P.J. Hogan knows a lot about women. After breaking out in 1994 as the writer-director of Muriel’s Wedding, the ABBA-themed comedy starring Toni Collette, he scored box office gold with My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. Hogan’s latest film, Confessions of a Shopaholic, grossed more than $15 million in theaters during its opening weekend in February and is about to find an even wider audience when it is released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 23rd.
Here, Hogan discusses his latest picture, how we went about casting Isla Fisher in the lead role and the importance of humor in these trying economic times.
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you cast Isla Fisher in the leading role?
P.J. Hogan (PH): I read the books by Sophie Kinsella—all five of them—and I thought the main character of Rebecca Bloomwood was a marvelous comic creation; there was so much physical comedy in the books and so many dramatic turns. Also though, I knew this was a character who hurts a lot of people she is close to, as well as being endearing and likable. So I asked myself: Who could play this role? Who could handle the physical demands, the comedy and the dramatic side of the film?
The first person I actually thought of was Lucille Ball. I thought, ‘I am looking for the second coming of Lucy here’ and I didn’t know who Isla was at that point. I had not seen her movies. I didn’t even know she was Australian. People think I am making that up, but it is true, I really did not know. Then the casting director said I should see Isla in Wedding Crashers. So I saw it and actually thought Isla was American, because her accent was so good. Anyway I loved her performance and then I met her and discovered she was an Aussie and that we had worked with many of the same people. We got on well and at the end of the meeting I thought, ‘She is Becky.’
What really sealed the deal for me was when she told me that part of her training as an actor had involved attending Clown School in France and I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I knew she would be able to do the physical comedy as well the drama. Then soon after that, I found out that she could also carry the whole movie in the leading role.
MM: Do you see Isla as a future superstar?
PH: I certainly hope she is because, just as a member of the audience, I would love to see Isla Fisher in more films. I do think studios are always searching for the next Julia Roberts; they are always searching for a female star who audiences will pay good money to watch. I think Isla Fisher is immensely talented.
MM: Can you discuss the upbeat, fun look of the film?
PH: My influences as a filmmaker are Vincente Minnelli and Bernardo Bertolucci; I like bright colors and a big, lyrical look. I try to work with people who can give me that. I think, for me, the film reminds me in some ways of my movie Peter Pan, which was a complete fantasy. There is a fantasy element in this film, too. The original title in England was The Secret Dream World of a Shopaholic. I thought “dream world” was especially important and significant and I think that is reflected in the look and style of the movie.
MM: What about Hugh Dancy?
PH: Once I had Isla in place as Rebecca, I knew what I was looking for in Luke Brandon. Isla brought a dangerous element to the movie, because Rebecca is completely out-of-control. So I knew that I needed someone very centered as Luke to contrast with this person who had no control. She needed someone to have too much self-control as a balance. The characters both help each other; he centers her, but also teaches her something about responsibility and credibility and she loosens him up. He really needs that, because life is passing him by. Hugh was perfect in the role. He is good-looking and very talented.
MM: Did you have an instinct that they would have great chemistry?
PH: I hoped they would. They certainly seemed good together when they first met. I always put the main actors in the same room just to make sure that they get on and bring out the best in each other, that’s important; or they could be opposites, that’s important as well. In this case Hugh and Isla were great together from the start.
MM: What were your favorite parts of the film to direct?
PH: I love doing the physical comedy, because Isla is so good at it. And as the film progressed I tried to do more and more physical comedy and find opportunities for Isla to do what she does best. One great sequence involves the scene in which Hugh and Isla’s relationship moves from a professional relationship to a personal romance. It is the moment when he falls in love with her and I knew it had to be funny; I think it is more romantic when it is funny. Isla said to me at one point, ‘This may not mean anything to you P.J., but Sacha [Baron Cohen] told me that when I dance I am really funny.” That is all she had to tell me. When I heard that, I thought a dance sequence in Miami, where the scene was to take place, might be good. Then Sophie Kinsella, the author, did some research and came up with the idea of Isla doing the ‘danzon’ a dance that involves the use of a fan. Well give Isla a fan and that is all you need to do. So it evolved and ended up being a very funny scene in the film.
MM: Do you think it is good—perhaps even therapeutic—to have a sense of humor about the economy?
PH: Of course. What else can we do? Just cry about it? I know it is serious and everyone is terrified, but we are all entitled to forget our problems for a while; that is what I like to do when I go to the movies. Hopefully people will be able to do that at least for two hours when they watch this film. We are in the midst of tough times, but there is humor to be found and hope to be had.
MM: Do you have to stick closely to the book in a film like this?
PH: I don’t think so at all. The Devil Wears Prada was a great film and bore little relation to the book. It depends on the book and film. We had an advantage because we were drawing from two books and our other major advantage was that Sophie Kinsella was on the set. So the things that were invented were often invented by Sophie and Isla and me all working together, so it was all authentic.
MM: You have made some great romantic comedies. What is your approach to the genre?
PH: Well, my films are called romantic comedies, but when I think about them, they aren’t really. In Muriel’s Wedding there is no guy; she wants to get married but the romance is all in her head. It is a romance with the idea of a wedding. With My Best Friend’s Wedding, the main character thinks she is in love, but she’s not. And with this one, the character falls in love with a guy who she is betraying in every possible way. I think I am drawn to romantic comedies where the romance is not really the main essence of the film—or the romance is in constant danger, threatened by the actions of the main character.
MM: Do you think you have some intrinsic, natural gift for comedy?
PH: I hope so, because if I don’t I am in big trouble. (laughs) I love comedy; I find life intrinsically funny, especially when it is the most trying and difficult. Some of the funniest moments in my own life have also been the worst, you know, those times when you think to yourself: What can you do but laugh?
MM: What are your favorite comedies?
PH: I have so many. I love The Rules of the Game and, more recently, Tootsie. I love the Marx Brothers comedies and Billy Wilder comedies are dark but extremely funny. I think he is a master. And I love Preston Sturges.
MM: Who would you like to work with—anyone specifically?
PH: I think there are many actors who are incredibly funny who just don’t work enough. I worked with Kristin Scott Thomas on this movie and she has had an amazing resurgence in the last year or so in drama, but she is also really brilliant at comedy. She is very funny and has not made enough movies in general or done enough comedy in my opinion. She was hilarious in Gosford Park.
MM: How difficult is the whole process of making a film?
PH: It all takes a long time. My friends know how long it takes; they know that for every film I make, there are another three I try to get made and can’t. I think that is true for all filmmakers with the exception of Steven Spielberg, who can make anything he wants to make. It is really difficult. I think every filmmaker has pet projects he really wants to make and can’t. I am lucky though, because I have never made a film I did not want to make. I have felt passionate about every film I have made.
MM: Is there anything on the horizon?
PH: I always have something on the horizon, but I have no idea whether it will happen or not. There is a project I am working on with my wife that I would love to make and then, very often, things turn up when you least expect them. I love my work and I love the surprises.