"I grew up in a town like Porpoise Spit," confides Muriel's Wedding writer-director P.J. Hogan. The Aussie auteur, who got his start in TV commercials and short features before landing a job as second-unit director on the 1991 gem Proof (which was directed by Hogan's wife and Muriel producer Jocelyn Moorhouse), was in South Florida promoting his directorial debut during the Miami Film Festival. Muriel's Wedding is one of those rare films that depicts characters and their plights with such understanding it feels as though the person who made it must have lived it, a suspicion Hogan more or less confirms.
"It's pretty autobiographical," he says. "What happens to Muriel never happened to me; obviously there's a difference of sex. But that feeling of not fitting in, of feeling like you're an outsider in a place where everybody seems to know the rules or how to communicate and you don't A that I remember. A lot of filmmakers I know were the geeks, the class clowns. In a way, they still are. Probably that's what gives them their voice."
Hogan still dresses the part. On this blustery February day, he's wearing nondescript jeans, an indigo cotton shirt buttoned to the neck, and a muted plaid flannel shirt-jacket ensemble. Too neat for grunge, too cheap to label it anything else. Definitely nerdy. At least the blue-gray color scheme matches his eyes, which are close-set and kinetically expressive.
Camp humor and an ABBA-heavy soundtrack set the tone of Muriel's Wedding from the opening frames. "A lot of people's lives are essentially camp," contends the unpretentious filmmaker, whose bland appearance and congenial demeanor suggest the total absence of kitsch or theatricality. "We forget that there are a lot of people who, if we put a camera on them, would be seen as over the top."
But Hogan takes exception to the suggestion that ABBA's inclusion is -- in and of itself -- campy. "I was a teenager in the Seventies," he protests. "ABBA was my music! In Australia they were bigger than the Beatles. And since they never got that big in the U.S., it made them seem even more special. I remember what they meant to me when I was a teenager. I was inarticulate and couldn't express what I really felt, and ABBA's music seemed to do that emotionally, if not intellectually. The need to be loved. The need for attention. That was perfect for Muriel, because I wanted her to find expression in music, and I also wanted her to like a band that was out of date because her friends would think that was very unhip. In Australia ABBA never died, so it'll be interesting to see how Americans respond to them this time around."
Muriel's Wedding was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January, generated a positive buzz at the Telluride, Chicago, and San Francisco fests, and was greeted with belly laughs and a standing ovation at the Miami Film Festival. It seems poised to be this year's sleeper hit from abroad.
The prospect of doing well in this country excites the rookie writer-director. "It's always great, as an Australian filmmaker, to crack the American market," Hogan says. "I grew up on American films, especially the films of the Seventies. But for some reason Hollywood today seems to feel that we can only identify with the beautiful and noble. So much of the movies now are homogenized. There's a huge gulf between Forrest Gump and the first two Godfather movies. With Muriel I wanted to put a character on the screen with all the rough edges that are normally sanded off. And I wanted to give her a family like the Heslops [Muriel's terminally dysfunctional kin] because there really are families like that and you never see them on-screen. If you do, they're usually sent up beyond any sense of reality."
Not that Hogan doesn't send up his characters. Muriel's father, in particular, takes his lumps. "I had sports coaches like that," Hogan recalls, frowning at the memory. "I remember one math teacher who was an idiot who thought that the best way to teach was to humiliate you. He did the same thing to his kids. I was friends with his son. Luckily my father was not like that. But to me [Mr. Heslop] is the dark side of the archetypal Australian hero, as best portrayed by Paul Hogan [no relation]. That whole Crocodile Dundee myth A it's not a completely untrue image, but there's a dark side to it. Everybody responds to that character: 'Isn't he hilarious? Isn't he wonderful?' But he's not so hilarious if you have to put up with him at close range."
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Tempted though he may be to settle old scores by lambasting the demons in his own past, Hogan reins in the impulse to lampoon even his most despicable characters. Instead he cagily allows them to reveal their defects on their own. And he is equally careful not to make his heroine too close to perfect. "Muriel's wedding is the happiest day in her life, and yet there she is, aligning herself with everybody who'd ever treated her like shit," Hogan explains. "Her father gives her away. Those dreadful friends of hers are the bridesmaids. She's marrying somebody who doesn't love her. And there are the people who really care for her in the audience, completely forgotten. She's becoming the sort of person who used to make her life hell."
Midway into the story, however, the director's smooth touch suddenly turns rough, when the tone of the movie changes drastically from light-hearted comedy with an edgy subtext to something much darker. "I feel like the serious side of the film was always there," offers Hogan to those who find the transition from farce to drama too abrupt. "The comedy was a way to invite the audience into the story and then to show them something that was a little more moving. At that point the film was divesting itself of its cloak of comedy. It was a conscious decision, like saying, 'Now that I've got you, this is what's here.' I wanted tragedy to strike in the film at the place where Muriel and the audience least expected it. It was definitely a conscious decision, and while I was doing it, I was aware that it was also the film's biggest risk."
Hogan does not fall into the trap of sentimentality. The crippling, life-threatening illness that befalls one of his characters bestows neither grace nor wisdom upon its victim. "I really hate movies where the person is somehow ennobled by their disability or their illness," the filmmaker says. "It's kind of unfair to everybody who doesn't deal well with their illness, you know? I've been sick, and I'm miserable to be around. I don't suddenly become a better person because I'm ill. If I'd followed Hollywood formula, [the afflicted character] would have got up and walked. I couldn't justify that. I wanted her to be angry. I wanted her to stay who she is. I had a good friend who had cancer and I believed that she was going to get well and she didn't. She died. I remember thinking if I ever needed reminding that life is not a movie, this was it. There was even a point where she went into remission, but it didn't last very long." Hogan grows silent for a moment, then unexpectedly he laughs: "So I cut [the character's] spinal cord. I wasn't leaving any chance.