DOWN ELISSA - THE BLACK BALLOON
MAKING ‘EM LAUGH … AND CRY
Flying home triumphant from the Berlin Film Festival, The Black Balloon
writer/director Elissa Down pays tribute to those who helped her with the making
of her debut feature, which seems to make everybody laugh and cry, she tells
Andrew L. Urban.
Elissa Down is suffering ‘jet lurgie’ as she is thrown into a media scrum after
flying back from the Berlinale, where her debut feature, The Black Balloon, won
the Crystal Bear in the Generation 14plus section. The pre-release publicity
tour involves lots of talking and as we discuss the film, she is thinking of the
premiere a few hours away – and the incessant ear ache. Still, the pain is
soothed by the euphoria of the Crystal Bear and the “amazing, insane” response
of the Berlin festival crowd.
“When we landed in Berlin we were picked up by the festival people who were
saying “You sold out in three minutes.” The sellout reference was not a
condemnation of the filmmaker but a reference to the zealous patrons who stormed
the box office. “They had to bring in emergency seating and still people were
turned away,” she says, excitement hiding the rattly throat.
The triumph is not Elissa’s alone, as she is quick to point out. “I’ve made 10
shorts but I knew this was going to be a marathon by comparison, and I knew I
had to have a strong team to support me, and I did … many very experienced
people as well as talented newcomers.”
"little survival tips"
She also knew she had to look after herself physically, so she stocked her
cupboard with “vitamins and aspirins”. Other filmmakers had given her little
survival tips, too, like “getting a massage every week, getting someone to do
your washing, tips like that…”
But the most important tip came from Jane Campion, in her role as mentor for the
AURORA script programme which helped Elissa and her co-writer Jimmy The Exploder
polish the script. Being based on her own family’s experiences with two autistic
brothers, she had found the writing challenging. “I was holding back … putting
up a wall. Until Jane told me to let it all out: who cares what people think,
she said. That helped free me up and everything I felt could go into it.”
Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) and his family move to a new home and he has to start at
a new school, all he wants is to fit in. When his pregnant mother (Toni
Collette) has to take things easy, his father Simon (Erik Thomson) puts him in
charge of his autistic older brother Charlie (Luke Ford). Thomas, with the help
of his new girlfriend Jackie (Gemma Ward), faces his biggest challenge yet.
Charlie’s unusual antics take Thomas on an emotional journey that causes his
pent-up frustrations about his brother to pour out.
Elissa had to make a decision about revealing aspects her own life. “I figured
you’re either going to write it or not. No point being half arsed about it. I
wanted people to come away feeling they’d had a terrific insight into the world
of autism. I wanted to make them laugh and cry.” In Berlin, where the film was
screened without German subtitles, Elissa was thrilled to hear the audience
laugh and cry in all the right places. But the laughing and crying had begun
much earlier, when Elissa approached producer Tristram Miall (Strictly Ballroom,
Looking for Alibrandi). Says Miall: “I was moved by the script’s warmth and
humanity, and intrigued by how it made me laugh and cry.”
"a powerful story"
I have three younger brothers, two of which have autism - so growing up was
very eventful, crazy, funny and sometimes very sad. I always thought it would be
a powerful story to tell.”
The character of Charlie is based on Elissa’s youngest brother Sean, who not
only has autism but also has ADHD and is an elective mute. “He was the bane of
my existence growing up just like Charlie is to Thomas. Many elements in the
film really did happen to us - I did have to chase him down the street and get
him out of other people’s houses and toilets and we would have to struggle to
get him to take his medicine.
“When people talk about autism they often reference Rainman – which is one
aspect of autism – and my other brother is very much like that but autism covers
so many different facets” she continued.
“Sean is very different and we had the added frustration of him being an
elective mute. He was so naughty and so full of life and we always thought he
would be a great character for a film. That coupled with growing up in an army
family - always moving and having to settle into a new community and a new
school, with a slightly unusual family, was solid ground for an interesting
Published: March 6, 2008
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THE BLACK BALLOON
Australian release March 6, 2008