Kelly Asbury interview: Gnomeo & Juliet, Spirit, Statham, and why animation is getting too expensive

Director Kelly Asbury tells us about making Jason Statham into a garden gnome, Elton John, Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron, and Gnomeo & Juliet…

In a year that’s given us a couple of surprise animated hits, perhaps Gnomeo & Juliet is the least likely. A film made partly in Britain, partly in Canada, and once on the Disney slate, it crosses Shakespeare with gnomes, with a healthy dose of Elton John music. It’s also taken in nearly $200m at the worldwide box office, and has arriving on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week.

To mark that fact, we got the chance to chat with its director, Kelly Asbury. And here’s how we got on…

One of the interesting by-products of the film already is that it’s got youngsters a little more curious about Shakespeare. Is that one of the ramifications you were looking for?

I always hoped that in some way any movie I work on brings something new to everyone’s life. Certainly in the case of Gnomeo & Juliet, if it makes children or adults a little more interested in Shakespeare, there’s nothing wrong with that!

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I thought Baz Luhrmann had shaken up the Romeo & Juliet story back in 1996. But I don’t think even he went as far as garden gnomes and Elton John! It’s a clichéd question, for which I apologise, but how did it all come about?

I wasn’t around when it first came together. I’ve been on the project about five years. Prior to that it’d been in development at Disney for some time. Originally, it was pitched to Elton John’s company, Rocket Pictures, in London, by Rob Sprackling and John Smith, who I never met. They pitched the idea, and I’ve no idea where they came up with the idea.

Then, I think Elton decided that it would be fun to write music for this. There was never any real idea about how the music would be used, but when I came on board I decided I wanted to blend the classic tracks with new tracks. And it took a while for that idea to evolve. Because I think that Elton John and Bernie Taupin are known for their love songs, more than anything. And I think that their love songs were appropriate for Romeo & Juliet.

What I thought was interesting was using his music as score as much as you did songs, which worked a lot better than I was expecting.

Yeah, I’m really proud of the score. James Newton Howard and Chris Bacon worked very hard, while also incorporating their original tunes. To be able to incorporate and blend in the Elton John melodies, they were quite ingenious with it. I’m still amazed at the subtleties they managed to command. Musically, I’m very proud of the film.

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Were you surprised by the film’s overall success?

It’s funny. It always was a bit of a wild card.

That’s an understatement surely!

We really didn’t know. In America certainly, people know what garden gnomes are. But while Shakespeare and Romeo & Juliet have been consistently popular, you never really know how an audience will react to something that has so many different elements to it. I crossed my fingers and made a film I enjoyed, and in the process I always try to make sure it entertains as many people as possible. The fact that it’s been received and found an audience as it has, has been more than gratifying.

It’s been the high point of my career, really.

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It sounds like you decamped your life geographically and professionally for a couple of years to make the film?

Yeah. I moved to London, I was there for two years. Then I was in Toronto for about a year. And then we went back to London for post-production. I really got a sense of British life. What I was very happy about was that our movie takes place over the course of 48 hours, and there are periods where there is sun in England! And our movie needed sun!

If I’ve got my calculations right, you were over here for two years where our weather wasn’t at its best! And you’re looking around Britain, presumably, for things you can inject into your film all that time?

Absolutely. And our art director and her entire staff she worked with, they were diligent in carefully making sure that we honoured the English roots of Shakespeare. That’s why we set it in Stratford, that’s why our cast is primarily British. We wanted to maintain the grounding in England.

I certainly got that sense with the voice casting. I know Michael Caine is the obvious one, but you had someone coming up with the idea of making Jason Statham a garden gnome, too! They give out royal honours over here for things like that.

[Laughs] You know, with Jason, I really wanted to do the unexpected in the movie. I love the fact that Jason was so keen to do it, and he was such a great guy to work with. We had a really fun time in the recording studio with him. I’d work with him again in a moment.

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One thing that’s interesting about using gnomes in the film as characters, is that it allows you to address death in a non-brutal way. I thought that pushed it quite a lot for a film with Gnomeo & Juliet’s target audience.

We certainly treaded very carefully on that. We wanted to make sure… the story of Romeo & Juliet, it needed in some way to deal with finality. And so we didn’t want to shy away from characters meeting their demise in the story, but we still wanted it to be light-hearted. It was a balancing act.

I think, you mention the target audience. I don’t approach my movies with a target audience in mind. I try to make something that’s true to the subject matter as much as possible, while still being entertaining and fun.

The decision on this one, early on, was to make it light-hearted. That’s something I always tried to stick to, while still caring about the characters.

It did strike me that you had nine writers credited on the film, which obviously hints that there was a lot of gestation of the project. But I wonder if what was causing the problem was how to address the tragic elements, in particular in the final act of the film?

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It’s funny. Animation tends to have several different writers who serve different functions. I think, on a lot of animated features, there are a lot of writers who don’t get credited. It’s the policy at Disney, for instance, in deciding who gets credit. It depends on the writer’s contract, so many things. But in the case of Gnomeo & Juliet, we wanted to be fair, because the movie had gone through so many incarnations. And we did have a lot of different decisions to make.

Some of the writers helped us polish our dialogue, some of them helped us on a structural level, and animation takes so long that one writer seldom gets to stay on the project for its duration. It’s a matter in our case of saying let’s be fair to everyone one who contributed, as much as possible. We didn’t shy away from giving credit where it was due.

I’ve spoken to several people who directed animated films, and the message that keeps coming through is the abundance of decisions that have to be made on a daily basis. And there’s the old cliché: if you compromise on one decision on a 28 day shoot, you’ll end up with 28 compromises.

On an animated film, that must be heavily magnified. And this is also your first solo project?

Yes it is.

So how do you manage that? How does the mechanic change, because it was no smaller a film to some of the ones you’ve been involved with before?

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It’s very interesting. In animation, there’s not a medium I believe that’s more collaborative. It is a team of people, of different disciplines, coming together. The decisions are made by consensus in many cases. My job as a director is to exercise the best judgement I can in terms of which decision is the best one to make for the movie. I sometimes have to put aside things I like, and animation demands that. Because I have brought together a group of people who are hired to do their job well.

It’s my job to firstly stay out of their way, and secondly to come together with my ‘cabinet’, that helps me make the decision about what’s the best thing for the movie. You have to all come to a consensus as to what is the best thing.

My job was certainly as big as any of the other movies I’ve worked on, but it was actually more streamlined, as I could say here’s what we’re going to do. It’s all about taking the time to consider all possibilities, and choose what you think is the best one.

The director of an animated film has to have taste. And hopefully I exercised taste. But if you have the right support group, you make the right decision.

Presumably from your point of view, you’re building on an experience base that’s seen you work with Henry Selick, Glen Keane, John Lasseter, Jeffrey Katzenberg…

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Every one of those people I consider role models and mentors. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with people who I believe are the best animated film directors working today. That includes Andrew Stanton, too. I watch and take a little bit of a lesson from all of these people.

Are you tempted to follow the likes of Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird too, and do a live action picture?

Certainly I’m interested in that. I don’t know that I will, I’m looking into all sorts of possibilities right now. I think that everything I do will have an animation aspect. It’s hard to say. I’m reading all sorts of scripts, and have ideas of my own. But what’s next? It’s hard to say, but I love films. I love to make films and tell stories.

I’m one of those who thinks right now we’re going through a golden age of animation. But what’s different is that out of nowhere, you can get a Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs from a studio you wouldn’t regard as strong in animation. Likewise, Universal goes to France to make Despicable Me. And you’re up, too, against massive studios. It strikes me with Gnomeo that you’re the independent. You’re setting up an animation team from scratch. Not just the film, but bringing together the people to make it.

There was certainly an aspect to this movie that was different to others. I’ve always been part of a major studio, and there certainly was an aspect to Gnomeo & Juliet where there was one foot in the independent boat. We were funded by Disney/Touchstone, but we did make the movie outside of the system for the most part. It was a different, enjoyable experience, that afforded me a lot of freedom, and the ability to streamline the process and get things done for less money.

But certainly the system by which we made it, and the method, were all based on the same methodology that the major studios used. I just think we had a little less overhead, and fewer people involved, that helped streamline the process. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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And as far as this being a golden age of animation, I think it certainly is a golden age that’s been going on for a long time, probably since The Little Mermaid. In my career, I started in 1983, and I have watched animation and been part of the industry as it got out of the doldrums of the early 80s. It has turned into something that, right now, I think is the most successful film medium on the popular front. You look at Gnomeo & Juliet, and Rango, and Rio. It’s an amazing time right now. And the live action films that are successful involve so much animation now. It’s a fantastic world to be playing in.

Given the massive amount of sheer preparation before you can animate one scene, is animation teaching the film industry the values of locking the script?

It’s ironic that you say that, because in animation, while the script is obviously the starting point, and an important beginning, the storyboard process and story reel process, and the way we workshop these films over the course of two and a half, three years… really editing the films first, before you get to the animation phase. When you get to the animation phase, you are thoroughly planned. You don’t have a lot of retakes. Certainly the planning stage does contribute largely. In live action, it would make them take a long time.

I will make this statement. I do think that the major studios are getting such high overhead on their films that it’s making the cost of animation really, really prohibitive. There has to be in the future some way to get those costs down, as with Despicable Me or Gnomeo & Juliet.

Despicable Me cost around $70m I understand, by being made in Europe.

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Gnomeo & Juliet cost around $70m, too.

It’s a benefit, I guess, that the English language animation industry is becoming decentralised from California?

Right. Or they’re going to have to find some way to make it more viable, not just within California, but within America. The amount that it costs to make an animated feature is putting a huge responsibility on the movies to make hundreds of millions of dollars. And in a way, that’s a sad thing.

I’ll give you an example. Tangled cost $260m to make! Domestically it’s been a huge hit, it’s made a lot of money worldwide. In America, it’s made $199m. There’s this sort-of unfortunate feeling among some people that it didn’t make its money back. And it’s ridiculous, because any film that makes that much money is a hit.

If Tangled could have been brought in for half the cost, and it could have been… It really is studio overheard. There’s going to have to be a new philosophy that happens, and it’s going to require belt tightening that doesn’t impact the talent. It’s a conundrum.

Maybe that’s where the computer should come in? They’ve pushed the visual look of animation. But the tools that were used to make Toy Story 2, even, are accessible to far more people. That might have a ramification there?

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It will. And I would give credit to Despicable Me. I think you’re going to see a trend towards animation that doesn’t cost such huge amounts, and is of equal quality to the major studios. If the stories are good, and thorough, and engaging, they will be equally successful as the major studio films. I think you’ll see a trend towards that in the coming years. It’s very exciting.

Finally, you made a film that I’ve got loads of time for, Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron. And it came out just as DreamWorks was growing, as hand drawn was on the way down, but I thought Spirit was a really charming, adventurous film. How do you feel looking back at it, and do you have a yearning to go back to a hand drawn project?

I certainly would never say I wouldn’t go back. I love the movie Spirit, I’m very proud of it. I always will be. I think that if the story is good, people will come. And I think it’s all about that. I would do hand drawn again if it was appropriate to the story being told.

But I appreciate what you say about Spirit. It’s a film that will always be dear to my heart, and every day I have someone tells me how much they love that film.

Kelly Asbury, thank you very much.

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