P.J. Hogan Feature: Confessions of a Shopaholic
June 23, 2009
CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC focuses on the incorrigible Becky Bloomwood: beautiful, warm hearted and vivacious, when it comes to shopping, she has no control whatsoever. Her finances are disastrous, yet that does not stop her using her credit card over and over again at exclusive Manhattan stores such as Barneys New York, Henri Bendel and Prada. When the bill comes in, she is always in utter disbelief, which is part of her charm and one reason that we have such empathy for her character.
The irony of the story lies in the fact that this profligate young woman (who longs to work for a fashion magazine) becomes a financial journalist, dishing out financial advice to her readers, with surprising success. She writes a column telling people how they should organize their finances; yet she keeps the horrific state of her own finances a secret. Hugh Dancy stars as her ambitious boss. He is the perfect antidote to Becky’s frivolous and chaotic charms. He is grounded and serious – at least to start with – before he falls under Becky’s charms. The chemistry between the two lead characters is palpable.
The hugely talented director, P.J. Hogan, brings heart, comedy and flair to this delightful film, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. It is full of broad physical humor and emotional moments too. Visually, the film is stunning, which is partly due to the style and ingenuity of award winning costume designer, Patricia Field. Field was the creative force behind the costumes for SEX AND THE CITY (the movie and episodes of the TV series) as well as THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA.
The talented cast includes Krysten Ritter, Joan Cusack, John Goodman, John Lithgow, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lynn Redgrave. It is based on the best selling novels by Sophie Kinsella.
Australian director P.J.Hogan’s first film was MURIEL’S WEDDING in 1994, which he also wrote. His other films include MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING, UNCONDITIONAL LOVE and PETER PAN.
The director sat down in New York for the following interview.
Q: Why did you cast Isla Fisher in the leading role?
A: “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 and 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 likeable. 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.”
Q: Did you consider any bigger stars?
A: “I did not see any big established stars who were right for the role. Isla seemed to me to be the perfect Rebecca Bloomwood and the producer, Jerry Bruckheimer also loved Isla, so she had his support from the start.”
Q: What does Isla bring to the character?
A: “I think she brings a great deal of energy and joy. Isla loves to act and she loves to do comedy, she is not afraid of comedy. I think the genuine confidence and joy in her work spills over into the film. She is also extremely likeable which is very important for this character. I am very drawn to films with main characters who are not saints and Rebecca is not a saint. She is a shopaholic, she lives beyond her means and spends most of the film deceiving people and yet we really like her and personally I indentified with her, despite her flaws or maybe because of her flaws. Isla has that power I think, she is intensely likeable. Luckily I have worked with two actresses in the past who had that appeal, Julia Roberts (MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING) and Toni Collette (MURIEL’S WEDDING).”
Q: How exactly do you identify with Rebecca?
A: “I have definitely had my own ‘credit card moments’, particularly when I was younger, I got into a lot of trouble with credit cards. I ‘maxed’ many of them out and couldn’t pay them off. So I really did identify with her. At one time I actually paid my rent with my credit card, which you should never do. Also I would go out to dinner a lot, getting meals I couldn’t afford.”
Q: Can you discuss the upbeat, fun look of the film?
A: “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.”
Q: Do you see Isla as a future superstar?
A: “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.”
Q: Why are Australian actors so popular just now do you think? There seem to be a lot in Hollywood?
A: “I think they are just so good and I don’t know why. They really are great.”
Q: Why did you pick Hugh Dancy?
A: “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 and 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 and Hugh was perfect in the role. He is good looking and very talented.”
Q: Did you have an instinct that they would have great chemistry?
A: “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.”
Q: What were your favorite parts of the film to direct?
A: “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. This what happened: Isla said to me at one point: ‘this may not mean anything to you P.J., but Sacha (her partner 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.”
Q: Can you discuss the theme of the film?
A: “It is all about shopping and of course shopping can be great fun, if you can afford what you are buying. I think that Sophie Kinsella was really onto something interesting when she wrote these books and created this character. She created a character who was living in a fantasy world and living beyond her means on credit and in complete denial. She is very happy with the life she has built herself, despite the fact that it is built on sand. I think that the world has woken up to find that we were all (or many of us) living in a fantasy world. We were living a life that we could not afford, especially in America. And I think that the brilliance of Sophie’s books is that they follow the story of that character and we find out how she can extricate herself from her problems. There is a lesson that Rebecca learns in the movie.”
Q: But it is also fun escapism isn’t it?
A: “Yes and it was very important for me to make an escapist film because at the time I got involved, I was going a difficult time in my life and I wanted to make a film that was very funny and that I would enjoy making and watching. But I knew that the message would always be there because that was in the DNA of the material. But first of all I wanted it to be a lot of fun.”
Q: Do you think it is good, perhaps therapeutic to have a sense of humor about the economy?
A: “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.”
Q: Do you have to stick closely to the book in a film like this?
A: “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.”
Q: You have made some great romantic comedies. What is your approach would you say?
A: “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.”
Q: Do you think you have some intrinsic, natural gift for comedy?
A: “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?”
Q: What are your favorite comedies?
A: “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.”
Q: Who would you like to work with – anyone specifically?
A: “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.’
Q: What does she bring to her role as the fashion magazine editor in this film?
A: “She brings everything – that character is mostly her creation. We are dealing with someone who is a fashion icon and we wanted to make sure that she was not at all like Meryl Streep’s character from THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. And Kristin said to me: ‘I live in France and I know a woman who is completely ‘gaga’ but absolutely brilliant and I would like to make my character French.’ I thought that was a fantastic idea. So she based the character on someone she knew and that character is almost entirely her creation and is so funny.”
Q: How difficult is the whole process of making a film?
A: “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.”
Q: Is there anything on the horizon?
A: “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.”
CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC is on Blu-ray and DVD June 23rd!