“I’m not really into hero films,” Mary & Max Director Adam Elliot tells me over a cup of tea and a bickie. “But the more I think about it the more I think these characters are heroic, sometimes more heroic, than a hero in a hero film.”
He’s sitting on a big comfy sofa next to Producer Melanie Coombs. Having won an Oscar for their short film Harvey Krumpet there was an understandable degree of pressure on the duo to follow up Harvey with something special.
“There’s definitely been pressure and expectation, there always has been since the day I left film school. You know I started my career with a film that won and AFI, so ever since then I’ve always had this ‘what do you I follow it up with, I better keep winning AFIs.’ But this would have to be most pressure we’ve felt so far in our career. We just want to fast forward to the end of April once the film’s out because it’s been a 5yr pregnancy, we’ve spent a lot of time and it all comes down to an Easer Weekend in 2009.”
But it wasn’t all bad as with an Oscar come a certain amount of, shall we say, leverage, no? (Insert suggestive wink)
“The Oscar is what Melanie calls a Golden Crowbar,” says Adam. “Yeah it lets you get your foot in the door,” she adds. “But with my foot comes Adam’s great script. People never like it when you complain about success, but the pressure has been enormous, but we have a philosophy where we use the hype, we don’t believe it.”
The film has a quirky charm, but it walks a strange line between a children’s film and a black comedy for twisted adults. “Thank god we have a PG rating,” Adam exclaims. “It’s really going to be up to adults to decide, we don’t have to, and nor do we have to take responsibility.”
While the film’s complex themes about dealing with life’s problems and trying to be happy are sure to speak to children, what really gives the film its under 13 appeal is Adam’s often than less complex sense of humour.
“Rectal references, faecal fetishes you might say. Well look, I’ve got a problem,” he laughs. “But yeah it was only a few weeks after we’d locked the film off and it was all too late that I was like yeah, I think there might be one too many fart gags.”
This almost childish bent to the film was also present in Harvey Krumpet, and it seems to have contributed to its success more than a little. “With Harvey Krumpet we knew we thought that was for adults,” Melanie explains. “We sold 40,000 copies on DVD while the average Australian feature is lucky to sell 5,000 and that was a short. But there are also moments like when I saw this group of 11 yr old girls came out of a 7/11 with ice blocks singing, ‘god is better than football’ from Harvey Krumpet. So I turned around and asked them where they’d heard it and they just turned around, gave me this look and said ‘Harvey Krumpet, daa!’
“And Harvey was an M rating,” Adam adds, “yet categorically around the world we know kids watch it. We actually got an email from a woman whose 9yr old son had recently died of cancer, and she told us that in his last week of living he watched Harvey Krumpet over and over again. And I mean if I had a week to live I know I wouldn’t be watching Harvey Krumpet but for whatever reasons this 9yr old boy who was dying did. So all this stuff about ‘is it for kids is it for adults’ is sort of meaningless, I mean when I was a kid I had the choice to go see the Smurf movie or The Elephant Man and I chose The Elephant Man,” he laughs.
“I think thoughtful kids will come out of the film and ask their parents some pretty tough questions,” Melanie elaborates. “As long as the parents are up for that, I think it’s a great film for kids, because what it says is that the most important things in life are friendship and believing in yourself and accepting yourself and other people. I think that is a message every child should receive as soon as possible, I think that is a message children should be force fed at birth.”
As the film manages to avoid all but the most abstract of definitions I ask about how it has been received by fans and the industry? “We’ve been getting great responses from audiences and at Sundance,” Melanie answers. “Even though we don’t tick any of the obvious boxes, we fit into the ‘this is a good film’ box, and really that’s the only box we care about.”
“Mind you it’s very hard to sell when you’re trying to pitch to people. We said things like it’s sort of a claymation version of Little Miss Sunshine, or About Schmidt, you know, live action films. When we were pitching it around, we would always refer to live action films with complex ideas as opposed to animated fare because, especially in the US, they think claymation is Gumby, you know they don’t even think Wallace and Gromit they think preschooler.”
Aside from the stunning animation and script, the film’s voice acting stands out as exceptional against most other animated features, with the actors sounding almost completely unrecognisable. “Adam has this philosophy where you know sometimes you see an animation and you hear Eddie Murphy’s voice, and immediately you stop watching because you’re thinking about him in a booth with headphones on and it pulls you out of the drama,” Melanie exclaims. “Sure you think of the star, which might be a good thing and certainly with a lot of these films strategically to do that, but for us that was the last thing we wanted.”
“I mean obviously people are going to see the poster, and they’re going to go ooh, big stars in there, but hopefully at the start of the film, when it opens with little Mary’s voice, and you think to yourself that’s a little girl, a real little girl, hopefully people will forget about the names and just watch the film and immerse themselves in the drama. That’s what we want, for people to lose themselves in the story, they’ll know they’re watching something that has been hand crafted and laboured over, but really we want them to take an emotional journey with the characters. Like Adam always says let’s make them laugh, let’s make them cry, let’s push their buttons.”
Mary & Max is out now and I’d give it 5 stars if I were reviewing it, so go see it.