Interview - Toni Collette Describes Going Mental
Mental, the new film from director PJ Hogan, is in Australian cinemas from October 4. It’s a crazy black comedy that seems to be dividing audiences at preview screenings so far. You can check out my review of the film by clicking here. I was fortunate to speak with the Emmy Award winning star, Toni Collette. Here’s what she had to say…
You can download the full audio extract by clicking here.
Matt: I think about some of your great roles – The Sixth Sense, About A Boy and Little Miss Sunshine. How quickly did your life change post Muriel’s Wedding?
Toni: It was pretty quick. I love acting and I still love doing it. I love getting early and I never complain about getting up and going to work. It’s something that really gets me going.
When I was doing Muriel’s Wedding, I had no idea about how it might be received. I didn’t even contemplate the fact that there might be an audience and so when it became a massive hit, not only in Australia, I remember walking down the street in New York when I was doing press and these guys came up to me going “oh my god, it’s Muriel!” It left me thinking “woah, what is going on?”
Matt: With any Aussie actor who makes good, there’s always the lure of Hollywood but you’ve still found time to appear in many Australian films such as Mary & Max, The Black Balloon and Japanese Story which is a personal favourite of mine. Is shooting in Australia something you take into consideration when choosing roles?
Toni: To be honest, I’d work in Australia all the time if I could but the industry is somewhat limited. It’s much smaller than Bollywood and Hollywood. It’s not that I want to work in America but as I said, I like working and that’s where there is a lot of work. Having said that, now that I have kids, I am eager to spend more time in Australia.
Matt: You’ve finally paired up again with PJ Hogan but it’s been almost two decades since Muriel’s Wedding. Were there plans to get together sooner?
Toni: Back when we were shooting Muriel’s Wedding, PJ had talked about this film Mental that he wanted to make and he’d given me a basic idea about this woman who had come into his life as an “unqualified nanny” to him. Over the years, he’s been telling me that he’s been working on a script and eventually he asked me to read it.
I loved the script for what it is but I’m so flattered that PJ wanted me to be a part of telling this personal story. They’re autobiographical films for him.
Matt: We all know the adage about not working with children or animals but here you’ve got 5 young girls you’re working alongside and a dog thrown in for good measure. The girls are fantastic and it looks like you’re having so much fun on set. Was it that easy?
Toni: I loved all of them. They were so different from each other and got along really well. I had a lot of scenes with them and man, did they make me laugh! They grew so much as actors.
People talk about not working with kids and not working with first time directors but when someone is new to something, they’re just so open about it. I really appreciate that and it creates an atmosphere where there can be some natural, spontaneous moments. I’m so proud of them in the movie because they all did such a brilliant job.
Matt: Lily Sullivan is such a find as Coral. I can’t believe she had no prior acting experience at all.
Toni: Yeah, nothing at all. I was at her audition and PJ really wanted her – he has such a great eye for casting. To be honest, I was like “oh PJ, I really don’t know”. We had two weeks of rehearsals and it kind of correlates with the story itself in that she became braver and she became more confident in herself and it was such a beautiful thing to be a part of.
Matt: There’s some terrific humour in this film which is much darker than what we’ve seen in the past from PJ Hogan. Is that always the way it was meant to play out from the first draft of the script?
Toni: Yeah. I think he’s really good at telling those stories. He has such an original perspective and he’s obviously had some “extremities” in his life. I think both Muriel’s Wedding and Mental are similarly dark and hilarious. But yeah, that was always in the script.
It’s those types of films, those that you can’t categorise in a specific genre, are the ones that I tend to gravitate towards. He does it so well and he writes female characters like no one else.
Matt: The film touches on a theme that I believe strongly in and your character sums it up best when you say “there’s no such thing as normal, just different shades of mental”. It reminded me a little of The United States of Tara and I’m guessing the subject matter was a big attraction to you with this film?
Toni: I am often asked what it is that I’m drawn to in a movie and I try to figure out if there’s a specific theme that I keep coming back to. Even if it’s not completely obvious, it is exactly that. It’s the fact that there’s no such thing as normal. I think even in Little Miss Sunshine, the tagline at the bottom of the poster is “everyone pretends to be normal” and I now realise that every film that I do is about appreciating individuality and seeing the special qualities in everyone. We’re not just living in this homogenised, whitewash, boring world where everyone wears the same uniform.
Both Tara and Mental deal with mental illness but the characters I play are incredibly different and the context and the story are also different.
Matt: It’s nice to see a film shot here in Queensland. How was it shooting amongst the hustle and bustle of the Gold Coast?
Toni: I loved it! It’s the perfect backdrop for the story. It’s a gorgeous, idyllic, Australian suburban type of lifestyle turned on its head.
Matt: I must finish up by asking what have you got in the works? What are we going to see you in next?
Toni: I just finished shooting a film called Hitchcock and I worked with Anthony Hopkins again who I did my first film with when I was 17. He plays Hitchcock and I play his long-time assistant, Peggy Robertson. Helen Mirren plays his wife, Alma, and it’s about his relationship with all the women in his life during the making of Psycho. I think that’s coming out at the end of the year.
I’m about to go to Massachusetts in America and make a film called The Way Back which has been written by the guys who adapted The Descendants. They’re the two guys who went on stage and took the piss out of Angelina Jolie so I think I’m going to be in for a good time there. I’m also working with Steve Carrel again which should be great fun.
I’ve got a couple more movies after that so it’s going to be a busy year but it’s also going to be a fun year.
Matt: Well I better let you get to it and I hope Mental is a big hit at the box-office. Thanks for talking with us this morning.
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Matt's Favourite Time Travel Movies
Looper is in Australian cinemas from this Thursday and I think it’s one of the more interesting, more believable time travel movies that I’ve seen. You can check out my full review by clicking here.
It got me thinking about my all-time favourite time travel flicks. It’s a theme that’s been covered often but you only have to watch movies like Hot Tub Time Machine, The Lake House, Timeline or A Sound Of Thunder (the worst film I've ever reviewed - see here) to see how bad they can be.
Having scanned the web for inspiration and searched through my old reviews, here are my 5 favourite time travel movies…
Back To The Future (1985)
I was born in 1977 and so I can’t be sure when I saw Back To The Future for the first time. All I know is that it was fun and I loved it. If I’d have seen it for the first time today and looked at it through a critic’s eyes, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the same way. But things are different when you’re a kid. You’re a lot easier to please. You don’t judge movies based on those that have come before (mainly because you haven’t seen any).
Directed by Robert Zemeckis (who later went on to win an Oscar for directing Forrest Gump), the film saw Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd travel back to the year 1955 and almost cause a world changing event.
I didn’t realise until recently how successful Back To The Future was at the box-office. It made $210m in the United States alone back in 1985 (that’s a LOT of money when you consider the effects of inflation). To also put it into context, only two other films that year made more than $100m. It’s currently ranked 53rd on the all-time greatest film list on the Internet Movie Database which shows that it's as popular today as it was 27 years ago.
Groundhog Day (1993)
I love Bill Murray. Pure and simple. His dry sense of humour wins me over every time. Whenever Groundhog Day appears on television, I can’t help but stop what I’m doing and watch. It just lures you in.
Directed by Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation), the movie followed a weatherman (Bill Murray) who keeps living the same day over and over. Ramis extracts so much humour and originality from the idea and I was surprised to learn that it won the British Academy Award in 1994 for best original screenplay – beating out The Piano, In The Line Of Fire and Sleepless In Seattle. It reaffirms my belief that the British have great taste when it comes to comedy. Then again, it’s hard to see how anyone could not like this film.
Pleasantville received a rare A+ grading from myself and featured in my top list for 1999 (alongside some great films include Being John Malkovich, Gods And Monsters and Election). It didn’t set the box-office alight and I know there are many people who wouldn’t have had the chance to see it.
It’s a rich, intelligent film about two kids (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) who find themselves transported into a black and white 1950s sitcom. The 1990s mentality that they bring to this world will cause complete chaos, for better or worse. It marked the directorial debut of Gary Ross – who followed it up with Seabiscuit and last year’s The Hunger Games.
The film says so much about how the world has changed over the past few decades and is a must see movie.
Some films sneak up on you unexpectedly. Frequency was one such example. I knew nothing about it prior to its small cinema release in Australia in August 2000.
A firefighter from the year 1969 (Dennis Quaid) is talking to a police offer from the year 1999 (Jim Caviezel) though an old ham radio. It takes them a little while to realise that they are father and son. Once they come to grips with this bizarre event, they work together to help prevent a murder from taking place.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear, Fallen), Frequency is a stunning film that stirs emotions and past memories without the commercialism and tackiness that Hollywood so often provides.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie is talking to a motivational speaker in front of his class at school when he utters one of my all-time favourite lines – “You're right, actually. I am pretty... I'm pretty troubled and I'm pretty confused, but I... And I'm afraid. Really, really afraid. Really afraid. But I-I think you're the f***ing Antichrist.” You have to see the movie to fully understand it… but I remember bursting into laugher when I first saw that scene.
As I said in my review, great movies are usually those in which the plot cannot be simplified in a single sentence. Not only does that rule apply to Donnie Darko, I believe it to be a physical impossibility to fully explain the film. It follows a troubled high school teenager who takes medication to battle depression and has imaginary friends.
The time travel aspects don’t become clearer until late in the movie but there are some terrific scenes shared between star Jake Gyllenhaal and school teachers Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore. The film made my top 10 list in 2002 and given its cult status, it has a permanent place inside the top 250 film list on the Internet Movie Database. There are few lovers of cinema who wouldn’t have seen this mind-blowing movie.Add a comment
Hosting A Fun Q&A With Director PJ Hogan
Based on the mix of positive and negative comments that I’ve received so far, it seems to be a divisive film. Having since it three times though, I can definitely say that I’m a supporter.
It was great to have PJ Hogan in Brisbane and he was extremely open during the 45 minute post-film Q&A session. I couldn’t believe so much of the film was inspired by his own life and his family’s experience with mental illness. I was also shocked to learn that Muriel’s Wedding was funded by the French!
I was able to get a few photos of the night’s festivities which you can check out below.
Interview - Benh Zeitlin Talks Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2012, Beasts Of The Southern Wild has received rave reviews. It’s been talked up as a possible contender for next year’s Academy Awards. You can check out my review by clicking here.
29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin was in Australia for the Melbourne Film Festival back in August and I was lucky enough to speak with him for 15 minutes about the film and his background.
You can download a quick audio extract by clicking here.
Matt: You’re only 29 years of age and you’ve already made a film that’s been showered with praise. Can I tell you how jealous I am to start out with?
Benh: (laughs) Yeah, but then I’m going to bashfully turn away.
Matt: I admit I don’t know a lot about you. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got involved in the film world?
Benh: It wasn’t in a really pointed way. I’ve been making art my entire life. My parents always encouraged me and I never really knew any other path except for telling stories as a way of going about things. I was always writing music, writing plays, writing stories and making movies with my free time.
I didn’t go to film school or anything like that. I sort of had these stories that needed to be told in film so I made a bunch of shorts. One of them was seen and someone asked me if I wanted to make a feature film and of course I said “yes”.
Matt: So where did the interest come from in terms of taking this stage play from your friend Lucy Alibar and bringing it to the big screen? What did you see in it?
Benh: It sort of infused itself into a story I was already trying to tell about a community of people who were holding out on land that was disappearing out from under them. That’s where I started having moved to New Orleans and living in Louisiana. I wanted to tell this story that celebrated “hold outs” and what it means to hold onto your land and refuse to be pushed off it.
I found a parallel in this play that was written by one of my best friends who I’ve known since I was 12 years old. It was the connection between a little girl that was losing her parent and a community that was losing its land. I was sort of working on the same thing in two different places and then I realised there was this emotional connection between these characters and this broader story that ended up becoming the film.
Matt: The setting of the film is so intriguing – an isolated bayou that’s protected by the levee. Is this a real place? Where did you shoot this film?
Benh: Yeah. It’s shot in the place that inspired the story. When you drive all the way to the bottom of America, you’ll get to the very end and there are levees that protect the bottom of the country from the water. You then drive over these levees to the unprotected side and the drive another 3 miles down this tiny little road and you get to this island called Isle de Jean Charles.
It used to be a thriving community but has now been sacrificed into the Gulf Of Mexico by those engineers who designed the levees. It’s down to about 20 families who are desperately hanging onto their culture and their lifestyle and their land. That story inspired a lot of the themes in the film and was also the place where we shot the film.
Matt: When the storm rages up and the flood comes through there’s so much water and destruction. I’m guessing you didn’t have a huge budget to work with so how did you create that without the help of special effects?
Benh: Desperation and panic. You run up against problems like that where the centrepiece of your film is a storm that you can’t create with the money you have. I started watching a lot of footage we had from the storms and how they happen and how they’re photographed. One thing that strikes you when you watch the footage that people shoot during hurricanes is that it’s all indoors and it’s often dark because it’s at night.
We then had this idea that to create this realistic depiction of what it’s like to go through the storm that’s not being outside with trees becoming uprooted and tyres crashing into your windshield. It’s actually about being in a dark room that’s dripping with water and the sound of the storm outside. We found ways to bring realism to the event that also allowed us to create larger things than we could have ever depicted on screen with a low budget.
Matt: Was there a lot of help and assistance from the local community in making the film?
Benh: Yeah, absolutely. Down where we shot the film, if you’re on your own you’d be dead in two days. There are rattlesnakes, poisonous spiders, sinkholes. From the moment I got down there, I was sitting on the docks with a laptop looking completely out of place. Someone would drive past in their boat and say “put away that computer boy, get on my boat and I’m going to teach you to hunt alligators”.
I got this visceral indoctrination into a culture that’s extremely tough and very much in touch with nature. Those people all came on board the film and were our guides to navigate this extremely hostile environment and ultimately become collaborators on the story.
Matt: If there is one thing that people are going to remember about the film, it’s the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis. How old was she when she made this film?
Benh: When she auditioned she was 5 and when we shot it she was 6.
Matt: How did you find someone like that who is so talented?
Benh: We looked really hard basically. We auditioned 4,000 girls over the course of 9 months. It was both all that hard work and also a miraculous event that we found someone who has this inborn “star power” and talent. People are going to know who she is for the rest of history as far as I’m concerned.
She’s a truly incredible star that we met by chance. We had fliers in elementary schools and delis and through a trail like that, someone told her that she should walk into this audition at a local library and that’s what she did. Now she’s going to be a movie star. The way life goes that way is pretty wild.
Matt: I love the music in this film and I’m a big fan of film scores. I think I must have watched the trailer about 50 times after I’d seen the film just to hear the music again. Of course you’re not only the writer and director of the film but also one of the composers of the film! How do you do that? How do you sit down and come up with the score for a film like this?
Benh: It’s all kind of the same thing to me. As I was saying, I didn’t really know what form I was going to work in growing up. I sort of started in music and when I come up with a story and a narrative, music is always imbedded in that. I never feel like I’ve completed the idea until I’ve written the film and then written the music for it.
The music in this film was really the way we experience Hushpuppy’s sense of her own story if that makes sense. I thought back to when I was 6 years old and whatever you’re doing when you’re that age, there’s always a score. You’re always either listening to the Batman theme in your head or you’re listening to Indiana Jones in your head. When you’re riding your bike there’s always this heroic music playing.
We needed to give Hushpuppy her internal soundtrack. I thought back to those themes and scores and we tried to come up with something that was iconic and made you feel a “sense of yourself” when you’re 6. When we landed that tune, we felt it was a universal song that people would remember like a national anthem. That’s was when we knew we had it.
Matt: Well it’s terrific. I’m going to be buying the soundtrack, I know that much. For the story itself, at its essence, it’s a heartfelt story about a father and his daughter but there’s also these fantasy elements like the prehistoric beasts that we see roaming around. I’m curious to know about why the mix between fantasy and reality?
Benh: It was partly a reflection of trying to tell the experience of being that age when reality and fantasy aren’t separate things. When you have a monster under your bed, it’s there. It’s not a fantasy to you, it’s actually there and you have to wait until it leaves the room before you can fall asleep.
We tried to represent that in a realistic way. The film is also inspired by very real, environment things that are happening in Louisiana that are causing the land to fall off into the Gulf Of Mexico but we didn’t want to tell a political story or make a “call to action” film. We wanted to tell a fable or folk tale that anyone could watch in the world and understand it.
Part of the inspiration was to tell a folkloric fable like Huck Finn or Robin Hood or any of these iconic tales that can travel anywhere in the world and people can relate to them. Part of the reason to tell the story from Hushpuppy’s point of view was to not tell something that is political but rather something that is more universal.
Matt: The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Prize and then it went off to Cannes where you won the Camera D’or. When was it you realised that you had something really amazing here?
Benh: It was somewhere during Sundance but it definitely wasn’t before that. We finished the film two days before Sundance and I was in an absolute panic to screen it. It didn’t feel like it was finished. At the first screening, I was sitting there thinking “we need to turn down the sound level on that dog barking” and “there needs to be a little more magenta in that shot”. I was still kind of making the film.
After that screening, I was still all tortured but we started to hear from the audience and we started to hear people talking to us and understanding the ideas that we set out to express and the feeling that we wanted to convey. It leaves you heartbroken but also invigorated. It gives you hope and tragedy and it feels kind of glorious. I started having people tell me that walking out of the screening and seeing their faces and it made me realise that we’d done what we set out to do.
If that was actually communicating to people of all ages and people of all types, we had accomplished it. It started to dawn on me then that this might be something that was going to be shown in movie theatres. We never imagined that when we were making the film… but here I am in Australia and it’s all happened.
Matt: I’d love to finish up by asking how your life has changed in the past few months. Touring with this film and going around the world – how has it been?
Benh: It’s crazy. No one prepares you for this idea. It’s a beautiful thing. I’ve always wanted to come to Australia since I was a little kid and never in my wildest imagination would I believe that by making a movie, I would get the opportunity. It’s my first time here.
It’s an incredible thing in your life. You look at your world as this tiny little city where you’re living and working and suddenly your world is the globe. It’s a thrill, a privilege and an honour. Hopefully it’ll allow me to make better films that communicate with the globe.
Matt: Now that your name is out there, do you get offers of new projects? Or do you have something in the works yourself that we should know about?
Benh: Yeah. I can’t totally talk about it yet but we’re very set on continuing to create original work and doing our own thing and making films using methods that are pretty unconventional. We get a lot of offers and a lot of people trying to recruit us out of our world but we make films as a collective called Court 13 and we’re adamant about sticking to that and not jeopardising the things that got us to where we are.
It’ll be the same team on the next film so if people like this one, the next one will have the same kind of spirit and hopefully we can building something out of that.
Matt: Fantastic. Well Ben, do enjoy the rest of your time here in Australia and I can’t wait for people to see your movie. Thanks for speaking with us this morning.
Benh: Thank you so much.
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