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Elissa Down Interview

Australian director Elissa Down’s latest film, The Black Balloon, tells the story of a family coping with autism and stars Toni Collette and Gemma Ward. Its UK premiere took place last June at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and it’s already collected a host of awards and nominations, including The Crystal Bear for Best Feature within the Generation 14 programme at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, the Distinguished Achievement Award at the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival and Australian Film Institute awards for best director, film and original screenplay. Here Down talks to View London’s Matthew Turner about her family’s thoughts on the film, working with Gemma Ward and her future projects.

This is obviously a very personal film for you. How much of it is autobiographical?
Elissa Down (ED): I have three brothers, two of which have autism. I also had a father in the army so we had to move around quite a bit. Most of the stuff in the film happened to me, we just used the incidents as inspiration, and shaped it into a dramatic structure.

How have your family reacted to the film?
ED: My family are really proud. Dad loves it because he thinks he's funny now - he's heard audiences laughing at his jokes! Mum has cried everytime she has seen it. And my middle brother sighed and asked why he didn't have a girlfriend like Gemma at high school, ha ha.

Can you say a little about the casting of Luke Ford and Rhys Wakefield? How did you find them?
ED: The casting of the two brothers was really easy. Luke was the second guy to come in for Charlie and I knew within 10 seconds that this is the actor for Charlie. Rhys came in on his day off (from the show "Home and Away") and I think in so many ways he was just like Thomas. When we put both Luke and Rhys together they had this instant connection as brothers.

Luke Ford gives an incredible performance (as autistic teenager Charlie). How much direction did you give Luke with his performance? Was there a long rehearsal period? Did he spend time with autistic children?
ED: Luke had a six month rehearsal period. He walked around the streets of Sydney with his knees strapped so he could develop the physical stiffness of Charlie. He spent time with my brother to get a lot of the specific mannerisms. He would record himself eating, on the computer, walking, running and we would watch it together. I would then give him any notes, etc.

How did Gemma Ward get involved? Isn't she a supermodel or something?
ED: Gemma and I worked together on a short film of mine, "Pink Pyjamas", when she was 13. She was this lanky girl that wanted to run away and go to NIDA (the Australian National Institute of Dramatic Art) when she was 18. The fashion world discovered her and this modelling career just exploded for her.

How similar is your father to Erik Thomson's character? Does he really take advice from stuffed animals?
ED: Yes, my parents have many stuffed bears in the house. There are three actually that are in their bedroom, one being Rex. There have been some funny conversations with them over the years.

At what stage did Toni Collette get involved and what was your reaction when she agreed to take the part?
ED: Toni got involved when the script was finished. It was sent to her and within a week we got a yes. My producer rang me with the news and I was doing this clifftop walk around Bondi. I couldn't believe it! I was so excited and just swearing off my head, going, “No, no, I can't believe it.” I think people around me thought I was getting bad news. I had to then run home and I called everyone (and made them swear not to tell anyone, ha ha).

There's a fight scene towards the end of the film that is brilliantly choreographed and looks very complicated. Was it difficult to film and how long did it take to rehearse? It felt incredibly realistic and really captured the chaos of a fight breaking out.
ED: We filmed that scene over a day. We broke it up and shot it sequentially. We had a number of rehearsals for it and the lounge-room furniture was selected with that sequence in mind (e.g. padded big lounge, round coffee table, etc.). We rehearsed it a few times and our stunt coordinator Lawrence Woodward (who also worked on the Matrix which I think is hilarious. He goes from that to crafting scenes over a tampon!) helped choreograph how to make the fighting look real but be safe for the actors.

How have autistic groups reacted to the film?
ED: It has had such a fantastic response and it is being used as a training video because they feel it captures the chaos and issues of families living with a member with autism. Also, families have felt that someone has told their story of what it is like to live day to day with this: all the struggles, joys and frustrations.

Are you working on anything else? What's your next film going to be?
ED: I'm working on a number of projects, two being "Savage Garden" and "The Boy in the Sky" but you never know which one will be up next. It's like a horse race, you don't know who is going to come in first.

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Content updated: 26/04/2019 03:01

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