laughs]. Some of her friends even said they were the first to say ‘you’re terrible, Muriel’. All lies of course [laughs]”
Like the slightly older, madder and socially awkward sibling to Muriel’s Wedding, Mental feels both new and familiar at once. PJ’s knack for bringing out some of the most politically incorrect laughs from audiences certainly hasn’t faded – with jokes like “date rape, I guess that’s what you call it these days?”, menstrual cycles on clean white sofas (yes, it happened), leggy lesbian netballers and the glue that holds it together, mental illness.
“When I was younger, I dealt with that kind of stuff differently. Similar to the younger characters in the film, because I was prejudiced against anyone that had been to a mental asylum. I just didn’t know any better. I thought ‘Everything you say to me is mad, I can’t believe it’ which is not true. It didn’t make Shaz any less brilliant. Think of people in the film industry. Or the music or television industry – how many of them walk that line between crazy and brilliant? What separates genius from madness? It’s very little.”
PJ Hogan. Genius? Madman? Who cares… when the films are this good, it’s better to not ask questions.
Mental opens in cinemas nationwide today. Follow @shazismental on Twitter
Special thanks to Universal Pictures Australia