Sealed With the Sigh of a Commiserating Spirit

Adam Elliot on his Claymation film about unlikely pen pals, 'Mary and Max'

<i>Mary and Max</i>
Mary and Max

"I find humans interesting. I have trouble understanding them. I think, however, I will understand and trust you." – Mary and Max

Those words, penned by a middle-aged depressive to an 8-year-old girl several continents away, formalize the beginning of the unlikely bond, manifest in letters and packages of chocolate, between strangers-turned-pen pals Max Horowitz and Mary Dinkle in Adam Elliot's claymation fiction film Mary and Max. Max is pushing 50 and is self-barricaded in a crummy walk-up in New York, a severely overweight depressive whose social anxiety is eventually diagnosed as a symptom of Asperger's syndrome; Mary is a thoughtful but worried child in Melbourne, Australia, ostracized by classmates for her "poo"-colored birthmark and neglected at home by a mother who is "wobbly" with drink. Their epistolary relationship – which begins when Mary plucks Max's name at random from the phone book – spans decades that are fraught for the two with disease, accidental death, thwarted love, professional ruin, and the occasional appointment with electroshock. Yet for so much darkness, Mary and Max is light on its feet – a lovely, funny, ever-surprising examination of uncommon friendship in a world that all too commonly short-ends its outcasts and eccentrics.

Mary and Max is also exquisitely crafted, a five-year labor of love that followed Elliot's Oscar-winning stop-motion short "Harvie Krumpet." The Chronicle recently swapped e-mails with the Australian writer/director on the eve of Mary and Max's debut on the Sundance Channel's video-on-demand service, Sundance Selects.

Austin Chronicle: How did the casting of Philip Seymour Hoffman [as the voice of Max] happen? He was definitely an inspired choice, but I never would've guessed it was him.

Adam Elliot: [Hoffman] was my first choice. I had just watched Happiness for the third time as I was writing the conclusion to the film, and he seemed the natural choice. Apart from his authentic New York accent, his voice is not instantly recognisable, which is very important in animation. Of course, he is also undoubtedly one of the most incredible actors in the world, which also helped.

AC: You've mentioned the photographer Diane Arbus as an influence on the film. Any others?

AE: I am inspired by all sorts of things and tend to be fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the human psyche, both internal and especially external, [such as] faces. I love the films of Mike Leigh also and early David Lynch as well.

AC: I was pretty blown away by all the stats on the Mary and Max website – for instance, that it took nine weeks to make a model miniature of Max's Underwood typewriter or that Max alone had more than 30 interchangeable mouths – but the film is so successful in sweeping the viewer into the story that very rarely did I pause and pull out of the story to marvel at the actual technical accomplishments on display. Is that a little bittersweet for you, for all that work to feel so effortless?

AE: You hit the nail on the head! Our job is to make the film seamless and to engage the viewer absolutely. I want them within minutes of watching the film to forget they are seeing an animated film so they are taken along by the story and the "realism." I want the audience to empathise immediately with my characters so they become "real" and "authentic," rather than animated blobs of plasticine. The audience will never know about the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that went into every frame, and so yes, the end result is often bittersweet – but then so is life.

AC: Speaking of the stats, I couldn't help but notice that "12 litres of water based sex lube (or 24,000 teaspoons) were needed to create everything from a tear to a surging jungle river." Is sex lube a common tool in model-making, or was that, er, just a happy accident?

AE: A wonderful invention and a stop-motion animator's most valuable tool! Animators around the world sing its praises.

Mary and Max premiered on Sundance Selects Oct. 14. The service is available on cable systems Bright House, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner. See for more information.

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Mary and Max, Adam Elliot, Harvie Krumpet, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sundance Selects

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