So, I was invited to the junket for Gnomeo and Juliet. It’s an animated retelling of the classic Baz Lurman movie, and I’ll have a review up later this week. As an animated venture, it’s interesting to talk to talent as they often are involved with the project for a matter of hours. But this presentation offered a gem. Sir Elton John. Say what you will of his redress of “Candle in the Wind,” the man was a great composer and his output in the 70’s should be respected. It is, right? Even the Super Bowl featured an ad with “Tiny Dancer” though that seems connected to the beloved Almost Famous as much as John’s work. But they put john center stage for a junket, and he had a lot to say about doing animated movies, and the process in general.
He was joined by stars James McAvoy, and Emily Blunt, director Kelly Asburry, John’s partner and producer on the film David Furnish, and producer Steve Hamilton Shaw for a junket. I’ve trimmed the transcript of anything too tabloidish to make this more about the process of animated movies like this, and for that I think it’s worth a look.
Sir John, I wanted to ask about revisiting some of your classic songs and what it was like to kind of go back. You have such an impressive library, I was just wondering how to decide what to use and what not to use.
Elton John: Well, originally, it wasn’t going to be all my music. But when Dick Cook at Disney Studios really got a hold of this project and suggested that we wrote new songs for it and it should be a whole Elton John back-catalogue thing, I thought it was maybe a good idea. I enlisted the help of James Newton Howard, who is a very famous arranger in this town, and used to be in my band. So I had a great relationship with him. There was one obvious song that would fit in the movie, which was Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting for the lawn mower race. That wasn’t my idea; that was already someone – I think maybe (director) Kelly (Asbury)’s idea. From that point on, I really just handed it over to James and the rest of the team to put it in. I didn’t really take an active part saying, “This should go there.” I didn’t, for example, choose “Benny and the Jets” to go in the scene when Benny is on the computer ordering the Terrafirma-nator. But obviously it worked, so you didn’t have to be a magician to think that might work there. But on the whole, it was – it’s nice to see the music – I think James has done such a great job because even though it’s all out of back-catalogue and a couple of new songs, it doesn’t feel as if it’s overbearing and it’s an Elton John movie. It feels like Gnomeo and Juliet with some good music in it, and I’m glad it’s turned out like that because I didn’t want it to be just bang, bang, bang, old catalogue stuff. So that’s the way it happened, really.
Emily and James, I wondered if you had any childhood memories at all of garden gnomes because I come from the American southwest, and we didn’t even see any. So I just wondered if you had an English garden or a Scottish garden. Did you see them?
Emily Blunt: I was always scared or skeeved out by anything that resembled people when I was a kid like puppets and things like that. Ventriloquist dolls were the depths of Hell for me. I was a rather anxious child, apparently. But no, so I remember my friend had garden gnomes, and I remember being kind of scared of them when I was very young. I think I know someone who’s got a garden gnome of themselves, which is quite strange. But I wouldn’t mind having one; that could be fun.
James McAvoy: I had a frog, much like the one that Ashley Jensen plays in this film – brilliantly, I have to say. And I had two garden gnomes in my grandparents’ garden. One of them was bearing its backside, and the other one was looking kind of like that. I think they came as a pair. But they were really grimey and covered in moss, and I always thought they looked a bit seedy, unlike the child friendly ones in this film.
Kind of following on that, do any of you garden? Do you have gardens? If you do, what do you grow in them?
Blunt: I’ve never gardened before. But it’s been something I think that would be nice to do. I know that my parents love doing it. It’s kind of a relaxing pastime for them. But I’ve never shoveled mud before, but I should.
John: I grew up at my grandmother’s house, and it was a beautiful garden. But I used to hate mowing the lawn and weeding, which is what you do when you’re a kid. I loathed them, and I loathe gardening, but I love gardens and I have two beautiful gardens. But I cannot bear gardening, but I love gardens.
McAvoy: Yeah, I’m kind of with the guys, really. I don’t do much of a garden, but I do have a very nice herb bed that I’m very proud of.
You have a what? I’m sorry.
McAvoy: An herb bed. I’m sorry. The old Atlantic divide, yeah. I’ve got some good rosemary if you’re looking for rosemary, and some nice lavender oil.
John: I never got that. You don’t say Erb Alpert, do you?
David Furnish: I’m originally from Texas, and Steve Hamilton Shaw is obviously from Stratford-upon-Avon, and we argued and still argue about is it herb or herb. We still argue.
Blunt: Oh, come on, it’s herb.
Sir Elton, I was wondering. In the film it seems as though the red and the blue – I hope I’m not off base in assuming that there’s a little bit of a subtext about what goes on in America. Was that read into it, or do you have any idea?
John: We started the film eleven years ago, and if we’d have had the foresight to do that, I’d say we’re fucking geniuses. But it just happens to be at this time, it’s coming out after the president made the speech in Tucson, which was a very poignant moment in the history of America after this tragedy happened. I do feel as though there is a message in this film like we spend so much time hating each other because our parents tell us that that’s what we have to do, and I grew up conservative because my mum was a conservative. When I finally realized what conservatives were, I changed my mind immediately. So we tend, as children, to ape our parents, and I think this is a storyline saying that we should all get on, even if we don’t. I think in America, though, it’s gotten so far outstretched now where the rhetoric is so dangerous, and it puts things in people’s minds. It’s so unnecessary, and if there if any message that can come out of this film which is purely coincidental and the time is coincidental, then I’m all for it because I’m – as I grow older, it saddens me to see a country that I love so much having such a gulf between the people sometimes that they don’t meet in the middle and talk and put their differences aside. I played a proposition eight concert the other night, and the two great lawyers who are fighting for this same-sex relationship recognition in California, one is a staunch republican and one is a staunch democrat. And yet they met and they both think this is the right thing to do. That is what life is all about. The thing with animation films – you have to write the songs quite a long time ahead because you’re writing the storyboards and you have placement things. We actually wrote four songs for the movie, new songs, and two of them got left out. One of them which was a really great song that Lily Allen sang, but we just – the storyboards change, the story evolves, and things just get left by the wayside. That’s the way you have to accept it when you write for a musical or you write for an animation movie which has music in it.
It struck me that we could have a drinking game with the Shakespeare references in the film. It was a lot of fun to pick out those little nuggets. But with that in mind, for James and Emily – James, I know you’ve had a lot of experience playing Romeo, or even in West Side Story playing one of the characters inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Emily, I’m not sure – you must have played Juliet.
Blunt: I did play, yeah.
Did that experience help you – did knowledge of Romeo and Juliet and being on stage playing those characters help you create these characters?
Blunt: I actually found it very helpful, and when I did Romeo and Juliet, I was about 19. It was my third professional job, and I was very intimidated by the thought of it because I hadn’t trained and had had no experience actually acting Shakespeare. But I had a really wonderful director who encouraged a different view of Juliet than I had taken from the text, which is actually that she’s not a wilting, delicate flower, that she’s actually hot-tempered just like her dad. She’s decisive and rebellious, and very much not the reactionary role. I felt that she actually drives a lot of the second act through her decisions, reckless as they are. So when I met – so that was really interesting for me to have lived through that on stage and do it day in and day out. I loved it. I mean, I’ve never had a part like that and probably never will have one since it, just because it was such an emotional rollercoaster. It was crazy to go through that every night. So when I met Kelly and all these guys, it was really great to hear that they wanted to have like a tough little Juliet and one that I had done on stage. So I was happy that we met in the middle in that way. But I did find it helpful, for sure.
McAvoy: I always see Romeo as being a bit of a pain in the backside and very in love with himself. Got a lot of time for himself, and some time for the ladies as long as they’ve got time for him. Then something massive happens to him, so that was important to make him a little bit coggly wog. But also, Gnomeo in this is a little bit of amalgamation between Gnomeo and Mercutio. I’ve got Benvolio in this kind of – with Benny – but we don’t have that Mercutio character. We don’t have that leader of the pack, which Romeo isn’t, but Gnomeo is a little bit. So it was handy to have an appreciation of who Mercutio was as well in that way of expectation, not only to conform to what your family wants, but also to show off for your blue pals. The other thing that was really handy, having an experience of it in theater, was just the fact that – I don’t know about you, but I think with animated movies, I get paid to hyperventilate and to lose my voice. I just – I’m constantly just like – we’ll go in, I’ll be thinking, “Great, we’re going to do a scene,” and Kelly will go, “Yeah, we’re going to get a few more reactions.” I’m like, “Oh, no, here we go,” and I spend four hours going – and by the end of that, I can hardly speak. I’m tripping; I’m like having a psychedelic experience. So being able to kind of know how to do a proper vocal warm-up was quite handy.
You mentioned this movie started eleven years ago, and I can’t really recall any moment in time of history that a garden gnome was hip or cute or cool or anything. So what was the initial idea? Where did it come from to take garden gnomes?
Furnish: Just wait until February 11th.
McAvoy: They were fashionable eleven years ago, weren’t they?
Furnish: They were always sort of poking around as objects of ridicule and derision. There was a famous press story in Britain where they were banned from the Chelsea Flower Show. Anybody was not allowed to have any garden gnomes in any of their displays of the Chelsea Flower Show. The idea was sort of first came to us – we loved the opportunity to take the high art of William Shakespeare and turn it on its head with the low art of the garden gnome because most people think garden gnomes are tacky, ugly, not fashionable, laughable. And when you take those two elements together, you get a great level of irony, which gives you a fantastic opportunity to spin Shakespeare on its head and get lots of comedy. Hopefully we’ve done that.
Steve Hamilton Shaw: I guess with just the producer’s hat on it also, even from the concept and the title, it plays both to kids and to parents. You’ve got the fun of the world for the kids, and you’ve got the play on Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet stories for the parents. It was like an ideal family movie, so the title and the concept really sold it to us straight away.
McAvoy: It’s quite hard, as well, because the story of Gnomeo and Juliet’s got a lot of nice morals. It’s got don’t pay attention to preconception and to prejudice. Forgiveness is really important, and all that really good stuff to tell kids. You can’t tell them with Romeo and Juliet because everybody dies or commits suicide or takes drugs or kills someone or has sex with someone they shouldn’t be having sex with. So stick it with garden gnomes and you can give them all those good little morals and tidbits without the suicide, sex, death, drugs.
Shaw: That was in the script originally.
McAvoy: It was. It was very edgy, actually.
Elton, how have you been able to build on The Lion King with this experience, and what have you learned and now appreciate more about animation as a result of Gnomeo and Juliet?
John: Well, with The Lion King I learned – it came my way in 1993 thanks to Tim Rice, and I’ve always collaborated in my career as a songwriter and I loved the idea and the journey of collaboration with everyone on The Lion King. I’m a team player, really, that’s why I like doing the musicals. I’ve always had a songwriting partner, as I said, and I think what you learn most of all is leave your ego at the door. Because no matter what you write, if it’s not going to – I mean, for example, Billy Elliot. We left three songs which were really great songs out of Billy Elliot, but it would have made the show four hours and two minutes long. It can’t happen. You have to be prepared to say, “Okay, I’m going to fight for this song, but if you really want to get rid of it, then that’s fine.” You’ve got to do that, and you’ve got to listen to the team as a whole. There’s been so many times where we’ve convened during these eleven years, and the film has taken a different course or whatever. You have to be a team player; you have to hold hands when the things are going badly and hold hands when things are going well. You really have to, as an important member, have to be there for everybody else on the team. I’ve always liked that during my career. I’ve always had the good fortune to have a longstanding songwriting partner who I’ve been with for 44 years. So it’s just another way of sharing a joyful experience of creating something. But you really do have to leave your ego at the door, and if I was to say, “Well, this song’s going in or I’m walking off the film,” there’s none of that shit. You just have to be patient and you have to watch things, how they evolve, and you have to be there for the good of the thing as a whole and not just for you as a component of the piece.
Question for Emily and James. Voice over works is usually done with nobody else in the room. Did the two of you meet before starting that? Did you rehearse together?
Blunt: They tried to keep us apart.
McAvoy: She’s not very easy to work with, unfortunately.
Blunt: James is really temperamental, so they didn’t want us in the same room.
McAvoy: But with that temperament comes genius.
So basically the two of you never met before?
Blunt: We’d met socially a couple of times, but we were never – so we were kind of thinking when we both got on board for this, “It’ll be great and we’ll be in the same room and we’ll riff and we’ll improv.” But we improved separate of each other.
Elton John, is there one song that’s in the movie that you really liked from years ago that you say, “Yeah, that’s the song I love.” Which one?
John: Well, I think for me, one of the funniest scenes in the movie, and it’s very important, I think, if you’re British and take the piss out of yourself. You’re raised to do that in England, which is rather good. I think the same with your song, when Steven Merchant plays the character of the weedy gnome, then suddenly there I am: glam gnome. The gnomeosexual in the film. Thank you. So I think probably that one he sings is a little bit runny. I lost it when I saw that. That brings back very good memories of a song I sang practically every time I’ve done a show since 1970, so I would have to say that moment is quite funny, and I love that moment.
This is an impressive cast: (Stephen) Merchant, Blunt, McAvoy, (Julie) Walters, Michael Caine. Can you tell us briefly about that? And also, how come you didn’t have Ozzy (Osbourne) singing in the soundtrack? I’m an Ozzy fan.
Kelly Asbury: Well, you know, the cast really was – for us, we casted the movie the way it should be done, and that is appropriate to the character. One of the processes that we use is – the casting director brought us several different voices, and they didn’t tell us who they were. We just listened to them and looked at a picture of the character, and as a result, you sort of start seeing what sounds appropriate and right. That’s how all the characters were cast in the movie. Ozzy Osbourne was one exception and Dolly Parton was another exception in that we reached a point where we had this little, concrete, cute deer and we thought, “Who would be the least expected voice to come out of that character?” David said, “What about Ozzy Osbourne?” And that pretty much stuck, and luckily you’re friends with Ozzy and Ozzy was happy to do it. Why he didn’t sing – he does sing a lullaby briefly, but that’s the only song we got out of him. I don’t know how to answer that. Why didn’t Ozzy sing?
John: He wasn’t asked.
Sir Elton, I wonder – you have reached pretty much everything that an artist can reach and ventured out in many other artistical fields and were very successful. Is there anything left that you’d like to conquer, dream of to do, what is the stage you’re picking now and where is it leading you?
John: Well, there’s always things you want to do. I mean, obviously ballet is not an option. Not really.
McAvoy: If you want it hard enough, man. This is America.
John: I’d just like to make a really great film about my life story, and we’re thinking about that. We have a great script already by Lee Hall – who wrote Billy Elliot. Obviously it’s not going to be your normal run-of-the-mill film because it’s got – my life has been kind of crazy, and I think it’s important to do a kind of surrealistic look or take on my life. I’d love to do that. This business is so incredible; in 1993 I got a phone call from Tim Rice saying would I do The Lion King, when at that time all I was doing was making records, touring, and doing videos. It gave me the opportunity, with that one phone call, to suddenly write musicals for the stage, film scores, and it just opened the doors to so many things. I don’t know what’s around the corner, and that’s kind of the way I like it. You really can’t plan. My career has not been planned – oh, in three years we’re going to do this. It just happens by accident, and that’s the way – that’s the way I think all three of us as creative people sitting up here as performance. We like it because you never know what part you’re going to be offered. You never know what gig you’re going to be offered, and that one part in one show or one project can change your whole life. That’s the way I look at it. So I don’t really have any more ambitions other than I just want to work and do excellent stuff and enjoy it. I’m enjoying everything in my life. But I think the element of surprise in this business is what makes us really love it because one day you’re sitting by the phone waiting to do something or not doing anything, and the next day you’ve got the chance of a lifetime. So those little phone calls don’t come up so often, but when they come up, it’s fantastic. Would you agree with that?
Blunt: Absolutely. I think that’s the joy of it is you shouldn’t strategize your career if you’re in the creative realm, but you can’t, either. I think it’s – I love the unknown. I love the element of surprise. I’ve always felt really inspired by it, and I love the spontaneity of the job. I think you can’t really fight against it and you can’t strategize. You can’t take a job because you think it might lead here and here. You have no idea, and it’s better just to do work that you’re really proud of and work that you’ve enjoyed because really all you have are the choices you make, and that’s it. Who knows after that? I think that’s what I love about it.
McAvoy: I just agree with everything you say, truly. But I’d also like to say that I’m available for a while. I can play piano. And if you’ve not found that person to play you at the age of 31, I’m available. Thank you very much. Excellent.
John: An example of that is, for example, in 1990, if you’d have said that in 1993 I’d be writing a song about a fucking warthog, I’d have said, “You’re out of your mind.” When Tim Rice gave me lyrics that said, “When I was a young warthog,” I actually thought I was losing my mind, and look what happened. If you’d have said in 1990, “You’re going to make a film about garden gnomes,” I’d have said, “You’re crazy.” So this is the joyous thing about being a creative person; things can come along that completely surprise you that you normally would never have thought of doing.
McAvoy: Have you seen the film Four Lions?
McAvoy: Where the song is used as a fundamentalist anthem? It’s really, really funny. Anyway.
Can you tell me what it’s like for you, personally, adventures in film executive producer land?
John: Oh, you do nothing. Absolutely nothing. You just get this title called executive producer, and I go away on tour and I just say, “Get on with it.” That’s called an executive producer. That’s the truth. All jokes aside, there have been a couple of times when the movie has been kind of in danger of being dropped by the studio of Walt Disney, where I’ve had to make the phone call to the head of the studio and say, “Listen, it’s me. We have to have a meeting. We’ve come so far. We can not lose the film now.” That’s my job as the executive producer is to try and rally the team when the team have no other means of communicating the studio. Then here I am.
Can you talk about what it was like having such an incredible star-studded cast? I believe, from one of my interviews earlier, that you just had to mention Sir Elton and Rocket Pictures’ name and everybody came flooding. Is that true? What was it like getting so many fantastic – the talent?
Furnish: Well, I mean certainly, everyone that I wanted to be in the movie took the job, and I think probably Elton helped a lot with that. There’s no doubt in my mind about it. I mean, the legitimacy that he lent to the project certainly made it an animated film with Elton John music. That had a pretty good track record, so it was wonderful to be able to say, “Can we talk to Emily Blunt? Can we talk to James McAvoy? How about Sir Michael Caine? Sir Patrick Stewart? Dame Maggie Smith? Dame Julia Walters? Can we get them?” And of course it helped, absolutely.
John: Case in point with Jason Statham. David, you could probably elaborate on this.
Furnish: Jason is a friend of ours, and when I phoned him up, he said, “I’ve always, always been wanting to do one of these films.” He said, “No one’s ever asked me,” and just to pitch it to him on the phone, he loved the idea straight away and came right on board. So it definitely helped, yeah.
McAvoy: I was going to say that one of the things that I know attracted me, and I don’t know if it attracted you guys to these guys was the fact that I don’t – people aren’t enthusiastic about film and live action, but in this stuff – I mean, you guys have been making it for eleven years. If you weren’t enthusiastic about it, you’d have fallen out with it by now or had a mental breakdown, and when I met you guys, you were so incredibly enthusiastic. I found it so infectious that it made me want to be a part of it. I liked the script; I was really excited about working with Elton John. However, that excitement and that enthusiasm is rare, which makes you think, “This has got to be good.”
Sir Elton, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about your music over the years is the sheer variety of it, not just from album to album but from song to song. What accounts for your great eclecticism?
John: The fact that I think when I grew up as a kid, I grew up in a house that listened to radio, bought records. My family always bought records, and I grew up in the early 50s. It was either classical music or dance band music or great vocalists like Frank Sinatra. I mean, I got Songs for Swinging Lovers for my birthday when I was about 8 years old, I think, and I grew up in a house that loved music. Of course, when rock and roll came, I had all this knowledge of great American singers and band leaders and musicians and jazz players by the time I was 6 or 7. Then rock and roll came in and changed my life and changed the whole music scene forever. Then I grew to love R’n’B and Motown and all black music, gospel music. I never dismiss any form of music; I listen to everything. I’m on the new Kanye West record, for example. It’s a genius record, and I was on the Alice in Chains record. So you can’t really get – Alice in Chains, Kanye West. I love all different sorts of music. When you’ve got people who mock rap and say, “I don’t like it,” they should go and check out Kanye in the studio rapping, or Marshall, Eminem, when he’s in the studio. It’s phenomenal. It’s kind of like modern jazz was when John Coltrane, all those people started. It was like – it’s a different thing. Don’t knock it until you’ve seen it. It may not be your cup of tea, but don’t ridicule it. And I find that so many of my peers of my age don’t listen to anything new. I love the new. I love the energy of the new, the energy of the new act. There’s a record, I’m plugging it remorsely, called Plan B. It’s called The Defamation of Strickland Banks. It’s the No. 1 record in England; it’s going to be released here in March. It’s by a guy who was in Harry Brown, in a film with Michael Caine, and he played the villain. He made a rap record before, and he was in Harry Brown, and now he’s made this record where he sounds like Smokey Robinson and it’s phenomenal. And I get – I love hearing the new, the energy from the new. There’s a band called the Punch Brothers who are amazing. They’re like bluegrass meets Miles Davis. That’s what I’m interested in. I know all the old stuff; it’s in here. I just want to get the energy from the new, and the eclectic stuff is embracing the new, embracing bands like XX, embracing bands like that that come out of Britain. Florence and the Machine and all those people. Because their energy is so infectious that at our age, I had great energy between 23 and 28 where you’re working on adrenaline and it’s just driving you. That energy is just pure adrenaline. Then after that, you lose it a little bit, but you still have enthusiasm and energy. But it’s not the adrenaline that the young have. I just think it’s so important to listen. Looking at the Golden Globes the other night, there were so many incredible young actors. Young actors like Matt Wahlberg or Matt Damon who I remember being young actors, who’ve now emerged and gone on to be fantastic older actors. Then you see Jesse Eisenberg and people like that who just have star quality all over them. These guys here. The young are so important. The young give you the energy. And if you don’t notice the young and you don’t take that and you don’t give them credit and you don’t listen to all sorts of music, then you’re missing out on something
Gnomeo and Juliet opens Friday everywhere.
Schwag disclosure: I got a shirt, hat, CD and notepad. The shirt is for children: