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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 story.”

Published: March 6, 2008

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Elissa Down


Australian release March 6, 2008

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