The Black Balloon
First published September 6, 2011.
Every family has a story. For Australian film writer/director Elissa Down, the story is about growing up as a sibling of brothers with autism. Her 2008 film. "The Black Balloon," is a semi-autobiographical look at moving into adulthood alongside a brother on the autism spectrum. The film earned 11 Australian Film Institute Awards, including Best Direction and Best Screenplay nods for Down. It stars Toni Collette ("United States of Tara"), Rhys Wakefield, Luke Ford, and Gemma Ward and is available on DVD. This summer, Down took some time to answer a few of our questions about her film.
AA16: "The Black Balloon" has been referred to as semi-autobiographical. Tell us a little about your two brothers with autism and the rest of your family structure.
ED: I am the oldest, and have three brothers. I have two that have autism. One, is very high functioning and for a time went to the same high school as me. The other, Sean, who is the youngest and the brother Charlie is based on, does not only have autism but is also ADHD and is an elective mute.
AA16: How old are your brothers now? What is their living/employment/support situations?
ED: My brothers still all live at home. My mum still looks after them and so did my dad until he passed away last year. Mum is able to get respite care for Sean and he is also involved in a social group. My other brother is super smart so he spends most of his time on the computer.
AA16: What prompted you to make this film? What did you want to communicate to audiences?
ED: I don’t think anything prompts you. It’s inspiration. Which of course sounds airy-fairy but this idea of telling a film based on my family came to me and I followed it. I wanted to show the audience the "insider view" into living with a family member with autism.
AA16: You set the film in the early 1990s. You’ve talked about how that choice forces Thomas to interact with his peers in a way that can’t rely on texting or Facebook. Does that choice also impact how the family interacts with neighbors and their community, or do you think things remain the same in that regard?
ED: I do think things are different now in the sense with the internet is much easier to find support and find others out there in the same situation as you. I would have loved it when I was growing up as I would not have felt so alone.
AA16: "The Black Balloon" has an amazing cast. What were you looking for in actors when you were casting and what contributed to your decisions in bringing each of these actors into the project?
ED: It’s hard to give a short answer about the casting process, as each character requires different qualities that I would be looking for in each of the characters. Toni Collette was my number one choice as she always gives such rounded portraits, especially of the working class. With Thomas, I was looking for an actor that could embody sensitivity and nobility. He needed to be a vehicle for the audience’s empathy. Charlie on the other hand, I needed a courageous actor who could not only convincingly inhabit the world of autism but could also give Charlie a nuanced sense of self.
AA16: You got strong, layered performances from your cast. What did you do to help them understand the complexities of being a family living with autism?
ED: The actors got care packages which included not only information about autism but also documents like the communication books between my mum and my brother’s teachers. I also did a lot of workshopping in rehearsal, where I would set up a scene where Charlie plays up and then the family would have to improvise how to deal with it.
AA16: In casting Jackie, you went with Gemma Ward, a model. To Thomas, Jackie represents everything normal and beautiful that has been outside of his reach. She becomes accessible to him, both in terms of her feelings for him and for his family. Why this choice in creating a first relationship for Thomas?
ED: If the character of Jackie was a bitch, again the alienation of Thomas could be blamed on her and not on his estranged feelings about his brother. Also, there are many people out there who have such big hearts and Jackie is a reflection of that.
AA16: In another interview, you commented on how you were advised to split the parents up as you were writing the screenplay. What was the thinking in giving this advice, and why did you decide to keep the family intact? How would you characterize the relationship between Maggie and Simon?
ED: I decided to keep the family together because that is reflective of my parent’s strong marriage. It is all I knew growing up. From a script point of view, if I split up the parents, it would give Thomas a reason for the alienation inside, you could blame it on his parents situation and not on him wishing his brother was normal
AA16: There is a moment in the film in which Thomas looks at his new baby sister lying in her crib. What do you think Thomas is thinking at that moment?
ED: It is one of those moments I leave audiences to decide. You can read a number of different interpretations on Thomas in that moment.
AA16: "The Black Balloon" won numerous awards and was generally viewed very favorably by critics. What audience responses to the film made an impression on you? Was any feedback unexpected?
ED: The biggest aspect for me was to realize I wasn’t alone. So many people came up to me or contacted me to tell me they told "their" story with "The Black Balloon." That was very cathartic for me. It was also an amazing thing to see different audiences from around the world, laugh and cry all in the same places in the film. That is the great thing about film as a medium, you can make a person understand a plight of another, in a more meaningful way than reports and statistics.
AA16: If you were to make a film showing Thomas and Charlie now, what would you include in that story?
ED: When my father passed away, there were so many funny things that were happening that I was thinking, “This is such great material.” I won’t divulge too much, but one thing was, Sean spent most of the funeral hitting me on the shoulder, then put his arm around me after I gave a speech.
AA16: What are the most challenging issues facing families with adult members on the autism spectrum? Do you think there are differences for people living in Australia versus those in the United States in this regard?
ED: For me the most pertinent thing, especially since my father passed away, is what happens to them when their parents pass away. Being a sibling the responsibility falls on my shoulders. It’s such a daunting thought, since I have two brothers and I don’t live in the same country. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
AA16: "The Black Balloon" shares not only the challenges of living with autism, but also how typical the family is in many ways, especially in how much they love one another. (A wonderful moment is when Maggie chastises Simon for hanging the underwear at the front of the laundry line for the neighbors to see, commenting that it’s “very embarrassing.”) What about your family life was totally typical? Would you share with us some of the ways in which you feel your life is enriched by your brothers with autism?
ED: One thing I have learned is that no one is typical and normal. Everyone and every family has its own idiosyncrasies. Having my brothers has taught me patience and given me an unique perspective on seeing things.
AA16: What are you working on now? Have you left aside autism as a storyline in your work, or do you think you will return to it?
ED: I am working on a number of projects: The romantic epic drama Savage Garden, a film on Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl; "Mr & Mrs Montague," a romantic comedy centered around Romeo and Juliet; and "The Boy in the Sky" a magical family story about a boy who lives in the circus. They are all quite different from "The Black Balloon" but they all have a similar theme as they all deal with "outsiders" which is something I’m interested in, growing up in the environment I did. I have said all I wanted to say on autism so I feel no need to revisit the topic again. But my experience with my brothers informs a lot on what type of filmmaker I am.