A short while ago I has to opportunity to speak with Adam Elliot the writer/director (and if he had his way the entire crew) of the stunningly and inspiring clayography, Mary and Max. After watching the film Elliot became one of my new hero’s. I had received a DVD titled Max and Mary, which I heard had done well at Sundance, but was not expecting anything much of it. Well serves me right. This is one of, if not the best film of the year. From the minuet details of the characters and the voices, to the unique script and the tone, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. Sadly, it’s just not the type of film that you can find anywhere, but towards the bottom of the interview are details on how you can find and enjoy the film, and you must see it.
I could go on and on about how I feel about the film but I’ll shut up and let him to the talking…
Just so you know, this is one of my favorite films I’ve seen this year. I just saw it the other night. They sent me over a DVD and I popped it in and I wasn’t expecting much, and I absolutely fall in love with it.
Adam: Thank you. What’s part of that problem is how do you describe it, you know? Is it a plasticine film, you have think when you describe it that way, it sounds as though you’re advertising is for the kids, but luckily because it’s done well at film festivals, really that’s what’s helping promote the most. I mean, we won the big prize at the animation festival in France which we shared with Coraline, and then we won the grand prize in Stuttgart, Germany where we beat Coraline cause Coraline of course is the film they keep comparing it to.
One of the things that will grab you about this film is the heart that’s in it. You can tell that it was something that was made with love and that every single second of it was thought through. More often than not, Hollywood is all about time and money. According to Adam, that’s one of the reasons he’s able to make such films, he’s not in it for the money and refuses to move to the US, although some major awards along the way have helped him along…
Adam: Oh awards. You know after the Oscar for my last film, awards are nice but they don’t bring me any happiness to be honest. They best thing about any award is if it allows you to keep making films then it’s done it’s job. We call the Oscar the Golden Probar, because it really allowed us to get creative. I can’t really do anything else, I can write and direct these strange little plasticine films. You know, I keep getting offers to work here in Hollywood and I keep turning them down because I think it will cut down the creative control and creative freedom. Of course I get paid a lot less, but I get to make the films the way I want them, completely. And I get approval of final card and I don’t have to collaborate with writers… you know, I’m a control freak, let’s put it that way.
Does not moving to Hollywood allow you the freedom to do what you want? It seems as if you’re able to deal with a lot of dark subject matter that many mainstream films wouldn’t allow you to have….
Adam: Oh absolutely, and that’s the exact right way to balance it. The reason my films are dark is because life is dark, my films are a reflection of life and if you don’t have the dark, the light has nothing to compare itself to, the light has no meaning. If it was all light, then the film would just be a gag film. My film is just mirroring my own experiences in life and we’ve all had our good days and we’ve all had our bad days and why can’t animation be like that. You know you’re right, a lot of people say to me “who let you make that film,” and my answer is I’m just real lucky in Australia that our funding is all from the government, of course that wouldn’t happen here but yeah I get a lot of creative freedom I suppose. Getting a balance between the humor and the painful, the comedy and the tragedy, and somehow just trying to weave it all together, it’s not too much dark, it’s not too much light, it’s a blend you know.
How much of you do you put into your films? If you look at any human being, they’re going to be flawed in ten million different ways, and you seem to try to bring as many of traits to the screen as possible. You yourself have had a pen-friend that you’ve been friends with for a long time, how much of this film is true? How did you properly represent all of his traits.
Adam: Oh yes, my pen-friend, he lives in New York and we still write to each other. He’s really the inspiration for the film. To me I would say my films are like paintings, they’re really personal expressions of myself and I have trouble even watching my films, I get very emotional. It’s a real mix of factual events and details but also there’s plenty of embellishments and characters that are completely fictitious. I think Mary is probably myself, and when I write, I write very intuitively, I think she really is a symbol of myself. I was a very shy child, a lonely childhood, I think her birthmark may be a symbol of my own personal melancholy, which I still enjoy form time to time. Yeah, distantly they are very personal films on one level, but I also try to make them as funny as possible on another level.
Normally with films you’re waiting to get to the next moment, but with your film, you managed to neatly put so much into such a short amount of space. How was it dealing with your first full length?
Adam: I would that say my films are like a lasagna, they have many layers, and many ingredients, and some parts of the film people respond to and others don’t, you know they’re really dense, complex works. For me describing them is a bit like having therapy, I find interviews are very like psychoanalysis. I’ve learned a lot about myself since January, when the film was released, just by doing hundreds of interviews, I’m finally discovering why I make these films. And recently too, I think I’ve started to become an angry writer, when I sit down to write these films and I’m angry, it doesn’t quite work, and fighting for the rights of my characters. I don’t like the injustice that so many people like my characters experience so yeah, on another level there’s and anger in there too.
Do you think that part of the darker humor, such as having an alcoholic that’s always wobbly, something that relates better to audiences overseas than to American audiences?
Adam: Yes, I think in a way my films have a European sensibility, especially European animation is very dark, Australians like the sweet sort of humor, they do love, Australia is a very rough and ready place, it can be quite brittle and be quite beautiful at the same time. There’s an Australian aggressiveness. The film is a real mix of all these different elements, there’s a lot of irony I suppose in my films, there’s self-deprication, there’s a lot of… then again I try to cram as much as I can into my films, but it all comes out in a wash.
How did you come up with the dark, almost drab colors highlighted with bright rich reds? What was behind the decision?
Adam: When we decided on the color palette, the two worlds, you know, Mary’s world is brown, Max’s world is grey, we thought well, how often can we use color as a device, I didn’t want the film to be just these two dreary color palettes. I thought there must be another way to use color to help accentuate the objects that they send to each other. The pompom was the first one, we made the pompom bright red to really stand out and draw attention to how important Max sees this little gift Mary sends him and then we started using this rule, so if Mary sends something to Max it stays in it’s original color, it doesn’t turn to grey and vice versa when Max sends something to Mary, it remains grey in her brown world.
I think it’s a bit of a pretentious, artistic surprise. You know, when audiences see that moment when Max puts the red pump on top of his yamaka, you can hear the delight you know, in the audience and that’s the main reason. We wanted to make the film different and unique, and so much animation of course is vibrant and very colorful and again i said to myself, well why can’t animation be brown, and animation be dreary. And of course there’s a lot of black in the film too. We really tried to make the film as cinematic as possible and treated the film as if it was a live action film.
It seems like your more of an artist necessarily and then you use film. Why film? What is it about that, that you love or enjoy, what’s rewarding that you find out of the film making process?
Adam: Well, I’m glad you said that cause you know, I never had an urge to do live action films, stop-motion is what I do and no one ever says to a live action director well when are you going to move into stop-motion, you know? It’s just what I prefer, and it’s just a combination of all the things I love. I love telling stories, I love cinematography, I love photography, I love making things with my hands, drawing, and really, you’re right, I’m more of an artist than I am a director/writer. I feel that my films are more of my paintings than they are cinema, although you can see the similarities. My inspirations really come more from other art forms, not cinema, more inspired by book, books on photography. The work of Diane Arbus. So, I’m a misfit within the animation community because you know I watch those films like Shrek and Nemo, but I’m not infatuated with them. I’ve just finished reading “The Grapes of Wrath” because I wanted to learn more about California. I have many reading influences I’d say and most of them are not animated influences.
And how did you go about choosing the voices for your characters because you got some HUGE names involved and not necessarily for big parts. And Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t sound like himself!
Adam: Again, when it comes to voices, I’m a control freak and I have a very particular idea of who I want very early. Philip Seymour Hoffman, was the first voice that really popped into my ear and I think I has just re-watched the film Happiness again, there was something about his character, I can’t even articulate what it was but there was something that just felt right and of course the next thought I had was well there’s no way we’re going to be able to get Phillip Seymour Hoffman, we won’t be able to afford him, he’s a very serious actor and once we got the script to him — which took about a year — but once he read the script he said yes immediately and I think it’s cause he related to the character and he really was moved by the story and he hadn’t seen any animation do anything bizarre, any character do anything bizarre and he said it’s really cause of the script. And Toni Collette, even she of course was in Muriel’s Wedding and she just seemed to again be the logical choice, not that they necessarily have to be big names but of course it helps having them be right, Phillip Seymour Hoffman really helped promote the film. But then for some of the minor characters I couldn’t find the actors I wanted and so I ended up doing the voices.
The control issue came into play again?
Adam: Yeah, sometimes it’s easier, you;re trying to direct an actor and you think “it’s just easier if I do it myself” and that happened quite a few times.
Has it been difficult getting the film released at all?
Adam: Oh no, it’s a tricky film no doubt about that. It’s an unusual film, it’s a hard film to describe, it’s a hard film to sell. The one thing to say is that I wasn’t expecting it to be getting great reviews. It was already out in Australia, that was back in April, and we did very well there because of the high grown nature of it. And I think out of 30 Australian films there, we were the number three film, so it was good for us. I’m excited for the moment, we’ve flown to Russia, Greece, Switzerland, so yeah a good mix of countries, and here of course the IFC, a really only theatrical one I see is distributing it on Video On Demand.
And seeing that I’m his biggest fan, here is how you can find the film below….
Cable systems that will carry MARY AND MAX include:
- BRIGHT HOUSE: Movies on Demand > IFC In Theaters
- CABLEVISION: Movies On Demand > Independent Films > Sundance Selects
- COMCAST: Channel 1>Movies & Events > Same Day as Theaters > Sundance Selects
- COX: Channel 1 > Movies On Demand > Sundance Selects
- TIME WARNER: Movies On Demand> IFC In Theaters
And as a little sneak peek check out the trailer…
And now his Academy Award Winning Short Harvie Krumpet: