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?