Nanny state

It was only when PJ Hogan realised that his troubled family history was material for the screen rather than the therapist's couch that he made his first successful film.

''I struggled for a long time to get a break,'' says the Australian writer-director, best known for Muriel's Wedding, My Best Friend's Wedding, Peter Pan and Confessions of a Shopaholic. ''The big breakthrough for me was accepting my family, was accepting 'this is who I am, these are my people, this is where I'm from, perhaps this is a story I have to tell'.''

Hogan, who grew up on the far north coast of NSW, used his politician father's legal dramas in Muriel's Wedding. Now, having moved back from the US with his director wife Jocelyn Moorhouse, he has drawn on more family history for the black comedy Mental, which re-unites him with Toni Collette as a hitchhiker who becomes an eccentric nanny to a troubled family.

''The starting point for the film came with my mother's nervous breakdown while I was 12,'' he says.

''My dad, who was up for re-election, did not tell us or anybody that she'd had a breakdown and been committed. As we'd often hear him say: 'Nobody's going to vote for a guy whose wife's in a nuthouse.'''

As in Mental, Hogan's father picked up a hitchhiker and invited her home to look after his children. ''I came home from school and there was this strange woman rolling a cigarette, knife in her boot, dog beside her, and she said, 'Bit of a mess in here, innit?'''

''That was the woman who took care of us … she pretty much lived with us, I remember, for six to eight months, even after my mum returned home, because they got on.''

In Mental, which has Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney as the parents of a troubled brood who all worry they are mad, Collette plays the colourful Shaz. Mental has some dark moments but Hogan believes it is not as black as Muriel's Wedding.

''Think about it: there's horrible cruelty to Muriel. Her friend gets cancer, she abandons her friend and the mother commits suicide,'' he says. ''We felt on much firmer ground with Mental because we thought, 'This is much funnier than Muriel's'.''

MENTAL

Director PJ Hogan. Stars Toni Collette, Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney. MA15+. Now screening.

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