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In conversation with filmmaker Adam Elliot

Dan Webb
Adam Elliot’s bittersweet ‘clayographies’ are one of a kind. They’ve amassed hundreds of awards, including the 2004 Academy Award for Animated Short Film.

What are you working on at the moment?
When I was at film school in 1996 I’d always had a plan to make a trilogy of trilogies. So I thought well, stop motion’s a very slow and expensive art form and I knew that I was only going to be able to make a certain amount of films before I drop dead. So I thought, well you know, each film’s sort of been averaging about five years, so I sort of thought I’m only going to get to make about ten or so. I always liked the number three and I like number nine and I like trilogies. So Uncle, Cousin and Brother of course was the first trilogy, Harvie Krumpet was always going to be part one of a trilogy of half hours, and Mary & Max was part one of a feature trilogy. But I never really talked about the trilogies much over the years, just in case I never thought I was going to get there and make them all. But I’ve now made six, so I’ve only got three to go. The last one was Ernie Biscuit, which is part two of the half hour trilogies and so there’s another one of those to come down the track. Ernie Biscuit’s out and about travelling the world of film festivals and doing well. We just won the AFI Award for Best Australian Short Animation which is nice. He’s having a nice life. I’ve just started writing the next feature, part two of the feature trilogy.

I never really talked about the trilogies much over the years, just in case I never thought I was going to get there and make them all. But I’ve now made six, so I’ve only got three to go.

You turned down Hollywood in favour of creative control. It’s a commendable approach but it must make it harder to secure funding.
Oh absolutely, that’s the sacrifice you make when you want to remain in control and have that creative freedom that you want. It’s the same with any industry. If you want to run your own company and do things your way, there’s certainly going to be quite a few years where money’s going to be a problem. But I don’t have any regrets in turning down other people’s projects, because I would never have got to make Mary & Max and Harvie Krumpet would never have been made if I’d all those years ago taken on commercial work or started making ads or TV series. Mary & Max was a very ambitious, expensive film and I had a lot of creative control and freedom. I mean, it was still other people’s money and it still had to sell and it was a commercial product. But I got to make it my way, as they say.

Adam Elliot and Ernie Biscuit

How hard is it to secure funding for your art, despite all of your awards – and especially given that arts funding bodies in Australia are so severely under-resourced?
Yes, well it’s certainly getting harder and harder to finance particularly what I do, which is arthouse or independent cinema where I’m considered the writer/director/auteur. My films are for a very specific audience, they’re not like a Disney or a Pixar film. So yes, it is getting harder and harder when the government’s every year shrinking the amount of money they give to the arts across the board. You have to be far more entrepreneurial and you have to now of course use social media and things like – well I have never used crowd funding yet, but I anticipate that down the track that will probably become a component of the funding pie. It’s always a battle.

Mary & Max was inspired by your real life pen pal in New York and your earlier short films appeared to incorporate at least some elements of truth about your family. Is it a conscious decision to borrow elements from your life in your storytelling?
Oh, for sure. I’m not very good at just sitting down and inventing characters out of nothing. I always steal from real life and find inspiration from my family and friends and people I meet along the way. I’m not interested in really telling stories about fantasy; there’ll never be a talking animal in one of my films. It’s all based on real people, real biographies, which is why I came up with that pretentious word ‘clayographies’ ‘cause each film is a mini-biography of sorts. For me the aim with each story is to create very believable and authentic characters that people can either empathise with, identify with or relate to in some way. Even though they’re blobs of clay, I want them to be very real to people. And also universal. I want people in Japan and Argentina and all these other countries to understand the stories and relate to the characters.

The animation in Mary & Max was noticeably smoother compared to your other work. Was this due to increased frame rate, increased budget, the weight of expectations post-Oscar win – or something else?
Well look, the very simple answer is the reason the animation looked so much slicker on Mary & Max is because I didn’t do it. I’m not a very good animator. I’m very impatient, I always cut corners when I animate things myself and the animation component of the process is the part I like the least. So I was more than happy on Mary & Max to hand the animation job over to six other very skilled and experienced animators who did a beautiful job. And of course, yes, more money means more time and you can employ more people. So I was thrilled to finally get my films to look like they’ve been animated by professionals.

The reason the animation looked so much slicker on Mary & Max is because I didn’t do it. I’m not a very good animator. I’m very impatient, I always cut corners when I animate things myself

Birds, cigarettes and the names of your two childhood parrots (Sonny and Cher) seem to be recurring elements in your films. Is this deliberate and if so, what is the significance of it all?
I love to have recurring motifs and characters and I think it’s part of my aesthetic and style now to have recurring imagery. I don’t know why birds are always in my films, same with snails, there’s a lot of snails in my films. A lot of death. I think you’ve got to keep showing these sorts of things over and over in your films because it helps link all of the films together and it really helps your style become quite firm and obvious. I think what happens with a lot of filmmakers is with each film their style sways too far away from their original aesthetic. I like to keep things very similar.

The other thing is if I do get to make all nine films, as a box set or however they’ll all be sold and packaged, there’ll be these ways that they’re all linked together. It was interesting to hear that Quentin Tarantino only ever wanted to make a certain number of films and that he has elements that link all of his films together. It’s tricky to do it too, because you’re sort of locking yourself into a certain aesthetic and way of telling a story. But I think in many ways each one of my films is a retelling of the previous one anyway. There’s similar stories and themes going through all of them. Each protagonist in each film is an underdog of sorts. Each character has some sort of affliction or is perceived as different or weird or lonely, marginalised. So I am exploring the same themes and subject matter with each film. And I don’t mind that the film is very similar to the previous one.

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Good question. Well I’m not anti-collaboration but you know, one of the reasons I’ve never accepted working on someone else’s film or directing someone else’s story is because I’m too selfish. I’m a meglomaniac and I like to do everything myself, but of course on Mary & Max I collaborated with a lot of talented people. But If I had a person who I’d really love to collaborate with, I think currently it would be a friend of mine who I’ve befriended in the past five years, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directed Amélie and Delicatessen and all these other wonderful French films. He’s become a good friend and I think if there was one other director I’d work with, it’d be him.

The trouble is he lives in Paris and I live here (in Melbourne). I’d love to go and live in Paris and work there, but I can’t speak French and his English is not so good. I’ve always loved his films. He came to Melbourne a while back and got in touch with me. Actually it’s a funny story – I got an email from him and he said ‘hello, my name is Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I’ve seen your film Mary & Max and I would like to meet you’. And he did, he came to Melbourne, came to the Mary & Max exhibition at Fed Square. But it was funny, when I got that first email I wrote back to him and said you know, ‘thank you for your very kind words…and did you know you have the same name as that famous French director?’. And then he wrote, ‘it is me! It is me! I am that same French director’. Ah, I nearly died! I thought, oh my god! So anyway, yeah, we’ve become good friends and I catch up with him whenever I go over to France. Never say never, maybe one day we’ll work together.