Nearly two decades after Muriel’s Wedding became mandatory viewing for gay audiences, Australian director P. J. Hogan revisits his homeland with Mental, another music-filled tale that proves there’s no such thing as normal.
Following a detour directing Hollywood rom-coms like My Best Friend’s Wedding and Confessions of a Shopaholic, the filmmaker returns to his roots with what he considers his most personal movie.
Based on events in Hogan’s own childhood, Mental follows an eccentric family of misfits who, after their Sound of Music-obsessed mother suffers a nervous breakdown, are cared for by a foul-mouthed hitchhiker named Shaz (Toni Collette).
Queerty chatted with Hogan about the new film, its message for bullied kids, and why we still identify with Muriel Heslop.
Toni Collette stars in both Mental and Muriel’s Wedding, but there are a lot of other similarities between the two films. What do you think is the connecting theme?
My family. We were so unpopular that there has to be a reason for it. If we weren’t crazy, we were just unpopular. We were constantly self-diagnosing. I was convinced I was split personality or something. It turns out that my sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia and we didn’t believe it. My dad would just say, “Get a grip. Pull yourself together.” He saw any kind of mental frailty as a character flaw. I’ve since learned that any people who fight mental illness are the strongest people I’ve ever met.
What message does the films offer to bullied kids?
Fight back. That was Shaz’s message to me: “Fight back.” I said, “I can’t pull a knife on anybody. First, they’ll knock it out of my hands and beat the shit of me. Second, I might kill someone and I can’t do that.” She told me to fight back on other ways. She said, “You have a smart mouth on you, kid, use it. You’re dealing with a bunch of morons here.”
I know it’s tough with kids, and particularly young gay kids—my heart breaks for them when they’re in a small town. There’s still a stigma and when they’re bullied, adults turn a blind eye to it. That’s terrible and most damaging. Every kid needs an advocate. It should be their parents, but sometimes it’s not.
Is it accurate to say that both Mental and Muriel’s Wedding advocate families of choice rather than biological ones?
Yes. My family was very dysfunctional. I was free when I left home and my friends became my family. We often idealize views of what a family is. That’s why The Sound of Music is in the movie so often, because there’s an idealized family that sings together and weeps together. The dad plays the guitar, Julie Andrews sings, and they defeat the Nazis. That’s great, but it’s not life. It’s not even what really happened with the Von Trapps. If only life could be like the movies. They’re just not, so I think a lot of us have to make our own families.
You have a strong affinity for disenfranchised characters. Is that why Muriel’s Wedding is still so beloved by gay audiences?
Perhaps. Rachel Griffiths says that of all the films she’s made, Muriel’s Wedding is the one people keep talking to her about. There are a lot of gay people who love that film. A friend of Rachel’s said, Muriel is a woman, but she lives the classic gay experience in a small town: She’s bullied. She’s different and not accepted for being different. She finally gets out of the small town. She denies a lot of her past and isn’t accepted by her family. Her closest friend the person who helps liberate her gets very sick. I think this was true in the ‘90s and it’s sadly, still true now. She’s faced with a choice of whether to stay and care for the person who’s done more for me than anybody or abandon this responsibility. That’s what Rachel told me. And let’s not forget ABBA. [Laughs] Name one gay person who doesn’t love ABBA.
Your films usually include these incredibly vivid musical numbers. Do you hope to one day direct a full-fledged musical?
I do my own version of musicals. I have a great deal of respect for musicals as I think they’re really difficult to do. I think you have to be as brilliant as Bob Fosse or Vincente Minnelli to make a good one. With very few exceptions, audiences don’t accept characters bursting into song. I think the last time was Grease. I miss characters bursting into song to explain their feelings. In fact I did it in My Best Friend’s Wedding. I had Rupert Everett lead a sing-along and I think it worked.
Speaking of weddings, will Australia legalize same-sex marriage in the near future?
They once did legalize same-sex marriage in Adelaide. The premier, which is what we have instead of a governor, legalized it in the ‘70s. It was amazing. Once the government changed it was quickly overturned. But there is a precedent so I think they’ll do it and I’m hoping for it.
Mental opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, March 29.