PJ Hogan didn’t let working on big budget Hollywood films like “Peter Pan” and “Confessions of a Shopaholic” stop him from telling a very personal story on a small scale in his new film “Mental.” The writer-director says, “I didn't have to go far from home because it all happened. My inspiration was my actual life.” Hogan's mother had a nervous breakdown when he was 12 and she was taken to the hospital. With Hogan and his siblings taking advantage of the situation, his father hit his limit and picked up a hitchhiker to be the kids’ nanny. And that's when Shaz came into Hogan's life. “She was also completely crazy and from that moment on she was involved with our family and my subsequent family for the next 20 years of my life.” But, says Hogan, “No one film can encompass the real Shaz, so luckily she's out there helping us,” via her twitter @Shazimental.
Borrow from real life
Hogan set out to tell a very personal story, but as a filmmaker, he knew that changes would need to be made to make a good film. “Obviously, I'm not a girl in the Moochmore family, but I found that I couldn't really write it if it was the exact same configuration of my family,” he says. He admits he also made the family all girls because he knew how exasperating his father would find that. The running theme of “The Sound of Music” throughout the film was also derived from Hogan's real life. Hogan saw the film on the big screen with his mother in the '70s. “It was very simple, she didn't just love the music; she wanted us to be the Von Trapps.” Hogan thinks the film represented the ideal family to his mother: “You know, the family that sings together, loves together, and then defeats the Nazis.”
Use obstacles to your advantage
After working on big budget films on a studio set, filming on location was a change of pace for Hogan. Not being able to build sets could have been frustrating, but Hogan says it forced him to be more creative. He says, “We were shooting in really tight, cramped circumstances, locations [where] we were all on top of each other…but I actually found it quite liberating, like, ‘Okay, I can't knock this wall out; I'll just have to reblock the scene.”
Cast it right
Without a big Hollywood studio to report to, Hogan had the ability to cast whoever he wanted and he took that responsibility very seriously. “I think a director's job - after the screenplay - is to then cast it right. If you don't cast it right, it doesn't matter what you do. It doesn't matter how many fantastic shots you do. It's really all about casting it right.”
Cast a wide net
To find Moochmore children, Hogan says he had to cast a wide net. He didn't want the ordinary film family. “My kids are all talking at once. They're all fighting with each other…So I was looking for kids who could be very spontaneous, very natural, actually remind the audience of their own kids or kids that they know, and I wanted kids who Chaz could set straight but you could also like,” he says. Hogan ended up with a cast of children making their on-screen debuts. “'Mental' is where they first saw a camera,” he says. But the adult cast was a different story. “Everybody who was in the movie really wanted to play those parts. They understood the roles. In a lot of ways, the actors found me,” he says.
Trust the actors
Even though Hogan couldn't afford Liev Schreiber, Schreiber wanted to play Trevor. “I was very dubious about casting an American, but after meeting with Liev, I realized 'Wow, he is such a pro.’ He's a consummate actor. If he didn't think he could nail this Australian accent, [which is] notoriously difficult for any foreign actor to get, he wouldn't be doing the part.” On set, Hogan worked closely with all the actors. “It's my job to make their job easy because I love naturalistic performances; I want them to feel like they can take risks, even when we're on set. To try something that might fail and they can trust me that it won't be in the movie and that it will lead to other things,” he says. “I just like working with people who fit their parts and then letting them do their thing. If they don't need my help, great, I stand back and let them do it.”