10 Sep 2018

PJ Hogan on the agony of casting Australia’s daggiest bride, again

The Age

In an overheated dance studio in South Melbourne, would-be Muriels, Rhondas, Fridas and Bjorns are being put through their paces, over and over again. A little more Swede, a little less Count Dracula. More power in the chorus, please. Play it like you mean it.

It’s the end of the second week of auditions for the return of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, and a panel of 12 are casting a critical collective eye over what appear to my untrained one to be some exceptionally talented performers.

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“Nice voice but not funny,” jots one judge on a sheet of paper alongside the name of the latest lamb to this all-singing, all-dancing slaughter. “Not funny at all.”

By the time we break for a late lunch, I’ve cast Rhonda – the role that launched Rachel Griffiths on the world in the 1994 movie – at least three times. The people who matter are equally undecided; this is meant to be the final day of auditions, but they will go on for another fortnight beyond this.

“Sometimes you instantly know,” muses PJ Hogan, the writer-director of the film and writer of the book for the stage show. “But other times, like the girl we just saw … I didn’t see it first time but now I’m warming to her.”

Simon Phillips, who is directing the production, is far more experienced at casting for the stage, but says it never gets any easier. At any rate, Hogan says he knows from the movies just how high the stakes are. “Casting is 90 per cent of your job. If you miscast, you’re f—ed.”
Has that ever happened to you? “I’ve miscast, but I don’t think I’ve ever miscast fatally,” Hogan says. “But I’ve heard stories of where a film is going down the drain because the actor and the part don’t fit.”

In 2017, Nel Minchin (sister of Tim) documented just how tough the casting process was for this show’s first run in her film, Making Muriel. There were times when everyone associated with the production – which ran in Sydney for three months from last November – despaired of ever finding a suitable leading lady.

“The first time we all felt the spectre of Toni Collette and indeed Rachel Griffiths breathing down our necks,” says Carmen Pavlovic, whose company Global Creatures co-produced the show with the Sydney Theatre Company.

Ultimately, though, the stage Muriel broke free of the screen version, as she had to. “The fantastic thing is having the opportunity to slightly reinvent the role,” Pavlovic says. “The great opportunity and responsibility and reward of these shows is that they do somehow take us away from the people we associate with the film.”

For Hogan, finding Maggie McKenna – daughter of Kath & Kim‘s Gina Riley and TV producer Rick McKenna – allowed him to appreciate the value of Muriel as a written character, rather than one defined entirely by Collette’s remarkable and career-making performance.

“I thought the part couldn’t be played by anyone but Toni,” he says. “And then someone else played it and didn’t disappoint the audience, so that gave me more faith in the role.”

The show won five Helpmann awards and last month earned Hogan two gongs from the Australian Writers’ Guild.

Now, though, they’re doing it all over again. Muriel will take to the stage once more in Melbourne from March 2019, and then return to Sydney from June.

The trouble is, most of the original cast members have moved on to other things. McKenna, for instance, has joined the touring production of Dear Evan Hansen, a job that will have her treading the boards across the US for at least two years. Madeleine Jones, the original run’s Rhonda, will be in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which opens in Melbourne next January.

Pavlovic says casting Muriel first time around was so difficult not just because of the Collette factor, but because for Hogan it was “such an intensely personal story” and as a result he is “so tough in casting”.

Having done it once, though, it is getting easier. Well, a little.

“We’re at the point where it’s really just a Rubik’s cube,” she says. “It’s how you fit everybody together.”

The night before I sit in on the auditions for Muriel’s Wedding the Musical I rewatch Hogan’s debut feature for the first time in years. And while it holds up remarkably well, the thing that most strikes me is the rage that fuels what is ostensibly a daggy comedy.

“You rightly detect the fury in it,” its writer-director tells me over lunch.

Brisbane-born Hogan had entered the prestigious Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney as a 17-year-old full of promise. But nearing the age of 30 he was still trying to get his first feature made, even as his wife, Jocelyn Moorhouse, was being lauded as a great talent on the back of her debut, Proof.

“I had this thing of, ‘God, Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane at 25′ and torturing myself with how young Truffaut was when he started directing,” Hogan says. “I was thinking that if I hit 30 and I haven’t made a feature film maybe I had to tell myself that hard truth that I’m not really a director or a filmmaker who has something to say.”

Muriel was his last shot, he felt. “It was that old thing, ‘write what you know’, and what I knew intimately was being a failure. I knew absolutely what it was to have nobody notice you and to just be a flop.”

Muriel was conceived as a character who had a drive to be known for something – anything – but had no discernible talents to back up that ambition. But she was also drawn from Hogan’s real life – or, more specifically, his sister’s.

“She was having a terrible time up on the Gold Coast, and actually pinched money from our father, and when the shirt hit the fan she fled.”

All of which is in Muriel’s Wedding.

“Muriel is a bit of both of us,” Hogan confesses. “Muriel is definitely my sister – the face-pulling, the tongue-poking, my sister would do that all the time. I just loved that. But there was a lot of me in there as well.”

In the movie, Muriel’s transformation from self-centred wannabe to someone capable of thinking about others comes at her mother’s funeral, where her relatives mutter platitudes and her father basks in the glow of a note of condolence from a former prime minister.

That, too, was drawn from real life.

“My mother’s funeral was just like in the movie,” says Hogan. “The priest read out a message from Bob Hawke – my father had called his office to get it. Relatives were saying things like, ‘she’d be glad in the end her life amounted to something’.”

The thought that his mother’s death might lead the court to be more lenient on his father, who was facing sentencing over corruption charges, and the prospect that his father would happily play the widower card despite having shacked up with another woman while his mother was still alive, infuriated Hogan. He started scribbling notes right there in church.

“Even in death she was still serving him,” he says. “I was so angry I had to write it all down and I knew it had to go into the movie. And that’s when I thought, ‘Oh God, what is this? It’s the most tragic comedy anyone could ever commit to film’.”

Muriel’s Wedding is one of the most profitable Australian movies released. It cost about $1 million to make, and according to imdb.com, its worldwide gross sits at $US57.5 million ($80 million). It is such a success, in fact, that it’s easy to forget absolutely nobody wanted to make it at the time.

Hogan recalls the day his wife, who produced the film with Linda House, was invited to a meeting at the Australian Film Commission only to find herself on the receiving end of one of the most scathing judgments ever delivered by a funding body.

“The assessors were telling Jocelyn, ‘We’re shocked you would be associated with something like this’. And I was in the room with her! It was horrible.”

Hogan says the film was rejected by everyone, everywhere – except for an independent French production company called CiBy 2000. There it had a strong supporter – a sales agent called Wendy Palmer – but there was also one person on the assessment panel who hated his script, and the vote had gone against supporting the film.

Palmer called Hogan at lunch to tell him the bad news, and in an act of absolute desperation Hogan played what was surely his last remaining card in the world.

“CiBy had financed Jane Campion’s The Piano, and I’d gone to film school with Jane and we were really good friends. So I called up Jane, I said, ‘I need you to do me a favour. I’ve got my script in to CiBy and they’re going to say no … could you put in a word for me?’

“She said, ‘When do you need me to do this?’

“I said, ‘Now’.”

So Campion dashed off a fax to the head of the company, Francis Bouygues. “She pretended to have read the screenplay,” Hogan says. “She said, ‘PJ Hogan is a genius, you should put money into his movie. I believe in this man. This is hilarious, you will not be sorry. Jane Campion.'”

In Paris, Bouygues demanded to know the status of “this Muriel’s Wedding that Jane talks of”.

He was told they had just passed on it. “And he said, ‘WE HAVE NOT’,” Hogan says. “And he demanded the script – he never read scripts – he shut the door, read it, and he overruled the committee, saying ‘We’re putting money into it’.

“And that’s how it got made – because of Jane Campion.”

When it came to turning Muriel’s Wedding into a musical, though, it was PJ Hogan who needed to be swayed.

“He was reluctant because he didn’t think we could get the ABBA music and he couldn’t imagine doing it without ABBA,” says Pavlovic, who floated the idea after spying a book on the movie, only to find that Hogan and Simon Phillips were already in discussion about doing it as a stage play. “So we all agreed it would be good to do it together,” she adds.

Hogan was right to think securing the rights to the ABBA songs would be tricky; it took Pavlovic about 18 months just to get a meeting. “And then their manager said I could come over and meet Benny and Bjorn, which I did, and we did a really fast deal. They just basically named the price and we went, ‘OK’.”

From that first three-way discussion to opening night last November was a journey of about six-and-a-half years. From closing night to the second staging will be a little over a year. And the next one, Pavlovic hopes, will not be far away at all.

“I’d really like to see another production of Muriel next year or certainly the year after,” she says. “I’d be disappointed if we weren’t able to do that.”

Global Creatures was established a decade ago with the explicit aim of developing theatrical shows in Australia for export to the world. Right now, it seems to be succeeding spectacularly. Its production of Strictly Ballroom is playing on London’s West End. In November, King Kong – vastly reworked since its Melbourne premiere in 2013 – opens on Broadway. The company’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge also opens on Broadway next year, following a trial run in Boston in July.

Does Muriel have the potential to join them in the world’s biggest theatre markets?

“Ideally, yes,” says Pavlovic. “The film is reasonably well known internationally, it had success, people really associate that role with the meteoric rise of Toni Collette, the story is really identifiable, the quirkiness and irreverence of it is an aspect of Australian culture that people are fond of internationally, and the ABBA music obviously is very recognisable worldwide. The whole package has a lot of potential to appeal internationally.”

Adds Hogan: “All of us would love it to go to the West End and to Broadway, but who knows how well it will translate.”

At any rate, there’s the small matter of Melbourne and Sydney to take care of first.

“This is the most important run it will have,” Hogan notes, “because it’s an Australian project, an Australian film, uniquely Australian.”

All it needs now is an Australian cast.

Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre from March 12, 2019, and Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from June 28, 2019. Melbourne tickets go on sale on September 20 from ticketek.com.au.