Getting animated with Adam Elliot

Getting animated with Adam Elliot

By Toby Longhurst

Australian director Adam Elliot was thrust into the world's spotlight in 2003 when his 'clayography' Harvey Krumpet won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film triumphing over industry giants Disney, Pixar and Fox. But it was his gracious acceptance speech that had everyone talking. When Adam thanked his boyfriend he unknowingly made Academy Award history by becoming the first Academy Award winner to openly thank their same sex partner.

Since that time, Adam has been carefully and painstakingly working on a new project that continues his distinct style of portraying a character's life through the use of claymation.

Mary and Max tells the story of two very different people who live worlds apart but share the universal feelings of loneliness and isolation. Mary lives an awkward existence, growing up in 1970s suburban Melbourne and never quite feels as though she fits in. Max is a 300 pound atheistic Jewish New Yorker who is addicted to chocolate hotdogs and has Aspergers Syndrome.  When the pair become pen friends they offer a unique and hilarious insight into each other's lives and for the first time experience true friendship.

QNews recently caught up with Adam to discuss his new friends Mary and Max as well as what it is like to be an openly gay Academy Award winning director.

Hi Adam, may I start by congratulating you on an amazing movie. I saw Mary and Max last week and I have been thinking about it ever since.

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. A few people have told me that it is a lingerer and stays with them.

Mary and Max tells the story of two people who are worlds apart in terms of age, life experience, and location but begin an unlikely friendship when the pair become pen friends. I had read that like Mary, you yourself have had a penfriend in New York for twenty years. Is Max loosely based around your friend?

Yeah, he's a real person. I think if I hadn't of had that pen friend then it would have been hard to come up with a character like Max. To a lot of people Max is very real, even though he is a blob of plasticine, audiences are finding him very authentic and engaging.  I have had my pen friend for 20 years and he has Aspergers, he lives in New York, he is Jewish, he is also an atheist. Max was inspired by him, though his name's not Max.

Have you ever met him?

No, we've never met but we really hope that through the film we will get to New York. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who voices Max) lives down the road from him coincidently and has said that he wants to take the three of us out to lunch when we all finally meet. I haven't met Philip Seymour Hoffman either.  We had to record him via a very expensive digital connection from London while we were in Melbourne.

So Max was loosely based on your pen friend in New York - Was Mary based on anyone in particular?

(Laughs) I think Mary is me. Mary is far more fictitious I suppose than Max. She is probably an amalgamation of a lot of people. For some reason Mary is often seen as being the gay character in the film because they see her as having a very lonely, melancholic, isolated upbringing which is experienced by a lot of gay and lesbian people. There is Damien Popodopolous in the movie but he is the big gay stereotype.

Damien is voiced by Eric Bana - What did Eric think when you told him that he would be playing a gay sheep farmer's wife in New Zealand?

When he said yes, he hadn't read the script. He had said yes because he was a big fan of Harvey Krumpet and his kids wanted to come to the studio.  I did ask him if he knew what happens but he didn't care at all. He just wanted to be a part of it.

Your last film Harvey Crumpet won an Academy Award, beating animation heavyweights Disney and Pixar. Does winning such a prestigious award make it easier for you to make a movie or is it a weight above you?

Well both, it definitely allows you to make another film, but you are always remembered for the Oscar. I keep waiting for people to forget but it's always going to be there.  Geoffrey Rush told me “It's not like a Logie, it doesn't fade away”. I also lost my anonymity which was hard. For a while going to the supermarket was hard and airports were a bit weird. My producer calls it a golden crow bar - people return your phone calls and it allows you to make another film.

I remember at the time when you won the Oscar and thanked your boyfriend, you received as much attention in the media for thanking him as you did for winning the award. Were you surprised by all of the fuss?

I was very surprised. Immediately after the award, the first question I received from a journalist was 'Do you realise that you have made Academy Award history?' At first I thought it might have been something about beating Disney, Pixar and Fox. Plenty of people had thanked their partners but that was exactly what he meant- they had all thanked their 'partners', nobody had ever said 'boyfriend'. I didn't want to say partner because it could have meant business partner and I didn't want to say lover because that just sounded stupid. The only word left was boyfriend and even then I felt like I was twelve. It was never politically motivated.

So unfortunately we didn't just have the pressure of all this media about winning an Oscar but we also had the added pressure because I thanked my boyfriend.

Did the pressure put any strain on your relationship?

Luckily not because my partner is very open, very 'out' I suppose. He is always grabbing my hand when we go down the street while I'm a bit more insecure about all that. He loved it and we are five years going strong. I get angry with my self that I thanked my boyfriend in front of a billion people, yet I get insecure about holding his hand in public. What's that all about?

Well we have a fantastic article about gay public displays of affection in this issue of QNews (page 16) I'll have to send you a copy.

That would be great.

One of the things that struck me the most about the movie was how you created this entire world out of plasticine. The attention to detail is incredible. How long did it take to create the entire movie?

Well from script to screen was five years but the actual physically making, shooting, editing and production stuff was two years. Just moving the puppets took 57 weeks with six animators and a crew of 120. On average we were able to shoot about five seconds per day for each animator.

You have really established your own distinct style directing claymation movies. How would you describe what you do?  Is claymation even the correct term?

There are several terms - claymation, stop motion animation is the more technical term but I have come up with my own term. I make 'clayographies' - clay biographies. When you say claymation or stop motion animation, most people think of Wallace and Gromit, Pingu or Gumby but the only thing that I have in common is the plasticine. I mean if you went to a DVD store what section would Mary & Max be found in? I don't know, I can only compare it to the movies I think it is similar with. I think Little Miss Sunshine is a similar film because it about a little girl who has a relationship with her grandfather. There are drugs and swearing in it and it is a dysfunctional family, yet it is still a feel good film.

People often associate animation with children's movies, is Mary and Max a children's movie or is it aimed at an older audience? It does hit on some pretty serious issues.

I think it is for everybody. One reviewer in America said 'this is definitely not a film for children' but two days later got into the Berlin Film Festival in the kids section where the jury was all aged 14 and they gave us a prize.  The film does have a PG rating. Having said all this I think the film will appeal more to an adult audience.

Thank you for your time Adam and cheers to Oscar number two!

Thank you. That would be good.

Mary and Max is out now in Cinemas