Australian clay animation director, Adam Elliot, who has had a series of successful shorts capped by his Oscar-winner, Harvie Krumpet, has just completed his his first feature, Mary and Max. It is about the long-distance relationship of a lonely Australian girl and an obese, autistic middle-aged, New York City shut-in. Mary and Max opened the 25th Anniversary Sundance Film Festival last night, the first animated film ever to be so honored. Recently, animator and director Tom Sito had a chance to talk to Elliot.
Tom Sito: What was the inspiration for such a unique story? I read that Max is based upon a real-life friend?
Adam Elliot: Yes, Max is a pen-friend in New York I've been exchanging letters with for 20 years. After Harvie Krumpet, I thought, "What do I do now?" I wrote about my cousin, my brother, my uncle. Then, I noticed a big box on the floor piled up with all of my friend's correspondence. I began going through them. I had forgotten how interesting he and his story were. Five years later, we have a movie.
TS: Your characters have had asthma, cerebral palsy, Asperger's syndrome, autism -- what the [BLEEP] is wrong with you?
AE: [Laughs] I get asked that question a lot. Maybe one day I'll write something more mainstream about fish or something. In Australia, I'm seen as the Patron Saint of Disabled Film. The way I see it is everyone has some kind of flaw; it's just how you perceive your flaw. My friend with autism doesn't see it as a flaw. To him, being autistic is as much a part of who he is as the color of his eyes. I guess I like to defend the people society tends to marginalize, the people who are different. I gravitate towards their interesting stories.
TS: You have famous actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Eric Bana doing tracks for you. How is it to work with stars who may not have done animation before?
AE: I try to look for actors who have not done animation yet. That's getting kinda hard. When I thought of Max, I thought of some big, urban, New Yorker type. I had just seen the film Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it. The more I thought of him, he just ticked all the boxes. Toni Collette and Eric Bana were a plus being that they are Australians. They could just drive over themselves, with no entourage, and do their tracks. For all of them it wasn't the money, they really dug the script. They found it wasn't the usual animated fodder.
TS: Could you work in person or did they do it long distance? Could you record them together or all recorded separately?
AE: We recorded them all separately. Like I said, Toni, Eric and Barry [Humphries] were in the neighborhood. To do Philip, we recorded him in a sound studio hook-up first in New York and then in London. At first I was thinking, "Aw God, this will never work. It's not the same like being there in person directing them." But the sound hook-up quality was so clear, and we had a visual Skype going so we could see each other. So it was just like being in the other room.
TS: You come from making short clay animation films. How is the move to feature films different?
AE: It was like starting all over again. Learning to collaborate with a large crew. Nick Park said it was having to be creative with a gun to your head. I say it's like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time! [Laughs]. Originally, I sorta missed being alone, working with the clay, but it was good working with a bigger team, each bringing his or her own special craftsmanship.
TS: You mentioned that clay animation is a very personal way of making animation. How did you, as a director, make sure everyone's personal way of timing the characters matched?
AE: Absolutely, that was one of my biggest fears. I didn't want Max to have multiple personalities. We had very little prep time, so I had to put together workshops and style bibles. I had a phrase we used over and over: "Chunky-Wonky." No straight lines; keep it off and at odds.