Behind the scenes of Making Muriel with documentary makers Nel Minchin and Ivan O'Mahoney
Making Muriel gives audiences exclusive behind the scenes access as P.J. Hogan adapts his iconic film, Muriel's Wedding into a stage musical for Sydney Theatre Company, 23 years after the film was a surprise box office hit. We caught up with the documentary's key creatives, Nel Minchin and Ivan O'Mahoney, to learn about its production.
As filmmakers, why did you think the making of the musical would be a good story to tell audiences?
Nel: Muriel’s Wedding is such a loved and iconic film in Australia, and bringing it to the stage meant that it had a huge legacy that people would have to live up to. We knew there was going to be drama in that. It’s unusual in Australia for anyone to create brand new musicals on this scale, but if anyone could pull it off, we reckoned, it would be co-producers Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Global Creatures. So it was a combination of a famous story and the inherent drama of the adaptation driven by the high stakes for everyone involved.
Ivan: Also, it is so rare as filmmakers to be given access to a process like this from the very start. When we did Matilda & Me, we came in a little bit later in the project; the musical had already been cast, and it had been very successful overseas. In this case, though, it was a real gamble for everybody - for Global Creatures, the STC and the creative team – to put their trust in us and give us that access from the start. That was really a unique opportunity, and when Nel and I heard who was involved in the making of the musical, we really felt like we wanted to get in early… PJ Hogan, Simon Phillips, Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall ….it was just too good to be true.
Did they approach you to make the documentary?
Nel: I spoke with Carmen Pavlovic, who was the producer from Global Creatures. She’d seen the Matilda documentary and thought it looked great. We agreed to explore options with Global. Of the various projects that they had coming up Muriel’s Wedding was the one that, for me, sounded like the most exciting.
What kind of planning did you both do during pre-production and production?
Nel: We had to dive in head first. The first thing we did was film the auditions, because there’s only so much planning we could do, given that we were filming a longitudinal doco.
Ivan: We had access to the musical’s production milestones and schedule which informed our own production plan. We knew from the producers when they would audition, when they would do things like workshops, technical rehearsals, dress rehersals, and all of these things. The only thing we didn’t know is whether, within the originally planned audition period, they would fill the key roles. That was the big unknown - whether or not in those first few weeks we would be filming the girl who would eventually be cast in the role of Muriel, and it turned out that we wouldn’t. That took a lot longer than expected.
Can you tell us about some of the challenges you had, including with timing?
Nel: Timing was definitely a major challenge. Towards the end we were editing and filming at the same time. Our last shoot day was opening night, which was only seven days away from the film’s airdate. We edited everything except for the last five minutes – the last scene – and then, following opening night, we had a three-day very hectic editing period to get it ready for the broadcast a week later. At the start, it was all very manageable, but towards the end we were catching up with ourselves in the edit.
Nel, you wear two hats in this documentary, both as director and producer with Ivan. How did you balance, particularly during production when you had to focus on directing, those two roles?
Nel: With documentary, it’s quite normal to do both, because ‘finding’ the story, which is partly the producer’s job, is also relevant to the directing side, and both diciplines inform each other. When you’re feeling your way through really personal relationships, a lot of the logistics are almost by default dealt with by the person in the room, usually the director. Ivan for his part dealt with access contracts, actors’ agents, negotiations with unions, archive deals, music deals, financing etc.
Can you tell us how you secured interviews with Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette?
Nel: It was good to have the Matilda film as a calling card from us as a team. We sent them the link so they could see that we were going to do the right thing, and make a credible production. I personally told them how invested I was in them being in the film and how important they were to the story of Muriel’s Wedding. Matilda showed them we could deliver a Muriel film at top level and be effective in the way we work. I think it’s really important with people, anyone, not just celebrities, to respect their time constraints, and any constraints they might have and not to exploit that.
Ivan: It was great having them talk about the film itself, but also about being an actor and their careers in general. In Toni’s case – who had been inundated with interview requests with regards to the musical – it presented her with an opportunity to make one big statement about the musical and be done with it. We were lucky that she and Rachel chose our project to do that. Without their contribution, it would have been a lesser film.
It is really great viewing, discovering slowly who will be revealed as playing Muriel in the musical
Nel: In some ways the manner in which we revealed ‘Muriel’ was out of our hands. The musical’s creative team didn’t find Muriel in the initial auditions. It wasn’t until Maggie McKenna’s tape arrived a few months later that they thought they might be onto a winner. And once they did, the question became whether Maggie would live up to their initial expectations. Having said that we did want to make sure we met Maggie first, discovered her wonderful skillset, and set her up on her own before revealing her showbiz background. So the later exploration of that side of her story was definitely deliberate.
Ivan: Given that the musical went out before the film, everybody with an interest in the musical would know that Maggie was the one who was cast in the end. So, the challenge wasn’t so much in holding back that reveal; the challenge was really in building drama into the story of whether or not she would ultimately get the role.
That was really crucial for us to capture, because that’s the only drama left in that story arc. That’s why when you watch the film, even though you know she’s in the musical, you’re still rooting for her and still waiting to hear whether or not she got the ‘yes’ in the end.
What did you both learn on this production?
Nel: It was a huge learning experience for me. From a producing point of view, it’s great that we’ve done a couple of theatre arts documentaries now. It all helps us as we keep developing more docos in the world of music, theatre and the arts generally.
Ivan: Understanding that world has been really good for us – the journey started with Matilda, and has now led to a solid understanding of the theatre world and its stakes, what people’s concerns are, what the competing interests are, and how you navigate all of that to make a successful arts documentary.
It’s such an important part of our culture, but not a lot of it gets documented.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Ivan: One thing they will take away is seeing how much personal investment there is in these projects by the key creatives. This film was, to an extent, based on PJ Hogan’s own life. If you watch the documentary, you can see just why it’s so important to him that everything is executed to perfection - because Muriel’s Wedding is so personal.
There is this idea that people who make films and theatre just move from one project to the next. But actually, all these projects become part of who you are and leave an emotional imprint . That is very clear when you hear PJ’s story as well.
Nel: There’s a thematic similarity between Matilda and Muriel in that everyone’s childhood informs their adulthood – and in terms of creativity, maybe even more so. With the writers and musicians like Kate and Keir, every time they’re writing lyrics or film scripts, they’re taking everything from their past and putting it into the emotions of the characters. It’s interesting that came out in both films, and certainly in the next one we’re developing, I’m sure that’ll come out as well.
The documentary also talks to the female characters and women in cinema. It’s interesting to look at the character of Muriel, and who she is, and what she represents, and how she’s different from most women we see in scripts, and then how that affects actors who are auditioning for these parts. I quite like that element of the film – it’s not a huge part of it, but it’s something I care about.
You can catch Making Muriel on ABC iview until 8.41pm December 26 2018: http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/making-muriel/AC1615H001S00