PJ Hogan and Rebecca Gibney: How To Direct Actors


PJ Hogan’s first Australian-made film since wowing the world with Muriel’s Wedding in 1994, Mental, opens across Australia on October 4.

The man behind the lens of films like My Best Friends Wedding, Peter Pan and Confessions of a Shopaholic knows his way around the intricate world of the Hollywood system, but we thought we’d ask him about the process of being a director, directing actors, rather than the usual stuff you read when a film is released.

Rebecca Gibney, who stars in Mental as Shirley Moochmore, took a bold leap from the comfort of her stellar Australian TV career to put herself in the hands of a director who asked her to push herself way beyond her limits. If you’ve ever wanted to know what being a director ‘that’s good with actors’ means, and what you need to do as actor to work with such a director, read on. There’s a few other things in there as well, like being ‘candid’ with journalists, the extraordinary truth behind what seems to be a broad comedy, and the passivity of modern audiences.

Here’s the transcript of the interview conducted by Oscar Hillerström with Rebecca Gibney and PJ Hogan at the Intercontinental Hotel, Sydney, just last week.

Popcorn Taxi:  I wanted to steer you away from your usual run of questions. What’s the general thing so far?

PJ Hogan: So why should people go see this movie? I love that one, that’s my favourite; I feel like such a panderer.

Rebecca Gibney: Hahaha! You get that one and I get: ‘So how did you put on all that weight?’

PJ: I’d rather get asked, ‘How did you put on all that weight?’. I could: easily.  There’s always something vaguely hostile about, ‘Why should an Australian audience go see this movie?’ I got that a lot in the rural areas, like, “Whhhhy should we…?’ And I felt like, at one point I was just like, ‘Ooh I dunno. Just go see Transformers 4, okay; because you’re all getting fat at home watching The X Factor, it’ll be a break for you.’

PT: Haha! Did you?!

PJ: I did actually say that, I just really snapped.

Rebecca: Ahh, that is hilarious.

PJ: I was just like, ‘Oh God, it’s hard enough to get you to see an Australian movie… now we’re dealing with questions like this? Now we’re begging you to see the movie, Please!’ Sorry, Oscar.

PT: You want to make people watch good movies, be they Australian or not.

PJ: Because having been through the preview process a lot, you hear American audiences saying, ‘There’s nothing for us to go and see. You show us all these terrible movies.’ They’re sort of right because their choices are narrowing but you sort of want to say to them, ‘You know? Right now, Let The Right One In is playing down the road, and you’ve never heard of it! And you won’t go see it! Because it doesn’t have a star in it, and it’s in a foreign language—and it is the best film playing. So don’t you tell me there’s nothing for you to go and see that’s good!’ You know, and then they re-make it?! Badly! Anyway, rant, rant, rant, rant, rant.

PT: But it is a serious thing, the kind of passive society waiting to be told what to do as opposed to figuring it out for themselves.

PJ: Yeah, David Foster Wallace was right. Did you ever read, Infinite Jest?

Rebecca: No.

PJ: It’s pretty much about; he was sort of inspired by the Nirvana song, you know that line: ‘Here we are now, entertain us’?

Rebecca: Um-hmm.

PJ: ‘We’re stupid and brainless’ and basically it’s the passives waiting; you can’t entertain yourselves anymore, you’re waiting, you’re totally passive. ‘Make me feel something. Entertain me’.

Rebecca: Yes: ‘Make me feel something’.

PJ: You used to engage with movies and now they assault you.

Rebecca: Mmm-hmm. That’s a really good argument.

PJ: When I went to the movies in the—when I grew up, I am way older than Oscar, I grew up in the ’70s—I went to films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Network and Shampoo. These films, you engaged with them: ‘Think about this character. Oh my God! What’s this Peter Finch guy saying? I am mad as hell!’ You know, you just don’t get that anymore, now it’s all just soothing, or pandering to you.

PT: It is pandering. They’ve already decided what you like—

Rebecca: Yep!

PT: And then they’re giving it to you. Which is bad if you like doughnuts.

Rebecca: Yep. That’s why this film shakes you up. Just when you think you’re being lulled into, ‘Oh, well this is doing one thing, it’s just a comedy, hah-oh! It’s not that funny! And—gasp—then it’s hilarious, and then it’s gut-wrenching and then it’s shocking’ and it’s the whole meal.

PJ: I like to call it ‘the whole meal’ because I love comedy; comedy is my métier. I don’t know when comedies started being just ‘Aeroplane Jelly’ and stopped being the full meal? Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Network—which we were just talking about—Shampoo, these were huge hits in their time and they were ‘the full meal’; you weren’t just laughing, they packed an emotional wallop.

Rebecca: And you thought about them when you left the cinema—for days.

PJ: And not only did I think about them, I watch them again and again. They’ve not left my life.

PT: I think it’s true for whatever good comedy that it’s wrapped around a core understanding of humanity and it must have a strong core for it to succeed. Something like Bridesmaids, which says about women, ‘I’m a person too’.

PJ: Yes, that had a strong core, so did There’s Something About Mary. I remember I went to a very early screening of it because Cameron (Diaz) was in it and I thought, ‘This is a comedy about stalking—it’s an obsession—and that’s what worked about it. It was daring, under all of the gross-out humour, you never lost sight of the fact that Ben Stiller adored her, but he was a stalker, so it had an edge the whole time. I like comedies with an edge. I think that that’s ‘the full meal’ as well.

PT: Seguing from the full meal to the meaty part of this—

PJ: Off the rant!

Rebecca: Haha, it wasn’t a rant.

PT: I’m really interested in the process that doesn’t get talked about—the director behind the camera and the actor in front of the camera—and for most part when everything’s rolling, it’s been done; you know what you’re doing from the beginning and end. From both ends. But I want to talk about the process that you get, Rebecca, in front of the camera to be Shirley Moochmore. Where there’s a couple of scenes where the vulnerability of the actress is extreme—to be overweight, to appear inelegant, to be—

Rebecca: That’s a nice way of saying it! Playing an ugly! Haha. Un-glamorous. ‘Inelegant’, that’s nice isn’t it?! Haha.

PT: But the things that everyone who relies on their appearance in front of a camera does not want is there, and also there’s an emotional vulnerability. There’s a couple of scenes, certainly before the first break-out scene in the café, but also when she’s hyper-manic in the—

PJ: But I think you’ve just described acting. That’s what acting is.

PT: Tell me.

PJ: It’s just my opinion. I feel that if you aren’t willing to be emotionally vulnerable in front of a camera, if you aren’t willing to take on a character who is not you and do it honestly, and in the case of Shirley Moochmore that required Rebecca to gain the weight because there was no way—we talked about this earlier—there was no way the audience would believe Shirley’s breakdown, which is pivotal in the movie; that you believe that she cracks up. Otherwise, Shaz can’t come into the movie. Otherwise there is no way that you believe that Barry picks up Shaz. You have to not only believe in the breakdown, you have to believe Shirley when she says, ‘I know I’ve let myself go’. You have to believe that those two girls can torment her, daily, feeding her doughnuts that she’s trying not to eat. You have to believe that she cannot control these children. The camera un-does you. We’ve all seen the beautiful actress pretending she’s not beautiful by putting glasses on, it doesn’t work. The audience knows it’s phony.

Rebecca: And that’s the thrilling thing for me, particularly at this point in my career, I have played characters that are attractive, the ‘girl next door’, elegant, whatever. To be given an opportunity to chuck all that out the window and say, ‘I’m going to play a raw, beaten-down woman and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes’ which is what I said to PJ in the audition process. I need that right now in my career because I’m too comfortable; I’m comfortable being Julie Rafter, I’m comfortable in my life, I’ve lost the challenge. I need to be challenged and I need to be stretched, and that’s what PJ gave me.

This role is such a gift because that’s what’s required of me—to go to places that I hadn’t been before in myself—as an actor. So to have that, and I trusted PJ implicitly, not just because of his previous work but also because of the way we spoke and because of his uncompromising vision, unlike a lot of directors who are like: ‘Um, I’m not quite sure why it’s not working?’ PJ was like: ‘This is why it’s not working, you need to do this.’ And so I went along on this magical ride with him. Consequently, that’s the performance you see, it was solely because of the way he found to drag it out of me.

PJ: It was also because you were willing to go there. Because I had worked with actors who aren’t willing to go that extra mile, which, depending on the material—not every role requires you to spill it emotionally, eviscerate yourself—but there are some roles that do. And this was one of them. Not eviscerate but to show vulnerability.

I think that you have to make sure—my job is to always make sure that the actor is willing to go there because I always make it clear up front that I expect it; that I will push as hard as I can and I feel that my contract with the actor is, ‘I will not make you look a fool’.

Actors make a great commitment to any director and to a film, and that they are willing to do what you can’t do or wouldn’t do. They step in front of that camera and make themselves look utterly vulnerable. And as a director you could so easily make them look a fool; we’ve all seen actors—I’m always very upset when I see a great actor look embarrassed in front of a camera, in a bad movie.

“Because that is the actor-director contract: you take a risk for me,
I will not make a fool of you; I will fight to the death to protect
your performance.”— PJ Hogan

PT: Now, Rebecca, when you’re being vulnerable—and it’s often discussed but not many people understand what that means, and some may say, ‘Oh it’s the revealing of one’s emotion’, but I’m wondering—are you connecting yourself directly with an emotional memory that corresponds directly with that of your character?

Rebecca: Definitely. Particularly the minute you say that, I can go straight away to the scene where I am touching the doll’s hair in the café. My mother was never given dolls as a child. She was sexually abused from a young age for a long time, and she was never given dolls, so when she became an adult, she started collecting a lot of dolls. So it was extraordinary to me when I read the script—but then to actually be in a café, with my sister who shows up with these dolls, very similar to the ones that my mother had bought, and PJ just came up and said: ‘Didn’t your mother have a thing about dolls?’ So when she starts stroking the doll’s hair, it was literally just like the spirit of my mother came over.

PJ: We discovered that in rehearsal, we improvised. There wasn’t much improv on the film but we did improvise that bit where Doris says (with Rebecca): ‘Touch the hair’. That little moment I noticed, unleashed something in you, and then I did an extra shot of Rebecca, past the doll, touching the hair, because you can see that that’s the change in the scene. Rebecca always—you made that change on camera, looking at the doll’s hair. And the audience is not to know why that’s moving you so much but they don’t have to know why, they just have to see that it is. That something about that doll… and I think that the less, the mystery of it—although it’s not really a mystery because they can see something’s happening to Shirley [as she is] looking at that doll, something’s broken in her; the dam is cracking. And then it does. You just have to see it and I think my job is to make sure the camera’s in the right place.

PT: That’s the thing: it must be real no matter how fleeting the moment, and as long as the camera catches it, then you have a movie.

Rebecca: The great thing is, though, you’d do it, and then PJ would go: ‘I need you to do that again’; and I’d go, ‘I don’t know if I can do that again!’ And that’s the beauty of working with this man because he will get it out of you again. Whether it’s a sentence he says or he’ll tell you a story; he’ll take you back to that place that you need to be in to create the same thing.

PJ: But that requires trust.

Rebecca: Absolutely.

PJ: You have to trust me to do that, to go there.

Rebecca: And it’s thrilling, it’s exhausting and it’s great because you go home at the end of the day feeling completely emotionally wrung-out but happy because you know that you couldn’t have done any more than you did. And that’s why I’m so proud of my work in the film because I think I did absolutely everything I could. I gave 150 percent and I would do it again for PJ. I don’t know if I’d do it for anybody else, but I’d do it for him!

PJ: You would! You absolutely would.

PT: This is the thing: in the world that we are living in now, you talk to people now and they want to be famous, not actors.

Rebecca: Exactly.

PT: Certainly if I was a young actor listening to this, I would think: ‘Aha! It’s not about how I look or who I talk to, it’s about revealing the most private part of my emotions’.

PJ: I think it depends on what you want. If you want to be famous, certainly you can be if you’ve got the right looks and a big personality. You probably won’t be in a film of mine, because I like to work with actors. For me, working with actors is why I do it. I love working with actors and I’ve worked with some great ones and it’s always about the work, about creating a character, and so often the fame—whether you want it or not—comes with that.

Rebecca: In fact, if anything, most real actors could take or leave the fame. We talk about people becoming famous—if you’re in it to become famous, go do something else, really.

With the craft of acting, you really have to work; it doesn’t just happen on set. You go home and you study those lines. I would stay up for hours and not get a lot of sleep because I wanted to get it right. It’s about taking lessons, voice lessons, training. You’re in training the whole time, even when you’re not on camera.

“You go away and you practice and you do lessons and you take dance lessons and you just make sure you keep on the ball, because when you do come up against the likes of Toni Collette and PJ Hogan, if you’re not on your game, you really are stuffed.” — Rebecca Gibney

PJ: I remember on the set of My Best Friend’s Wedding Julia telling me—because she made acting look easy—and I think I made the mistake of saying, ‘Oh you make it all look easy’ and she said, ‘Easy? Not only do you expect me to do it once, hit the emotional heights, but I’ve got to have lunch, come back and do it again, for my close-up, for the two-shot!’ because films are shot in bits. And I realised, ‘Oh wow, it’s not easy, is it?’

But I’ve learned a lot from that. I’ve learned that when an actor has a big emotional sequence, not to do a lot of set-ups. Like that coffee shop scene is actually pretty much wide and then tight. I didn’t do any more because you’ve got to make sure that the performance is captured but also consistent. It’s a fact, you can only ask an actor—Rebecca can only break down so often—

Rebecca: I did have to break down after lunch!

PJ: You did have to break down after lunch.

Rebecca: Because we ran out. We were going into delayed meal break and they were like, ‘PJ we have to’ and PJ and I were going (with PJ) ‘Nooo!’ And they were like, ‘Sorry you have to’ and I went, ‘PJ please! I can’t do this again!’ and he went, ‘I’ll get you there again, it’s okay, trust me, I’ll get you there.’ And he did! I was like, ‘We just spent the morning sobbing!’ and he went, ‘Trust me’ we’ll do it. We’ll do it’. I had no choice; the crew had to go to lunch, so we had lunch and then we came back and, sure enough, he got me there again.

PT: How do you get to this break down? When you need an actress to break down emotionally and you need to get her to that point, are you going to start hurling abuse at her, to use cruelty to get tears?

Rebecca: Oh, I’ve had some directors do that.

PJ: We were just talking about that over lunch. I don’t think—no, I’m not abusive on set. I think that’s a terrible thing when you’re asking somebody to trust you, you don’t start abusing them, screaming at them. That doesn’t—

Rebecca: He might make you laugh: ‘I know I said ‘big’ darling, but not that big’—hahaha. I’m laughing!

PJ: I may say that.

Rebecca: And you go: ‘Oh well, I was just having fun!’

PJ: But no, I don’t do that because I think that closes an actor down. I would close down! If someone starts yelling at me, I’m just hearing white noise; I can’t hear anything anymore.

Rebecca: He tells stories. He’ll come up and he’ll whisper, ‘I just wanna tell you something…’ For me, it’s Shirley’s mother—

PT: Horrible things about bunnies dying?

PJ and Rebecca: No! No.

Rebecca: No, not at all, stories to make you realise.

PJ: It’s called Sense Memory. It’s a story that I tell, that triggers, that I feel is germane, but that will hopefully trigger something that I don’t know in Rebecca. We have rehearsals—I always have rehearsals so that I know what works for my actors. For example, working with the girls, I had to get to know them, because I had no experience, I have to know how people like to be directed. For example, Toni Collette and I have worked together before so we have a shorthand. I know that I can come up to Toni and be very blunt—she prefers me to do that. ‘I don’t know what it is that you’re trying to communicate to me, but I’m not getting it’. And she’ll go, ‘Where do you mean?’ And I’ll say the line, and she’ll go: ‘Okay, I am having trouble with that’ and then we start talking about that. I can be that blunt with T.C. because I’ve known her for so long; we have shorthand. Sometimes we’ll just say: ‘That line’, ‘Yes, I know’, and that’s it.

I thought Liev (Schrieber) was going to be like that, but Liev likes to be directed, big-time. Liev Schreiber likes to hear lots of my stories! ‘And where does this guy come from? Tell me about him PJ!’ So we just start talking and there he is, incredibly—just doing it.

Rebecca: You need to know their history, and that’s the thing, because I was playing PJ’s mother—

PJ: And your own!

Rebecca: Absolutely, and my own.

PJ: We found out we had very similar mums; they were both people-pleasers and I think that’s why Becsy got Shirley so much, because like me, she had a Shirley in her life, loved a Shirley.

Rebecca: So yeah, he would just come in and tell me a story about his Shirley—

PJ: About my mum, and that’s the one that would trigger something we didn’t know about Rebecca’s mum.

Rebecca: My image of your mum is sitting at the back of the church. He told me this story of his mum sitting at the back of the church and that’s the image that’s stayed with me. All I got in my head was this image of this wonderful woman who didn’t feel like she was worthy to go and sit at the front of the church and so she would always sit at the back of the church and that would just make me go, ‘Ohh!’

PJ: Even when the church was empty, the Minister would go or the Priest would come—he actually told this story once at my mother’s funeral, which I had never heard before, but he said:

“One day, even when the church was empty, my mum would sit up the back and he didn’t know why, and finally he asked her. ‘Why are you sitting up the back?’ and she said she didn’t feel worthy enough to sit down the front.” — PJ

Rebecca: That’s the story he told me after lunch, when I came back and didn’t think I would get ‘there’ again. He just told me that story and I went: ‘Roll the camera!’ (pretends to burst out crying)

PJ: That was because that—

Rebecca: See, that still makes me weep.

PJ: Ahh, sorry, I’m getting all…

PT: No, thank you. I have to say thank you very much for sharing those stories, but also thank you for sharing yourselves in this film as well. I hope that people will come in expecting something, and come out with something else.

Rebecca: Thank you. They have been so far, which is great.

PJ: We’ve seen it happen.

Rebecca: People are coming out saying: ‘That stayed with me for days!’

PJ: We’re all hoping it’s a repeat offender movie. That people will go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve gotta go back and see that again’, ‘Toni Collette, did she really do that? Say that?’

PT: Yes, thank you very much for your time.

PJ: It was actually nice to talk about acting.


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