"Mary and Max" opens Sundance Film Festival
January 13, 2009
A severely obese Jewish man living in New York and a young girl in Melbourne strike up an unlikely friendship as pen pals in "Mary and Max," the claymation animated film that opens the Sundance Film Festival Thursday at the Eccles Center.
"Mary and Max" is only the second animated film to earn the prestigious opening slot. It follows the success of writer/director Adam Elliot’s short "Harvie Krumpet," which premiered at the festival in 2003 and won the Academy Award in 2004 for best animated short.
Max Horowitz, voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary Dinkle, voiced by Toni Collette, are an odd couple from the start. Max, 44, suffers from a rare form of autism, and Mary is eight when the two begin a decades-long correspondence.
If the plot seems contrived, consider that Elliot based his first feature length film, and his first film since "Harvie Krumpet," on a real-life pen friend.
Like Max, Elliot’s buddy reports that his muse is "large, Jewish and an atheist," lives in New York and has Asperger’s Syndrome.
The first letter from Elliot’s friend arrived more than 20 years ago when Elliot was still in high school. The have written to each other ever since.
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"All my films are based on people I know," explained Elliot in a telephone interview Friday. "But I don’t let the truth get in the way."
Truth is a tall order for the Australian’s 92-minute stop-motion animated epic. The film took five years to write, direct and shoot, and remained only roughly edited when Sundance’s October deadline rolled around.
Elliot and his producer, Melanie Combs, decided to submit it anyway. Elliot added that they were exultant after receiving the news that their film would be only the second animated film to earn the choice slot, following 2007’s Chicago 10. "We were shocked," Elliot said of the selection. When the two take their seats at the Eccles Center Thursday evening, it will be the first time they have screened the film with an audience. "We hadn’t even finished the film. It was a leap of faith by [festival co-director] Geoffrey Gilmore."
The making of the film was, at times, a nail-biter for the director/producer duo. Elliot wrote seven drafts of the script before he was satisfied and Hoffman, an Oscar winning actor, twice passed on the project before agreeing to do it. Besides the on-screen magnetism Hoffman, Colette and Eric Bana bring to the screen, they also may provide the star power to catapult the film into wide release. "I thought it would be like making three Harvie Krumpets all together," Elliot said. "It was really like starting from scratch."
Elliot and Combs began brainstorming for the film shortly after winning the Oscar. The film has a sexier look and higher production values than "Krumpet," but retains Elliot’s indie ethos, Combs said. "Indie filmmaking is hard everywhere in the world," she said. "The biggest thing is we didn’t have to compromise Adam’s style."
"Mary and Max," Elliot’s sixth film, departs from the conventions of big studio animated releases in a few important ways. First, unlike "Finding Nemo" or "Shrek," Elliot’s film isn’t made specifically for children. Shot for about $8 million, pittance compared to the bills for films from Pixar or Dreamworks, "Mary and Max" grapples with alcoholism, isolation, kleptomania, religion and sex, but the film is ultimately supposed to be humorous and entertaining, Combs said. "It’s about he voice of the filmmaker, innocent but not naïve. The film is done in a Australian low-budget indie way so we don’t have to be aimed at children. We’re finding different ways to tell stories."
It’s not that Elliot tries to break from tradition. He began "Harvie Krumpet" determined to write a children’s parable. "Within three pages, it’s about someone who has Tourette’s [Syndrome]," Elliot laughed. "So many films aren’t about characters who have real flaws."
Elliot rattled off a list of family ailments, cerebral palsy, asthma, tremors and encapsulated what some might call the take-home message of the film. "I don’t see these things as disabilities," he said.
The light touch of animation affords audiences the chance to float through troubled water without swimming in circles or sinking. Characters and situations can be rendered in the extreme for high drama or laughs. "It’s that suspension of disbelief," Combs said. "You say, ‘This isn’t real. This really isn’t real, and you’re doubly invested in the film."
Add to "Mary and Max" the gee wizz factor that Elliot doesn’t use any computer generated images in the film. Stop-motion animation is a halting and slow process, Elliot said. It took a crew of 30 artist about three months to sculpt 200 characters and about as many sets for the film. Not a single element is digital, Elliot said, you can hold each in your hand.
Much of the work is done under a creative, if not entirely metaphorical, microscope. Not only do filmmakers leave their mark, they also leave their fingerprints on Max, who is about 10 inches long, and Mary, who stretches to a daintier four-and-a-half inches. . Sets stretch 15 to 20 feet.
On a good day, one of Elliot’s animators shot about five seconds of footage. The crew compiled about two and a half minutes of footage a week.
The craft of the film is impressive, but it’s the story that really sells it, Combs said. "At this time when the world is in crisis, here’s a story about no matter how desperate you feel, you have a friend."
Elliot garnered unexpected notoriety at the 2004 Oscars because he thanked his boyfriend in his acceptance speech. Now, it’s safe to say the public’s attention has shifted squarely back to his work.