Why gnomes? Why not gnomes?, says Kelly Asbury?
"I wish I could take credit for the concept," says Asbury, 51, director of Gnomeo and Juliet, which opened Friday, Feb. 11. "But there was already a producer who had been developing the story, using Elton John songs and garden gnomes to do Romeo and Juliet. It was a lot of incongruous elements coming together."
And it's only taken five years to get it right: "The gnomes have tired me out after five years," Asbury admits in a telephone interview.
The result is a computer-animated comedy aimed at children and adults, using Shakespeare's romantic tragedy as the jumping-off point for a more family-friendly fairy tale.
"We knew we couldn't have daggers and poisons and suicide at the end," Asbury says of the script, credited to more than a half-dozen writers, including William Shakespeare. "But we decided it would be fine if Gnomeo came in contact with a statue of Shakespeare, who is shocked at how his ending is changed."
There was also one issue with the songs of Elton John: For a family-oriented movie, it probably sent the wrong message to use The Bitch is Back: "But otherwise, Elton (who is a producer, along with partner David Furnish) gave me absolute free run of his catalog. He allowed me to use it in the way I felt worked best."
And how was that? Well, Asbury admits, there was a moment where he thought of making it an Elton John jukebox musical, like an operetta using John's hits from the 1970s.
"And someone had already made Mamma Mia," he says. "For us, that didn't seem to be as interesting as a story with characters, where we let the music help, where the music is a character itself. I wanted it to be like in The Graduate, where the music cues to the action emotionally, not literally."
As for gnome lore, Asbury says, there are two distinct versions of gnomes. One is a figure of folklore, a forest creature that lives in the Black Forest, where it forages for food and lives.
"And then there is our species, which are cement ornamental garden gnomes chosen because they're good-looking."
Tragedy, even in an animated comedy, requires some threat to life and limb -- but the gnomes seem pretty immune to harm.
"That was a problem at first -- what's the worst thing that can happen to a garden gnome?" Asbury says. "It's impervious to weather and fire. And then we figured it out: They'll break. So that's how we 'killed' characters in our movie. Of course, in the secret world of statues, even the ones who break can be glued back together."
You don't have to know anything about Shakespeare or Romeo and Juliet to get the jokes in Gnomeo and Juliet -- but you get even more jokes if you do. How many riffs are too many?
"Things spring from the material," Asbury says. "We wrote a bunch of jokes -- then we put in even more -- and then we trimmed it back so there were fewer, trying to get it right. It comes from the screen -- you tell by watching. That's why animation takes a long time."
As for reinterpreting Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers, Asbury says it's a longstanding tradition, even in animated films: "If you look at it, The Lion King is very similar to Hamlet," he says. "There are a lot of archetypes there. There have been a lot of versions of Romeo and Juliet; if you look at West Side Story, it doesn't end like the play does, either.
"I tried to make a good movie that I hope plays to as many different kinds of people as possible. Films like The Wizard of Oz and Shrek are hits because they hit on different levels with different age groups. Striking that balance is what I strive for. But I won't know if I've done it until the audience sees it."