Interview with Adam Elliot, writer/director/designer of Mary and Max
Adam Elliot’s animated short films Uncle, Cousin, Brother and Harvie Krumpet have participated in over five hundred film festivals and garnered countless accolades. In 2004 his name shot to international recognition when Harvey Krumpet won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Elliot’s follow-up project is his full length feature debut Mary and Max, a painstakingly crafted picture that this year became the first Australian film selected to open America’s prestigious Sundance Film Festival. In the lead-up to the film’s Oz release (Mary and Max opened in Australia this week) Elliot sat down for a yak with Cinetology.
With all these publicists buzzing around and all these photographers taking pictures, it’s very clear that you’re the man of the hour. Most of the animators and designers I’ve met, however, say they prefer to stay behind the lens and away from the spotlight. Is this true for you?
I think so. My brother is an actor and he always wants to be in front of the camera. I’m always happy to be behind the camera and I think it’s in our nature. I’ve always been a bit shy but since the Oscar I‘ve had to learn how to be interviewed and I now do corporate speaking. Every week I get up in front of thousands of people and talk, so I don’t really have a choice.
Around the time of your Oscar success with Harvey Krumpet your name must have spread very quickly through Hollywood. You mentioned you’re a shy person, so what’s your relationship like with ‘the scene’ over there? Do you ever go to the parties and mingle with the celebrities?
I get two tickets to the Oscars every year but I haven’t been back to be honest. We keep our distance. After Harvey Krumpet we were getting offers there but they were all about directing other people’s work and other people’s scripts. I’m such a control freak I thought no – I really just want to make another one of my films and I’d really like to do it back in St Kilda in Melbourne. I’d really like to employ my friends. It took awhile for me to realise all that. It’s all about creative control. Over there, yes, I’d get paid more money and all the rest but I would relinquish a lot of control.
I read on the internet – so I assume it just has to be true – that after Harvey Krumpet you were offered a deal from Pixar for a sequel to Monsters Inc or Finding Nemo.
That one is probably not true, no. What we were offered was a first look at a deal with Elton John’s company, Rocket Man Pictures, and it was a concept for a CGI feature animation called Gnomio and Juliette, which was about garden gnomes that fall in love. Well, we didn’t even read the script. We thought it sounded like we would be going down the wrong path. It was computer animation anyway and I have no knowledge of computer animation. It is as foreign to me as, I don’t know, tap dancing, but the offer was lucrative (and) the money would have been great. We went to Pixar and Dreamworks and we pitched different ideas but they just looked at us blankly and thought ‘they’re too strange for us.’ My ideas are really…not Hollywood. They’re much more European, I suppose. More sophisticated. But then it was great to get into Sundance and go back there and sort of say ‘well you should have invested in us, because we went and made it anyway and now we’re opening night at your festival.’
I have a cupboard full of AFI awards and trophies and things and I look at them and I think well that’s great, but why am I as poor as I was 12 years ago when I started all this? I don’t own my films and the investors get all their money before I do. What I really want for Mary and Max is plain and simple: I just want as many people as possible to see it. I couldn’t care less if I never win another award. I am more than happy not to win another Oscar – one is enough – but I would just love people to go and see it and that’s the toughest bit, getting people to pay $15 to see it. We’ll never have the success of Shrek or Nemo or those big blockbusters, but we’ll see what happens.
I was intrigued to read that Mary and Max was inspired by your own pen pal relationship. Can you tell me a little bit more about this relationship and what sort of impression it’s had on your life?
Well, my pen friend I have been writing to for over 20 years lives in New York. Like Max he is an atheist, he is Jewish and he has Asperger’s. There are a lot similarities but the film is not based on his life. I say it’s inspired by him. I never let the truth get in the way of a good story and there are plenty of embellishments. Mary of course is far more fictitious but I suppose I am Mary, because I was brought up in Mount Waverley and we created her world very like where I was brought up.
One of the things I appreciate about your scripts, and I think it’s a real strength of your writing, is the seemingly endless number of quirks and idiosyncrasies that you find in your characters. For example in Mary and Max, Max catches flies, eats chocolate hotdogs, hates Thursdays and so forth. You seem to have this unending pool – and this harks back to all of your films – of eccentricities and peculiarities. Where do you find these? Are you always on the lookout?
I was interviewed by Margaret Pomeranz the other day and she asked me the same question. She said where do you get all this stuff? I said I can’t help myself, I love quirks and I love quirky films. When I sit down and write a script I never deliberately try to get all this stuff in there. I write intuitively. I don’t read those scriptwriting books. I don’t obsess about plot and I don’t obsess about the three act structure. I just hope that by the third or fourth draft those basics are there somehow. I start off with the details and work backwards. I said to a journalist, remember Sizzlers restaurants and all you can eat? It’s like going in there and getting a plate and I just want to cram as much on my plate as possible and cram as much in the film as I can. Because at the end of the day I am making the film for myself. It’s all for very selfish reasons. I am making a film that I would like to go and see and I just hope the rest of the world does too.
I don’t deny that I make very manipulative films. I try to not make them predictable; I try to keep the audience engaged…I’m not saying what I do is anything new or groundbreaking, but I think because it is in plasticine we can get away with a lot more. We can say a lot more. You have to suspend your disbelief immediately. You know that up on the screen there are these blobs of plasticine and you have to give over to them and go with it, go with the story.
You have an unusual ability to smoothly move from something whimsical and funny to something very dark and complex. To the audience it can feel uneasy, but it seems so organically a part of your films.
It’s what I call a double whammy. The moment I first discovered this device was in my second film, Cousin. In one moment you see a family portrait of my cousin and his parents and he’s wearing a ‘I Yodel for Jesus’ t-shirt, right at the same time you’re hearing that his parents have been killed in a car accident. I love that moment and I don’t think I have been able to achieve that moment as perfectly as I did in that film. The audience just don’t know what to do. They don’t know whether to laugh. It’s definitely a trick to keep them engaged.
In Mary and Max you presented New York in black and white and Australia in more earthy shades, using lots of brown. What was the logic behind the different use of colour?
I really wanted to use colour as a device in this film a lot more than I had in my previous films. I quickly worked out that if there are these two worlds we should really separate them by colour and of course New York is a very concrete place, a gray world. Australia in the 70s to me was very brown…We wanted to make Australia dehydrated, like a nicotine stain – that was the colour palette we decided on. We used spot red as a device to make all those little objects that Mary and Max send each other more potent, more significant. A little bit like what Spielberg did in Schindler’s List with that little girl in the red dress. It might come across as a bit pretentious but I thought well, no one else is doing this in animation. Most animation is all colour and movement. Every colour of the rainbow, all vibrant, and again we wanted to do something a bit different. It really suits the characters’ moods as well.
From a filmmaking perspective, do you have a favourite scene in Mary and Max? For me the Que Sara Sara scene is stunning. Emotionally it’s a highly charged, almost haunting moment, therefore you do realise you’ve probably ruined the song for a lot of people?
(Laughing) In Harvey Krumpet everyone loved the ‘God is Better Than Football’ wheelchair musical number. I thought oh look, I’m a gay man, I might as well put in a musical number. I had heard that version of Que Sara in a cafe, my partner’s cafe, and I thought god – that’s not Doris Day singing that! I did some research, found out the name of the band and we bought the rights to it and then animated to it. I don’t know. I probably haven’t had enough distance from the film to really have a favourite moment. I definitely have a preference for Max over Mary. I think he is a far more successful character. There are times when I think Mary isn’t quite as empathetic as I’d hoped.
In regards to animation techniques, you’ve been plying your trade for some time now and I imagine you get better at it over the years in terms of technical proficiency. However, according to what I read you were working to make just a handful of seconds of completed footage per day. With time and experience, how much easier does the process actually get?
On Mary and Max I didn’t actually do any of the animation. I employed six animators to do it for us. We had a huge crew: a support crew, a DOP and a huge lighting department. Each animator roughly did five seconds per day. So about 25 seconds a day was done; about two and a half minutes a week. That’s why the shoot took 57 weeks. It was a huge logistic nightmare to make this film. They worked out if I had have animated it, it would have taken 225 years (laughing) so I didn’t have a choice. And, to be honest, I don’t enjoy actually animating. I much prefer to design all the characters and write the script and the actual moving of the puppet is something I find extremely tedious. I would be happy to never do it again.
Can you confirm any future projects you’re working on? What else is on the horizon?
What I’m doing next is finishing drawing a kids book that I have written and illustrated. I have been working on it for 15 years so I’m keen to get that published and get that out of the way. No one will let me make another film until this one has reached some level of success. It’s mostly taxpayers’ money, so they have to get their money back before they let me back in the studio!
Watch the trailer for Mary and Max
Watch Harvey Krumpet
Adam Elliot’s other short films – Cousin, Brother and Uncle – are available to watch on youtube.
Read Cinetology’s review of Mary and Max here.