We never have to make it!

The biggest movie out of Australia since AUSTRALIA is a simple tale of pen-friendship that can’t be seen in IMAX nor 3D. MARY & MAX comes in… Clayography.

The feature length follow-up to the 2004 Academy Award Best Animated Short Film winner HARVEY KRUMPET, MARY & MAX opened Sundance earlier this year.

M. Rodriguez spoke with writer-director Adam Elliot and producer Melanie Coombs about the writing process, festival fun and the move from short to long form claymation.

Interview by M. Rodriguez
Editor: Cleo Mees

TSD: I’m curious about your writing process – do you storyboard? Because I understand that a lot of animators prefer to storyboard and then write a script.

AE: No, I’m the other way round. I’m obsessed with the script. A lot of writers start with the three act structure and the plot, and then add detail. I start with the detail, and hopefully there will be a plot by the second draft. I start by thinking, “I want to have snails in this film – how am I gonna get snails in there?” So I have all these ingredients to thread together and that takes time.

I use a lot of adjectives in my scripts. I read other short film scripts and think to myself, where are the adjectives? “The man walked through the door…” That’s boring! How about, “The man with the long grey beard walked through the broken door”? I probably overuse adjectives. I don’t like to leave things out, I like the script to be as jam-packed as possible.

TSD: Why did you write your own script and not choose to work with a collaborator?

AE: I’m just too selfish. Even collaborating with animators and cinematographers, I found it difficult. We had script assessors and Melanie’s the script editor. But I think it’s the one part of the process where you have absolute control. Once we got into the studio I had to learn to collaborate and give away a bit more. And writing the script is the part I enjoy the most.

“A lot of writers start with the three act structure and the plot, and then add detail. I start with the detail, and hopefully there will be a plot by the second draft.”

TSD: Is there any difference in writing a script for claymation?

AE: No, when I write the script I imagine the characters as real. I think that keeps the characters more authentic. Some animators start with a drawing, whereas I’ll think of my pen friend, who the film is based on. If Disney are at one end, I’m at the other [end of animation productions]. There are no magic fairies in my scripts. It’s all about trying to create characters in a real, grounded world that we all identify with.

TSD: Do you describe how the characters would react and what their expressions are in the script?

AE: More so in the storyboards – where I do a lot of facial expressions. The storyboard is an elaboration of the script, but that’s more for the camera department and the animators. And it’s also a way to think up visual humour.

TSD: How did you enjoy yourself at Sundance?

AE: (Laughing) You don’t enjoy yourself at Sundance. It would have been more enjoyable has we gone as short-filmmakers or as people just going to see films – or even as filmmakers whose film wasn’t opening night. It was so much hype, so much expectation!

My job as director was to tell people, “It’s just a film. It has flaws.” And because it was cold outside [the theatre] everyone was packed inside. Everyone had had way too many coffees, and people were worrying about who would buy the film… The whole experience was just so intense!

The part I did enjoy about Sundance was the question-and-answer sessions after the screenings. Because I knew then that, even though we didn’t make all the reviewers and all the critics happy, we’d made the most important people happy – the audience. We knew that at least in America, or at least in Mormon country, we’d got a positive response.

MC: It was absolutely extraordinary! To think that we’re Australians, and that in its 25th year… Sundance is the touchstone festival for independent filmmakers around the world.

As a short film and documentary filmmaker, you’re always struggling to get noticed. But here, coming out of your party on the opening night and already finding a review that someone has posted at 2 a.m. is just like, “Whoa, we’re in a different world now.” I think we didn’t get nervous because it all felt so surreal.

“I think it’s your job as a director to be engaging and to really push the boundaries. My aim with Mary and Max was to create a lead character that you would never have seen anywhere else.”

TSD: This is a melancholic story about loneliness and acceptance with human simplicity and humour in your dialogues. How do you get that down on paper?

AE: In all my films, I try to get the balance between humour and pathos, and to get the right rhythm of storytelling – you know, having a bleak moment and then a comic moment without the audience getting distracted. And it’s really just an intuitive thing – writing, rewriting, reviewing and getting feedback.

The example I always use is my short film, Cousin. There’s a static shot where Cousin is standing in a picture frame with his mum and dad, and we hear that his parents have been killed in a car accident. At the same time, Cousin is wearing a t-shirt that says, “I Yodel for Jesus”. Audiences never know what to do with that moment, because they see the t-shirt and want to laugh, but they’re also hearing that information. You know, it’s like they’ve been belted over the head twice. But it keeps them awake, engaged, and it challenges them.

I think it’s your job as a director to be engaging and to really push the boundaries. My aim with Mary and Max was to create a lead character that you would never have seen anywhere else. Parts of him you’ve seen in other characters, but not as a whole. The same goes for Cousin, although Asperger’s is in a lot of films now and autism is in a lot of documentaries. It’s out there, and that‘s great because it means that people are being educated about the phenomenon.

MC: Adam’s storytelling style is the voice of an innocent in a complicated world. It’s not naïve. It’s like when you see a kid on a bus that suddenly screams to his mum, “Mum, mum! Why’s that man only got one leg?” The kid doesn’t know that’s rude. He’s just saying it because it’s true.

I first met Adam when I saw Cousin. After the film I went up to him said, “That’s the best film I’ve ever seen about a disability.” It was only a four minute animation, but it was just so honest. It wasn’t politically correct in that mean spirited way. It was like, that’s right, he does have a funny arm that moves up and down. People with cerebral palsy just have that sort of thing, and to not say those things is also incorrect.

TSD: I also noticed you’ve really exuded that irreverent Australian humour in the film…

AE: Yeah, the self-deprecating thing – which is something I think Americans struggled with in the film. What did they say? “Too many scatological references.” And they’re right, there are too many poo-gags. They’re for the kids… [laughs] No, but it is being irreverent and trying, again, to push the boundaries. My dad was an acrobatic clown, and he always said, “Don’t get carried away with being too serious in your films. There’s nothing wrong with being an entertainer.”

MC: The thing about America is that they don’t have the history of Wallace and Gromit, so they associate claymation with a pre-school, Bob-the-Builder kind of thing. So, for them to see Asperger’s syndrome, and references to prostitutes and homeless people and drugs and alcohol and attempted suicide, and homosexuality [in the film] – all the phobias… Well, it actually reminds me of a comment we got when we took Harvie Krumpet to L.A.

“The animation community is very open – we share our secrets – and these cameras had only just come out, so we were the guinea-pigs, basically.”

At one of the studios’ Q&A sessions, a woman put up her hand and asked, “Who let you make that [film]??” I loved that comment! It was just so American. I mean, she clearly loved the film but she must have been thinking, “I love this, but how on earth did it happen?” The heart towards independent filmmaking is different in every country, but independent films do not have any government subsidy (in the U.S.), and the idea that you can make a film purely for cultural reasons and get government support for it is something they think we’re really fortunate to have.

I tried to explain to them how difficult it is – that it’s really competitive and only 25 films get made a year [in Australia], and so on – and they sort of understand that, but the idea that we could put every phobia that Adam wanted in the script without someone telling us, “Oh, you can’t say that!” is still something they’d say we’re very fortunate.

TSD: I hear you got Aardman’s attention, and they came to visit you on set?

AE: Yeah, they sent a technician over because they’re about to go fully digital. They’re not going to use their film cameras anymore – so we’re told, and they just wanted to look at our system because there weren’t any other feature films being done in the same way. Our post-producer, Henry Karjalainen set up the system himself so that we got very high production values at a fraction of the cost. And they were fascinated as to how we did this! We were using local software from people down in Melbourne. Because most of the money was state-government money [Victoria], we were under a mandate to do things as locally as possible. The animation community is very open – we share our secrets – and these cameras had only just come out, so we were the guinea-pigs, basically. They wanted to see whether we’d died [filming] or not.

TSD: How do you feel that the process has changed since creating your first film, Uncle, and now that you’re doing it digitally?

AE: I don’t’ animate anymore, but our animators on Mary and Max said they found it liberating. They could see everything in high definition; they didn’t have to wait for their rushes to come back from the lab – they could see it within minutes of it being finished. So, suddenly they could do things that they never were able to do before. And that’s great for the whole worldwide animation community.

When I think of my first film, Uncle, which was shot on a little 16mm Bolex camera, it was a very different process. And it’s evolved for the better. When I left film school – I was at the VCA – I was told I was pursuing a “dying art form”.

TSD: But you were pushed to do Uncle as a claymation, right?

AE: Yeah, Uncle was accidental. I was going to do the film as a 2D animation, and there were seven other animators doing 2D films. There was a spare studio and a spare camera, and they said to me, “We think your film would look better as clay.” So I said, “Alright,” and off I went. My dad had a hardware shop at the time, so I got all the cheap wood and nails and glue… not thinking that this is what I would do! I thought I’d do kids TV or kids animation – something where I’d get paid well.

TSD: But you’re happy doing this?

AE: Yeah, some of my friends are 2D animators and I say to them, “How can you sit in front of that screen all day??” I love to get my hands dirty – I love cooking and I love gardening. If I don’t have stuff under my fingernails, I don’t feel alive.

“So I went out and bought a bottle of red wine, then I said to Adam, “Now, we never have to make it – it’s just for these meetings tomorrow, but by the time we finish this bottle of red, we’ve got to have a story.” That night I prodded away at him, until he started, “Well, I’ve got this pen-friend…” And I said, “Gold! Let’s go.”

TSD: Adam, you mentioned earlier that you left the animation to six animators [for Mary and Max]– were you very hands on during the shoot?

AE: No, but I did a lot of approving. I was always the first to arrive at the studio and the last to leave, and I did seven-day weeks for a year and a half, which was exhausting. But I’m a control freak and I have to have absolute control over everything, from a knife and a fork to a giant set. I even did all the character designs. I mean, in hindsight I could have let go of some of that. But because it was my first feature, I didn’t want it to look that different to Harvey Krumpet. I wanted people to look at Max and think, “That looks like an Adam Elliot drawing”. [Laughs] Someone worked out that it would take 225 years for me to make Mary and Max all by myself.

TSD: And how have you seen yourself evolve as a filmmaker, from your first film to your first feature now?

AE: I think it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to look back at my scripts and see why I’ve done them the way I have, and how they’ve become what they are. I think really good writers are angry writers. And I don’t like injustice. In the school playground I was always the one befriending the bullied kids – the kids that had autism or that were racially ridiculed, that didn’t have many friends. I wanted to learn more about them, and I wanted to defend them. So I think what I’m trying to do now with my films is to fight on their behalf – and entertain at the same time – without being preachy or too dogmatic. And I think audiences appreciate it.

MC: To me, all of Adam’s work is about accepting difference. The important thing his work says is that being open to difference is hard, but it’s ultimately totally rewarding. It’s what makes life worth living. And everyone, no matter how revoltingly different we all are or feel, craves love and acceptance.

Also, so often in life now, you’re being told to privilege either financial success or a romantic relationship. What about friendship? When your lover leaves you, who do you call? This film is really about the power of friendship in our lives and how important it is for us all.

TSD: Melanie, how did you get Adam to sit down after Harvie Krumpet winning that Oscar and write a feature? Because I know after Harvie, Adam was hoping to make a television series…

MC: Well, the studios actually said no to that idea. The way things work in the US is that they plan everything for you, you can’t do much yourself. After Harvie, our US agents said to us, “We’ve got all these studios lined up for you to meet. What are you going to pitch?” We said that we were thinking of a 13×5 minute series. To which they said “No, no, no! You’ve got to have a feature idea. Just come up with one just to meet these people.”

So I went out and bought a bottle of red wine, then I said to Adam, “Now, we never have to make it – it’s just for these meetings tomorrow, but by the time we finish this bottle of red, we’ve got to have a story.” That night I prodded away at him, until he started, “Well, I’ve got this pen-friend…” And I said, “Gold! Let’s go.” So we based it on his real relationship, except we made Adam – Mary, an eight-year-old girl to add a fictional element to it.

TSD: Well that was easy, I thought it would be hard because you said Harvie took you all over the world and you got so many different offers…

MC: Well, it was only because I literally told Adam, “I promise you we never have to make it.”

The studios didn’t really want us to make the film at first. What they would really like Adam to do is a children’s film. Which wouldn’t really be an Adam film, it would be a kiddie claymation. And that’s not why we’re filmmakers. We’ll probably never be super-rich, but we’re filmmakers because we genuinely believe in the passioned project of being Australian storytellers, and in the project of an Australian cultural life.

TSD: What do you do in your free time? I know you are passionate about meeting children or people who have disabilities. Do you get involved in these communities?

AE: After the Oscar win, many charities asked me to become associated with them, but I quickly learned that it’s best to focus on just one charity. I was approached by the Disabled Film Festival – I don’t use the word “disabled” a lot but that’s what they choose to call themselves – and I became their patron. I raise awareness about their festivals and their films, and I also get to meet some amazing filmmakers.

I don’t have a lot of spare time – but I enjoy cooking, and I’d love to spend some time drawing again. You just become a slave to your film. Mary and Max has been like we’ve just given birth and I’ve got a bit of post-natal depression. I’m about to go on my first two-week holiday in three years, but after that we’ve got Berlin and all this other publicity events. You’ve got to sell the film, of course, and it’s a tough film to sell. Melanie often says that with this type of subject matter is not easy, but it is ultimately rewarding if you stick with it.

MARY & MAX opens in Australia on 9 April.

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