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Interview with Adam Elliot on new short film “Ernie Biscuit”

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Six years after he brought us Mary and Max, a tear-jerker of stop-motion feature film, Adam Elliot has brought into the world his newest short Ernie Biscuit. The film is a half-hour spectacular reminiscent of his Academy Award-winning Harvie Krumpet about a misunderstood, lonely French man who makes a daring leap in his later life to go to Venice, where he dreams of gondolas and perhaps love. However, as with many of Elliot’s unlucky characters, nothing quite goes to plan and Ernie ends up in Australia circa the 1960s. This beautiful and poignant addition to Adam’s filmography is sure to be screened across the globe and perhaps touch the hearts of all the lost souls out there trying to build the up the courage to make their own defining leap into the exciting unknown of the future.

This film serves as a dynamic change in this prominent filmmaker’s work – yes, it’s still in black and white and the characters are still warped figures made of plasticine. However there is a tangible hunger behind this film, the narrative though reminiscent of Adam’s previous work has a notable change that I won’t spoil for those yet to see it, but it’s the director’s passion for film, story and craft that truly speak volumes. Made on a shoestring budget and financed from his own pocket, Ernie Biscuit is a testament to what it means to be an artist, not through pride or a simple want, but through an overwhelming need to create and evolve through cinema.

This week sees its European premiere at the world renowned Annecy International Film Festival in France, before heading back and forth across the continents – first to Edinburgh and then back home for the Melbourne Film Festival.

Now with a staggering six films under his belt, Adam has proven time and time again that a good story, real characters and a simple but effective aesthetic are still as popular and necessary in this modern world of hi-tech CGI and huge-budget Hollywood films. Having waited a long time to revel in a new film by this magnificent puppeteer of comedy and tragedy, it was a great pleasure to be able to get an extensive insight in to not only Ernie Biscuit, but Adam’s ideas, plans and thoughts on animation as a whole. We took a little time between his premiere in Sydney and harrowing 24 hour flight to Annecy to get to grips with Ernie and his clayographic forefathers.


adam_withernieWhere did the initial idea of Ernie Biscuit and his story come from?

This story is different to my others, I wanted to make a slightly lighter film after Mary and Max, as it really upset a lot of people emotionally. I tried to make this film happier – there are dark moments in it, of course, but I see this as probably the fluffiest film I’ve made.
Ernie was very much an experimental film after Mary and Max. Mary and Max cost about 8 million Australian dollars, which was a real luxury, mostly because of Harvie Krumpet and the Academy Award so we had this window of opportunity, we were very lucky to be be able to make the film. Now there’s no way we’d be able to raise that kind of money again here in Australia, so I realised we had to get more economical and more efficient.
I started developing this whole range of new techniques and Ernie was the perfect vehicle to try them out, to see how cheaply and quickly I could make this film. I’m glad to say it’s worked out as I’ve now been able to reduce the budget by two thirds. If I had to make Mary and Max again now, instead of 8 million I could probably make it for two million, which means if I ever get the chance to make another feature I can make it for a lot less money from investors.
Also I wanted to make Ernie as after the feature I didn’t feel I was getting my hands dirty anymore, I was the conductor to the orchestra and I prefer to be one of the musicians. I just missed playing with the clay and making things with my hands. I’m a control freak so I gave myself the very difficult task of writing, directing, constructing and animating almost all aspects of the film (I had to get a sound mixer and a colour grader at the end). I think there are parts of Ernie that don’t quite work and parts of the film that don’t have the production values of the feature but I never expected Ernie to have those values. I put a lot of my time and energy into the screenplay because with all my films, I can never reach the aesthetics I want to achieve.
I know the writing is the most important – as well as the cheapest – part of the process, it’s just paper or a computer. I did about twenty-five drafts of the script for this film. It did start off as a feature but we soon worked out the budget was just going to be astronomical because of the very dynamic nature of the story so I quickly realised that it would work better as a short.

Why did you chose to start the film in Paris?

I do love – as many other people do – the Parisian world, as well as having a bittersweet relationship with Australia. So I knew I wanted Ernie to start in another country like Harvie Krumpet which starts in Poland. Ernie Biscuit is part two of a half-hour trilogy – Ernie, like Harvie, is a fish out of water, a migrant of sorts and he has to learn how to assimilate in a very short period of time. Of course like Harvie he has seemingly perpetual bad luck and he has to become his own hero and “become the windscreen, not the insect”. I really wanted two countries that contrasted each other, so I chose the beauty of Paris and the ugliness of early Australia.

erniebiscuit2Then the next section of the series will be about a migrant not from Europe. But as always you’re only as good as your last film, so I’m hoping Ernie will open up a few doors.
I think for me France has always been the country that has responded the best to my films. Mary and Max did its best box office figures in France, so logically it makes sense to focus on the country where my films seem to have the best response. I also love coming to France – if only I could speak French!

I really liked Angelina, she’s very different to your other puppets, both in style and personality. She’s a very quiet person, whilst all your other characters are so expressive, she almost seems like a noir dame?

Yeah, Angelina is an evolution of many other characters I’ve always wanted in my films. I wanted her to be strong, rigid, I didn’t want her to show any signs of weakness even though she does show some signs of vulnerability towards the end. She only appears briefly but she has a massive impact on Ernie. I also didn’t want to over-animate her, I mean it’s so much easier and quicker to animate a character that doesn’t have eyes, who doesn’t walk or talk. I’d really like to start writing a lot more female characters, because over the years all of my films are all about men and me. I’ve sometime been called a misogynist – even Mary was really a version of my childhood! I’d really like there to be more strong female leads in my films down the track as in Hollywood there aren’t enough. I think things are changing slowly.

How is her puppet and the rest of the cast holding up after filming?

I’m probably going to upset you by telling you this, as I upset everyone. As I’ve done after all my films, I throw everything out. Well, not everything, I kept some of the characters, but for me it’s very cathartic to destroy everything after I’m done. It took a year to build and shoot everything, then a day to destroy it all. It doesn’t bother me like it bothers everyone else, because I treat my films like a theatre company would treat their sets; theatre companies don’t keep everything, they recycle, they reappropriate. A lot of the materials have gone into the recycling bin, so not many of the characters exist physically anymore. In the past I’ve exhibited my puppets and sets but what’s important is what’s on film, and that’s where they belong.

Skwigly's Laura-Beth tracks down a surviving Max sculpt at Annecy 2014

Skwigly’s Laura-Beth tracks down a surviving Max sculpt at Annecy 2014

It’s heading to Annecy next week, how do you feel about that and the festival in general?

Well, it’s more like a family reunion for me – the more times I’ve been, the more people and friends I meet. I always feel that going to any film festival – particularly animation festivals – is very validating. You’re amongst kindred spirits, you’re definitely part of a bigger wider community. So for me it’s very important to come down to Annecy, not only to show my film and network with potential investors but also to feel sane.

John Flaus who narrated Ernie, has been involved in several of your films. Can you tell me a little about his and your relationship?

John was in my very first film Uncle as the voice of the uncle, and then he became the voice of Harvie and had a cameo in Mary and Max. In Australia he’s very well-known, he’s a bit of an actor’s actor and I’ve always loved working with actors who are admired by other actors. There’s something I’ve always loved about his voice, he’s one of those people you could listen to read out the phonebook. Again, with this film I wanted it to be minimal, simple. I didn’t want big names, I just wanted to work with people I liked. John really deserved to finally narrate one of my films and not just be a voice.
I sometimes get accused of using narration too often but I love films that are narrated. I’m a traditionalist, I like it to be spelt out to me, I don’t like scripts to be difficult to understand or confusing. I tend to spoon-feed the audience, however this is the first one where there’s a bit of twist, so it will be interesting to see if people guess it.

442605d1c365b22bdecca20dadc75c62I mean Tiny for instance is probably the most one dimensional of all my characters but he was there really as a catalyst to make Ernie be brave. In the early drafts of the film there was so much more backstory to him, about why he is the way he is – he had a horrible divorce and was treated badly by his parents – unfortunately with a short you have to leave all of that.

Why did you choose to make the film now?

I always write one screenplay at a time, every screen play I’ve written I’ve then turned into a film. I don’t have multiple projects on the go at one time. I let the characters come to me which is why they take so long to write and why it takes about five years from concept to its first screening. After Mary and Max I was exhausted mentally and emotionally, it was really a daring film to make and really took a toll on me. Also as it was based on my real life pen-pal over in America there was a lot of emotion I put into that film as well as blood, sweat and tears.
I just felt it was too early to make another feature, so for my sanity I wanted to make something lighter, a little more upbeat and feelgood. Ernie ended up telling me what he wanted to do and what his length was going to be. I really treat my characters as if they’re real and now he has to go out into the world. I wish him well and hope he’s treated well. I’m not sure if this is my strongest film but I tried my hardest. With all my films I see imperfections but you have to move forward and focus on the next project. As I said earlier I’m now thinking of ‘getting pregnant’ again, I have some other characters in my head I’m wanting to meet and develop and evolve.

Motley crew: Adam Elliot's six 'clayographical' subjects to date (from top left): Uncle, Brother, Cousin, Harvie, Max and Ernie.

Motley crew – Adam Elliot’s six ‘clayographical’ subjects to date (from top left): Uncle, Brother, Cousin, Harvie, Max and Ernie.

What are the plans for Ernie after festivals?

After that it will be moving it to being screened on television here in Australia, then in Europe – maybe in America, though it’s always a hard country to crack. But now I have my hunger back for making another feature, so I’m hoping Ernie will help with that. I’m really itching to sit down and get writing and I definately want the next film to be a feature, but if not I’ll do the third part of the half-hour trilogy. I haven’t talked about this much over the years, but when I was back in film school in 1996 I had this idea of creating a trilogy of trilogies. Six out of the nine have already been made, so I might as well go for bust, and try and get the other three made. So Uncle, Brother and Cousin were the trilogy of 10 minutes, Harvie, Ernie and the third part coming soon are a trilogy of half-hours and then there will be a trilogy of features. So eventually there will be a trilogy of trilogies!

You can learn more about the earlier work of Adam Elliot in our 2011 feature, podcast chat or better yet from the man himself at
Annecygoers can catch Ernie Biscuit as part of the Short Films in Competition 1 screening which takes place today (Monday 15th) at the Bonlieu Grande Salle (2pm and 6pm) and the Pathé Annecy: Pathé 1 (4pm and 8:30pm); Tuesday 16th at La Turbine (4pm); Thursday 18th at the MJC Novel (6pm) and Friday 19th at the at the Pathé Annecy: Pathé 3 (10am).

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