Published in AFC News March 2008.
Australian writer-director Elissa Down is best known for her innovative and engaging short films including Pink Pyjamas (2001) and the 2004 Tropfest finalist Summer Angst. The Black Balloon, Elissa's directorial feature film debut starring Rhys Wakefield, Gemma Ward, Luke Ford, Erik Thomson and Toni Collette, was released nationally on 6 March. The film has already had an auspicious start with its success at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, opening the Generation 14plus program and going on to win the Crystal Bear for the Best Feature-length film. The AFC's Effie Rassos spoke to Elissa about the film's development and production just before she set off for Berlin.
Effie Rassos: The Black Balloon is based upon your own experiences growing up with autistic brothers. Could you talk a little about the challenges (and the benefits) of bringing such a personal story to the screen?
Elissa Down: When I was first tackling the script there was maybe a subconscious and then conscious moment where I thought, "How much do I want to show this is my story?" And then while the script was going through Aurora [the NSWFTO's script development workshop], I remember speaking to Jane Campion who said, "Don't worry what people think". And she was absolutely right. It was from that point on that everything was up for grabs! That was a turning point for me because I said to myself, "I've got nothing to hide, just say how you feel and go for it."
ER: You received AFC development funding for the film. How did this contribute to realising the film?
ED: Basically Jimmy Jack [aka Jimmy the Exploder] and I wrote this script firstly as a 50-minute script for the Family Matters Initiative [a joint production initiative between SBS Independent, Screen Tasmania, Showtime Australia] that was running a few years ago. At the time they loved the script but they didn't want me attached as the director. So we withdrew the script and then we put it into the AFC who were just amazing. It was because of the AFC support we were able to convert the script from a 50-minute short feature into a feature film and start that journey.
ER: While this is your first feature, there seems to be a sense of thematic continuity from your short films and their concern with adolescence. What is it about this transitional time that interests you?
ED: I suppose being a young filmmaker adolescence is probably the most traumatic incident I've had so far! I haven't had children, I haven't been married, so I haven't had those things to draw on and I write what resonates with me. It's quite interesting because I've also got my other slate of projects that are getting a bit broader because the scope is a little bit bigger in the feature film format. I had a few restrictions on my short films because a lot of them were made on the smell of an oily rag.
ER: Is there a certain kind of mind shift that has to happen when you're thinking about moving from short films to features?
ED: No, no. It was quite funny because I've done 10 short films and so I'd been waiting to do my feature or working towards it, so when it happened I thought it was about time! I knew that from a physical standpoint that features take longer so I had to be physically ready. It's like you're running a marathon rather than a sprint. And I was so used to, in all my short films, doing so much of it myself, that often Tristram [Miall, the film's producer] would say, "We have people to do that Elissa!" [Laughs] On my shorts I often had the producer hat on as well, so you're shooting but also worrying about this and that and doing 20 things at once. It was nice to be able to focus all my energy on directing.
ER: In The Black Balloon you had the chance to work with high-profile actors as well as relative newcomers. Does your directorial approach differ when you're working with actors with diverse levels of experience?
ED: I think with actors it doesn't matter what level they're at, because each actor is unique and has their own approach. So as a director, no matter on what film, you're dealing with actors with different approaches. And having worked with Gemma Ward [on Pink Pyjamas] before I sort of knew our process together. Just by meeting people and knowing of their work I knew what I had to be for them. Someone like Luke Ford, who was almost obsessive, he's a director's dream as an actor. He was doing so much amazing research - he would film himself for hours in character. My support for him was centred on the sort of autism of the character and really being that safety net for him, to take his character as far as he goes. He could really make bold choices because he knew that he would be supported if he did something that wasn't quite within the scope of the character.
With Rhys Wakefield, this was his first feature and after doing television he needed support because he's got an amazing emotional arc and some massive emotional scenes in the film. When Toni Collette came into the rehearsal room, we had a fully dressed set, and so a lot of my rehearsals were dealing with the relationships. So the first thing Toni did was just let Charlie [Luke Ford's character] put on his undies and his socks and his shoes and get him dressed, give him his medicine, brush his hair, and just have a day-in-the-life. They had barbeques together, played games and cards together, to get a real sense of how the family operates, and physically move and physically interact, because the minute you see them on the screen you believe that they're a family.
We just wanted that sense that you're not watching actors. I want people to get swept up and think they are a family. You know someone like Maggie, you know someone like Simon; this is a married couple. What I'm really proud of is the depiction of the parents because they're real. They have their problems, they're not saints, they're just real. So when an audience come across a story that is a little different, that has some unusual and new things like autism, it's good to be able to cling to something familiar like the parents.
ER: You can also say that about Charlie's autism - the film doesn't judge, pity or saint him…
ED: His autism just is. That's who he is and that's what I wanted to show. Obviously it's going to make you think - and I hope make you laugh and cry - but it's not like we should bring out the violins for poor Charlie. He does have autism but he's also a very wilful character who loves his life. Even though there are a lot of things that he can't do, there are also a lot of things that he can do. And that's what I wanted to show - that my experience of growing up was a little different. There's a lot of laughter and a lot of joy but there are also a lot of tears and frustration. And I just wanted to show this is how it is.
ER: Finally, congratulations on The Black Balloon's selection into Berlin. How do you think screening at a high-profile international film festival will showcase the film?
ED: We are so excited about going to Berlin and also being opening night for Generation 14plus. It gives us a really good arena to show the film to people overseas, have an audience see it and hopefully get very excited and laugh and cry, and also to encourage other distributors around the world to snap it up. It's also a great opportunity because if it goes well over in Berlin it comes back here. If we look at some of our past successful films like Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and The Piano, they had a great overseas platform at Cannes. And everyone got really excited, so they came in to their local release with this fantastic buzz.
The Black Balloon was released nationally on 6 March.