Director Kelly Asbury’s retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tale of woe (that of fair Juliet and her timing-challenged Romeo), now titled Gnomeo & Juliet,opens in theaters this weekend. We had the chance to sit down with the director to discuss the unique benefits, and challenges, involved in the creation of an animated feature.
Gnomeo & Juliet takes the story of the dangerously cloistered and naive Juliet and her (equal parts fickle and hyperbolic) Romeo and turns it right atop its English head. The central characters are recast as garden gnomes caught in the middle of a long standing rivalry between the neighboring “red” and “blue” gardens, which belong to some rather grumpy humans.
Gnomeo is pastiche in nearly every sense of the word. It is a collage of beloved Elton John love anthems, intertwined with a free-flowing re-working of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy (as experienced by ceramic gnomes), peppered with intermittent pop-culture references.
When we asked Asbury if he finds that most films are in one way or another pastiche at this time in our cinematic history – or if he was specifically aiming for a potpourri feel for Gnomeo & Juliet he replied:
You know I don’t know. All I know is that when we made this movie we wanted to have fun and those things just sort of evolve out of the making of the movie, and the story process. We didn’t set out to say ‘Okay, let’s make this a pastiche.’ It ended up that way and it really comes down to, ‘What’s entertaining? What’s emotional? What’s telling the story?’ We had three very different elements to put together and that sort of alone was a pastiche. I mean, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” garden gnomes, and Elton John. So, once you have that, it’s like ‘Well, okay, this is a pastiche.’ I think that just kind of evolved naturally to say ‘let’s be tongue-in-cheek at the right moments, lets have some fun at the right moments, lets keep it sincere. I want those characters to still be cared about, and I want those characters to still believe in what’s happening in their world.’ All that other stuff is really just icing and you hope people laugh, and you hope that they enjoy it.
The cast is an eclectic blend of Hollywood’s rising stars, with the title roles played by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt, respectively. Veteran actors such as Michael Caine, Maggie Smith and a few surprise appearances were tossed in for flavor, not the least of which are Hulk Hogan and Ozzy Osbourne. Asbury acknowledges a trend toward casting celebrities in animated films that began with Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, after which stars would sometimes be cast even before the script had been written. The director feels that this shift in the world of animated production served the Shrek franchise, but also generated an equal, or greater, number of failed efforts. As far as this film is concerned, Asbury assures us that:
The only dictum that I had going in was that it needed to incorporate the Elton John music (it was the singer’s production company that developed and produced the film). It could be classic music, or new music, but we wanted it to be sort of a suite of Elton John songs that help us tell the story. No one came to me and said, ‘We’re making this movie and we have to cast Emily Blunt, or James McAvoy or Michael Cain,’ so I was able to cast it genuinely.
One of the finer casting choices is revealed as the film goes in a particularly meta direction when Gnomeo happens across a statue of Shakespeare, voiced by Patrick Stewart, who takes it upon himself to warn the young gnome about the likelihood of his impending doom.
We always thought that it would be funny if at some point Shakespeare heard what is going on with these gardens and said ‘wow, there’s a very similar story going on here and the ending isn’t very good.’ And for the characters our third act is Romeo, or Gnomeo and Juliet deciding, ‘Look, we’ve got to take destiny in our own hands or it’s all going to end badly.’ So that (encounter) was really the engine for the third act.
Taking control of, and revising, one’s destiny becomes a consistent theme in the film. Juliet, a young woman with a thirst for adventure, is held captive atop a (metaphorically apropos) pedestal in the red garden. The idea being that:
Her father wants to keep her there, and she wants more from life. I think that’s universal for both men and women – to be told, ‘This is what your going to do,’ and then for you to say ‘No – this is what I’m going to do.’ I think we all cross that threshold at some point.
The couple’s partner in reshaping their fate is Featherstone, a plastic pink flamingo that Gnomeo and Juliet happen upon during the course of their forbidden excursions. The bird plays what Asbury describes as “a dual role (in the film) he’s sort of the Shakespearean fool combined with the Friar Laurence.”
Friar Laurence acts as ally to the young lovers, but the fool typically plays the role of the “truth teller” in Shakespeare’s plays. When asked what universal truth Featherstone was there to impart to us, the audience, Asbury replied:
I think the truth is, don’t let someone else be in charge of your destiny. The truth is, take charge of your life. If you want to keep something from happening that you don’t want to have happen — then you can do it. He is there to impart a very simple message and that is, that if you love each other then you can survive this.
Of course, the redirection of the hand of destiny (toward a more desired result) is meant to lead us to an alternate, and more children’s-film-friendly ending to the narrative – an ending which the filmmakers hope that some adults may also secretly prefer:
Hopefully audiences will like “Gnomeo and Juliet” and think these are great characters. If I go to a movie and I utterly fall in love with two characters, then I’m rooting for them to have a happy ending. Lets face it, it’s an animated feature being made for a broad base, we knew we couldn’t have had poison and daggers at the end of the film. So we had to find some way where it does have its moments where you don’t know if it’s going to be tragedy or not, so we made it exciting I hope, but we knew that we couldn’t end it like the play. There was just a certain reality that we had to live with, so that we knew from the beginning we had to sort of find some way to make this as happy an ending as possible.
As far as cinematic depictions of love are concerned, there seems to be a dearth of truly engaging romantic-comedies at present; films with characters we care about, and stories we can relate to. At the moment the most compelling love stories, of a sweeter nature, seem to be found mostly in the animated world. When asked if he had noticed this tendency Asbury replied that he:
Hadn’t really thought about it. I do know that when I watch romantic comedies going back as far as “It Happened One Night” with Clark Gable, which is really the grandfather of all romantic comedies, what I find interesting is that at the beginning of those stories you don’t even really like those characters very much. The audience has to fall in love with the characters while they’re falling in love with each other. That formula seems to have gotten a little watered down now, and it seems so often that now it’s very predictable. Then I watch a movie like “Lady And The Tramp” and I go ‘wow, all “Lady And The Tramp” is is a romantic comedy!’ That’s Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and they’ve come together, and at the end, they’re happy. So I think that it’s a formula that you have to be careful with and you have to handle it carefully, and maybe people just buy it in animation more. Maybe they buy love at first site a little more. But it still works, people still seem to want that, I just don’t know if they’re given it that much. Maybe that’s it.
In point of fact, animated films may have an inherent advantage over live-action films when it comes to powerful storytelling, in that they have the ability to adjust the story throughout the production. It is a layering process with each element building on and informing the other – the animation is informed by the voice acting, which is in turn informed by the animation. The director has nearly absolute control, reading and directing each actor separately during brief intervals over a period of several months, and then combining the voices in the most effective way for telling the story. They are able to make script, structural and visual adjustments as the film is being developed. We asked Asbury if the process itself is one reason why animated features are often amongst the most critically praised films of any given year.
You know, here’s what I say, and I’m going to quote my old boss Jeffrey Katzenberg. He said something one time that I absolutely believe is true, and I don’t think everyone always achieves this. He said ‘the way animated films are made you really, in the end, have no excuse if it’s not good.’ If it doesn’t work there is no excuse because in the end we do have complete control. That’s kind of a blessing and a curse. It takes a long time to make these films, but we do have the ability to step back from the canvas on a regular basis and see if its working, and if its not, we have the opportunity to go in and tweak it, and fix it, and work with it, and sculpt it. So that could play a role in why maybe the sincerity factor works in animated films.
We can feel if an audience is not hooked in when we screen it for a test audience. We screen them very often, and we re-storyboard things very often, so it really is a painterly organic process. It does allow us a lot of control. I’ve never really thought about if that’s different than live-action or not. I think live-action is probably a bit less forgiving because if you don’t have it in the editing room then you don’t have it, and it’s hard to go back and get it if you don’t have it. It depends on the budget, it depends on so many factors with live-action. In animation, in most cases, you do have the time to get it right, and you don’t really have many excuses if you didn’t.
Gnomeo & Juliet opens this Friday.