Elissa Down, The Black Balloon
Since she was very young, Elissa Down has been honing her skills as a director. Admittedly, it wasn’t strictly conscious when she was writing, acting in and masterminding little drama projects as a kid growing up in Australia, or bossing her parents around when they were reading her bedtime stories. However, her vocation as a filmmaker became ever clearer as she grew older and by the time she was a film and television student at Perth’s Curtin University, she had her eye on cinematic success. Her drive and potential were acknowledged when she was nominated for Western Australia’s Young Filmmaker of the Year in both 1999 and 2000, and these accolades spurred her on to make no less than 10 short films between 2000 and 2004, including the prize winners My Outback (2002), The Bathers (2003) and Summer Angst (2004).
Down’s debut feature, like a number of her shorts, is semi-autobiographical and draws on her memories of growing up Down Under. The Black Balloon is an extremely likeable coming of age story about 15-year-old Thomas (Rhys Wakefield), an army brat whose good-hearted but disruptive brother Charlie (Luke Ford) makes life tough for their pregnant mother (Toni Collette) and endangers Thomas’ romance with girl-next-door Jackie (Gemma Ward). Down herself has two autistic brothers and here, with the help of co-writer Jimmy Jack (bizarrely credited here as Jimmy the Exploder), transforms her own childhood experiences into an accessible and moving narrative. She also has a great eye for conveying place and time with simple details and the performances she elicits from her young leads (especially Ford) as well as old hands like Collette suggest she has an innate understanding of how to get the best out of actors.
Filmmaker spoke to Down about drawing on her own childhood, her puzzlement at the lack of menstrual comedies, and her vivid memories of singing Michael Penn songs in her sleep.
Filmmaker: This feels like a very personal film. How much of this is from your own experiences?
Down: I have three brothers, two of which have autism and my youngest brother Sean is basically the Charlie character. We thought he would be a more interesting film character because we’ve seen the autistic savant many times – they’re very interesting, but try living with the ones that hang from the ceiling and causing havoc and mischief everywhere they turn. [laughs] For example, we’ve had the shopping center temper tantrums, we’ve had child services come around and neighbors [getting involved]. We’ve had chewing of tampons and [incidents involving] poo, and chairs through windows. The emotional journey is very much those feelings that I’d felt and a lot of the stuff has happened, but we’ve mixed it up and changed it around so it works in a dramatic structure and can make an entertaining film.
Filmmaker: How was it for you, making that decision that you wanted to put this very personal story on the big screen?
Down: It was about the point of difference for the film: we’ve had many films about disabilities in all their different guises and forms, and in a way this film is an insider’s view, which has been fantastic because so many people [have responded to it]. It’s great to see what it’s really like for family, for the siblings, the day-to-day living of that, [because] we haven’t really seen that. I had to be completely honest. That was how I could tell that story, to be completely open and honest and go, “This is what it was like growing up,” because I didn’t want it to be a study in autism or anything like that. A lot of people call it “the autism film,” but we don’t have scenes where autism is explained at all and Charlie’s only referred to twice as having autism; the rest [of the time], the audience learns by his behavior and everybody feels firsthand what it’s like to actually be inside that house.
Filmmaker: Was this a film that was quick to write because it was semi-autobiographical or was it slow and difficult to draw out of yourself?
Down: It’s so many different processes. At the start, I was being a little guarded and holding back a little bit, saying, “How much do I want to keep for me and how much do I want to show the audience?” I went to this great script lab in Australia called Aurora and Jane Campion is the patron of it. I met Jane and she took me under her wing and was a great help. She took me over to her house, showed me her storyboards and gave me all this great advice. She said, “Who cares what all these people think?” That coming from Jane, who’s made all these amazing films and is such a pioneer, I was like going, “Well, yeah, of course – go hard or go home!” At that point, I was like, “OK, I have to be completely honest. There may have been other films about this subject matter, but this will be the film that tells you what it’s like to live with it.” This is my first feature too, so I’m learning to write [laughs], and it was a process of going through from guarded to being open. I was working with someone as well, and he was also learning to write [features] during this time, so it was a really insane experience – you’re never going to write your first film again, you’re only a virgin once – and we were bumbling around, trying stuff out. It was an interesting journey and I’ve learned so much.
Filmmaker: How important was it to draw a line between your personal experiences and what you depicted in the film? For example, the protagonist is a teenage boy rather than a girl.
Down: It wasn’t so much to draw the line. It wasn’t making it different, it was just dramatically more interesting. If you think about it, if there was a girl doing the things that Thomas was doing, you couldn’t have the bath scene, you couldn’t have the scene where he beats the shit out of his brother and says “I hate you!,” and there’d be a lot of scenes that couldn’t happen in the film. Also we still in a society that expects the sisters to help their mothers out, like the girl in the family is still today expected to help around the house more so than the sons. So by having Thomas as a son, you can explore Charlie’s sexuality without it being icky, and you can have the fighting, you can have the physicality. It just sort of felt right, and it heightened the drama. I didn’t want it to be, “This happened and then it was my birthday and then this happened…” It’s the sum of things that happened to me over [my time] growing up from when I was like a young girl till I left home, so it’s like 10 years of stuff put into a film.
Filmmaker: How much did you talk to your family to get their memories of this period and gain multiple perspectives on the events of your childhood?
Down: It was actually really important to keep speaking to the family, it wasn’t just about me writing it all down. The writer also came to meet my family and spoke to my dad and my mom individually. There’s a scene where the father says, “You’re weak as piss if you can’t look after your own” – that is directly quoted from my dad [talking about] when he was doing tuck shop duty, helping out in the special school canteen. He met this beautiful blonde woman and she had this Down Syndrome child and her husband had left her straight after she’d given birth. He saw the child, said “That’s your child” and walked out on her. My dad said, “How could you do that to anyone as beautiful as her and as beautiful as her child?” And then he said that line, and it was like, “Oh, straight in!” It was important to get that other perspective and for you to feel what it was like for the father and the mother and have that all fleshed out and see how each individual family member felt.
Filmmaker: In the film, I feel like you skillfully captured period detail and aspects of the story’s Australian identity, but without making it too dominant and distracting from the accessibility and universality of the story.
Down: Well, all my short films are period films – I love history and things having a time and a place, but I think sometimes you can go for a period film and think, “Oh, I have to make it scream of the period.” Audiences know where they are. You don’t have to cut to beehive hairdos and psychedelic dresses to say it’s the 1960s, because not everybody wore them. I didn’t want to go “This is the period,” I just wanted it to feel whatever it was like growing up, in its time and its place.
Filmmaker: It’s funny that you said that all your shorts are period pieces, as Summer Angst is actually about a girl getting her first period.
Down: It’s also set around the early 90s and I call that my period film about periods! A few people have now noticed that my signature [motif] is some sort of sanitary item or some reference to periods. They always find their way into my films. I absolutely love sitting in audiences waiting for the bit [in The Black Balloon] with the tampon because the squeals you hear from men and women of different ages. Old people lose it because it’s something that they just don’t expect and that always brings a smile. Even when we had a cast and crew screening, I could hear Toni Collette with her distinctive laugh just laughing. She just lost it and was like, “Oh, my God, I forgot how much I love that scene!” Add a sanitary item to any scene, it’s going to make people laugh. [laughs]
Filmmaker: And yet menstrual humor is not very common.
Down: I find it funny because I’ve watched so many films and periods are experienced by 50% of the population – and also the other 50%, when they’re in relationships, somehow have to deal with it, like “Sorry, hon, period…” – and I wonder why it’s not in films more. Every guy and girl I know have great period stories, of springing a leak on a date or all this stuff, and I’m like “Why is this stuff not in movies?” In romantic comedies, where’s the girl freaking out because she’s bled over her skirt or it’s the big night and it’s her period and “Oh, do I tell him or do I pretend I’m not interested?” I find it insane that it’s not used screenplays more.
Filmmaker: How was your transition from shorts to features?
Down: It really wasn’t a jump, because I’ve made 10 short films and I’ve been waiting [laughs] so long to get a feature up. All my shorts were in preparation to do a feature, so it was a really seamless transition, and by the time you’re shooting, you’ve already spent a year in preproduction or in pre-pre – casting, doing all the boards, doing all the meetings, getting all your photographs and everything ready – so it was actually great to get it done, to be on set and feel it all come together. Speaking to Jane Campion and Tony Ayres and other directors, they’re all like, “It’s all about keeping yourself healthy, like getting enough sleep,” so I really took their advice on board. I stocked up my cupboards full of soap, razors, tampons, aspirin, toilet paper, just so i didn’t have to [deal with it during production]. I set up my rent, there was all this food, so I didn’t have to do anything and just really looked after myself.
Filmmaker: Looking at your bio, it seems you’ve been consciously working towards your first feature. How far back can you trace your passion for film and directing?
Down: I remember as a very little girl, the first thing I ever wanted to do was be in films. So, of course, I was the little actress girl, putting on plays and stuff, but I always wrote the little skits I did. And I was very interested in photography and writing and costumes and makeup, so I’d be that little person wanting to do the makeup as well… I’d just be the one bossing everyone around in primary school and high school. I also did film and television in high school, and as soon the teacher would walk out the room, I’d start directing people. But I didn’t realize what that was, I just thought I was a bossy boots. [laughs]
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Down: That was when I was working in a clothing store when I was in uni. [laughs] Ever since I’ve been filmmaking, I’ve never wished that ever.
Filmmaker: What’s the last dream you can remember having?
Down: Oh, God, I’m a big dream guru, actually. I’m always remembering my dreams and last night I was dreaming of the song, you know, [starts singing “No Myth” by Michael Penn], “if I were Romeo in black jeans / if I was Heathcliff, it’s no myth / she’s just looking for / someone to dance with.” In the dream I was singing that song, and I was with someone, but not someone I know.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Down: It was either E.T. or Annie – I can’t remember which one came first. I think it would be Annie. It was just such an amazing experience because I saw it with my nana and she took me along to “the pictures” – you know how your nana calls it “the pictures?” – and I think I even got dressed up to go to the cinema, like little patent shoes or a dress.