Adam Elliot Talks Sarah Snook-Voiced ‘Memoir Of A Snail’ & Challenge Of Making Adult Stop-Motion Animation – Annecy

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Oscar-winning Australian director Adam Elliot is at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival with his long-awaited second stop-motion feature Memoir of a Snail, which world premieres in the main competition.

Set in 1970s Australia, the movie gathers a starry cast led by Succession star Sarah Snook, who lends her voice to Grace Puddle, the unfortunate female protagonist who finds comfort in the hoarding of snail memorabilia after a life punctuated by emotional setbacks.

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Recounting her life to her pet garden snail Sylvia, Grace reveals her various trials and tribulations, which range from being born with a cleft palate to separation from her beloved, misfit family as a child and then heartbreak as an adult.

One bright spot in her journey is the figure of Pinky, an eccentric old lady with an exotic past, who teaches Grace to look forward, rather than back.

Snook is joined in the voice cast by Jacki Weaver as Pinky, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Grace’s twin brother Gilbert, Eric Bana as a kindly judge struck off for sexually inappropriate behavior, and Nick Cave who voices a postman-poet devoured in a crocodile attack.

The parade of misfit characters also includes Grace’s foster parents, a well-meaning pair whose hobby is swinging; a crazed cult leader; and a hunky fiancé with sinister plans for her body.

Memoir of a Snail is Elliot’s second feature after 2009 animation Mary And Max, and Oscar-winning 2004 short Harvey Krumpet.

Deadline sat down with Elliot in Annecy as the feature kicks off its festival career.

DEADLINE: It’s discombobulating watching Memoir of Snail. On the one hand, there is the childlike appeal of the cute-looking lead characters and whimsical settings. On the other, there are the dark adult themes.

ELLIOT: One of the biggest problems I have is that my films are often perceived as being for children. I’ve had a lot of emails over the last 30 years from angry parents saying this film is not for children. but that was never the intention. From day one in film school, I never wanted to make films for children. I don’t relate to children. I was always attracted to darker subject-matter. I wanted to tell biographies about my family and friends, and they all had afflictions and problems.

I also wanted to make comedies, so I knew I had to strike a balance between the light and the shade, the comedy and the tragedy.

I think there’s that mind-set when you see these cute, particularly plasticine characters, which we all identify with because we all played with Play-Doh. Then to suddenly see something challenging and confronting… I do love to manipulate the audience and sort of push those boundaries. And make people feel uncomfortable at times, but it’s knowing when to stop.

DEADLINE: You’ve said you take inspiration from people in your life. Is Grace based on any real-life characters?

ELLIOT: There’s two. There’s my mum, who is a reformed hoarder. She was never a hoarder in the sense of being unhygienic. It wasn’t filled to the ceiling, but it was an issue. When does a collection become a hoard? It’s when it sort of interferes with your life and you feel ashamed.

I became fascinated by how people get into this situation. What is the root cause. Then I started watching all those horrible, exploitive documentaries on hoarders. They’re all quite cruel. The more research I did and the more I read, the more realized it was to do with trauma.

At the same time, years ago I wanted to make a film about my friend Annalise, who had 11 operations on a cleft palate. She’s now the most extroverted show-off you’ll ever come across. She’s extremely gregarious and the life of the party, but as a child, she was the complete opposite, introverted and bullied at school and all that.

There’s a lot of myself in there too. The Gilbert character is essentially me.

DEADLINE: Gilbert ends up being placed with an ultra-conservative, religious cult-like family. That’s not something you’ve experienced, is it?

ELLIOT: No, no, not but I had friends who were subjected to gay conversion therapy. But it’s not all based on fact. Pinky is a very fictional character. I know a woman called Pinky but she’s nowhere near as extroverted. I always knew that I wanted to make a film about an eccentric old woman at some point. I love films like Harold and Maude. I liked the idea of Pinky having a bit of mystery to her. Pinky became the comic relief in a way. Grace is such a passive, inactive character.

DEADLINE: The movie has a starry voice cast led by Sarah Snook as Grace Puddle. How did you manage to secure these big names given you didn’t have a big budget?

ELLIOT: All the actors are from Melbourne. Sarah just lives down the road. They’re all locals. They all know my work and that it’s low budget before we even approach them. I knew I wanted Sarah really early. Even before Succession, I had her in my head. All the other big Australian female actors, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Margot Robbie, they didn’t seem to me to have the right voice for Grace. Sarah’s quite self-deprecating, and humble, and very down to earth. And that’s sort of what Grace is. When Succession exploded, we thought, “We’re never going to get her.” But then Succession finished, she got pregnant and moved back to Melbourne and was having a six-month break, so that’s when we approached her agent.

DEADLINE: There’s also a voice cameo by Nick Cave for the character of Pinky’s first husband, a postman and poet. How did that come about?

ELLIOT: He came in really late. I always have a cameo. They don’t even have to be an actor. They can be a sports star or a celebrity. We went through a million names and then somebody said Nick Cave, and I thought perfect because he’s this tortured poet. He said that every week he goes through all these offers in London, and when he came across this, it was so left of center that he immediately said yes.

DEADLINE: Here in Annecy, there’s a lot of anime and it seems to be on the rise. Where do you stand on the stop-motion versus anime debate?

ELLIOT: [Annecy artistic director] Marcel Jean was saying, he thinks stop-motion is going through a golden age – with the likes of Tim Burton, Wes Anderson and Guillermo del Toro all wanting to do stop-motion.

I think a little bit of that has to do with the rebellion against AI, particularly now. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s a glut of CGI animation. Aardman have also been a wonderful inspiration to everybody.

For us, it’s important that the fingerprints in the clay are kept. It reminds the audience that these are tangible, tactile things and they’re real. In this film, there’s no CGI. Even the fire is yellow cellophane, and the smoke is cotton wool. It authentic and it’s very traditional in the way it’s made. Of course, we used digital technology such as LED lights and digital cameras. So, we certainly embrace new technology.

It feels like there are these two worlds, but in the end, it’s all about the storytelling and it doesn’t matter what medium we choose.

DEADLINE: How long did it take you make the film from start to finish?

ELLIOT: Eight years, but then Covid slowed everything down. The production time was actually quite quick. We started pre-production in late 2022. It was a 32-week shoot, which for stop motion is really quick. I use voice-over because lip sync is so tight and there’s also no walking. My style of animation is very economical and minimal. I hope the next film is not going to take so long.

DEADLINE: Do you have ideas for your next film?

ELLIOT: I want to make a road film about a character who travels across Australia. I think she’ll be another elderly woman. I thought it could be Pinky’s pre-life, so a decade of her life we don’t see in the film, but I don’t think it will be Pinky… it’s very early days and it’s all dependent on how this film goes.

DEADLINE: You won the Oscar with short film Harvey Krumpet. Do you have Oscar hopes for this film?

ELLIOT: The Oscar was wonderful, and it really opened doors, but it was stressful and it was never planned for. I’m happy with one. I’m probably more interested in supporting my crew. A lot of them are emerging filmmakers and they’re all here in Annecy. They desperately want work but know I won’t have another film for a while. They’re all here going to as many parties at they can gatecrash and trying to meet [Aardman co-founder] Peter Lord.

IFC, which has rights for America, is very optimistic about how it will go there. They bought Mary and Max 15 years ago, and it did okay but it’s adult animation, clay animation, and the market is so small. They keep telling me that things have changed and that there’s more awareness. We’ll see.

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