P.J. Hogan and Toni Collette
Muriel Heslop, the homely and hapless heroine of the Australian comedy Muriel’s Wedding, is enough to confound that adage about the old maid who’s always a bridesmaid but never a bride. Muriel doesn’t hold a lot of promise as a bridesmaid, either, considering she can’t even hold onto the occasional bridal bouquet ceremoniously tossed her way. When she grabs one fair and square, it’s much to the chagrin of her “girlfriend” the bride, who impudently demands that Muriel give it back so someone more deserving can catch it on the rebound.
The plump, put-upon brunt of many a mean-spirited prank in her fictional village of Porpoise Spit, Muriel perseveres with pluck, sustained by dreams of a storybook wedding of her very own and by a peculiar affinity for the music of the ’70s supergroup ABBA. She’s one of the most enigmatic screen characters in recent memory, but her basic struggle to overcome self-doubt seems to strike a universal chord with audiences, first-time writer/director P.J. Hogan and 22-year-old leading lady Toni Collette concur.
“On the one hand, she’s simply a character and I’m merely acting, but at the same time, she definitely comes from within me, an amalgamation of my imagination, experiences I’ve had or observations I’ve made,” Collette explains. “I initially thought of this as being some kind of a chick’s flick and that it seemed so saturated in Australian culture, but now I’m convinced it’s essentially genderless, something that everybody can relate to.”
“I could never have written this character if I didn’t feel for her and identify with her completely,” Hogan admits. “Once I’d finished the script, it took me more than three years to raise the money I needed to make the film. Believe me, I know what it’s like to feel as if you’re failing at your dream, that you’re never going to get where you want to go with it, even though you know it’s right there in front of you.”
Hogan and Collette differ in their personal views about marriage, however. While Hogan is happily married to director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, the upcoming How to Make an American Quilt), Collette seems more skeptical. “It’s such an archaic tradition, really hypocritical if you look at the divorce rate, and I’m not very keen on a lot of the religious entanglements. People are constantly changing, so it’s not like it was a long time ago, when you mated for life. Now, it seems as much a flippant choice as a serious responsibility,” she submits.
With a number of Australian Academy Awards to its credit — including Best Picture and Best Actress — Muriel’s Wedding was enthusiastically received by critics and audiences alike when it debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. “People who had turned us down for money at the start were suddenly bidding for the film like crazy, offering 10 times the amount we’d asked them for in the beginning,” the director recalls with a smile. “Talk about a sweet revenge.”
Hogan’s picture has been hailed as a successor of sorts to Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in a resurgence of late in films from Down Under, where native moviegoers have only recently started supporting their own. “We didn’t have an industry to speak of until the late ’70s or early ’80s, and the reason a lot of our early pioneers — the Peter Weirs, the Bruce Beresfords, the Fred Schepisis — were leaving was that they realized more Australians would probably see the films they made in America than the ones they made in Australia, but that’s been changing over the last few years.”
One of Hogan’s primary concerns was negotiating for the rights to the two-dozen ABBA songs he wanted to incorporate into the story. “It took a good seven or eight months, even a personal visit to Stockholm, before they finally agreed,” he says. “They take their music very seriously, and they’ve been putting up with being made fun of from the very start. I had to give them my word we wouldn’t be ridiculing them, which was an easy promise to make, because this was Muriel’s story and she loves ABBA.”
Meanwhile, Collette found her greatest challenge in gaining the 45 pounds she needed to play the title role. “The scariest part was that it only took me two months to put on the weight,” the actress remembers. “It took twice as long to take it all off. I was at the gym every day, which must be the most boring and tedious pastime ever invented. It felt completely unnatural to me, anyway.”
“When Robert De Niro gains weight to do Raging Bull, he’s proclaimed as a genius, and when Ralph Fiennes does it for Schindler’s List, everyone talks about his commitment to his craft,” Hogan maintains. He laughs, adding, “When Toni Collette was contemplating it, everyone thought she was plain crazy!”