'Mary and Max': Pen Pals With Problems

Director Adam Elliot chats with Tom Sito about the making of his first clay-animated feature, Mary and Max, which premiered last night at Sundance.

Mary and Max boasts the pen pal relationship between lonely 8-year-old Mary Dinkle (pictured) and 44-year-old New Yorker Max Horovitz. All images © Melodrama Pictures.

Mary and Max boasts the pen pal relationship between lonely 8-year-old Mary Dinkle (pictured) and 44-year-old New Yorker Max Horovitz. All images © Melodrama Pictures.

Australian clay animation director, Adam Elliot, who has had a series of successful shorts capped by his Oscar-winner, Harvie Krumpet, has just completed his his first feature, Mary and Max. It is about the long-distance relationship of a lonely Australian girl and an obese, autistic middle-aged, New York City shut-in. Mary and Max opened the 25th Anniversary Sundance Film Festival last night, the first animated film ever to be so honored. Recently, animator and director Tom Sito had a chance to talk to Elliot.

Tom Sito: What was the inspiration for such a unique story? I read that Max is based upon a real-life friend?

Adam Elliot: Yes, Max is a pen-friend in New York I've been exchanging letters with for 20 years. After Harvie Krumpet, I thought, "What do I do now?" I wrote about my cousin, my brother, my uncle. Then, I noticed a big box on the floor piled up with all of my friend's correspondence. I began going through them. I had forgotten how interesting he and his story were. Five years later, we have a movie.

TS: Your characters have had asthma, cerebral palsy, Asperger's syndrome, autism -- what the [BLEEP] is wrong with you?

AE: [Laughs] I get asked that question a lot. Maybe one day I'll write something more mainstream about fish or something. In Australia, I'm seen as the Patron Saint of Disabled Film. The way I see it is everyone has some kind of flaw; it's just how you perceive your flaw. My friend with autism doesn't see it as a flaw. To him, being autistic is as much a part of who he is as the color of his eyes. I guess I like to defend the people society tends to marginalize, the people who are different. I gravitate towards their interesting stories.

Max, a severely obese Jewish man with Asperger's Syndrome living in the chaos of New York, writes a letter to Mary.

Max, a severely obese Jewish man with Asperger's Syndrome living in the chaos of New York, writes a letter to Mary.

TS: You have famous actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Eric Bana doing tracks for you. How is it to work with stars who may not have done animation before?

AE: I try to look for actors who have not done animation yet. That's getting kinda hard. When I thought of Max, I thought of some big, urban, New Yorker type. I had just seen the film Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it. The more I thought of him, he just ticked all the boxes. Toni Collette and Eric Bana were a plus being that they are Australians. They could just drive over themselves, with no entourage, and do their tracks. For all of them it wasn't the money, they really dug the script. They found it wasn't the usual animated fodder.

TS: Could you work in person or did they do it long distance? Could you record them together or all recorded separately?

AE: We recorded them all separately. Like I said, Toni, Eric and Barry [Humphries] were in the neighborhood. To do Philip, we recorded him in a sound studio hook-up first in New York and then in London. At first I was thinking, "Aw God, this will never work. It's not the same like being there in person directing them." But the sound hook-up quality was so clear, and we had a visual Skype going so we could see each other. So it was just like being in the other room.

TS: You come from making short clay animation films. How is the move to feature films different?

AE: It was like starting all over again. Learning to collaborate with a large crew. Nick Park said it was having to be creative with a gun to your head. I say it's like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time! [Laughs]. Originally, I sorta missed being alone, working with the clay, but it was good working with a bigger team, each bringing his or her own special craftsmanship.

TS: You mentioned that clay animation is a very personal way of making animation. How did you, as a director, make sure everyone's personal way of timing the characters matched?

AE: Absolutely, that was one of my biggest fears. I didn't want Max to have multiple personalities. We had very little prep time, so I had to put together workshops and style bibles. I had a phrase we used over and over: "Chunky-Wonky." No straight lines; keep it off and at odds.

Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) was animated with a singular personality -- no straight lines; keep it off and at odds. Animators used the phrase

Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman) was animated with a singular personality -- no straight lines; keep it off and at odds. Animators used the phrase "Chunky-Wonky" to describe his look.

TS: What part of production took the longest?

AE: It took a year-and-a-half to write the script while my producer [Melanie Coombs] was out securing the money. We got some Australian Film grant money, and that takes a lot of time and red tape. Then three or four months of prep time, two years of animation, then a few months for post. We had a crew of around 50. We took the gang one day to see Pixar's Ratatouille. Looking at the credits I noticed they had more production babies listed than we had in our entire art department!

TS: Does the film feature any kickass CG stereoscopic effects or full frontal nudity?

AE: [Laughs] Yes, there is some full frontal nudity, an old male, maybe here and there. As for digital, if we did any it was to zap out a sculpting tool accidentally left in the shot. We did it the old-fashioned way, because I believe the audience can tell that what is on the screen is tangible, a bit rough, and they'll like it that way.

TS: Hayao Miyazaki and Sylvain Chomet have both said in the past that they were not trying to make their films with the international audience in mind. Do you feel the same?

AE: The content of the film lends itself to an international family. Part of it is set in New York, with an earthy kind of urban flavor. I make films for me and my family. I've never been to therapy, but maybe I make films that would please my father. I work backwards [when writing a script] from the end and try to flesh out the character and plot idiosyncrasies. I've never read any books on screenwriting. I just break it down intuitively. I liken some of this film to that [Jack] Nicholson film About Schmidt.

Like Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet, Adam Elliot's feature debut Mary and Max is innocent but not naive, as it takes us on a journey that explores friendship, autism, taxidermy, psychiatry, alcoholism and more.

Like Oscar-winning short Harvie Krumpet, Adam Elliot's feature debut Mary and Max is innocent but not naive, as it takes us on a journey that explores friendship, autism, taxidermy, psychiatry, alcoholism and more.

TS: While enjoying live-action foreign films, the American audience has been fickle with animated ones. How do you think Mary and Max will overcome that?

AE: I've seen the other films, and while they are great, that audience may be put off by the subtitling. The great thing about Australia is we are not Europe, not Asia, nor America. Language is not a problem, and there are elements that are iconic to both Australian and American sensibilities, but the American audience is a tough nut to crack. Opening Sundance is a great step forward. And it will be fun to see the audiences' reactions to the film there. We were still completing it when we learned we made Sundance, so it will be the first time I see it with a fresh audience. At the end of the day, it's all about the story. We'll see.

TS: Thank you, and if you're going to the Rocky Mountains in January, don't forget to bring a coat!

Tom Sito is an animation director, teacher and author, whose book Drawing the Line, The Untold Story of the Animation Unions From Bosko to Bart Simpson (Univ Press of Kentucky, 2006) is now available in stores.

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