Image for Mary And Max And Adam (And Oscar)

Mary And Max And Adam (AndOscar)

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely playdoh – or polymers, plastics, clays and metal, to be exact, if the world is that of animator Adam Elliot. And no six-day turnover here; this Mary And Max claytasia of Australian suburbs and New York tenements was five years in the making.

“I never wanted to be a filmmaker,” laughs Elliot as we sit down in the sleek and deserted interior of Sydney’s Zeta Bar late Friday afternoon. “I still don’t.” He’s been interviewing all day, rushing around town, fortified by pots of Earl Grey tea. He looks exhausted but speaks excitedly and waves away a publicist keeping an eye on the time. “I was always creative. My dad was an acrobatic clown and so that’s in my blood; my brother’s an actor and my mum’s a very creative hairdresser. I was always making things out of egg-cartons and pipe cleaners. I was always drawing.”

What did he aspire to be then, growing up on a prawn farm and later in the suburbs of Melbourne? “A vet,” he admits. “And I still want to be a vet because I can’t – I’m terrible at maths and science. That’s why there’s a lot of injured or dead animals in all my films. If this film makes me rich and famous my partner and I want to start up a pug farm out in the country.”

Irony aside, the question of fame is a pertinent one given Elliot’s successes. After graduating from VCA and producing a trilogy of shorts, winning two AFIs along the way, he stretched his talents across a 22-minute canvas called Harvie Krumpet and suddenly found himself on the stage of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, accepting a less malleable little puppet called Oscar in 2003, and making headlines when he thanked his boyfriend in his acceptance speech.

After that, he could have done anything. He did Mary and Max, with a team of over one hundred “anarchists”(his word). 212 puppets, 133 sets, 12 litres of water based sex lube, and 808 miniature Earl Grey tea bag boxes hand cut, folded, glued, wrapped and airbrushed. “If I’d known it was going to be this hard to make,” he sighs, unconvincingly, “I wouldn’t have gone down the path.”

Based on a true story, Mary And Max tells the tale of a lonely but imaginative Australian girl and her extended correspondence with a quiet New York ‘Aspie’ (a person with Aspergers Syndrome). It’s unconventional, to say the least – and unexpectedly brilliant. But why, I wondered, given the Herculean effort of claymation, did Elliot match this story with this medium? “Well, I think people are only just getting, especially in the West, that animation can actually be a more powerful cinematic device than live-action. You have to suspend your disbelief. In a way, animation can be more liberating and take the audience on an emotional journey far more succinctly than live action can.”

And an emotional journey it is, with references and plot points involving, in no particular order: mental illness, suicide, alcohol abuse, homosexuality, agoraphobia, psychiatry, prostitution, electro-shock therapy, loss – and love. Phew. Take the kids, but be prepared to take a lot of questions on the car trip home (at least one of them won’t be, ‘where do babies come from?,’ the film offering a slew of tantalising explanations to make even the most jaded gynaecologist guffaw).

Elliot keeps it all afloat with a serious dose of silliness and a deft impression of naive innocence that presents the confrontational material in a non-confrontational way. “You realise that you have this potential as a filmmaker to really move people and nourish them. I don’t want to waste people’s time. Of course you want to entertain them, you want to make them laugh, but knowing that you can have an impact on people is actually really humbling.”

Mary And Max also paints one of the more interesting portraits of Australia in recent cinematic memory. Watch for the faces on postage stamps, the footy in the gutter. “I wanted to pick the iconic stuff that was not repelling to Australians,” he affirms, “so the garden gnome in the Collingwood football jumper. Stuff that’s slightly kitschy but not too – you know – there’s no Ken Done stuff. It’s nostalgic and there’s sentiment there, but not to the point of being saccharine.” To his credit, Elliot squeezes more authenticity out of one pair of Y-fronts hanging on a hills hoist than Baz Luhrmann did with a dozen render farms. “Well,” he admits, smiling at the mention of the underpants, “there’s a little reference to my previous film Harvie Krumpet where I actually had to animate in my Y-fronts because it was so hot in the studio.”

This disarming honesty is indicative of a person for whom the work is the passion; this publicity stuff is a bewildering afterthought. “At Sundance, when I had to get up in front of two thousand people – it was like the Oscars all over again, I’m seeing all the same faces – I was standing there with Robert Redford, and I’m thinking, how did this happen?”

He laughs, covering his face with his hands. The staff switch on the music for the night’s trading, opening the bar and closing the interview. “There is a reference to me in one of the cemetery shots in the film. My epitaph says ‘Very overrated.’”

Not if Mary And Max is any indication.

Watch the trailer for Mary And Max here:

Watch Harvie Krumpet in full here:

Mary And Max screens nationally from April 9, 2009.

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jimjazz said on the 6th Apr, 2009

great review. can't wait to see it. how refreshing is elliot? i want to start speaking like ET.


mrLance said on the 6th Apr, 2009

He's very engaging. I enjoyed the movie much more than I ever expected to. Make sure you catch it!


JoshOnTheBus said on the 6th Apr, 2009

Wow. This looks incredible. The only trailer other than 'Where the Wild Things Are' to make me all ... verklempt! Can't wait to see it.

Travis de Jonk

Travis de Jonk said on the 6th Apr, 2009

Adam Elliot is an amazing fellow, and his films are equally as inspiring.


Asherbella said on the 6th Apr, 2009

He does suburban drudgery so well that he takes it to a place of majesty. Barry Humphreys can do it, David Williamson can do it, too - but not quite like Elliot can...


hazyinseptember said on the 6th Apr, 2009

i saw the preview for this the other day and was blown away!! can't wait to see it, what a totally inspiring fellow :)


DavidL said on the 6th Apr, 2009

This sounds really interesting! Will be sure to check it out.


cain9ine said on the 7th Apr, 2009

yeah im looking forward to it too. harvie krumpet was one of my favourite short films..


Joal said on the 9th Apr, 2009

"there's no Ken Done stuff" could not have said it better. Love it


gold_femme said on the 14th Apr, 2009

i love harvie krumpet so much, watch it often and im extremely excited about this..yay!! x


Mydoona said on the 14th Apr, 2009

I am seeing this because TONI COLLETTE does the voice of Mary in it.


Brightbear said on the 27th Apr, 2009

I saw this and it was a gorgeous movie. It made me cry towards the end but it was worth it.