Oh God, I hate that film. I can’t bear to watch it, Adam Elliot said, standing in the kitchen of his Prahran home and fiddling with the overly complex coffee machine his partner Dan Doherty usually operates.
Incredibly, the film Elliot’s talking about is Harvie Krumpet, the 2003 Oscar-winning short that launched his career as an international filmmaker.
I watched it again the other day, and all I could see were mistakes-¦ the animation is so bad, he continued, seemingly unmoved by this Star scribe’s protests that Harvie is a modern-day classic of animation.
Coffee machine conquered, we took to Elliot’s living room and parked on a musty old couch -” one he acknowledged his two pet pugs spend far too much time on, hence the faint smell of wet dog.
Krumpet quibbles are soon cast aside, as I was there to discuss more current topics: namely, the impending release of Elliot’s first full-length feature, Mary and Max. The film, detailing the long-distance penfriendship between an ostracised Melbourne schoolgirl (Mary) and a middle-aged New York man with Asperger’s (Max), recently opened the Sundance festival -” making it both the first Australian and the first animated film to do so.
Despite this double milestone, Elliot admitted Sundance wasn’t all he expected.
It was good for the film, and it was a huge honour. But opening night at Sundance doesn’t necessarily translate to box office success, and a lot of films get slammed on opening night. We had a lot of reviewers saying the film was too bleak. I don’t see it as bleak, I see it as a story of redemption, he said.
And there wasn’t much celebrity-spotting to do. The only celebrities I saw were Tom Arnold and Sting, who crashed our after-party.
I talked to him and he said he hadn’t actually seen the film because his plane was late, so I said -˜Well Sting, I’m going to have to ask you to leave’, he laughed.
The festival represented Elliot’s re-emergence into the media glare -” in the five years since his Oscar win, he’d all but dropped off the public radar. However, the studious animator never stopped working.
Mary and Max took five years from script to screen, but there was a perception that I’d sort of disappeared. That TV show Where Are They Now? even rang me up. I said, -˜I’m not coming on your show, I’m busy!’ I can only really make two films a decade, because they’re so complex.
Elliot readily admitted he’s worn down by the five years he spent on the film, describing the process as like making love and being stabbed to death at the same time.
Despite the higher budget his Oscar win afforded him, he said it was still a painstaking process.
It’s all about scale: Harvie was 23 minutes and this was 93 minutes. On all levels it was a really overambitious project. The hours I had to work -” one week I did 92 hours. You don’t see your family, your friends-¦ I’m lucky I still have my partner. Right now, I’m not sure I’ve got another film in me, he said.
I’d love to see the passion come back, because I love what I do. But for me to make a piece of art, I need five years, eight million dollars, 100 crew members-¦ I wish I was a cake decorator!
He should take comfort in the fact that Mary and Max was well worth the laborious effort. It’s an absolute triumph: hilarious, deeply affecting and one of the most uniquely Australian films since the mid-90s golden period of hits like The Castle and Muriel’s Wedding.
Surprisingly, it’s also inspired by true events.
Max is based on my real penfriend in New York, who I’ve been writing to for over 20 years. He inspired me to write the script. He’s got Asperger’s, he’s Jewish and he’s in Overeaters Anonymous, so I haven’t changed much about his life in the film, Elliot said.
In another mirror of Mary and Max’s onscreen friendship, Elliot and his American correspondent have never met.
I know he’s keen to see the film -” he wants to wait until it screens in the US. Philip Seymour Hoffman [who voices Max] lives just down the road from him in New York, which is bizarre. Philip’s said that he wants to take the three of us out for lunch if I make it over there. That’s going to be an odd experience, he chuckled.
While the character of Max remains relatively similar to his real-life counterpart, Elliot created the character of Mary as his penfriend. However, he admitted there’s more than a little of himself in her.
Mary is the gay character, even though she’s not actually gay. She’s me, she’s all gay people -” I mean, I called her Mary for a reason! It really is a very gay film-¦ it’s about people who are marginalised and different.
Elliot sees his artistic attraction to the marginalised as a direct result of his own sexuality.
I’ve realised that I’m actually an angry writer. It’s all about injustice. I don’t like seeing people persecuted or sidelined.
There’s a line in the film where Max says not having Asperger’s would be -˜like changing the colour of my eyes’, which is a common gay expression. My sexuality is so ingrained in me, it’s hardwired into me, he said.
With that, our time was almost over, but before I left, Elliot kindly let me hold his Oscar. Producing the golden artefact from its sturdy leather case, he handed it to me and before I knew it, I found myself thanking the Academy, God and my parents, all the while trying not to blubber Gwyneth Paltrow-style.
When Elliot himself accepted the award, he famously thanked his beautiful boyfriend. He and Doherty had only been dating for three months at the time -” how’s that for pressure?
When I got up to do my speech, I knew I had to thank him, but I didn’t know what word to use. I didn’t want to say -˜partner’ because that would be too general. I didn’t want to say -˜lover’ because that’s just so -” ugh. The only word I could think of was -˜boyfriend’, he said sheepishly.
I felt like I was 16 again!
info: Mary and Max is in cinemas from April 9.