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‘Gnomeo & Julet’ Director Kelly Asbury Talks the Narrative Quality of Elton John Songs

'Gnomeo & Julet' Director Kelly Asbury Talks the Narrative Quality of Elton John Songs

Plus: His Take on the Nearly Endless Development Process & Why Everyone Gets Uptight About the Movie’s Englishness

Disney and Rocket Films‘ “Gnomeo & Juliet,” opening nationwide this Friday, has had a storied production history that could be its own compelling film. The story of star-crossed lawn ornaments was set up as a joint Disney/Rocket Films production in the first part of the aughts, under the supervision of “Beauty and the Beast” co-director Gary Trousdale, with Kate Winslet and Ewan McGregor attached (they’re now replaced by Emily Blunt and James McAvoy). The project fell apart, only to regain steam and be cut down again when Pixar’s John Lasseter was installed, as the head of Disney’s animation division (this was around the time he axed Chris Sanders‘ “American Dog,” before neutering it and turning it into the toneless “Bolt“). The project was finally rescued by executive Dick Cook, who set it up not at Disney Animation proper, but with Miramax instead. Of course, with Miramax since being sold, Walt Disney are now taking on distribution duties for the film. At the end of all the back and forth, this take on the Shakespearean classic, thankfully, did not end in tragedy.

We talked to “Gnomeo & Juliet” director Kelly Asbury, who also helmed “Shrek 2,” about the extended development process, what it was like having to wedge a bunch of Elton John songs into the film, and how he placated those that worried that the film was “too British.”

The Playlist: Given the lengthy production history, where did you sign on?
Kelly Asbury: It was almost five years ago, to the day. February 13th, 2005, I got a call from my producer, who said, “Look, we’ve got this project here” and pitched it out to me. And I said, “Wow, that sounds like a challenge.” And he said, “Yeah, it has been a challenge but we really think you’re the guy to crack it.” Of course, it took 3 years of story development and just revising and revising and revising. But ultimately we came up with a movie that we thought people would enjoy.

I was on it about six years after it was brought to Disney and it had been moved to Miramax so it had gone through what actually is not that unusual amount of development for an animated feature. I’ve seen animation features just languish until the right combination of things come along to keep it alive. Hopefully that’s what happened here.

So when you were brought on board, what challenges did you face and what did you want to impart?
What I want to impart on any movie I work on, is I want to make it entertaining. That’s what I feel I do. I’m in the entertainment business and I make commercially entertaining animated features. So that was the first thing I wanted to accomplish. I want the audience to walk out of the theater feeling they got their money’s worth. Every movie that I enjoy, I leave the theater with something to take with me. And I hope that’s what we did. That’s my personal mission statement.

In terms of the movie itself, the only thing that was put in front of me was three elements: Elton John and all of his classic music (and it can be new music too); the other piece was “Romeo and Juliet;” and garden gnomes in backyard gardens. That was it. And I told them: “I don’t want to see anything that was done before. I don’t want to see any of the designs. I want to start from scratch.” I wanted to put our teams together and find a way to tell this very carefully. And the way that I work, based on years in the animation system, is that you gather people you trust, and you let everyone do their job, and you constantly workshop – if something got a laugh, you find out why it got a laugh, etc. And it takes a long time. It was a three-year process, at least, in finding the story, but all animation films require that. But it’s part of the animation process.

The movie is very strikingly British. [It was heavily publicized that DreamWorks tried to play down the Englishness of the “Wallace and Gromit” movie.] Was it important to you to keep it so British?
It was important to me. I wanted this to be set on Stratford-on-Avon, which was Shakespeare’s birthplace. I thought it was very interesting that these gnomes in the story are sprung from the very soil that Shakespeare did. Everyone wanted it to be very English. I never really bought into the “be careful about it being too English.” Because my favorite animated features – “Mary Poppins,” “101 Dalmatians” – very, very English sensibilities. I love Monty Python. Those are all very popular in the states. It’s a very unfounded fear in the States for many ways. Just look at the movies right now – “The King’s Speech” is being accepted and people are loving it. No one is bringing up the fact that, oh no, it’s British! I always thought the fear of British was ridiculous. I pretended to pay attention to it but ignored it.

Elton John is a big part of this movie, but it’s more of a jukebox musical. Didn’t Tim Rice and Elton John write original songs for the film?
Well this film was in development for a long time before I came on. I’m a huge fan of Elton John and Bernie Taupin and when I came on I said, “Can we make this only the songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin?” That will be the parameters that we are going to work within. So it’s the Bernie Taupin/Elton John catalog and it is new songs by the two. And that stuck. And I wasn’t part of any of the any incarnations when Tim Rice was working on it. I just know that I wanted Bernie Taupin and Elton John.

Was it ever a challenge to shoehorn these songs in or was it more organic?
We made it organic. I feared that, and I know what you’re talking about. And I was really afraid. I didn’t want to do a movie where, okay, this is a sad moment so we’ll just throw in “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” here. I thought of the music as a character in the movie. This music is almost a narrator for the emotional lives of our characters. And much in the same way that the music in “The Graduate” is used, with Simon and Garfunkel, when a character is feeling a certain way, the feel of a song or the buoyancy or sadness of a song, cues you in into the emotions without interrupting the moment. I wanted it to work together. Music was used since the beginning. It was used from the first story reel. It was a long process but it was in the story process.

And was there anything visual you wanted to tackle?
Well, I really wanted that this world felt real. I wanted the textures to be real. I wanted to feel the concrete. I wanted to be beneath those leaves and those giant blades of grass, down by the flowerpots. So I really wanted the scale of the world and the separateness of the gnomes and the society they have going on, very separate from their owners. Visually, I really wanted to make sure we had the camera down there with the gnomes as much as possible, to be in their world. And 3D helped with that.

Was it always conceived in 3D?
I always wanted it to be in 3D, we designed it to be in 3D. We didn’t get the go-head from the studio until about two years ago. It took a while for them to understand that the movie was worth doing in 3D, because it’s an added expense and we tried to stay within a certain budget. But the studio went along with it and I got the film I wanted in the end, which for me was a joy.

What’s next for you?
I’m resting, I’m getting married in May. You know, I’ve been on this movie for five years. This summer, I hope to know what’s next but right now I’m just reading scripts and hearing peoples ideas and coming up with a few of my own.

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