Australian filmmaker P.J. Hogan has come full circle with his award-winning international hit comedy “Muriel’s Wedding.”
Not only is Hogan observing the 25th anniversary of the release in the U.S. this March, he was in New York in prepping pre-production on “Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical” before the coronavirus restrictions hit. The stage version scored a warm response from critics and audiences when it opened in Australia in 2017.
“It’s still very relevant — even more so,” said Hogan in a recent phone interview. “It’s all about self-esteem.”
Written and directed by Hogan and produced by his wife, filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Proof,” “How to Make an American Quilt”), “Muriel’s Wedding” was like a breath of fresh air. It not only launched Hogan’s career and fortified Moorhouse’s, “Muriel’s Wedding” also changed the careers of its stars Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths.
Collette played the zaftig, socially awkward Muriel Heslop, who lives in the quiet Gold Coast town of Porpoise Spit. Her politician father (Bill Spencer) bullies his family and is especially cruel to Muriel. All the ABBA-obsessed Muriel wants to do is get married.
She ends up embezzling money from her family and goes on a holiday where she meets fellow Porpoise Spit outcast Rhonda (Griffiths). The two end up in Sydney where Muriel changes her name, gets a job and sets out to find a husband.
Collette believes the film strikes a chord with audiences because “I think most people feel like an awkward outsider at some point in their lives,” she explained in an email interview. “It’s a part of being human. Insecurity amongst other hurdles exists to be overcome. I am realizing audiences were generally comforted by Muriel. It still makes them feel less alone and OK about feeling vulnerable and imperfect in a society that demands so much of us.”
First-time filmmakers often draw on their life for their debut features, and Hogan is no different. Like Muriel, he grew up on the Gold Coast of Australia in Coolangatta on the border of New South Wales and Queensland. And just as Muriel, he adored ABBA growing up in the 1970s.
“I actually shot the film partially in Coolangatta, so Porpoise Spit is my hometown. I shot it in my hometown because I really wanted that authenticity.”
And Muriel was based on his own sister.
“I was the oldest,” he noted. “My sister and I both had a fractious relationship with our dad. In fact, he was an absolutely bully, way worse than the bully in the movie.”
Because he was the eldest, said Hogan, he got out of the town and away from his family. But his sister couldn’t escape. “She wanted nothing more than to please him,” said Hogan. “She never could. Then I heard that she was a success, that she was selling cosmetics and making a lot of money. But three months later, I heard she disappeared, and no one knew where she was. What happened was that to impress our dad, she had taken a job with his mistress selling cosmetics and was stealing the money. She was bamboozling our mother, who was every easily bamboozled.”
And she fled to Sydney.
“Everybody was so angry at her, but I understand why she did it.”
Hogan told her, “’I have no career and I’ll probably never get to make a film in my life. But if I made a film, I want it to be about you. I think this story is incredible. So, I asked her permission years before I ever figured out a way to tell the story. She gave me permission on two conditions: the first was she would be the heroine in the story and the second was that I would not use her name.”
Moorhouse recalled in an e-mail interview that the two talked about the idea for years. “When I got pregnant with our first child, he would read scenes out to me while I was lying on our bed like a beached whale. We would riff on dialogue and act bits out. Then after we met [producer] Lynda House and made ‘Proof’ together, I decided to produce ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ through our new company — House and Moorhouse. It completely changed our lives.”
But it took five years of dogged determination to get “Muriel’s Wedding” made.
“The fact that we worked together to get [“Proof”] made and that it worked, gave us the courage or at least me the courage to do ‘Muriel’s Wedding,’” noted Hogan “No one was interested in anything that had my name on it, because I had not made anything that anyone would want to see. But they were interested in Jocelyn because at least her name was associated with ‘Proof.’”
Moorhouse’s name at least got people to read the script but no one wanted to make it because they found Muriel unsympathetic — she lies, steals money and when Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer, she abandons her when embarks on an arranged marriage.
And Hogan was an untried feature film director. “We believed in it and kept going,” said Hogan. “Finally, we found a French company (the long-defunct Ciby 2000) — they had just produced ‘The Piano” by Jane Campion, who we went to film school with. We were good friends with Jane. I called Jane and said ‘Look, the script’s going to this French company who don’t know who I am. Could you put in a good word for me?’”
Miramax, which released the film in the U.S. starting limited on March 10, 1995 and then in wide release on March 31, was one of the companies that originally turned it down. “We were asking for a pitiful amount of money,” he recalled. “They just rejected it and then ended up buying the film for millions and millions of dollars. There was a bidding war for it at Cannes.”
Hogan referred to “Muriel’s Wedding” as the anti-‘”Crocodile Dundee,” adding that he and Moorhouse didn’t want to do “fantasies of Australian macho culture,” which he felt the 1986 Paul Hogan (no relation) smash reflected.
“So, she made a film about a blind guy who didn’t trust the world and I made a film about a large girl who lies and steals money. Our credo was to do things that actually reflected the country that we saw around us and put in people who you haven’t seen before. We didn’t want the usual suspects in our movie.”
Enter unknowns Collette and Griffiths at the time.
Collette, who earned an Oscar nomination for 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” and was a Golden Globe nominee this year for the Netflix series “Unbelievable,” doesn’t recall how many actresses were in the running for Muriel. “All I know is that I knew I was going to do it. It’s ballsy to say considering my lack of experience, but I just knew. I auditioned on the first day P.J. was seeing girls for Muriel.”
There were many qualities of Muriel’s that she identified with. “The whole experience seemed predestined,” said Collette, who gained more than 40 pounds for the role. ”I waited three months to hear that I had the part but I was quietly confident during that period.”
Griffiths loved her character’s lifeforce and sexual openness. “The wonderful thing about her was that her vitality was self-defining,” said Griffiths, an Oscar nominee for 1998’s “Hilary and Jackie” who recently directed her first feature film “Ride Like a Girl,” a big hit in Australia last year.
At the heart of the film, said Griffiths, “is the idea that when you are fundamentally rejected by your family and your place because of who you are is not acceptable within that place, then the families you create beyond that are your lifeboats. So, Muriel helps Rhonda. They become each other’s family.”
Griffiths believes “Muriel’s Wedding” was ahead of its time.
“What was radical at the time was to have a flawed heroine,” said Griffiths. “We now want our female characters three-dimensional and fully lived in.”
By the time Hogan began making the movie, his mother was no longer alive. “I would have loved for her to have seen it,” he said. “But my dad saw it. He had a strange reaction to it. He loved success above all things. By the time he saw it, the film was a huge success. Because it was a success, he started justifying it in a very Trumpian way. He took what the film was actually about but completely reversed. He said it actually vindicated him.”
Ironically, his sister never dreamed of getting married. Hogan added the marriage subplot because “I only had the seed of a story. I didn’t have a story to tell, a big three-act story that could take off from the actual events.”
His sister did get married in her 30s, said Hogan. “She met a guy, fell head over heels for him. She’s living in Sydney. She has a daughter. She loved the film. And she’s since claimed Muriel. She now tells everybody she was Muriel.”