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Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max”: Flaws, Limitations, and Possibilities

Adam Elliot, "Mary and Max": Flaws, Limitations, and Possibilities

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

“Mary and Max” will kick off the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. A claymation animation by Academy award-winning filmmaker Adam Elliot (“Harvie Krumpet”), it tells the simple story of a 20-year pen-pal friendship between two very different people: Mary Dinkle, a chubby, lonely 8-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, and Max Horowitz, a 44-year-old Jewish man, who is severely obese, suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, and lives an isolated life in New York City.

Mary and Max
Director/Screenwriter: Adam Elliot
Producer: Melanie Coombs
Cinematographer: Gerald Thompson
Editor: Bill Murphy
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
Australia, 2008, 92 min., color & b/w

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Adam Elliot and I have just finished making a stopmotion “clayography” (clay biography), that has taken my team and I five years to create; from “script to screen.” It has been all-consuming, but what feature film isn’t? It is my sixth animated film and my first feature. The experience has definitely been bitter sweet and I tell people making a stopmotion feature is like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time! I suppose that’s why there aren’t many around. Despite the blood, sweat and tears, we are very proud of “Mary and Max” and hope audiences engage, be entertained, be moved and hopefully learn and leave the cinema nourished in some way. People keep telling us the film is unique. I found this curious and odd for a while, but I now understand. We are plasticine, we deal with adult themes, we are Australian, we are independent and our characters are strange.

I never really wanted to be a claymator, filmmmaker or even a writer; it was all an accident. I wanted to be a veterinarian but my marks at high school weren’t good enough. I was, however, always good at drawing and I enjoyed making things out of old shoeboxes, egg cartons and pipe cleaners. I stumbled across the Victorian College of the Arts film school when I was in my mid twenties and thought I’d give it a go! I was planning for my first short “Uncle” to be a 2-D cel animation but my lecturers convinced me it would be more visually engaging as a claymation. They were right and I have never looked back and love the tactile and tangible nature of stopmotion animation.

I avoid the word handicapped or disabled. All my characters have “flaws,” and I believe everyone has a flaw of some description and degree. So many of us hide our flaws. My aim is to highlight and celebrate people’s imperfections and to emphasize that no one is pure or perfect. I base my characters on the people around me and have befriended so many people who get labelled “different.” I feel their stories need to be told; people need to learn about these people, have their lives shared and understood. “Max” is based on my real penfriend whom I have been writing to for over 20 years and I let his world inspire me. He shares many of the traits of Max, but there are plenty of embellishments and exaggerations. As the saying goes: “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

I myself have a “flaw”; a physiological tremor that causes my hands to shake. I never used to really talk about it, but people often notice and ask me about it; they often think I am nervous. Sometimes it can be a real problem and I have trouble drawing or writing. I have incorporated it into my “wonky” style of drawing and it has become my aesthetic. I believe there are many positive aspects to a supposed flaw or physical limitation.

We were very lucky with our actors and got everyone on our wish list, (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries). They all said yes ‘after’ reading the script and were motivated to join our team because of the story and not the money we were offering them. Our entire budget, (8 million AUS), was what some of them usually got paid for appearing in a film, so again, we were very honoured that they wanted to work with first time feature low budget and independent filmmakers.

“Mary and Max” director Adam Elliot. Image provided by Sundance Film Festival

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

My films are clay biographies or “clayographies” as I like to call them. They explore themes of loneliness and difference. I always start with the details and work backwards until a plot hopefully appears. I do not obsess with plot and structure but do hope they appear naturally and intuitively in the end. I believe in writing from the heart and not from guidelines in scriptwriting manuals. My job as a writer director is obviously to come up with a good story and then tell it well. I try and load my films with immense detail and strive to be original, fresh and unique. Of course this is insanely difficult and every script I have written has been through bucket loads of blood sweat and tears. At the end of “Mary and Max” I felt like I had a salt deficiency from the amount of crying I did. I am not really inspired directly by other filmmakers but do love the life and work of the portrait photographer, Diane Arbus, (there is even a plasticine character of her in the background of one of the scenes in “Mary and Max”).

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Securing the finance to “Mary and Max” was incredibly difficult. My producer, Melanie Coombs, is so passionate and never takes no for an answer. Her tenacity and persistence won through in the end and she secured a budget of over eight million dollars for a claymated film that we still aren’t sure even what genre it is. It is definitely not a “Wallace and Gromit” or a “Nemo.” Maybe someone can tell us?

How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

With all my films I hope the audiences will, of course, be entertained. Like any writer and director, I hope they will engage with my story, laugh at the funny bits and cry at the sad bits. Overall, however, I hope they leave the cinema feeling nourished and that they have not wasted their money! I feel it is an honour as a filmmaker that a complete stranger will be prepared to give up and hour and a half of their lives to spend time with your story.

What are your future projects?

I have a very small kernel of an idea, but it is a secret that I haven’t even uttered out loud to myself!

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