Sundance opener Mary And Max’s director Adam Elliot : debut feature, yet he is far from a novice

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Mary And Max, which opens the Sundance Film Festival, may be the debut feature of Australian writer-director Adam Elliot but he is no novice. Elliot’s four preceding claymation shorts have been seenatmore than 500 festivals and won more than 100 awards, including an Oscar in 2004 for HarvieKrumpet.

‘I have a cupboard full of awards and would be happy not to win any more, and film festivals are nice and hedonistic, but really I just want everyone to see the film and I want the chance to make another,’ says Elliot.

Mary And Max is the story of two friends on different continents - Elliot describes it as two biographies rolled into one. He has based the film on letters sent to him over two decades by his real-life penfriend, a now 44-year-old New Yorker with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Max is voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Mary by Toni Collette. Comedian Barry Humphries narrates. Hoffman has told Elliot he would like to go out for dinner with the director and his real penfriend when the film reaches New York, but the suggestion has unsettled Elliot because he has never met his penfriend, who, he says, is ‘slightly indifferent’ about the film.

‘It will be a case of life imitating art, imitating life,’ says the Melbourne-based animator, who has reinvented his own role in the story as a girl growing up in a Melbourne suburb in the 1970s.

Melanie Coombs produced the $5.5m (a$8m) film under her Melodrama Pictures banner. It took five years, with the shoot lasting 57 weeks and 50 people working on 10 stages to produce two-and-a-half minutes of animation, on average, per week.

‘We ticked all the boxes for Sundance,’ says Elliot. ‘We are independent, from Australia, and an Australian film had never opened Sundance. Having Philip Seymour Hoffman helped too.’

After Elliot won the Oscar, and had a script, several government agencies and a broadcaster boarded the project as investors. But they remained nervous about the genre-defying film and its demographic - Mary And Max pre-dated other animated adult films such as Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir. Without sufficient money raised, executive producer Jonathan Page, then of Becker Films, brought in brothers Paul and Tom Hardart of Adirondack Pictures. Icon inherited the film as international sales agent and local distributor after the sale of Becker.

‘Everyone took a big leap of faith but they’re all very happy now,’ says Elliot.

As the film is finished, Elliot is back on the corporate speaking circuit. He believes he has addressed 100,000-200,000 people about winning an Academy Award. ‘I earn more talking about films than making them,’ he says.