almost upon us, and so is lawn tending, weeding, and planting –
gardening tasks shift from background to foreground. And so garden
gnomes, those funny little stone or cement guardians of gardening,
stand watch over all this leisure activity. What a perfect time to
release Gnomeo & Juliet on DVD. And that's just what Disney
feature tells the tale of two next-door neighbors – Montague and
Capulet – who are at war, and so are their garden gnomes, who come
alive in some mystical way, while their human counterparts are
thoroughly unaware of this miniature society.
As in the
William Shakespeare tragedy, at the center of the violent feud is
two children of the belligerent clans, Gnomeo and Juliet, who are in
love. Garden gnomes are at war, yes, but tragic consequences – well,
this is Disney and for kids so the ending is not quite the one Big
exclusive interview, veteran director Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2,
Spirit - Stallion of the Cimarron) tells his tale of the film's
creation and all the in-jokes considered.
Why is a
Texan making a movie where everybody speaks in British accents?
the story is set in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is where Shakespeare
was born. I wanted these gnomes to work the very soil from which
Shakespeare came so I just figured it had to be England – it was a
great place to set the story. And Elton John was doing the music, so
that's another English aspect to it. Of course, we have a pretty
multicultural cast. [They're] not just British. There's a little bit
of Spanish, and some Tennessee in there with Dolly Parton. Texas has
very little to do with it except that I always liked animation and
love to tell stories, so that's as far as it goes.
drag out one of those big
Shakespeare books and go through it to figure out the references?
exactly how it worked, but it was sort of like that. We did say,
“Let's start by thinking of anywhere we can put in a Shakespeare
reference of any kind.” Then you screen these movies and workshop
them, play around with it, and hopefully strike the balance. [At
some point] you realize, “Okay, that's worn out its welcome, let's
stop doing that.” We did have fun doing that and tried a lot of
different things. Hopefully the ones that ended up in the final film
are the ones that get laughs and that people who know about them do
notice them. They're for the Shakespeare fans out there.
Patrick Stewart as Shakespeare was one of the funniest inside jokes.
had a great time and Patrick did, too. He loved that he was getting
to do Shakespeare and he improved a lot of his lines. He really
brought a lot to that character, and we had fun in the recording
sessions having him do it.
is a perfect place to have gnomes in the front yard, back yard or
wherever. Did you know somebody that had gnomes?
people who had gnomes in my neighborhood. Everybody has someone in
their neighborhood that gardens too much, are a little too attentive
to their garden. Gnomes have been around for a long time. My
parents were avid gardeners and they themed our backyard in the Old
West. We had wagon wheels and cow heads and lanterns. It was our own
little mini Knott's Berry Farm back there. It's in my blood to
understand the tacky gardening mentality.
How did you
get involved? Did you come up with the idea from the start or did
the producers call you?
me. Essentially, it had been in development for some time. I had
finished Shrek 2 and my friend Baker Bloodworth, who's one of
the producers – I worked with him years ago on Beauty and the
Beast – asked me to be part of this. I read the script and
thought it was fun. So I got some ideas and we were really able to
start from scratch. We gathered the right team of people to start
all over and pull it together in a way I hope people are entertained
by. But it wasn't my idea. I wish I could claim it was.
I don't know
who it was. The original writers were Rob Sprackling and John R.
Smith. But I don't know them and never met them, so I don't know how
they came up with the idea. For all I know, one day they just said
the name gnome and then went, “Hey wait a minute, that rhymes with
Rome.” I don't know; I really don't.
Did they do
the drawings of these characters or were they your invention?
They had done
some, but I didn't want to see them. I was allowed to start from
scratch and we hired designers. Our principal character designer,
Gary Dunn, did a lot of work. It took a lot of trial and error. It
was about a four-and-a-half-year process – total, from beginning to
end – to get the movie actually made and in theaters.
making gnomes, can you make them look like the people the gnomes
represent? Somehow, the character Jason Statham voices looks just
interesting thing that happens in the animation process. We record
the actors before we animate the characters. A lot of people think
it's the other way around, but it's the actor first. We videotape
their faces while they are talking, so the animator works to the
soundtrack and has this reference video to look at and get some
ideas about how that actor uses [his/her] face. Some sort of osmosis
takes place, because that character's moving a certain way actually
takes on the appearance of the actor, sometimes. This happens in
animation; it's quite fascinating. It's why the genie in Aladdin
somehow looks like Robin Williams, even though he really doesn't at
swore whoever played the flamingo was channeling Robin Williams...
No, that was
Jim Cummings, a really talented voice actor. He's great. Jim
improved a lot of his lines as well and helped us come up with the
idea of this Cuban flamingo from Miami.
entertain getting Robin Williams for that? He sounds like Williams.
We had tried a
lot of different ideas and couldn't quite grasp it. When Jim came in
we tried several things, and it was his idea to try the Cuban
accent. It worked.
Dolly Parton, has she ever done animation?
She has never
done one, and it's really great. We had this little gnome that was
starting the race, a little gnomette, and she sort of has this
country girl look to her. One of our editors said “Why don't you
guys get Dolly Parton for this?” We called up Dolly and Dolly said
she'd love to do it. We flew to Nashville and we recorded her in an
hour. It was fantastic.
You have a
bunch of novices for animation in this film.
degree. Hulk Hogan and Ozzy Osbourne were great. Everybody was so
professional. It's amazing how they all were able to just jump in
the studio and give me exactly what I wanted. It was perfect.
Had the two
leads, James McAvoy and Emily Blunt, ever played
Juliet? Should we get ones that have played it or someone that
wanted to play it?
You know, we
didn't think like that. We just knew we wanted good voices with
texture, and voices that fit the character design [who] were also
good actors that we knew of. James McAvoy and Emily Blunt both did,
actually – separately – play Romeo and Juliet on their own,
but we never had that as criteria. The minute we asked them, they
fell in love with the idea and they agreed to do it. They were very
happy to do it.
tell you, “Actually, we've played it” or was that a secret?
No, they told
us in meeting them. That wasn't a criterion to cast the part,
though. No, they just happened to have both played those parts in
various times of their career.
At least it
wasn't the other way around.
course in the old Shakespeare days, James could have played Juliet
because men played the girls‛ parts. We didn't entertain it, but
that's a good idea. Maybe that's my next one.
What do you
feel are the signature touches to this film, as there are in
For me, the
world that we're in: these gardens and those hard ceramic and
concrete characters coming to life that are all weathered and
weather-beaten. The film is very successful in engulfing the
audience in this world beneath these leaves and in the garden. So
that's what I'm most proud of in terms of the setting, and how it's
explored and exploited in the story as a story point.
it always been in the background of the story that there was this
other dimension and they're alternate world characters? It's a
parallel universe; they're in the human universe and in their own
universe. Was that always a part of the story? Did you ever think
about keeping it completely separate from the human universe?
story of garden gnomes is you put a garden gnome in your garden
because it's for good luck. The idea that while these humans turn
their back the gnomes garden and make sure the garden looks good.
The blue garden is in rivalry with the red garden and vice versa, so
they're also neighbors that don't like each other. The human
neighbors don't like each other and neither do their gnomes. So we
did decide we didn't want the humans seeing the gnomes move because
I wanted it to be a very realistic world. I wanted the humans to
look as real as possible and I wanted the gnomes to look real. So we
said, let's make it one of those stories where when the humans turn
their backs, this is the secret world of statues and ornaments. It
was as simple as that.
you decide you were going to veer from big Bill's core story – was
it always in mind?
The idea has
always been there that at some point Gnomeo and Juliet – one of them
or both of them – meet a statue of William Shakespeare, who tells
them “This is a very familiar story and it doesn't end well.” We
always wanted that. We decided, what if our third act is about
Gnomeo and Juliet taking control of their own destiny and coming up
with a new ending for themselves that might surprise the audience?
But without giving it away, that the audience certainly can enjoy
but realize okay, they're going to change the ending to the classic
story and they're going to figure out a way to do it. That's been in
the works from the very beginning and something we hoped we pulled
Some of the
most creative film work is being done in animation.
seem to be on a roll right now. It's because of the movie itself,
not the medium. It's not animation versus live action. Everything
comes in waves and maybe we're on a good wave right now. I hope
Gnomeo and Juliet rides that wave a little bit. I can't explain
why so many of the recent animated films have been so successful,
except that they're good movies. An audience likes to pay money to
see a good movie, and that's what all of us should try to make.
us Let us know what you