You’re "not funny", Muriel
This beloved Aussie film almost never made it to the altar, writes Troy Lennon
It seemed like a recipe for a disaster. An out of work and virtually broke director, who couldn’t keep a job, decided to make a film based (loosely) on the true story of his sister stealing money from their father. There was no real romance, no pat, happy ending and everybody who read the script thought the main fictionalised character not very likeable. Muriel Heslop was dowdy, listened to daggy music, betrayed a friend and married for revenge. The story was “denounced” by Film Australia which refused to fund it. But when it finally premiered in September 1994, 25 years ago this year, Muriel’s Wedding was on its way to becoming a huge, but unlikely, hit.
The story of how this small, independent film made it to the screen could be a film in itself. The enduring tale was later turned into a stage musical, which also became a hit, and is being revived in a new production returning to the Sydney stage on July 4 at the Sydney Lyric Theatre. The director, Paul John “P.J.” Hogan and his wife, screenwriter and director Jocelyn Moorehouse, said that before Muriel he was “broke” and since graduating from film school in 1984 had found only “consistent unemployment”. “We wanted to make feature films, but could only get TV jobs. I got less work than Jocelyn did, because she’s a much nicer person,” Hogan tells The Saturday Telegraph. In 1991 Moorehouse directed the critically acclaimed film Proof starring Hugo Weaving, with Hogan as an assistant director. But after that, work was hard to find and in the late 1980s and early ’90s Hogan began to think seriously about whether he should be “thinking of another career”. Then inspiration came from an unlikely source – his family.
“I had always avoided writing anything autobiographical,” Hogan says. “I had a very dysfunctional family. I never thought of it as anything but something to get away from.” Hogan says he and his siblings found it very hard to impress their politician father, Tom Hogan. “I was an unemployed filmmaker, so my dad was unimpressed with me,” he says. His sister got a job selling cosmetics and seemed to be making a bit of money. She went on a cruise but it was then discovered she had been stealing money from her father. Under her bed the family found a lot of unsold cosmetics kits. “She disappeared and for a year nobody knew where she was,” Hogan says. After tracking her down, Hogan recounted the story to Jocelyn. They both realised it was a great tale.
“I thought that telling her story was a way of telling my own story,” Hogan says. He asked his sister for permission to use the idea on film, which she gave, provided he never reveal her name. Hogan presented a script to Film Australia, who invited him in to an “assessment” to see if they would give his film funding. Hogan says usually when it gets to that stage “you’ve got a chance”, but the panel told him he shouldn’t be wasting his time with this sort of film. “They thought it was nasty, not funny, and they didn’t think people would go to see it. It was very depressing.” The funding eventually came by chance. French company Ciby 2000, which had backed Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film The Piano, were looking for other projects, particularly from New Zealand and Australia. Hogan had a lot of support on the Ciby funding board, but it had to be unanimous and they quickly hit an obstacle. “There was a bloke on the board who also picked films for the Cannes Film Festival. In 1991 he had rejected Proof,” Hogan says. Proof had instead been shown at the Directors’ Fortnight, which runs parallel to Cannes where directors could showcase films not in the main competition.
The thunderous acclaim for Proof that ensued was proof the board member had been wrong. He wanted revenge and found it by blocking funding for Muriel’s Wedding. Hogan called Campion and asked if she could put in a good word at Ciby for the project. Campion duly talked it up to the president of Ciby who overturned the board’s decision. With funding secure, there were still more hurdles to overcome. One was to find the perfect Muriel, because the audience really needed to sympathise with her or the film wouldn’t work. Hogan says they decided not to go with the big casting agents because “it wasn’t going to work with the usual faces”. He wanted an unknown, someone who was good but wouldn’t normally get a break in films. Toni Collette was eventually cast but was made to wait after auditioning early in the casting process. “I didn’t know I would find my Muriel so early. So I looked for another six months,” Hogan admits. One familiar face he did cast was Bill Hunter as the father Bill Heslop, and he had trouble remembering his lines after lunch. Chris Hayward, who was cast as swimming coach Ken Blundell, turned up to one shoot with his lines on a fax roll. It unrolled and the end fell into the swimming pool. The film was shot quickly and on a low budget and while it is now impossible to imagine the film without its ABBA soundtrack, it almost didn’t happen when the producers struggled to get permission to use the songs. For a time they contemplated using music by the Village People.
Hogan had to virtually threaten to fly to Sweden to see Benny and Bjorn (he even faxed them a copy of his plane ticket). “They realised I was a stalker and we got a yes the next day,” he says. The composers asked for a percentage of the profits which “turned out to be a good deal, because ABBA started to chart even in the US where they had never been as popular”. Even when the film was put together there were still doubts. Distributor Roadshow sent someone to a preview screening and they walked out. But at the first public screening in Cannes the audience loved it and more screenings had to be scheduled.
“People loved Toni. She became a star literally overnight,” Hogan says. The film became a perennial favourite with movie lovers of all ages. “I was approached a number of times to turn it into a musical. But I thought it wasn’t really a musical. It is really very dark,” Hogan says. When he finally did come to making a stage adaptation, Hogan wanted to make sure it retained something of that darkness, but didn’t become a “kitsch throwback”, so the action was updated to the modern day. Hogan says that Muriel would have been perfectly at home, like a reality TV star, gaining fame without any talent by marrying someone she didn’t love. With new songs by Kate Miller-Heidke, the musical premiered in 2017. Muriel’s Wedding The Musical is at Sydney Lyric until September 8, sydneylyric.com.au