I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down for an interview today with Kelly Asbury, director of Disney's newest 3D animated movie, Gnomeo & Juliet, coming out in theaters this weekend. Besides being surprisingly friendly and personable, he was nice enough to let me in on, among many other things, how the age-old adage of never judging a gnome by the color of his hat helped him to craft one of the best animated movies of the year. Come in and check it out!
I think one of the first things that's going to strike people about Gnomeo & Juliet is the uniqueness of the adaptation. How did the idea come about toturn the classic story of Romeo & Juliet into an animated movie starring garden gnomes?
I wasn’t around when the idea came about, it was brought tome. It had been in development for several years at Disney, and they called mein 2005 and asked me to direct it. The original idea came from Rob Spracklingand John R. Smith, and when the opportunity to direct was presented to me I wasintrigued because I liked the challenge, the pairing of very different ideas,and the possibilities of telling the classic Romeo & Juliet story in 3D andwith modern music from Elton John and Chris Bacon and James [Newton] Howard. Iwas excited about the opportunity to take such a well-known story and see whatI could do with it as a filmmaker. So we started from scratch and basicallyjust assembled team to help make it in a way that I think animated films shouldbe made. It had a moderate budget compared to a lot of the bigger films thatI’ve worked on in the past, but we were able to effectively make the movie inthe same time and with less money.
After the screening I attended, I overheard a woman leaving the theater insisting that this was NOT a children's movie. Did you anticipate this kind of backlash during production, and if so, how did it affect the creative process for you?
Well, I don’t really think you can ever very accuratelypredict that kind of thing. But I didn’t set out to make a children’s movie. I never really have,and none of my colleagues do, either. When I make a movie, I only set out tomake a movie that I think is going to entertain people, that it will appeal todifferent audiences and have things that will entertain the adults and the kidsin the audience, people of different levels. Sometimes kids will thinksomething’s funny that adults didn’t get, and vise versa. I think every movieruns the risk of bothering people in one way or another and I just hope peoplecome out of it feeling like they got their money’s worth and that they findsomething they can connect with. I just set out to make movies that willentertain people.
I’ve noticed over the last few years that a lot ofanimated films have been criticized for being too mature, or too scary. Youhave a long history in the animation world. Do you think there’s any kind offundamental change that’s taking place in animated movies today as compared tothose of 20 years ago?
Not necessarily. I think that if anything, some of the CGaspects are making things more realistic than people are used to, and that canintensify the effect of it. But even in some of the most classic animatedfeatures, going back to Snow White, for example, there are a lot of prettyintense scenes. A lot of the best animated features have always had someintense stuff going on, even going back to The Wizard of Oz. Or you remember in 101 Dalmations, Cruella DeVille wanted to skin the puppies! It’s atradition in movies that good overcomes evil and there are moments when theprotagonist is in trouble, so I think that kind of scariness is inevitable in alot of ways. Scariness and other more mature themes in animation date way back,and I think maybe the 3D and CG just enhance the intensity of it all.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting aShakespearean romance into a 3D family movie?
Keeping it going, keeping the story going, keeping itentertaining and making sure the characters keep the audience interesting. Ithink we had a premise to work with that started out with a lot of interestalready, but we still had to develop a story and create characters that peoplewould care about, which is the same challenge you have to overcome when you’reworking with a totally original idea. Gnomeo & Juliet is an adaptation of a widely-known work of art, butit’s still just one take on that story. People seem to forget how many othermovies have different endings from original material.
One of my favorite things about the movie is the unusualcombination of talent in the cast. How did you choose your actors?
When Gail Stevens, my casting director, sent me the voiceclips I asked her to hide from me the actors behind the voices because I wantedto focus on combining the right voice with the right character. I didn’t wantan actors identity to get in the way of fitting them with the character who’spersonality best matches their voice.
What’s your favorite scene?
I really like the scene when Gnomeo and Juliet first meet. Ilove the kind of tete-a-tete they have in the garden with Elton John and LadyGaga singing “Hello Hello.” I think it’s just a great moment of the twocharacters falling in love and I think the setting and music give it an atmospherethat really makes it special.
What do you think is the most important overarching theme?
Love conquers all! (laughs) That’s the most obvious one, butas far as this adaptation, I think the most important theme is that you shouldnever judge a gnome by the color of his hat!
Gnomeo & Juliet will be released in theaters on February 11, 2011. Enjoy!