Say what you will about the lack of creativity and constant remakes, prequels and sequels in Hollywood, but there are some people who are thinking a bit outside of the box. Case in point, somebody out there came up with the idea to make one of William Shakespeare’s plays using garden gnomes.
Speaking with the director and writer of the film, Kelly Asbury, we discussed the mythology of the little stone statues, the character design of his characters, and employing every British actor out there this side of the Harry Potter franchise. Check out the interview below!
What inspired you to make a movie about garden gnomes?
Well, it wasn’t my idea, I wish I could claim it was. I got a phone call from my producer, Baker Bloodworth, about five years ago to the day [note: interview took place on January 21, 2011] and I was a huge Elton John fan growing up, so the first thing he said was, “Kelly, how would you like to direct an animated film that has music written by and is executive produced by Elton John?” That was the first thing, and I said, “Wow, tell me more.” He said, “Well, it’s an animated film about garden gnomes.” And I was like, “Wow! They haven’t done that yet!” Then he said, “And it’s Romeo and Juliet told with garden gnomes!” And I think there was a long pause, and I went, “Wow, I have to think about that one.”
Then he told me a little more about the history of the project and it had been in development some time at Disney and they were finally moving it to Miramax, and I said, “Let me read what you’ve got.” I met with Elton John, Elton John really wanted me to direct the project, asked me to direct it. And they allowed me to sort of reboot it completely. We started from scratch. I was given the opportunity, along with Steve Hamilton Shaw, my producer; we re-wrote the script sort of from scratch, we worked really hard to get a very good, clean story that was an interpretation of the play in some form, obviously with a different ending. And because of that, and because of using the music of Elton John and Bernie Taupin sort of as the emotional bridge, sort of like in The Graduate where the emotion that’s on screen is supported by the music that’s playing and sort of an emotional queue. Those things all sort of evolved and it became sort of this dream project, and the challenge of all those very separate elements, as a director, that’s kind of what you want. How can I make this be a good, engaging story and entertain people and achieve all of that? I saw it as a challenge – long answer to a short question [laughs].
Without giving too much away, what was changed between the original script and your version?
Well, it was always Romeo and Juliet. The basic concept was the same, it just came down to where are we going to set it – Stratford-upon-Avon – the various characters. I watched the play, I watched Baz Luhrmann’s version a lot, I watched [Franco] Zeffirelli’s version. I saw all of the different interpretations of Romeo and Juliet and how they’ve been reinterpreted in different ways and the cleverness of some, and what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t. The specific changes I can’t really say, I just sort of started over and came up with this story that follows, really closely, the basic beats of the first two acts of Romeo and Juliet. There are obviously four acts in the play, we had three acts, but our third act is all about how are we going to change this ending. How do we keep daggers and poison and suicide out? And that was a challenge from the beginning. I think we answered that challenge and we had fun doing it.
The casting process on this was great because there was no particular actor in mind going in. It was not dictated to me, “You will put so-and-so and so-and-so as these actors.” It was a clean slate. So the way that I like to cast is the casting director brings me 25 different choices of voices. I don’t want to know who those voices are, I don’t want the names. I literally would listen to the voices and say, “That might be good for Gnomeo.” I’d have the picture of the character in front of me. “That might be good for Gnomeo, that might be good for Juliet.” And you do this through a process of elimination – you get it down to five, and then you get it down to three, you play it for other people, and it ended up with Emily Blunt and James McAvoy as our Romeo and Juliet. Same with all of the characters.
What was lucky about this movie is that I got Sir Elton John doing the music, Sir Michael Caine, Sir Patrick Stewart, Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Julie Walters – so I have royalty in my movie, as well as Emily Blunt and James McAvoy, who, in my opinion, are acting royalty nowadays. They’re a prince and princess [laughs]. I was really, really fortunate to cast it the way it should be cast and not be casting it strictly on studio dictum, which was great. It’s the way that movies aught to be made and I think we did justice to the play while also keeping it original. So the casting was part of the fun and the actors helped us create the characters.
As you mentioned, the film is set in Stratford-Upon-Avon, but was it always the plan to use a predominantly British cast?
Well, because it was Romeo and Juliet and it was Shakespeare and it was such an incongruous thing with these gnomes, it just seemed appropriate. They work the soil from which Shakespeare himself was born. And that’s why this Shakespearean epic is taking place in this particular day and time and place is because these gnomes live in the place where Shakespeare was born. It’s sort of metaphorical, but that’s really where that sprang from. We wanted a very multi-cultural cast, which we do have, but we thought that it should be grounded in England, you know, the Motherland.
The only one time, very briefly, we had Maggie Smith and Michael Caine able to do a bit of a banter back and forth for one scene. But all of the other actors worked separately, sometimes by satellite, sometimes in studios across the world. I always worked with the actor and work with them on the stage, so there were times that I had to be Juliet to Gnomeo, and vice versa. I had to be Nanette for Paris. It really was, as with all animated films, it’s up to that actor to put himself in the place of reality and give that performance without the other actor to play off of. I’m no Emily Blunt, so James McAvoy had a hard time, but he did a great job.
Some of the characters, particularly Nanette and Featherstone, are very lively and animated. How active did your cast get while they were in the booth?
Well they both gave us a lot of improvisation, as all of our actors did. And, certainly, Nanette was designed, we knew what we wanted her to look like, but we did video tape the actors while they were giving their lines. So the animators are able to take the dialogue and watch that video, and while they don’t copy all of the movements exactly, there can be little nuances that those actors will do with their faces when they say a certain line that the animator can incorporate. So this sort of cross pollination takes place between the actor, who’s one half of the performance, and the animator, who’s the other half. In the best case scenario, you end up with Featherstone, or Nanette, or Paris or Benny, or all of these characters who have all of this life to them, but they’re grounded in a real reality and sincerity, which is really what I go for in all of it. Keep it sincere and the rest will follow.
When it came to the animation process, I’ve always heard that animating humans is difficult because of skin texture and hair, but this movie features mostly characters made of stone. Was it an easier process as a result, or did it have its own special challenges?
None of it’s easy, but we did, fortunately, have characters that were made of stone, and plaster, and metal, and rubber and plastic – hollow plastic, hard plastic. And we were able to make the characters animate within the integrity of that material. The limitations were set up and I have often quoted Picasso, without being too heady, Picasso has a famous saying, and that is, “The limitations are what set the artist free.” That’s what the animators dealt with. They said, “Okay, these characters are made of stone, they can only do certain things.” So they had to be creative with that and they exploit their limitations, and, as a result, you get this very inventive animation.
Part of the fun of animation is not to be able to have carte blanche and do whatever you want, but really…Nanette moves very differently than Juliet. Juliet moves differently than Featherstone. Featherstone moves differently than Benny. All of the characters, depending on how their made – and, you know, Benny has his big, tall hat, he’s top heavy, so when he walks he has this little top-heaviness to him. All of those things are what the animators have the most fun with and it keeps the world real and it makes the audience relate to it. They can feel the weight of those characters and they can see the textures and they can smell that grass and that dewy morning with those flowers. All of that plays a part in the storytelling and therefore all of those elements are a character in the movie in their own way. That’s the best animation, that’s how it works, to me.
We had a lot of research. We realized that all gnomes have white beards, no matter how old they are – there are baby gnomes with white beards. Across the board. So our characters, all of our male characters, have a white beard, you’ll notice. Sometimes it’s trimmed, sometimes it’s small, but even in one scene there is a little baby and it’s got a white beard. The girl gnomes don’t have beards [laughs]. Juliet was a challenge. We wanted to make her appealing, we wanted to make her a little china doll on a pedestal, and there aren’t that many examples of female gnomes. Lady Blueberry is the more typical of the typical matronly, sort of older, white haired female gnome. So it was very difficult to make sure Juliet looked like a gnome, but we had to kind of invent what that was. The design process of an animated film is one of the joys because you fill a room with drawings by these amazingly talented artists that you have to choose from, and you end up with the best choice, hopefully, when you do it right. You don’t really have an excuse not to by the end because you have so many choices.
Continuing from that idea, as you said, I don’t think there’s ever been a movie done about garden gnomes before. How much freedom did you have to play with the mythology?
I didn’t know this before the movie, but there are “forest gnomes” in history, and “garden gnomes.” Forest gnomes are real creatures that live among us, that are hiding in the forest, walking among the flora and the fauna. Garden gnomes are good luck charms for your garden. They protect it. They’re very proud of their garden. That’s really all we went on. These gnomes love their gardens, their gardens are the best. The red team doesn’t like the blue team; it’s neighbors that don’t like each other. That’s as far as our mythology went. Instead of swordfights and daggers and poison, we had lawnmower races. A little less lethal if you stay away from the blades.