Letter Perfect

Adam Elliot, the Oscar-winning director of Mary and Max talks about the joys and heartaches of making his first feature length stop-motion movie.

Australian animator Adam Elliot has been in the spotlight since January of this year thanks to the international splash his latest stop-motion movie Mary and Max made at the Sundance Festival. Quite unusual and poignant, this 92-minute claymated feature tells the story of a pen-pal friendship between a chubby eight-year-old girl (voiced by Toni Collette) who lives in the suburbs of Melbourne and a middle-aged New Yorker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. We had the chance to catch up with the Oscar-winning director during his recent visit to Los Angeles, in conjunction with the movie’s Award-qualifying run in the city:

Animation Magazine: It’s been quite a year for you. In January, your film was selected to open the Sundance Film Festival. Then, you win all kinds of prizes at festivals around the world, and now, Mary and Max will be getting more attention as the Oscar season run begins. What’s it like to be in your shoes these days?

Adam Elliot: It really feels like d’j’ vu again, because when my short Harvie Krumpet won the Oscar about five years ago, I came to Los Angeles and met with people at the major studios. But the truth is I don’t really like to direct other people’s work. I only like writing and directing my own stuff, so that’s why I may be a poor, independent filmmaker for the rest of my life. Seriously, all the money in the world can’t buy you creative control!

Have you been surprised by the emotional response people seem to have to Mary and Max?

Elliot: Mary and Max is a tough film to sell’we knew it from day one. It’s not a nice commercial movie, like Shrek or Nemo … It’s claymated, but it’s not Wallace and Gromit. I do have an idea for another film, but I can’t really sink my teeth into it, because Mary and Max keeps getting in the way. The film is a bit like a child that never leaves home. In terms of both script and overall aesthetic, we tried to make it an advancement over our short, Harvie Krumpet. We made it for 8 million Australian dollars, which is about 7 million U.S. dollars. Some people come to me and say, ‘Oh, your films are so dark!’ and I tell them, ‘Life is dark’and without the dark, the light has no meaning!’

So tell us what happened after you became the toast of the town with Harvie Krumpet? Did the Oscar help you secure financing for this movie?

Elliot: We got a lot of meetings in Hollywood as the result of the Oscar, but they were really more interested in us working for them. We quickly realized that what we really wanted to do was to tell Australian stories, so we went back home. It took me a year to write the script for Mary and Max, and four more years to get it animated. We had a total of six animators’and an overall staff of 120 people working on it. I had a cinematographer, a sound team and a grew crew. The shoot alone was about 57 weeks long’we made about five seconds of the film each day. Our studio’which was this giant shed’was in Melbourne. We had air conditioning and heating, and even catered meals, which we didn’t have before. That’s the kind of difference winning an Oscar makes!

What are some of the advantages of working on a feature as opposed to a short?

Elliot: There are pros and cons involved: I had to learn how to collaborate and actually direct. I had to get everyone to understand what I was thinking about ‘ and create this strange style of animation, which is minimal and static. I actually had to come up with a style bible for the movie. There were times when we were flying by the seat of our pants’which is a good thing because there was room for spontaneity. I think that’s why Mary and Max has a personal flavor. People seem to be very affected by it. Audiences seem to forget that they are watching an animated film after a few minutes. Although we are watching plasticine characters, I wanted the movie to feel very real.

The disadvantages of working on a film after you win an Oscar? Well, there’s more pressure on you. Everyone expects that whatever you write is going to be wonderful’and it’s not!

We’ve heard that the movie was inspired by your own similar pen-pal friendship. Can you tell us more about that?

Elliot: Well, all my films are based on real people. After finishing Harvie, which was about my family history, I was trying to figure out what to write about. Winning the Oscar opened new opportunities and I decided to do a feature project, so I looked at my family members, and I really didn’t have any new stories to tell there. I had already done that. Then I remembered this big box of letters from my pen-friend and started to re-read these letters, and I was struck by how fascinating these letters were. My pen pal was also a Jewish New Yorker with Asperger’s Syndrome, and he was the inspiration for Max’and I suppose I’m Mary, in a way. Looking back at my films, I think this is the one with the most truth in it. Yes, there was plenty of stuff that I made up and embellished, but really, this animated film is more like a documentary than fiction. I have actually never met my pen-friend, but he has seen the film and likes it. Philip [Seymour Hoffman] wants to take us both to lunch when I go back to New York City. The film’s voice cast–Philip, Toni [Collette] and Eric Bana, as well as Barry Humphries have been incredibly supportive of the film. They all did it because they wanted to be part of something that was different’not just another version of Shrek!

Why do you think this particular story was well served by stop-motion animation?

Elliot: Some people have asked me whether I could have done this in live action, but I really don’t think so. The advantage of animation is that we can use facial exaggeration to emphasize mood and emotion. Max would never work in live action. There’s a degree of control in animation that you don’t get in live-action films. You can really play God. You don’t have to worry about the weather or actors throwing tantrums. I got to work with a wonderful team of animators’three worked on Max and three on Mary. We had a crew that did it for the love of it, not for the money. We didn’t have the budget to do two takes’we simply had to get it right the first time!

Who were some of the artists/animators that inspired you earlier on in life?

Elliot: Like everyone else, I watched a lot of those Saturday morning cartoons, a lot of Hanna-Barbera shows when I was growing up. But I was more influenced by the darker stuff. I think the discovery of Jan Svankmajer was the most important aspect of my career. However, I’m more interested in other art forms. I love Diane Arbus’ photographs’they are quite minimal and there’s lot of space around the subjects, and they look right at you. Of course, Aardman Animations really brought back stop-motion to the mainstream. I do have copies of all the Wallace and Gromit films, but I didn’t become an animator because of them. I also enjoy reading a lot. I’m reading all the classics’Frankenstein, The Grapes of Wrath‘I plan to read Moby Dick one of these days! I’m fascinated by the term ‘classic’ and what really make a classic. Roddy Doyle is a contemporary writer that I admire a lot as well. I love the mix of comedy and tragedy in his novels.

What’s your take on the global animation scene?

Elliot: On one hand, it’s wonderful to see how the art form has evolved in recent years. For a while there, animated films were becoming very formulaic, but then we had films like Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir that really shook things up. When a form becomes stagnant, it dies.

I think it’s fantastic that Disney is doing some 2D films. Of course, as long as the story is good, it doesn’t matter whether your film is 2D, CG or stop-motion. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think world animation is in good shape. We can be grateful for people like John Lasseter who have revitalized the art form. I don’t know about the whole Award season phenomenon. It is definitely tough for us to compete with films like Ponyo and Up, but we see ourselves as the underdog!

What are some of the most important qualities you need to have to succeed in the animation business?

Elliot: I think you have to be a bit na’ve. You have to believe in yourself, be passionate and a workaholic. You have to be built a certain way’to love the medium and not go for the money. If you have a story to tell, you have no choice. I have no choice but to do it. I still love it despite the days when things go wrong and the general lack of money! I love nothing better than to sit with an audience to show them what I’ve spent the last five years of my life making. Then, to see them pull out their tissues and have a good cry’If I can make the audience cry about real things that matter to them, then I’ve done my job.

Mary and Max is available on the Sundance Selects on-demand platform this month. To find out more about the movie, visit maryandmax.com.